by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. The Museum of Modern Art, August 2019. 488 p. ill. ISBN 9781633450349 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed January 2020
Deirdre Spencer, Lbrarian for History of Art, University of Michigan Fine Arts Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
This unique publication celebrates the ninetieth anniversary of MoMA’s founding and covers the years 1929 to 2014. The volume consists of three sections. It opens with an art historical essay entitled “Blackness at MoMA: A Legacy of Deficit” written by adjunct curator Darby English from the University of Chicago, and MoMA’s curatorial assistant Charlotte Barat. A second essay, entitled “White By Design” by Mable O. Wilson of Columbia University, addresses MoMA’s lacunae of work by black architects and designers with regard to exhibitions and acquisitions. The third section represents an inventory of over two-hundred color plates of black art acquired by MoMA. Black art is defined as works by black American artists, blacks of the Caribbean, and artists from Africa. Non-black artists depicting black subjects are also included.
This detailed, well-documented account of MoMA’s history of collecting and exhibiting black art reveals historically problematic curatorial attitudes towards black art and artists. Relations with artists in black communities were tenuous because of curators’ inclinations to reject art by formally trained black artists in favor of untrained artist’s work. What distinguishes this catalog from other museum publications produced to accompany exhibits of their holdings by black artists, is the extensive documentation which both drives the narrative and reveals a compelling history of the museum’s diversity efforts. The author faults MoMA for exhibiting black artists but not acquiring their works until 50 years later. He also criticizes MoMA’s early art education efforts in black communities as essentialist and racist. There were successful outreach efforts such as café events with music and film screenings which welcomed black visitors.
Among Others adds a fullness to the publishing landscape on the subject of black art in New York City. In 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art published Harlem On My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900 – 1968, with an updated edition in 1979 and a reissue in 1995. The original publication accompanied an exhibit of photographs depicting Harlem from 1900 to 1968: an exhibit that was harshly criticized at the time for excluding works by black artists from Harlem. In 2018, the Met published My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South, to accompany an exhibition entitled “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift”. The exhibit and catalog celebrated the foundation’s gift of artwork by African American artists to the Met. These publications are far less extensive than MoMA’s nearly five-hundred page.
The targeted audience is the art history and museum professional and the book is a worthwhile acquisition for academic and museum libraries. The writing is excellent, with well-developed arguments, supported by extensive documentation. Excellent, high quality color reproductions increase the value of this book, although there is no index. The hardcover binding is sturdy.