Every few years the Museum of Modern Art asks an artist to sift through its vast holdings and assemble a chamber-music-scale exhibition. Past guest curators have included Ellsworth Kelly, Elizabeth Murray and Amy Sillman. This year the invitation went to the London-based designer Grace Wales Bonner and what a fantastic work of poetic research she’s orchestrated in the show she calls “Spirit Movers.”
The idea of sound embodied in material is her foundational theme. In 36 objects she covers a wide modern-contemporary cultural field, which includes figures well-known and overlooked, several with links to the Afro-Atlantic world. The resulting harmonic convergence of these various objects unfurls with a welcoming anthem in the form of Terry Adkins’s monumental wind instrument ensemble, “Last Trumpet,” and with a glowing fanfare in Agnes Martin’s 1963 gold-leaf painting “Friendship.”
There follows a full, subtle concert of sight-and-sound compositions: chorales (Ruth Bernhard’s 1938 photo of Hall Johnson conducting his Negro Choir); hymns (an exquisite assemblage of antique Gothic-lettered book adorned with bright-colored seeds by the wonderful Lenore Tawney); songs to the earth (a notebook by Richard Long written in River Avon mud); songs to the heavens (a drawing by the angel-touched North Carolina visionary Minnie Evans). And at the center of the show, which is installed in one of MoMA’s admission-free street-level spaces, a single long-throated soloist floats a high, sweet note in a sculpture by the great Senegalese artist Moustapha Dimé.
If Wales Bonner’s choices fit any catchall genre, World Music would probably be the one, evident in performance scores by the Japanese artists Mieko Shiomi and Yasunao Tone, along with one by Benjamin Patterson, the only African American member of the international Fluxus group with which all three were affiliated. (A mural-size photo of Patterson performing opens the show.) And the notion of “global” is further encapsulated in a little-seen 1978 hanging-scroll format collage piece by David Hammons titled “Afro Asian Eclipse (or Black China).”
Lyrical in tone and richly textured — among his collage components Hammons used hair samples swept from Harlem barbershop floors — this piece directs attention back to the show’s Black diasporic focus, a subject expanded on in an accompanying book. Called “Dream in the Rhythm: Visions of Sound and Spirit in the MoMA Collection,” it’s the equivalent of a liederabend — song recital — between two covers. Combining pictures with poems (by Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Jean Toomer) and essays (one by Greg Tate, another by the show’s organizer, Michelle Kuo of MoMA), it both riffs on the exhibition and takes its own free jazz direction.
Artist’s Choice: Grace Wales Bonner — Spirit Movers
Through April 7 at the Museum of Modern Art, a free street-level gallery, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 708-9400, moma.org.