Browsing the exhibitions, one can’t help but notice the lengths director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and his team went to legitimize and popularize the then-nascent movements of Cubism, Surrealism, and Modernist art in general. Even as the country struggled through a decade of the Great Depression, MoMA’s curators sought to continually up the ante with their programming, with the goal of modernizing the American consciousness to be more in-step with what they saw as the advanced (if perhaps a bit decadent) European mentality.
Seen through 21st-century eyes, these early shows prove (as if there were any doubt) the importance of MoMA’s vision in establishing the reputations of many now-legendary Modernist figures, from Pablo Picasso to Philip Johnson. These exhibitions would surely be must-see blockbusters were they to be recreated today, but with the better part of a century between us and them, present-day art enthusiasts will have to satisfy themselves with this treasure trove of documentation.
Without further ado, here are 10 classic MoMA shows from the museum’s first decade we’d be willing to dust off the old time machine to go check out. To browse all of the exhibition documentation available online, click here
November 7 - December 7, 1929
February 9 - March 23, 1932
April 10 - 25, 1933
Contemporary viewers will note that the newer forms (from recognizable names including Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, plus the Bauhaus) would seem hardly out of place in a New York furniture showroom (or even Ikea). The accompanying catalog also contains a few humorous insights into the prevailing philosophy of the day; a decorative Tiffany glass piece is contrasted with “blank space” rather than another object, with the rationale that “ornamental objets d’art are avoided in modern interior architectural schemes.”
March 5 - April 29, 1934
September 14 - October 12, 1936
In addition to being a precursor of sorts to the eventual development of the museum’s Young People’s Gallery (focusing on art for and by children), “New Horizons in American Art” would prove to be the sole MoMA exhibition for many of the artists on view (Maxine Albro or Lawrence Flynn, anyone?), making this show a fascinating window into “what might have been” had the winds of history blown ever so slightly in a different direction. If you’ve been enamored with the recent push to reevaluate artists who have been overlooked within the American art canon, this show is surely a goldmine for a slew of your own “new horizons.”
April 28 - May 30, 1937
December 21, 1937 - March 1, 1938
September 28 - October 28, 1938
November 15, 1939 - January 7, 1940