Seen at MoMA (Part II)

Photographs seen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

EXHIBITION May 29 — Oct 2, 2004

Parallel to the Neue Nationalgalerie’s record-breaking exhibition ”MoMA in Berlin”, Gallery Kicken Berlin is showing ”Seen at Moma: Photographs seen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York”. In this exhibition, many visitors will find what is missing in the show at the Neue Nationalgalerie: a selection of the finest examples from what is probably the best collection of modern photographic art. ”Seen at MoMA” presents photographic works that either were exhibited at MoMA or can be found in the museum’s permanent collection. Following the extraordinarily successful and well attended part one of the MoMA homage, part two - beginning at the end of May - will set new accents with about thirty photographic works. In addition to several prominent German photographic artists, the exhibition centers on an array of outstanding examples of American photography from the period after World War II, which is also a main focus of the MoMA collection.
Photographs on view in "Seen at MoMA – Part II" include Diane Arbus’s poignant photographs of social outcasts, an image from Robert Frank’s epoch-making book, ”The Americans”, of a black nanny caring for a white child (1955), or the mysterious hand on a doorknob from Ralph Gibson’s no less significant book "The Somnambulist" (1968). Many examples in the exhibition are considered classics in the history of photography. This is true with the ”The Brown Sisters” by Nicholas Nixon, a series that observes four sisters through the decades with a yearly portrait, or Harold Edgerton’s "Milkdrop” (1976), where the splashing ‘crown’, created by a drop breaking the surface of a liquid, is frozen photographically. These images formed the foundation for completely new picture styles, ways of seeing, and paradigms of photographic expression – for instance the photographic auteur (Robert Frank) or metaphysical photography (Ralph Gibson). Color is also a theme: William Eggleston and Stephan Shore pioneered new modes of expression in color photography with their poetry of the factual and their particularly American, unprejudiced view of the world, ushering color photography into the world of art. Among the highlights of ”Seen at MoMA (Part II)” are such icons as Eggleston’s blood-red ceiling (”Greenwood, Mississippi”, 1973) and Stephan Shore’s early cityscapes.
In addition to the Americans and rounding out the exhibition are German photographers including Dieter Appelt, Anna & Bernhard Blume, and Michael Schmidt, who gained international recognition as art photographers thanks also in great part to their exhibitions at the MoMA. The MoMA-effect: joining the pantheon of photographic artists by way of a solo show at the MoMA, underscores the immense importance of MoMA’s photography department.
The Museum of Modern Art was one of the first museums dedicated to collecting, researching and exhibiting photography. Founded in 1929, the museum’s 23rd acquisition was a photograph taken by Walker Evans. The decision to have photography as one of their 6 museum departments was made by the first director of MoMA, Alftred H. Barr, who was convinced that the various means of expression in the modern art could only be understood by investigating their interrelationship. The MoMA, with its synoptic presentation of modern art – painting and sculpture, graphics, design, architecture, film and photography - played a decisive role in the acceptance of photography as a genuine form of art.
The fact that MoMA is still the most important institution for art photography is due only in part to the museum’s early interest in promoting the medium. As pioneer, MoMA understood the importance of setting standards for what should be considered art photography in the first place. This is especially true in the work of Beaumont Newhall, the first curator of photography at MoMA. Newhall served in that position for only two years, but through the exhibition "Photography: 1839 - 1937" and the best-selling book ”The History of Photography”, based on that show, he established a solid foundation for anyone interested in medium. It was Edward Steichen, Newhall’s successor at MoMA, who brought the expressive potential of photography - which had gone mostly unrecognized until then - to a worldwide audience. Seen by 270,000 people at the MoMA in 1955, the 593 photographs by 273 photographers traveled to 85 different locations in 68 countries. Even today, this show remains the most visited exhibition of all time. Now, Kicken Berlin is showing works from this historical exhibition. Following the credo laid out by Alfred H. Barr: "conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity", John Szarkowski served as photo-curator at MoMA in the long period from 1962 until 1991. In that time, Szarkowski would become photography’s highest authority. From 1964 to 1973 the museum published more books and catalogues about photography than it had in the prior 35 years. Without exaggeration, it is possible to say that Szarkowski had not only written photo-history, but that his sober, rational and reality-based concept of art photography influenced photographic style for over a generation. Today, the current curator for photography at MoMA, Peter Galassi, is confronted with new challenges. In the face of numerous new collections held by other museums, the vast number of contemporary exhibitions, and a steadily growing collectors’ market with climbing prices, MoMA must advance its own collection in order to retain its leadership position. Whoever sees the important photographs available at Kicken Berlin’s ”Seen at MoMA”, encounters not only a wealth of wonderful images, but also some of the most important milestones in the history of art photography. (Ronald Berg)