As the world’s original—and greatest—modern art museum, the Museum of Modern Art has plenty of amazing works in its collection, paintings especially. Though MoMA’s collection doesn’t span millennia like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (the oldest pieces date from the 19th century), it reflects a period of revolutionary change quite unlike the rest of human history. Plus, there’s a lot of stuff to look at, a sampling of which is presented here.
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Best paintings at the Museum of Modern Art
Lee Bontecou, Untitled (1961)
In the macho scene of postwar American art, Bontecou was a rare female presence, but when it came to making tough work, she could keep up with the boys and then some. This piece is made with industrial canvas salvaged from a conveyor belt that had been tossed out on the street by a laundry located below the artist's East Village apartment. The glowering form—suggesting a wormhole into some dimension of Cold War terror, or an eyepiece from a gas mask—was achieved by stretching fabric across a steel frame.
Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1961. Welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhide, copper wire, and soot, 6' 8 1/4" x 7' 5" x 34 3/4" (203.6 x 226 x 88 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
Salvador Dalì, The Persistence of Memory (1931)
Dalì described his meticulously rendered works as "hand-painted dream photographs," and certainly, the melted watches that make their appearance in this Surrealist masterpiece have become familiar symbols of that moment when reverie seems to uncannily invade the everyday. The coast of the artist's native Catalonia serves as the backdrop for this landscape of time, in which infinity and decay are held in equipoise. As for the odd rubbery creature in the center of the composition, it is the artist himself, or rather his profile, stretched and flattened like Silly Putty.
Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA
Willem de Kooning, Woman I (1950–52)
In the signature painting of De Kooning's career, the artist jokingly inserts an interplay between enormous eyes and breasts (strapped down here as if they might burst from the picture plane and smother the viewer), taunting us with the question, which would you look at first? The flurry of violent marks defining the figure could be easily read as misogynistic, but complaining about misogyny in New York's postwar art world is a bit like complaining that Rembrandt didn't have electric lights. With her verticality and frontal positioning, /Woman I/ seems enthroned: the regent of De Kooning's imagination.
Willem de Kooning. Woman, I. 1950–52. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)
This gender-bending self-portrait by the celebrated Mexican artist and feminist icon was occasioned by her divorce from Diego Rivera—the muralist notable not only for his own artistic genius, but for his philandering ways. Kahlo had apparently enough of the latter, but as the painting indicates, she couldn't quite quit Rivera. She pictures herself in a chair, hair shorn, with her signature peasant blouse and skirt replaced by Rivera's clothes—effectively transforming herself into her ex-husband's likeness. Her locks, now scattered across the floor, seem to writhe menacingly around her, and she captioned the composition with the words from a popular Mexican love song: "Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don't love you anymore." Unsurprisingly, Kahlo remarried Rivera the following year, so this weirdly compelling painting could also be described as a monument to codependency.
Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. 1940. Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 11" (40 x 27.9 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA/anco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust/ARS
Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl (1963)
Lichtenstein's Pop icon is at once a coolly ironic deconstruction of pulp melodrama and a formally dynamic—even moving—composition, thanks largely to the interplay of the subject's hair (swept into a perfect Mad Men–era coif) and the waves (which seem to have wandered in from a Hokusai print) threatening her. The image, a crop from a panel in an early-’60s comic book titled Run for Love!, shows that Lichtenstein's in full command of his style, employing not only by his well-known Ben-Day dots, but also bold black lines corralling areas of deep blue. It's a complete stunner.
Roy Lichtenstein. Drowning Girl. 1963. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 67 5/8 x 66 3/4" (171.6 x 169.5 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA/ Philip Johnson Fund
Kazimir Malevich, White on White (1918)
Though it was painted nearly a century ago, this painting's radical nature continues to astonish. Malevich's aim wasn't pure reductivism, though. Inspired by Russia's icon tradition, the early Soviet avant-gardist believed that the Russian Revolution had ushered in a new age in which materialism would give way to spirituality. He called his philosophy Suprematism, and /White on White/ serves as the supreme manifestation of the artist reaching for transcendence.
Kazimir Malevich. Suprematist Composition: White on White. 1918. Oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 31 1/4" (79.4 x 79.4 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA
Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson (1916)
One of the artist's most personal pieces, The Piano Lesson shows Matisse's son Pierre at the keyboard. It's a composition about space, but also about time, as it echoes again and again the pyramidal shape of the metronome on the piano—in the band of green slicing across a casement to the left, and in the shadow falling across Pierre's face. He is set between two of his father's works depicting females, the matronly Woman on a High Stool and a small sculpture of a sensuous, reclining nude. More than a simple description of a family life, The Piano Lesson serves as a meditation on manhood, and one boy's impending introduction to it.
Henri Matisse. The Piano Lesson. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late summer 1916. Oil on canvas, 8' 1/2" x 6' 11 3/4" (245.1 x 212.7 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA/Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund/Succession H. Matisse/ARS
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
The ur-canvas of 20th-century art, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ushered in the modern era by decisively breaking with the representational tradition of Western painting, incorporating allusions to the African masks that Picasso had seen in Paris's ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadro. It's compositional DNA also includes El Greco's The Vision of Saint John (1608–14), now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The women being intruded upon by the small still-life at the bottom of frame are actually prostitutes in a brothel. An early study for the painting featured a medical student entering from the left to make his selection for the night, but Picasso wisely decided to leave him out in the final composition, leaving only Avignon in the title as a clue to his subject's origin: It's the name of a street in the artist's native Barcelona, famous for its cathouses.
Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Paris, June-July 1907. Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" (243.9 x 233.7 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA/ Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS
Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)
Rousseau's career represents the first instance, perhaps, of a self-taught outsider artist who won the admiration of insider peers, though the road to recognition wasn't easy. The story goes that Picasso first stumbled upon the work of this toll-collector-turned-painter while it was being sold on the sidewalk as used canvas to be painted over. Since then, Rousseau's mix of dreamy naive figuration and exotic landscapes (all imagined; he never left France) has become indelible—never more so than in this painting, in which the juxtaposition of beauty and beast has an unearthly quality.
Henri Rousseau. The Sleeping Gypsy. 1897. Oil on canvas, 51" x 6' 7" (129.5 x 200.7 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA/Mrs. Simon Guggenheim
Andy Warhol, Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)
No Warhol demonstrates the artist's worship of glamour better than this painting, created the year Monroe died in an apparent suicide. It is the altarpiece in Andy's Pop Art church of celebrity. But by the same token, the work also speaks to Warhol's background as an observant Catholic; it wouldn't look all that out of place at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where Warhol regularly attended mass (sans wig). The image is based on a publicity still for the film Niagara, in which Monroe played opposite Joseph Cotton as an unhappily married woman, plotting the murder of her husband.
Andy Warhol. Gold Marilyn Monroe. 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 6' 11 1/4" x 57" (211.4 x 144.7 cm).
Photograph: Courtesy The MoMA/Philip Johnson/Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS