Close Encounters

Artforum, Kerry James Marshall

IN 1980, I logged a series of firsts: my first flight on an airplane; my first trip to New York (from Los Angeles); my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art. It was all things modern. Everything was new to me.

I was there for the Picasso retrospective, but really only to see Guernica, 1937, before it was shipped off to Spain for good. At the time, no other work in the museum’s collection could have inspired such a journey. I’ve read that Guernica was Faith Ringgold’s favorite Picasso, too. Since then, I’ve been to the museum many times. Some days, when I lived in Harlem, I would visit just for a moment to see Wifredo Lam’s 1943 painting The Jungle, which hung off the lobby near the coat check. (No admission required.)

On more extended explorations, my typical pattern of looking is to bounce around the collection, pinball style, ricocheting from touchstone to touchstone, occasionally bumping up against captivating surprises and avoiding the dead zones until overload and fatigue drive me to a bench for a little bit of rest.

In the new new MoMA, the bench seems to be more than just a perch on which to take a load off. In at least two cases that got my attention, the benches mark the presence of Black artists in unexpected places, as if to suggest, You might need to sit down for a minute to get a handle on this.

I recently saw a photograph from sixteen years ago, the last time MoMA was new. Picasso’s “iconic” Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, hung in the center of its gallery wall, flanked by smaller works of his from the same period, but without a bench. This time, the painting hangs adjacent to a wall occupied by Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, 1967, and both have benches. In a nearby gallery, Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911, is also paired with the work of a Black female painter: Fiery Sunset, 1973, by Alma Thomas. Here, too, is a bench. It’s important to think about the chronological gaps separating these works when considering these new proximities.

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Jan 2, 2020