The Museum of Modern Art in New York will reopen after a $450 million renovation and expansion on October 21, marking one of the most dramatic transformations in the institution’s long and storied history. In the run-up to the museum’s next incarnation, ARTnews looks back to important exhibitions from MoMA’s past and offers excerpts from articles and reviews from our archives—moving decade by decade from the museum’s inauguration to the present day. (This first one on the 1930s is a slight cheat, since MoMA originally debuted in late 1929.)
“Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh”
November 7, 1929–December 7, 1929
The show: MoMA’s first exhibition brought together nearly 100 works by four French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Though their work had been widely seen in Europe, it had rarely shown in New York—and never in such depth.
What ARTnews said: “If it was the purpose of the Museum to disarm criticism at the start, to present an exhibition too forceful and varied for comprehension, it is possible that they may succeed. Many a frail critical barque will be swamped. But sink or swim, it is a great experience and more than worth the real effort it demands.”
“Memorial Exhibition: The Collection of the Late Lillie P. Bliss”
May 17, 1931–October 6, 1931
The show: Shortly after she died, Lillie P. Bliss became the subject of an exhibition at the museum where she served as vice president of the board. MoMA pulled out all the stops for a show of works bequeathed to the museum (including major pieces by Paul Cézanne, Arthur Bowen Davies, Pablo Picasso, and more) as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate, and other institutions. Also included were Coptic textiles said to have inspired modernist art.
What ARTnews said: “The paintings left by Miss Lizzie Bliss to the Museum of Modern Art and other institutions are far more than a magnificent legacy. Each canvas seems a link in a thrilling adventure in modern art, more than a little mad and quixotic twenty years ago, and now splendidly vindicated. Although there are certain gaps in the collection, the most notable of which is the absence of work by van Gogh, the exhibition as a whole leads us with unwavering logic and clarity from the unconscious audacity of Coptic tapestries to the daring coloristic vision of Matisse.” —Mary Morsell
November 3, 1931–December 6, 1931
The show: Henri Matisse is the one of the most-exhibited artists in MoMA’s history (second only to Picasso) as well as the subject of institution’s first monographic show. With more than 160 works, it was at the time the most comprehensive survey of Matisse in America, and the offerings included some of the artist’s finest works, including Blue Nude (1907).
What ARTnews said: “This fifth—and most comprehensive—Matisse showing in America is practically a bestowal of final honors, made doubly conclusive by being accorded within the artist’s own time by New York’s most representative and glamorous body of art lovers. This new acclamation … leaves little to be added in the way of public acceptance in America. His success is sure on both sides [of] the Atlantic. He has triumphed in his own time—more so perhaps than any of his contemporaries.” —Ralph Flint
December 22, 1931–January 27, 1931
The show: The first non-white artist to be granted a solo MoMA show, Diego Rivera had become known in the early ’30s for his paintings from Mexico. For MoMA, he produced eight new murals—including one of his most famous works, Agrarian Leader Zapata (1931).
What ARTnews said: “I have to admit that these panels looked better in Rivera’s workroom where they were seen free of the walls, for they are manifestly not to be shown as easel pictures are. They need an architectural setting of measured stone or other appropriate material, rather than a conventional gallery backing. But even then, one can hardly fail to appreciate the splendid designs that Rivera has given us.” —Ralph Flint
March 5, 1934–April 29, 1934
The show: An exhibition of some 400 objects produced by machines left some observers confused—though it did prefigure an institutional lineage that would come to favor design and mass-produced items to be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities.
What ARTnews said: “We must admit that we have never felt any distinct aesthetic emotion while contemplating the polished sweep of the faucets and embracing curve of the white surface. But we do not mean to decry design and beauty in the objects which figure so constantly in our utilitarian existence. It is merely that we perhaps feel a slight irritation over the phrase ‘Machine Art,’ which seems to take on an almost religious significance for so many.” —Jane Schwartz
“African Negro Art”
March 18, 1935–May 19, 1935
The show: Curated by James Johnson Sweeney, this 600-work survey featured an array of African masks, sculptures, bowls, cups, and more in an exhibition that many would consider colonialist by today’s standards. In a press release, Sweeney said the art exhibited a “mastery of aesthetic forms” and could be seen as a clear influence on modernists artists such as Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Constantin Brancusi.
What ARTnews said: “Unfortunately, the result does not wholly bear out the wish of the organizers, which was, undoubtedly, to enhance the appreciation of Negro art. Hundreds upon hundreds of little figures, wrenched from the warm soil of native Africa, seem for the first time aware of their nakedness as they stand silhouetted against the bare whitewashed walls.” —Laurie Eglington
Vincent van Gogh
November 4, 1935–January 5, 1936
The show: One of the largest exhibitions of van Gogh at the time, this show featured 125 paintings and drawings, many of them had never before been seen in America. By the end of its run, the show had attracted monster crowds numbering more than 123,000 visitors.
What ARTnews said: “Many paintings by van Gogh have been shown in New York before. Many books have been written about the artist’s life but never before has there been spread before us, so full and enthralling a record. And when one turns to the catalog and reads the excerpts from Vincent’s correspondence there are words which often sing out of the blackness of his despair with flame like prophecies that are like the evocations of his brush work.” —Mary Morsell
“Cubism and Abstract Art”
March 2, 1936–April 21, 1936
The show: One of the most important exhibitions in MoMA’s history, this survey focused on what Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the museum’s founding director, said led artists to “abandon the imitation of natural appearance” in favor of abstraction. Many stars of modernism figured in the landmark 400-work show (as did group of artists that a checklist identified as “African Negro sculptors”). Barr, as curator, also undertook the unusual gesture of featuring design objects, photographs, and films. (And the cover for the catalogue—a diagram connecting European modernist avant-gardes to non-Western sources—is now as famous as the show itself.)
What ARTnews said: “Boredom with the facts, as Mr. Barr puts it, is in truth but half the source of abstract art. One might even diagnose it further as a kind of general boredom, the peculiar ennui and listless dissatisfaction with established forms with which a few philosophers have already established as a universal psychosis, a world disease of the fifteen too peaceful years which led into the Great War.” —Alfred M. Frankfurter
“New Horizons in American Art”
September 14, 1936–October 12, 1936
The show: During the Great Depression, the U.S. government made a concerted effort to fund American artists as part of the New Deal through programs like the Federal Art Project, the results of which were presented in this 435-work show. Critics responded to the show—which included Arshile Gorky, Marsden Hartley, and Stuart Davis—with high praise.
What ARTnews said: “The importance of this work lies in its distribution over forty-four states, in the consistently high quality of the exhibited objects, and in the harmonious relation that has been reached between the artist and his environment. Art is being lifted from its limited circle of admirers and at the same time is being divested of its esoteric and precious nature.” —Martha Davidson
“Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism”
December 9, 1936–January 17, 1937
The show: This survey included almost 700 works in an exploration of how the strange, idiosyncratic tendencies of Dadaists and Surrealists could be traced back to art of bygone centuries (such as Giuseppe Archimboldo and Albrecht Dürer). The expansive framework gave historical grounding to acclaimed modernist works—including Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), an image of melting clocks that has become one of the most iconic works in MoMA’s holdings. Some critics took issue with the thesis, however, suggesting that the historical pieces had little to do with the then-contemporary ones.
What ARTnews said: “Are these remote but similar appearing objects really comparable to Surrealist productions which are motivated by a non-rational dream logic? … Although in many instances it is impossible to know whether the artists were unwitting Surrealists, there are times when it is obvious that the ‘fantasy’ is merely a visual representation dominated by the ordinary laws of cause and effect and as such has no relationship to the irrational logic of Surrealism.” —Martha Davidson
March 17, 1937–April 18, 1937
The show: Photography was not considered art early on, but MoMA came to the medium’s defense long before other institutions. This exhibition was the museum’s first major photo show, with 800 works meant to represent the medium’s first century. Included were pioneers such as Nadar, Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce, and Louis Daguerre as well as contemporaries like Eugène Atget, André Kertesz, and Walker Evans (who became the first photographer to have a MoMA solo show, in 1938).
What ARTnews said: “The Museum of Modern Art has certainly never more successfully fulfilled its function than in presenting the current comprehensive showing of the history of photography. Standing midway between art and science and perfectly typifying modern objective modes of thought and life, photography has long deserved not only this thorough exposition but also the illuminating foreword to the catalogue with which Beaumont Newhall of the Museum introduces it to the public.” —Rosamund Frost
December 7, 1938–January 30, 1939
The show: This survey of the Bauhaus School in Germany was one of the “most unusual” offerings at MoMA at the time, according to a press release issued before its opening. Mounted at the start of World War II, the show was hampered by a struggle to ship artworks from Europe to America—so photos of certain objects appeared in their stead.
What ARTnews said: “The exposition suffers gravely through the absence of material examples. Because of the malevolent attitude of the Fatherland very few actual specimens of the crafts were available. The demonstration therefore consists largely of magnified photographs that, though decidedly inadequate, indicate the enormous scope of activities that constituted the training of every student that entered the school.” —Martha Davidson
“Picasso: Forty Years of His Art”
November 15, 1939–January 7, 1940
The show: Staged in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, this 350-work survey was unprecedented in America. It offered many the opportunity to see in full the career of an artist who was widely considered one of the great creators of his time. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906–07)—one of the many Picasso masterpieces owned by MoMA—was included.
What ARTnews said: “The assembling and cataloguing of this exhibition furnishes an unparalleled basis for studying and experiencing the evolution of the artist—and one happily but slightly affected by the omissions forced by the European War, nearly all of the European loans fortuitously having been shipped just before the outbreak. … Most of all, I think that this exhibition must make the thinking man concede Picasso as the greatest artist of our time.” —Alfred M. Frankfurter