The Cleveland Museum of Art is telling the story of contemporary art in a bold new way through a reinstallation with fresh viewpoints to create new experiences. The Betty and Max Ratner Gallery (224A), Toby’s Gallery for Contemporary Art (229A, 229C), and the Paula and Eugene Stevens Gallery (229B) are now divided into four diverse, thematic spaces: Color, Shape, and Line; The Figure; Found and Made; and Living Abstraction. Of the works on display within the S. Mueller Family Galleries of Contemporary Art, about a third are by African or African American artists, nearly half are by women, and roughly one out of five is by non-American or non-European artists. Curator of contemporary art Emily Liebert and associate curator of contemporary art Nadiah Rivera Fellah recently met up to talk about the new stories told within these walls.
What were the reinstallation goals? Emily: One of the main goals was to demonstrate the wide range of perspectives, backgrounds, and identities that animate contemporary art. This installation emphasizes the museum’s priority of diversifying its collections with respect to artists of color, women, and global scope. We showcase fresh conversations among works in the galleries, juxtaposing longtime favorites with more recent acquisitions.
Nadiah: One of our early ideas was to organize the works thematically to give visitors an entry point with the subject matter. Things like color and line—basic ideas—lead to geometric abstraction. This is prominently featured in Al Loving’s Blue Rational/Irrational from 1969. Figuration and portraiture are also very relatable. Moving through the galleries, you encounter each of these larger themes.
Emily: One exciting aspect of presenting contemporary art in an encyclopedic museum is the opportunity to create connections between collections. Something you see in the medieval or African galleries, for example, might resonate across time with a work in the contemporary galleries.
What are some new works visitors will see? Emily: One work making its debut is a recent acquisition by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, El manto negro / The black shroud from 2020 [see pages 6–7]. It’s a monumentally scaled installation composed of 1,600 handmade tiles, each memorializing a life lost to Mexican drug wars. To create this work, the artist collaborated with artisans in Mata Ortiz, Mexico. Another work on view for the first time is Serpent Deity (Nag Devta I). This sculpture, by the important Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee, is placed in conversation with pieces that have been on display before, including Yayoi Kusama’s Baby Stroller and Louise Bourgeois’s Blind Man’s Buff.
To create El manto negro / The black shroud, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles collaborated with artisans in Mata Ortiz, Mexico, a region in the US–Mexico borderlands known for its ceramic work. The artisans produced thousands of square ceramic tiles, sourced from deposits in the region’s mountainous zone. Each tile represents a victim of the drug wars rampant in the region; as a grid, they function as a collective memorial. El manto negro presents Mata Ortiz not only as a site that has fallen prey to violence, but also as a site of artistic productivity that flourishes alongside hardship.
What are some of the anchor works in this presentation? Emily: Simone Leigh’s Las Meninas, a recent acquisition that straddles figuration and abstraction, is one of the centerpieces in a gallery that explores the ways contemporary artists are reimaging representations of the figure and body. Other artists in the gallery include Robert Colescott [whose Tea for Two is on the cover of this magazine], Cleveland resident Wadsworth Jarrell, Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya, and Cuban-born video and performance artist Ana Mendieta. We’ve planned a sightline between Leigh’s work and Martin Puryear’s stunning Alien Huddle.
How do visitor favorites factor into the reinstallation? Emily: The contemporary works that have historically been most celebrated by our visitors are Andy Warhol’s Marilyn x 100 and Anselm Kiefer’s Lot’s Wife. I love that over time our visitors have built relationships with these and other works. We want to support those connections, and so there are certain works that are regularly on view. However, we try to offer fresh perspectives on well-known artworks through new groupings and juxtapositions within the galleries. Collaboration between the curatorial and the design departments is one of the ways that new stories are told with familiar works of art.
Born in Mozambique under Portuguese rule, Malangatana Ngwenya created work that focuses on the clash between local Mozambican traditions and European colonialism. His highly expressive paintings often comprise dense compositions packed with religious and mythological symbolism and tormented figures—a response to the violence he witnessed. In Fountain of Blood, he incorporates a local myth: when one group moves into another people’s land, their spirits battle. Ngwenya’s pro-independence political views resulted in the artist’s imprisonment for 18 months in 1964, contributing to his national reputation as a political artist and supporter of colonial resistance.
It sounds like there’s a balancing act between the expected and the unexpected. Emily: Yes, and in a larger sense, that characterizes the dynamic of contemporary art in an encyclopedic museum. There are works of art that people know, and have gotten to know more deeply over time, and there is the surprise of the new. The juxtaposition animates the viewer’s response to both.
What differences will visitors notice? Nadiah: The walls have been moved, and we have opened up the gallery in a new, more cohesive way, so the space will feel different, with sightlines into every corner.
Emily: Visitors will see works of art they haven’t encountered before, and they will freshly experience the works they know well and love.
In Las Meninas, Simone Leigh draws on traditions throughout global art and culture, conjuring associations related to the female body, racial identity, beauty, and community. The work’s skirted form evokes figures from the Spanish Golden Age painting Las Meninas from 1656 by Diego Velázquez, apparel worn in the Afro-Brazilian religious tradition candomblé, and Mousgoum buildings in Cameroon. The white-glazed terracotta torso, alluding to sacred and secular traditions of body painting, leads to a faceless head, incorporating both figuration and abstraction.