Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2020
Darby English and Charlotte Barat, eds. Among Others: Blackness at MoMA New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2019. 488 pp.; 403 ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781633450349)

Though published last fall, Among Others: Blackness at MoMA takes on strategic resonance in the current moment as individuals and institutions are called to rectify their approaches to race, representation, and decolonization. A product of Darby English’s six-year tenure as consulting curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Among Others is a three-part publication that analyzes the museum’s tumultuous historical relationship with Black artists and Black audiences, its role in shaping the cultural politics of race, and the shortcomings of its collection, programs, and practices. As signaled by the title of the first essay, “Blackness at MoMA: A Legacy of Deficit,” English and coeditor Charlotte Barat find the museum wanting as they untangle the ebbs and flows of its periods of inclusivity, which varied in impact and progressive thinking. The numerous tensions and effacements the museum has enacted in holding fast to modernism come to bear, as does the paradox of its purported universalism and its struggle to evolve in the face of reckonings about representation, identity, and difference.

In the first essay, English and Barat appraise the museum’s curatorial activities, education initiatives, and public programming to deconstruct key periods of engagement with Black artists, their work, and Black audiences. The editors elucidate the constrictive nature of MoMA’s criteria in identifying art and artists of value, along with its long-standing institutional preference for aesthetics over content and social context. This, in turn, informs how Blackness is conceptualized and why, as the editors write, “When blackness manifests at MoMA, it does so in brief episodes and clusters” (15). In reviewing the museum’s halting attempts toward integration in its collection and constituents over its ninety-year history, English and Barat call for the end of “sidelining conversations about race’s impact on the history of representation,” an avoidance based on a “formalist bias” that disregards the social effects and functions of art and “issuism,” the treatment of race as a passing hot-button issue (16). After synthesizing a mountain of archival research, English and Barat surmise that the museum’s “international ambition and aesthetic idealism—attributes cultivated and developed with the best intentions—served first as the cause of, and later the excuse for, an egregious failure to meet its responsibility as an institution dedicated to the most complex representational issues of our era” (17).

The editors give the most weight to the institution’s history from its founding in 1929 to the early 1980s. Beginning with the 1935 exhibition African Negro Art, English and Barat establish the institution’s proclivity for traditional African sculpture—a “Pyrrhic victory at best”—and then trace how Alfred Barr’s “homegrown category of ‘modern primitives’” led to the validation of Black American artists including William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, and Bill Traylor and Caribbean and Latin American artists such as Wifredo Lam, Heitor dos Prazeres, and René Vincent (19, 22). In many ways, the essay serves as a genealogy of primitivism and its reckless descendants. The editors subsequently analyze the impact of New Deal art programs, curator Dorothy Miller’s tenure (emphasizing her “Negro Art” file), the museum’s wartime program—most notably, the acquisition of and discourse around half of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings—and the particularly dynamic period of the civil rights era. They give relatively brief coverage of the well-lambasted “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern exhibition of 1984–85 and speed up upon entering the age of so-called identity politics.

Beyond the museum’s curatorial activity, English and Barat take into account educational, outreach, and public programming initiatives to unpack these periods of heightened activity. Using staff correspondence, memos, press releases, exhibition checklists, and acquisition records, they lay bare a long history of structural exclusion, frequently emphasizing the delay between MoMA’s consideration and exhibition of an artist in question and the acquisition of their work. Covered in these chapters of the museum’s history are some moments of institutional introspection and efforts to diversify its collection and practices, but English and Barat note how such commitments were often short-lived or did not reach their full potential. For example, the reader learns of consulting curator Carroll Greene Jr. and his recommendations to the Byers Committee in the early 1970s, which included diversifying hiring practices and reporting on the collection’s dearth of works by Black artists. Unfortunately, Greene’s work went largely unengaged, save for a spurt of acquisitions in response to both his investigations and the simultaneous Art Workers’ Coalition protests.

The essay closes at English’s appointment as consulting curator in 2014, although the editors remain skeptical about the museum’s current state. They reflect on the improved acquisition statistics in recent years, which show that MoMA has acquired nearly as many works by Black artists in the past ten years as it did from 1929 to 2009. Nevertheless, they admonish that such improvement must be balanced against the staff’s “dismal diversity figures and the absence of other indicators that business as usual truly is a thing of the past” (91). This high-production-value publication with its underlying research and evaluation, alongside recent acquisitions strategies, is meant to represent the museum’s resolve in addressing such failures, although the editors urge MoMA to envision a “future in which the black artist is not a special occasion or subject, but just one artist among others” (91).

In the second essay, “White by Design,” architect and artist Mabel O. Wilson focuses on MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design and articulates its role in defining, canonizing, and historicizing modern architecture. She begins by considering an oval-pattern textile design by A. Joel Robinson, which was included in the 1952 Good Design exhibition. MoMA accessioned a swatch in 1974 and Robinson remained the only Black designer or architect represented in the collection until 2000. It becomes clear that the lack of diversity in the department’s activity is even more abysmal than in the departments addressed by English and Barat. Wilson then discusses the Good Design exhibitions from 1951 to 1955, the intersection of culture and commerce that underscored the department’s mission, and the canonization of modern architecture in exhibitions such as Modern Architecture: International Exhibition (1932). Exhibitions such as these, she writes, “chronicl[ed] different movements of revivalism and engineering” to create a timeline of Euro-American modernism and a historiography for modern architecture (103).

Wilson’s second emphasis is the department’s impact on housing and urban renewal from the mid-1930s to the early 1970s. In considering exhibitions from Architecture in Government Housing (1936) to Another Chance for Housing: Low-Rise Alternatives (1973), Wilson argues that the department was a key player in the development of public-housing models and modernism’s “entanglement” with the period of urban renewal (104). She highlights the contradiction between the fundamental questions of ethics and social justice in architecture and design with the department’s near-constant avoidance of social issues like racism and poverty.

Wilson outlines how architecture and design have been deployed to racially segregate spaces and cities—“black by design”—and the false promise of “democratic architecture.” In searching for critical “‘black architecture’ not in service of white modernism,” Wilson offers up June Jordan’s “Skyrise to Harlem,” which was attributed solely to her white collaborator, R. Buckminster Fuller, when it appeared in Esquire in 1965. Critiquing urban renewal strategies that ruthlessly displaced poor residents, Jordan proposed a series of “eco-towers,” comprising a hundred circular decks each, that Harlem’s residents would incrementally build skyward, starting at the top floor of old buildings. Jordan’s design, Wilson writes, “preserv[es] social relations and black social spaces while also opening the area to settlement by other, nonwhite residents” (108). This methodology appears in stark contrast to the white architects who, for the exhibition The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal two years later, treated Harlem as a tabula rasa and proposed “dropping gridded mega-structures into the neighborhood from above” (108).

Framing the department’s collection as modern architecture’s archive, Wilson demonstrates how the field as a whole was conceived as sociopolitically neutral, while in practice architecture and design are constantly deployed to segregate spaces. In separating Black bodies from white ones, Wilson writes, buildings “produce the onto-epistemological experience of racial difference . . . maintaining the logics of racism while also imagining a future world in which nonwhite subjects remain exploitable and marginal” (108). She reiterates a key argument of the first essay, a central tenet to many reevaluations of modernity: the paradox of modernism’s proclaimed universality in contrast to the narrow set of those served.

The publication’s final section is an anthology of nearly two hundred works from MoMA’s collection, representing a selection of 155 artists who are Black or consider Blackness in their work. A range of writers contributed texts, often visual or historical analyses but at times poetic meditations. Included are numerous current and former museum staff members, art historians and academics, artists, and independent curators and scholars.

The editors comment on their strategy for selecting artists and organizing writers in their essay, writing that the multiracial structure of the publication is a method of dismantling an entrenched conception that “Black artists = black art” and noting that it “experiments with an alternative model” to consider how art criteria of “quality” and “importance” manifest in the collection (15). This exemplifies one method of unraveling how and at what points Blackness is legible.

In conclusion, I recommend this publication for scholars interested in the genealogy and variants of primitivism, for academics teaching museum studies courses, and for creative professionals curious about collection research and critical historiographies. Above all, Among Others will be indispensable to culture workers of organizations of all sizes who are taking a hard look at their institutional history and seeking to make structural and sustainable change.

Martha Scott Burton
Independent Scholar; Publications Assistant, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin