(Almost) Due North: Brazilian Photography at MoMA

6 Jun 2016, 10:29 am


(by Sarah Hermanson Meister)

Founded in 1929, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA) established its commitment to art made outside the United States from the day its doors opened with the exhibition Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh. The Museum also established its commitment to artistic expression beyond the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture early on; the first photographs entered the collection in 1930. MoMA was one of the few institutions collecting photographs at all when it acquired nine photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo in 1942, soon joined by four works by fellow Mexican photographer Antonio Reynoso.1 The Museum featured Reynoso and Venezuelan historian/photographer Alfredo Boulton in its exhibition New Photographers in 1946, and accepted seven works by Thomaz Farkas in 1949 (although it took many years before these, and a group of works by Boulton, were formally approved). It wasn’t until 1959 that one of the aforementioned works by Thomaz Farkas became the first Brazilian photograph in the Museum Collection, followed by sporadic, limited acquisitions (Claudia Andujar in 1962 and 1966, Nair Benedicto in 1980, Sebastião Salgado in 1990, Valdir Cruz in 1994, Mario Cravo Neto in 1996, with only one or two prints each). The situation began to improve in 1997, the same year Vik Muniz was featured at MoMA in New Photography 13, when the Museum acquired eight works. Muniz’s representation in the collection has since grown to encompass 27 photographs, prints and multiples.

In the last decade the Museum’s commitment to Latin American photography has blossomed, dramatically expanding the histories of photography told through the Museum Collection. In 2014 I co-curated an exhibition in conjunction with Paris Photo titled American Photography: Recent Acquisitions from The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Visitors to the exhibition at the Grand Palais might have been surprised to learn that the word American referred to major acquisitions of North and South American photography. To give a handful of examples: in a gallery that highlighted particularly deep acquisitions, Geraldo de Barros (Brazilian, 1923-1998) was installed across from Susan Meiselas (American, born 1948) and Richard Misrach (American, born 1949); the conceptually infused practices of Liliana Porter (Argentine, born 1941) and Regina Silveira (Brazilian, born 1939) hung in a room alongside Marcia Resnick (American, born 1950) and Sarah Charlesworth (American, 1947–2013); and in a gallery of artists who explore questions of identity in their work, Oscar Muñoz (Colombian, born 1951) was presented with Lyle Ashton Harris, Mark Morrisroe and Katy Grannan (all American, born 1965, 1959–1989, and born 1969, respectively). The Museum seeks to deepen its appreciation of the manifestation of so called alternative modernities (those practices outside the historical canons of American and western European art) and, equally important, to contextualize those modernities within the traditions more familiar to the majority of MoMA’s audiences.

The Department of Photography is but one of six curatorial departments at the Museum, each with a mandate to collect, preserve, and present its respective medium(s). Beyond Photography, the other curatorial departments are Painting & Sculpture, Drawings & Prints, Architecture & Design, Film, and Media & Performance Art. Perhaps it goes without saying that artists frequently transgress these borders, and my fellow curators and I regularly cooperate on what we call cross-departmental acquisitions to ensure that we are as attentive to those artists whose work might be described as photography and performance as we are to those whose practices fall squarely within a specific category. Every curatorial department has several acquisitions meetings each year (Photography has three), and at these meetings curators present proposed works (both purchases and gifts) to their acquisition committees, which are comprised of Museum Trustees and benefactors. The Committee on Photography is responsible for approving each work that enters the Museum Collection, while responsibility for what to present to the Committee rests with the Chief Curator. In January 2013 Quentin Bajac assumed this position, and he soon conducted a strategic review of collecting priorities (as his predecessor, Peter Galassi, had done several times during his tenure). I have had the privilege of working with Bajac and Galassi on these reviews, the results of which guide our acquisition priorities for the coming years (although both Bajac and Galassi have stressed the importance of maintaining flexibility in order to pursue acquisitions outside these declared priorities should unanticipated opportunities arise).

The recent acquisitions of work made by artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela that were on view in Paris last November represented not only strategic priorities within the Department of Photography, but also a broader institutional commitment to engage with international artistic practices and, whenever possible, to bring those practices into the Museum Collection. These efforts are served by two complementary initiatives: the cross-departmental research platform Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP); and the Latin American and Caribbean Fund (LACF). Thanks to C-MAP, curators from across the Museum are able to bring both local and international scholars and artists to the Museum, to critically examine our grasp of artistic practices in those regions, and to build upon those relationships and ideas through travel. C-MAP currently focuses on three regions: Latin America, Asia, and Central/Eastern Europe. As members of the Latin America C-MAP group, my colleagues and I have traveled to Brazil twice, Argentina, and Mexico, and we intend to go to Chile this coming September. Through these travels and the related seminars and meetings in New York, we have had the privilege of getting to know artists, curators, writers, musicians, poets, historians, and collectors, and it is no exaggeration to write that our understanding of modern and contemporary art is enriched as a result. The related website shares and expands upon the discoveries from many of these trips.

Since 2005 the LACF has played an essential role in supporting the acquisition of work by Latin American and Caribbean artists for the Museum Collection. Because of the LACF, many of the opportunities identified through C-MAP research have resulted in acquisitions that critically expand the way in which we can present the history of modern art for the Museum’s audiences.

Consider, for example, the following recent acquisitions of work by Brazilian photographers. In November 2012 a group from MoMA traveled to Brazil, visiting São Paulo, Inhotim, and Rio. Several of us visited Regina Silveira’s studio, where I was able to ask about her early engagement with photography and learned that the four unique photograms that comprised her series Enigmas were in fact with a gallery in New York. These works became the first by Silveira to enter the Museum Collection (supported by the LACF). Since then these were featured in an article I wrote for Aperture magazine, exhibited in Paris (as mentioned above), reproduced on the cover of Zum, and included in a forthcoming volume on contemporary photography at MoMA (fall 2015). On that first C-MAP trip to Brazil, I also had the opportunity to immerse myself in Alair Gomes’s practice at the 30th São Paulo Bienal (organized by my colleague Luis Pérez-Oramas), to see Cao Guimarães’s photographs at Nara Roesler, and to meet Rôsangela Rennó. By 2014 major works by each of these important figures had been added to the Museum Collection.

It would not be possible to speak of photography in Brazil without mentioning the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS), and I made sure that our itinerary included visits to their spaces in São Paulo and in Rio, and time with their curators Sergio Burgi and Thyago Nogueira. These first meetings are the foundation of our ongoing professional relationships, and we have since met in São Paulo, Paris and New York. Inspired by my visit to see the incomparable collection of the IMS, I found that Thomaz Farkas had given seven prints to Edward Steichen (then Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA), although, as mentioned above, only one had been accessioned in 1959. With the generous cooperation of the Farkas family, now all seven are formally part of the Museum Collection, and one will be reproduced in the second volume on MoMA’s photography collection (anticipated in fall 2016). Confident in our adequate (if not extensive) representation of Geraldo de Barros’ work (two works acquired in 2006, and three more in 2013), I turned my attention to a third member of the legendary Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante: Gaspar Gasparian. Thanks to Eric Franck, I was able to meet Gaspar Gasparian Filho, and because of their generosity (as well as the instrumental support of the LACF), the Museum acquired three photographs by Gasparian in May 2015.

Are these acquisitions sufficient to represent the history of photography in Brazil? Of course not. But each represents an important step towards that goal, and a new opportunity to expand the canons of modern and contemporary photography at MoMA. We look forward to continuing these dialogues and bringing more photographs (almost) due north.

(All works that illustrate this article are part of the MoMA Collection.)


Sarah Hermanson Meister is a curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She co-curated From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola, on view at MoMA through October 4, 2015. Other recent exhibitions with accompanying publications include Nicholas Nixon: Forty Years of The Brown Sisters (2014), Walker Evans American Photographs: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary (2013), and Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light (2013).


Note: (1) Although this article focuses exclusively on photography at MoMA, it bears mention that in 1940 Iris Barry acquired three Brazilian films for the Museum, and in the 1940s the Museum exhibited and purchased key Brazilian paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture by Candido Portinari, Maria Martins, José Pancetti and others.

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