Finding the Modern Tradition’s Common Denominator


“Making Choices,” the second installment of MOMA’s ongoing, radical, and increasingly provocative reshuffling of its collection, tackles the period from 1920 to 1960 with a series of 24 independent but interlocking exhibitions, the first 11 of which just opened. Among them is the smartest photo show in town, “Walker Evans & Company”—not a footnote to Rosenheim’s Met survey but a brilliant opening up of its themes and an essential next step for any sophisticated viewer. Here, curator Peter Galassi establishes Evans as a pivotal figure in modern art, at once an enduring influence and “a lens through which to study the evolution of tradition.” By casting chronologically backward (to Sander and Sheeler) and forward (to Arbus, Gursky, and the Bechers), as well as setting him squarely in the company of his contemporaries, the show provides an intelligent, expansive context for Evans’s work. Because Galassi’s stylistic connections are so far-ranging—from Eugène Atget’s tender records of a vanishing Paris to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan inventory of Every Building on the Sunset Strip—this is one of those rare shows that feel genuinely open-ended; the lively dialogue it sparks between artworks continues in the viewer’s head.

Evans’s photos are scattered throughout the show and used to launch chain reactions of inspired juxtaposition, one of which radiates from his Torn Movie Poster to include Edward Hopper’s movie usherette, Robert Frank’s sad starlet, Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe, and a lovely group of Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills. Another associative net links Evans’s subway portraits with Harry Callahan’s shots of women on the street in Chicago and Judith Joy Ross’s emotionally charged pictures of men at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Caught in this wide web, still squirming, is the modern sensibility—cool, sharp, and infinitely complex.