When MoMA opened its first show in 1929, the museum wasn’t even a museum. It was just six rented rooms on the 15th floor of the Heckscher Building in Midtown. Priceless paintings—a post-impressionist celebration of Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh—were hung over doors, under vents, by electrical sockets, and beside couches.
Yet it was a hit. 57,000 people showed up during the show’s one-month run, forcing visitors to elbow with businessmen for precious elevator capacity.
It’s a scene captured in black and white photographs that you can now explore yourself, in MoMA’s new online exhibit archives. And today, I have the pleasure of flipping through the historic images over the phone with Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, at MoMA. I’ve convinced her to point out the subtleties that I might not see.
"There are a lot of things that were the same about the show as today, and a lot of things that were different," says Temkin. Indeed, if you squint you can see bits of the MoMA of today in the show. Yet, MoMA's first show would never fly at the MoMA today.
For one, there’s the choice of featuring older post-Impressionism artists, whereas in 1929, surrealism was the cutting edge of art. "These were paintings at that point that were almost 40 years old," Temkin points out. "In other words, for that moment, what MoMA was opening with wasn't an ultra of-the-moment selection of artists. It was artists who’d been, you know, what should we say, anointed by art history. However, they were still too radical for the Met to collect. And that’s where our opportunity lay."
The pieces were actually assembled in just a few weeks (rather than years, which MoMA takes to plan a show today), as then-President Anson Conger Goodyear traveled through Europe, taking whatever would be loaned. These pieces were then hung without any particular flow or thesis. "The conventions of installing paintings back then was that you made an arrangements on the wall. So you put the largest painting on the wall in the middle, and two smaller on either side of it. Then two mediums on the ends," says Temkin. "So instead of hanging it like we would today, thinking of chronological order, or the themes, motifs, or colors that go together, it was more like...parallelism."
The paintings were all hung in different frames, too, which were of the ornate, 19th century variety with plenty of gilding involved. There was no time to reframe anything before the exhibition, and MoMA hadn’t established its spartan approach to fine art framing yet. Furthermore, all pieces were hung on wires rather than mounted on the wall—which Temkin points out was more typical of traditional museums at the time.
As for those walls? You can’t see it in these photos, but they weren’t covered in the white tabula rasa paint MoMA is known for. "In the first exhibition, they were actually beige fabric walls."
Yet even though all of these curatorial decisions sound decidedly un-MoMA, Temkin points to several precedents that the show included—some of them quietly radical. "What was pretty characteristic was it looked pretty spare," says Temkin. "More traditional galleries of that time would have crowded the paintings in much more." Furthermore, if you look closely, you’ll see that none of the art is labeled. Instead, there were simply numbers by each piece, and you’d look up the associated listing in a brochure to both identify and learn more about the work.
"People associate museums today so much with labels on the wall, it’s interesting that they didn’t have them for that exhibition," says Temkin. "We have at various moments gone with that route, like for our Picasso sculpture show last year. We did that because we didn't want these cards littering the walls by the Picasso sculptures."
"By far it’s the exception," she adds a moment later. In other words, at least one decision in MoMA's first show is still a bit radical, even to the MoMA.