Art

‘Transmissions’ Finds MoMA Veering Blessedly Off Course to Eastern Europe and Latin America

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There are two principal ways to build a museum collection. There’s the old-fashioned way: Inherit it from museum trustees. The second method consists of buying targeted works of art to fill in where museum gifts leave gaps. But what happens when an institution’s prolonged inattention leaves generation-size holes in its collection? This is the pickle MoMA finds itself in today. After losing track of the contemporary-art plot in the late 20th century, the institution is desperately playing catch-up in the 21st.

Though MoMA has had its share of excellent recent exhibitions — most notably “One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” and “Scenes From a New Heritage” (a smart rehanging of its postwar stash) — other shows have featured the kind of unseemly glitz British tabloids gleefully deride as mutton dressed as lamb (see the exhibitions “The Forever Now” and the atrocious “Björk”). Still, MoMA — being MoMA — always has a new trick up its sleeve. “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980” is the museum’s latest effort at looking smartly contemporary. Like a pair of plus-size gaucho pants, the show can appear either baggy or flattering — depending on your angle of vision.

The result of an in-house curatorial initiative the museum launched in 2009 called Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), MoMA’s 2012 display “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde” explored one particular void in the collection: postwar Japanese art. For “Transmissions” the museum (as informed by C-MAP) brings together two of its problem areas — conceptual art in Eastern Europe and Latin America — into a single display. If MoMA were located in rural Pakistan, “Transmissions” would count as an arranged marriage. In Manhattan’s midtown the union is a happy one. This is because the exhibition’s subterranean premise bundles many so-called “peripheral” histories: In the 1960s and ’70s, activist conceptualism became the go-to style for global artists. This coincided with the period when MoMA turned its back on experiments in political conceptualism.

In many ways “Transmissions” is an exhibition that charts vast swaths of the institutional road not taken. As such, we can view it as a real-time chronicle of the museum hedging its bad bets: Most of the works MoMA is displaying here are pieces the museum recently added to its collection. Regardless, “Transmissions” is a significant and welcome detour from MoMA’s paleolithic Paris–New York axis. Its genuine novelty, in fact, dwarfs the show’s shortcomings.

What happens when an institution’s prolonged inattention leaves generation-size holes in its collection?

A roomful of vitrines stuffed with ephemera by Latin American and Eastern European collectives (the most prominent of which are the Venezuelan group El Techo de la Ballena and the Yugoslavian publication Gorgona) is followed by galleries containing pointedly political installations by South American artists David Lamelas and Marta Minujín. A ho-hum section of stripe-based experiments by Paris-based formalist Daniel Buren and his Polish counterpart Edward Krasinski — one room features nine Home Depot–type wall treatments connected with a single strip of Scotch tape — is nearly forgotten by the time a viewer arrives at the area containing the provocations of firebrands Sanja Ivekovic, Ana Mendieta, and VALIE EXPORT.

Two works by EXPORT, who was born Waltraud Lehner and adopted the uppercase name of a popular cigarette brand, nearly light up the place. The first, Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), from 1969, pictures the artist as a young flamethrower lounging desultorily on a couch in crotchless jeans. The second, TAPP und TASTKINO (TOUCH and TAP CINEMA), is a video of a street performance in which a young EXPORT, wearing a box for a bra, invites men to fondle her breasts in public. The pleasure derived from seeing regular Josefs awkwardly grope this feminist is such that one nearly forgets to ask the obvious: What is this Austrian’s work doing in a show about Eastern European and Latin American conceptualism?

More conciliatory surprises lurk, namely Braco Dimitrijevic’s billboard-size photographs of casual passersby (aimed at the primacy of Yugoslav communist officials back in the day and celebrities currently); a grainy but inspiring 1979 video of the Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (CADA) distributing milk and civility in Pinochet’s impoverished Chile; and, finally, Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera (The Working-Class Family), a photographic portrait of a real-life Argentine family the artist put on a plinth in 1964 along with a plaque bearing the following message: “Luis Ricardo Rodriguez, a die cutter by profession, earns double what he does at work by being on exhibit with his wife and child during the run of this exhibition.”

Whatever shortfalls this show of global conceptualism may have, Bony’s piece alone is worth the price of your ticket.

‘Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980’

Museum of Modern Art

11 West 53rd Street

212-708-9431, MoMA.org

Through January 3, 2016