PRINT January 2020


Arthur Jafa, APEX, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 22 seconds. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2019. Photo: Denis Doorly.

FILM WILL BE DIGITIZED, or it will not be incorporated into the Museum of Modern Art’s otherwise exciting reconfiguration. I wish I could focus instead on how glorious certain familiar paintings look in their new circumstances, first among them Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–43, always dazzling in form and now, amid many twentieth-century abstractions from South America, revelatory in another way. Or how amazing it was to discover a small, untitled hut-like sculpture constructed by an unknown artist in 1936 from the pages of a Sears, Roebuck catalogue that is as mysterious and alluring as the nearby Duchamp and Cornell works combined. Or how Kerry James Marshall’s new-to-MoMA Untitled (policeman), 2015, is a perfectly composed yet devastating portrait of power run amok. Indeed, the variety and incisiveness of the confrontational strategies on display in the recent work of the museum’s leading African American artists—Marshall, Kara Walker, Arthur Jafa—are thrilling to behold.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (policeman), 2015, acrylic on PVC panel, 60 × 60".

Jafa’s APEX, 2013, is a propulsive, terrifyingly beautiful single-channel audiovisual projection, roughly eight minutes in duration and collaged largely from still images of what Jafa has dubbed the “abject sublime.” Duration is the key word here. For decades, MoMA has quarreled, unsuccessfully for the most part, with the problem of exhibiting time-based art in proximity to painting, sculpture, and still photography. APEX, one of eleven installations in a show called “Surrounds” on the sixth floor of the “old” Yoshio Taniguchi–designed building, has its own room, with sufficient soundproofing to keep its pounding synths from intruding on every other work on the floor; it also has seating, which is certainly the most comfortable aspect of the experience. The only other similarly equipped viewing space is on the fourth floor, where a trio of Warhol black-and-white silents, Kiss, Blow Job (both 1964), and Sleep (1963), play in their entirety alongside his paintings of the same period.

MoMA does not show digital scans of paintings, works on paper, or analog photographs. So why can’t it avail itself of the very film prints it has the rights to reproduce?

Sadly, these Warhol films are digitized, and while the translations from the 16-mm originals are not as crude as the horrendous digital copies of Drunk aka Drink (1965) and The Chelsea Girls (1966) that the museum has in recent years screened in its theaters as part of its collaboration with Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum—and while they are certainly an improvement on the digitized Screen Tests in the museum’s 2011 show “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures”—they are no longer films. They are digital scans of films. MoMA does not show digital scans of paintings, works on paper, or analog photographs. And given that, during its 2018 Warhol retrospective, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, showed Warhol’s films daily on film in a viewing room built for that purpose—using 16-mm prints from MoMA's circulating library—why can’t MoMA avail itself of the very prints it has the rights to reproduce and distribute?

Film strip from Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity, 1970, 16 mm, color, silent, 23 minutes.

When I spoke to the museum’s chief curator of film, Rajendra Roy, he said he was pleased that the curators of every other department had asked to have moving-image work in their rooms. But for this to happen, the works (all of which exist in 16 mm or 35 mm in MoMA's holdings) had to be transferred to video; excerpts abound. The video projections look so wan that they are next to invisible as one walks through the galleries, especially when they are projected so high on the walls—as Duchamp’s 1926 Anemic Cinema is—that even persons a foot taller than me would need to crane their necks to watch. One notable exception: Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s In the Street (1952) is screened in 16 mm, with the projector itself in the middle of the room, which is devoted to art made in midcentury Harlem. When asked about the placement of the moving images in the galleries, Roy told me that it was not up to him, and emphasized that the best environment to see moving images at MoMA is still in the two Titus Theaters downstairs.

View of “Private Lives Public Spaces,” 2019–20, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Martin Seck.

There, curation continues at a high level. Of particular interest was “Currents: Re-Viewing Cineprobe, 1968–2002,” a selection of programs by assistant curator Sophie Cavoulacos that revisited “Cineprobes,” a MoMA series that, for more than three decades, showed works by avant-garde and independent filmmakers. Among the highlights of “Currents” were the premieres of 35-mm restoration prints of Ken Jacobs’s Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1971) and Ernie Gehr’s Morning (1968), Reverberation (1969), and Serene Velocity (1970). The museum’s preservation of these avant-garde masterworks has been in progress for many years, separate from the organization and funding of MoMA's reopening. The lobbies of the Titus Theaters are devoted to “Private Lives Public Spaces,” an exhibition of what curator Ron Magliozzi describes as “vernacular movies,” comparable to MoMA's collection of vernacular photographs. These home movies came into the museum’s possession in various ways—deposited along with other private archival materials of the rich and famous or salvaged as found objects by curators who understood their value as personal and cultural history. Through digitization, they can now be seen rather than left to rot on shelves. I have no qualms with these transfers. Few artists shooting home movies (even D. W. Griffith) concentrated on film grain, the pulse of a projector, or qualities of certain film stock as crucial aspects of their work. It’s a wonderful exhibition, except for the way that a group of shorts by filmmakers who did consciously employ the home-movie genre to make works of art—such as Peggy Ahwesh and Robert Breer—are presented on a peep-show lineup of small digital screens, with no regard for duration or sound-image relationships.

View of “Readymade in Paris and New York,” 2019–, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

During previews, all the MoMA curators I encountered welcomed suggestions, emphasizing that this iteration was just a first step. Here’s an obvious one: Besides giving them and the rest of the staff raises for their increased labor, make clear in the wall text that the videos shown in the galleries are merely trailers, and then build specialized viewing rooms on every floor to properly project the movies on film in their entirety. This is the way to integrate and honor motion pictures in a world-class museum. 

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.