Visiting Agnes Gund’s studio

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MoMA’s glimpse at a great patron’s impact


  • “Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews” by Alice Neel. Even a major collector like Agnes Gund had difficulty buying art by women in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. For decades, Gund has challenged and changed conventions. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Elizabeth Murray’s “Painters Progress,” an artwork that takes 19 panels to contain. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • “Children” by William H. Johnson, from 1931, is the earliest work in the exhibition “Studio Visit: Selected Gifts from Agnes Gund.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” from 2011 might appear whimsical, but was born from outrage. Photo: Adel Gorgy.

  • A picture of elegance, Ellsworth Kelly’s “Orange Green,” is a promised gift to MoMA from Agnes Gund in honor of Jack Shear. Photo: Adel Gorgy.

  • Hans Hofmann’s 4-foot by 6-foot painting “Cathedral,” from 1959, dazzles in “Studio Visit.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • In “Between the Clock and the Bed,” Jasper Johns paid tribute to Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Lynda Benglis’s 1998 “Ghost Dance/Pedmarks” is among the 800 works gifted to the Museum of Modern Art by Agnes Gund. Photo: Adel Gorgy.

Without patrons, we wouldn’t have art. It was true in the Renaissance. It’s true today. Visitors to the Uffizi in Florence can experience the influence, taste and refinement of the Medicis, bankers to kings and popes, through the artworks they collected and then bequeathed. Visitors to MoMA’s “Studio Visit: Selected Gifts from Agnes Gund” can see how it works today. Roughly 50 of the more than 800 major works of modern and contemporary art collected by and gifted to the Museum of Modern Art by its president emerita, New Yorker Agnes Gund (daughter of a successful Ohio banker), are included in this extraordinary exhibition. It fills several galleries and spans decades, styles, media and social realities.

The show opens with a beautiful 1941 painting, “Children,” by William H. Johnson, a triple portrait that’s just about as flattened, vibrant and modern as a Matisse cut-out, and ends with an enormous, potent 2017 work on paper by Kara Walker, “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” that presents ideas on sexism, racism, and social injustices. Bookending the exhibition with 20th and 21st century African-American artists’ works was an astute choice by the curatorial team led by Ann Temkin. “My friendships with artists,” Gund has said, “as well as a sensitivity to the challenges facing women artists and artists of color, have been formative in shaping my collection.”

Like the Cone sisters, whose support of Matisse and Picasso was foundational for Modernism, Agnes Gund (Aggie, as she introduces herself in the exhibition’s audio) befriended, collected and championed world-famous artists as well as those just starting out. In the exhibition, major works by iconic 20th century American masters like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns have been intentionally placed in conversation with pieces by less-known contemporary artists. Mona Hatoum is a British artist of Palestinian descent. Her “Pin Rug” made of upward facing straight pins, subverts a familiar form with contradictory, menacing material, and at the same time references the use of rugs and carpets in different cultures. Willie Cole used a steam iron to scorch images onto paper in “Domestic I.D. IV” an allusion to the history of household workers, largely female. Nick Cave’s fantastic “Soundsuit” is worn by a mannequin. Its legs are covered by small green mirrors, while the torso and head present an expansive, swirling assemblage with a gramophone horn and wires holding dozens of porcelain sculptures of birds. Cave, in his statement, explains that his first Soundsuits were created in response to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King — an effort to disguise oneself, to disappear behind a mask. It also hearkens back to a rich history of African masks, sometimes with moveable and auditory components, that often cover the entire body.

Art by women comprises much of the work in the exhibition, even though Gund, a woman collector, reveals that it was sometimes challenging to acquire. “I was told really by gallerists, and some of them women, too, that they just couldn’t sell women artists very well, because people wanted even in those days, in the ‘60s, ‘70s and 80s, they wanted a person that they could count on rising in value. I was very distressed by that,” she states in the exhibition video. Sculptor Lynda Benglis, whose elegant, torquing, gold-leafed bronze, “Ghost Dance/Pedmarks” sparkles with energy, calls Gund “the mother of contemporary art.”

There’s a striking, lively 2007 abstraction, “Painters Progress” by Elizabeth Murray, and a double portrait by Alice Neel that palpably evokes the personalities of its subjects, “Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews.” Complex text-based work by Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson’s “Self-Playing Violin” and photographer Catherine Opie’s powerful portrait “Dyke” add to a sense of the range and sophistication of Gund’s interests and vision.

“Studio Visit” is far from the only place to see Agnes Gund’s impact on New York, passing through the Agnes Gund Lobby of the museum reminds us. She serves as chairman of the board of directors of MoMA PS1. She founded the Studio in a School program in the late 1970s; for more than 40 years it’s been bringing supplies, teachers and famous artists like Jeff Koons to New York public school classrooms and kids. When Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” visited the Frick Collection in 2013, Gund donated the money needed for free Friday-evening viewings, making the treasures of Holland’s Mauritshuis available to all who were willing to wait in line. In 2017, she sold her Roy Lichtenstein painting, “Masterpiece,” for $150 million, using the proceeds to start the Art for Justice Fund, an initiative to reform the criminal-justice system. MoMA’s selections from her more than half-century of contributions offer a glimpse of Agnes Gund and her impact — she’s a superhero of the arts with a painting for a cape.

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