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Over the past three years, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has taken over what seems like half a city block. Its galleries have burst through the confines of its modernist home on 53rd Street, spread westward into a structure built by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and onward, as if by osmosis, through the lower floors of a new residential skyscraper by Jean Nouvel, terminating in a glass wall looking out over Sixth Avenue. The $450 million overhaul added more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space, expanding the galleries by a third.
But when the museum reopened in October following a four-month closure, another kind of expansion was on display, one that critics have argued was perhaps more urgently needed. After decades of granting pride of place to white male artists, MoMA has made an effort to acknowledge previously stifled voices. Today, as visitors continue to flock to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which survived the rehang of the museum’s permanent collection, they’ll pass many more works by female, nonwhite, and non-European artists than they once did.
Nowhere is that broadened vision more evident than in the third-floor exhibition “Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift.” Most of the pieces are part of a trove of 142 works recently donated by Cisneros, a longtime MoMA trustee. It is one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history, more than doubling its Latin American holdings. The show encompasses the geometric abstraction movement that swept through Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina in the politically turbulent postwar decades. From Lygia Clark’s playful contortions of the flat plane and Jesús Rafael Soto’s eye-scrambling vibrational works to endlessly inventive efforts to break out of the orthogonal frame, the pieces on view document a time in South America when abstraction was synonymous with modernity and modernity was a continental obsession.
“Sur moderno” sometimes feels like eavesdropping on a conversation among friends. The artists featured were a close group who, given the dearth of worldclass art galleries—and a hemisphere away from the American and European scenes that would generate the bulk of MoMA’s permanent collection—held exhibitions in the houses of intellectuals and artists and made works largely in response to one another.
But the show helpfully strays beyond this insular circle. It traces the movement’s influence on South American design and architecture—drawing a straight line, for example, to Oscar Niemeyer’s grand, swooping structures in Brasília—but also looks back to the earlier European artists who inspired it.
The most iconic work on the walls, in fact, is not Latin American at all, but Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), plucked out of the permanent collection for the occasion.
“Working at MoMA allows you to do this, to bring Mondrian to the conversation,” says the show’s Argentine curator, Inés Katzenstein. “He was a central figure for most of these artists, the hero of abstraction,” she adds, gesturing toward the works around her, which seem to refract Mondrian’s stark grid and swatches of primary colors. The inclusion of the painting serves as a passing of the torch for MoMA, from one of the collection’s long-standing fixtures to its newest additions.
“Sur moderno” is the rare exhibition to give its benefactor top billing. Cisneros, who was born in Venezuela into an art-loving family, has been collecting in earnest for almost 50 years alongside her husband, billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, but her connection to the pieces on display dates back to her childhood. “Venezuela in the 1950s was a beacon of modernism,” she says. “Going to school in Caracas, every day I walked by murals and public artworks by Léger, Calder, Arp, Soto, Cruz-Diez, Vasarely, and many others. Abstraction was literally part of our everyday life, and part of a certain spirit of progress and development of that period.”
Cisneros became affiliated with MoMA in the 1980s, but was dismayed at the museum’s inattention to Latin American art. She has long worked to rectify that imbalance, an effort that has culminated in this gift and in the foundation of the Cisneros Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America at MoMA.
“These days we can understand that modernism was a global phenomenon, and we no longer need to think of a ‘mainstream’ and a ‘periphery,’” says Cisneros. “I think this is a great step forward.”