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From Netflix to Dada, MoMA’s Reboot Wants You to Reconsider Film History

Exclusive: The $450 million expansion has invited a lot of conversations, and the role of moving images in the new display is significant for many reasons.

Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” screening in MoMA

After spending $450 million on four months of renovation and some 47,000 square feet of new gallery space, MoMA reopens October 21 with a radical refashioning of its artwork and curation. The goal is to provide a more diverse and expansive understanding of modernism — and that includes film.

While Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” still greets visitors in the museum’s first gallery, they only have to look to the right for the first cinematic experience, a recording of the New York City subway from 1905. The piece sits at the center of an entire room dedicated to early photography and moving images, including a selection from the Bert Williams 1914 silent work “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” a Biograph production considered the earliest surviving film with African American actors.

It keeps going. Wandering the galleries two weeks before the opening, much remained unlabeled and unfinished — but movies were almost everywhere, sharing space with the rest of MoMA’s famed selections. Some 25 moving-image works from the permanent collection can be found across the museum’s six floors, as well as another two dozen video works from the Media and Performance Department. They’re all sandwiched next to major paintings, sculpture, and other media, signaling a dramatic effort to root the medium within a broader timeline of some 120 years of modernist expression.

A sampling from Jacques Tati’s slapstick masterpiece “Playtime” screens in one room dedicated to modernist architecture, where the comedian’s innovative satire of interior design and technological dysfunction receives the larger framework it deserves. Snippets of Dziga Vertov’s seminal montage work “Man With a Movie Camera” sits alongside other collage-based work (and not too far away from the similarly energetic bursts of a Jackson Pollock painting). A new restoration of Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema,” with its iconic swirling void, screens on one gallery wall alongside other Dadaist highlights. And an entire screening room has been dedicated to the museum’s permanent collection of Andy Warhol films, where everything from “Sleep” to “Blowjob” will show year-round just a stone’s throw away from “Campbell’s Soup Cans.”

Andy Warhol’s “Sleep”

MoMA

The prominence of moving images stems from an ongoing effort by Rajendra Roy, the museum’s chief curator of film, to push the film collection into the forefront of the museum galleries. “While the goal is not to historicize or fossilize it, obviously we’re putting it in historical context,” he said.

The museum has the unique luxury of presenting movies in their original formats. “I have been saying for a while now that MoMA will be the last place in New York — and even the world — where you will be able to see a film as the artist intended it,” Roy said. “We will dedicate ourselves to showing film on film, to having a cinematic experience experience that’s rich and full and authentic as possible. I hope that’s in 70 years or never, but whenever that comes, MoMA will be the last place, if that’s what we need to be.”

The museum launched at its current West 53rd Street location in 1929, and original film curator Iris Barry established the MoMA Film Library in 1933, kicking off screening series that continue to this day. “We arrived after the sound era, but not that far after,” Roy said. “We have lived through the transition from analog to digital, and learned how to be an institution that can do that.”

He’s bracing for some backlash to the decision to screen Warhol’s preserved works on digital, but screening the rickety originals could damage the aging materials (those remain in MoMA’s vaults, except for special occasions). “I am now super comfortable with my position on that,” Roy said, “because I believe it’s about progress for the art form without alienating its vision.”

One of the opening exhibits, “Private Lives, Public Spaces,” presents an extension survey of the home movies in MoMA’s collection — from a suspenseful look at the museum moving Picasso’s Guernica to its new home to a range of home movies from celebrities and everyday people alike (Roy’s own home movie, featuring a childhood trip to India, is among those on display). The exhibition, which runs through July 2020, stretches back to the silent era, with virtually every film format.

Roy said the exhibit intends “to make a link to social media culture, to say there was an origin to that,” he said. “The thing you do now, every day — there was something that happened before that, even if it was in a different way.” MoMA’s moving-image installations make the case that no matter what happens with the movies, the medium is in a constant state of creative and cultural evolution. “I don’t think anyone will come away from this place thinking it’s anything but as robust as it’s ever been,” Roy said. “The saturation of the moving-image experience in relation to all the art forms will make that clear.”

Some of the more surprising entries in the museum push film history in new directions. That includes a lesser-known work by Maya Deren on the fourth floor. Her 1945 work “A Study of Choreography for the Camera” features African American dancer Talley Beatty leaping and contorting himself into one environment after another, as the film cuts between locations at a dazzling speed. While Deren is mostly known as an avant-garde filmmaker, the three-minute piece is practically a proto-music video and the work connects her to other performance art traditions.

Associate film curator Sophie Cavoulacos, who selected the work, beamed about the prospects of linking film history to other traditions as a means of looking at the present. “There’s cinema culture, and moving image culture,” she said. “We’re actually living in a moving image culture. Cinema is a huge part of that, but not the only part of that, and I find that incredibly liberating.”

MoMA’s fall film program also launches with the museum’s reopening. The two theaters are unchanged, but the staff is banking on the possibility that more film across the museum will promote its screenings. This includes selections from the earliest days of Iris Barry’s film programming, like “Intolerance” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” as well as MoMA’s annual “The Contenders” series, where selections range from “Varda by Agnes” to Netflix’s “The Irishman.” Although Netflix is not part of the permanent collection, its presence creates an implicit dialogue with the film history on display. “We want to be in the thick of it,” Roy said.

On that note, MoMA expects a complex response from the art world. No longer a linear experience, the museum layout invites visitors to get lost in its displays, peering down at an expansive sound installation while wandering dense assemblages of sculpture and paintings. It’s closer in scale to the refurbished Whitney, with a touch of the Pompidou’s garish layout, and at times information from every direction can feel overwhelming. But of course, that in itself feels especially modern.

The most contemporary piece on display is a new work by trans filmmaker Wu Tsang, a two-channel video installation loaded with light and color. It’s an unclassifiable meditation on the medium that allows visitors to wander the space, and consider the porous boundaries between viewers and the screens in front of them. “I think the biggest point of these installations is our dialogue with artists,” Roy said. “It’s more reflective of where we’re going. They’re interested in the moving image in a way that has never been more profound.”

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