Modern art breaks free of the old borders

New generation of curators and patrons expands the canon to encompass the world beyond the US and Europe

Even as globalism appears to be going into reverse, major museums are pressing ahead with efforts to broaden the canon and internationalise art history. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York recently announced a gift of more than 100 Latin American works that will change the balance of its collections. Meanwhile, the Haus der Kunst in Munich (a non-collecting institution) is presenting one of the most important reappraisals of the post-war period.

Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress (1956), on display at Munich's Haus der Kunst (Photo: © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association; courtesy of Haus der Kunst)
Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress (1956), on display at Munich's Haus der Kunst (Photo: © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association; courtesy of Haus der Kunst)

"We have become habituated to seeing the history of post-war art through the lens of America and Europe," says Okwui Enwezor, the Haus der Kunst's director. "But there is a new reckoning happening in our field." The Munich exhibition, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-65 (until 26 March 2017), considers the effect on art of the geopolitical transformations that followed the Second World War, from the liberation struggles of Africa to the divisions of the Indian subcontinent.

Museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Guggenheim in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) are also expanding their Modern collections to include work from Africa, Asia and beyond. In the process, they are changing the accepted version of Modern art history.

Curators identified the need to revisit the canon as far back as the 1990s, prompted by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil, and the rise of the internet and cheap travel. Now, museums are devoting unprecedented resources to the endeavour, at least partly thanks to wealthy patrons such as the Latin American art collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Pamela Joyner, whose stated mission is to put African-American abstract artists on the museum map.

The inaugural installation of the new Tate Modern, which opened in June, offers one of the most radical examples of this approach. Curators divided the collection into thematic sections, acknowledging a loose timeline but cutting across geographies. Carl Andre's floor sculpture Equivalent VIII (1971), for example, is shown alongside works from the 1990s and 2000s by the Chinese artist Liu Jianhua, the Pakistan-born, London-based Rasheed Araeen, and the Brazilian artist Jac Leirner-all of which reference Minimalism and architecture-rather than alongside his fellow US Minimalists.

Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, says the initial decision to acquire work by contemporary artists from around the world "wasn't really a decision-we just started acquiring". But as plans for the expansion progressed, curators also began to reconsider art by earlier generations. "We started to realise, if we were rethinking history…how strange it was to only rethink part of that history," Morris says.

In some ways, the  Tate has turned a negative-its patchy collection of Western European and US art, which cannot match that of the Pompidou or MoMA-into a positive. Top examples by Cubists and Abstract Expressionists are largely out of reach, but this is less true of pioneering work from other regions. "We've a strong research project connecting Japan, Eastern Europe and Latin America through the framework of the Bauhaus, for example," Morris explains.

The Tate's strategy has been to set up a global network of acquisition committees. Morris describes it as a three-part process: securing the help of collectors with strong ties to the region, establishing curatorial networks-often working with in-country adjunct curators-and meeting artists.


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December 14, 2016