Chances are very good that your favorite artists from the past hundred years have been featured at one time or another, so you might want to check it out for yourself. In the meantime, we’re delved into the e-archive ourselves to find the most interesting exhibitions from years past, focusing on both epoch-making surveys as well as quirkier offerings that illustrate the continuously experimental nature of the museum’s programming.
Following our exploration of the museum’s first decade (the 1930s), we’re skipping forward to the strange and swinging 1960s. Let's set the scene. World War II had come and gone, as had the prosperous and conformist ‘50s. The nation was gearing up for what would prove to be one of the most tumultuous periods of its young life, a moment of widespread cultural, political, and artistic upheaval in the U.S. and abroad that saw both the rise of the civil rights movement and the start of the Vietnam War.
At the same time, many of today’s canonical artists were just beginning to fully unfurl their talents, buoyed in no small part by their inclusion in these seven seminal MoMA exhibitions. Read on for a little art-historical desktop time travel.
December 16, 1959–February 17, 1960
Though these artists may have been familiar to art-world circles, this show served as a kind springboard for their eventual acceptance as heirs to the already-waning popularity of the 1950s Abstract Expressionists. Perhaps more interesting to buffs of contemporary art history are the other Americans included in the show who did not achieve the renown of their fellows, including Landés Lewitten and Alfred Leslie.
March 17, 1960
October 4–November 12, 1961
The show aimed to be exhaustive, featuring 250 works by 130 artists from the U.S. and Europe, including longtime MoMA favorites Picasso, Duchamp, and de Kooning, an entire room devoted to Kurt Schwitters, works by the already-acclaimed New York darlings Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell, and contributions from “foreign” and relatively unknown West Coasters including Bruce Conner and Edward Kienholz.
November 11, 1964–February 7, 1965
With reference points ranging from Sudanese cliff dwellings and Native American amphitheaters to classical Greek forms to the mobile structures of nomadic and seafaring groups, Rudofsky’s stated goal was to “break down our narrow concepts of the art of building by introducing the unfamiliar world of nonpedigreed architecture”—a notable early instance of non-Eurocentric thinking in the American art establishment.
February 23–April 25, 1965
June 20–September 11, 1967
The museum’s fabled photography curator John Szarkowski organized the show into three sections: “Analysis and Synthesis of Time,” featuring stop-motion techniques that included Eadweard Muybridge’s seminal series of horses and men caught mid-stride; “Invisible Energy Sources” capturing visualizations of such ethereal phenomena as a wood-thrush song, infrared heat, and electron emissions; and “Vantage Points,” which includes both NASA-sourced images from space (a year before the release of the famous “Moonrise” photograph from the Apollo 8 mission) as well as scenes from inside a blast furnace.
With their emphasis on process and an embrace of cutting-edge tech, many of these works could conformably fit into a present-day show of conceptual art—and it's interesting that MoMA chose to hang this show just as capital-c Conceptualism was coming into vogue. (Sol LeWitt’s potent “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” was published in the June 1967 issue of Artform, nearly concurrently with the opening of this show.)
October 31–November 3, 1968
The exhibition included pieces donated by some 60 American artists, all intended to be sold in support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group founded by King in 1957 following the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This show was one of the first instances of the museum holding a benefit for another organization, and they pulled out all the stops: Jackie Kennedy served as an honorary patron, and the donated works included pieces by Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden, Donald Judd, Isamu Noguchi, and many more.