Everything about the work — its bright colors and bold shapes, its massive size — grabbed visitors’ attention as they entered the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.
“Woman,” a garish but beautiful tapestry by Spanish modern master Joan Miró, anchored a wall of the I.M. Pei-designed building for decades, bringing color and vibrancy to a far corner of the atrium.
The 20-by-35-foot abstract was one of four works commissioned by the museum for the East Building, which opened in 1978 as a home for its modern art collection. Pei, museum officials, and benefactors Paul and Bunny Mellon were involved in the commissions, which included the playful Alexander Calder that animates the atrium. The National Gallery even celebrated the Miró work with a short documentary.
But the tapestry was replaced in 2003, when another modern giant, Ellsworth Kelly, lent his work “Color Panels for a Large Wall” to the museum. And when the East Building reopened last fall after a three-year renovation, Kelly’s work was still in the tapestry’s spot.
Washington resident Kyla Whitmore is one of many museum visitors who miss Miró’s fantastical piece, one that is intimately tied to her childhood memories.
“We had four or five pieces we had to see, and then we went for french fries,” Whitmore, 24, said of the weekly outings with her mother and brother. “That tapestry was definitely one of the more memorable objects. It was my first impression of light and color and movement as a small kid.”
Now a college graduate, Whitmore was back in Washington for a journalism internship and she decided to investigate by digging into the museum’s archives for information about the tapestry. Visitors routinely voice opinions about missing works or those on view, museum officials say. But Whitmore’s search illustrates the deep emotional connections people have with art and what happens when art that is beloved by visitors falls out of favor with museum officials.
“It was something that was really meaningful to a lot of people,” said Whitmore, who said she spoke to other visitors during each visit.
She contacted the current curator of textiles, and heard back from a museum publicist, who explained that the tapestry was taken down for cleaning and “rest” from long-term light exposure. Its replacement, the Kelly work that the NGA has subsequently acquired, “is a classic-period work from this key figure in postwar art, and it is well-suited for the East Building Atrium,” the National Gallery spokeswoman said.
Whitmore’s query highlights a question that arises frequently in museums: How do curators decide what to display? Such decisions are the cornerstone of a curator’s job, said Harry Cooper, head of the National Gallery’s department of modern and contemporary art. “Generally, it’s a fun kind of puzzle to put together,” he said.
It can be fraught with tension, however, especially because only a small fraction of any museum’s collection ends up on display. The National Gallery of Art has almost 148,000 works in its permanent collection, and only 2,834 are on view.
The decision about what to display begins with quality, Cooper said. “Aesthetic quality — what is good and what is great that we have — that’s got to always be in the foreground,” he said.
Cooper, who has written a book about Kelly, was not on staff in 2003 and therefore not part of the Miró decision. He spent several years working on the re-installation of the East Building galleries ahead of the reopening in October.
Curators are influenced by many factors, from personal taste — “I love yellow, am I hanging everything yellow?” — to the story the exhibition wants to tell, to stipulations donors place on works. A lesser work from an important movement might be selected to complete a narrative, he explained, while a great work from a particularly strong area of the gallery’s collection might be passed over.
Art world trends influence choices, too, as artists’ reputations grow or recede. “There’s a whole apparatus that creates reputations,” Cooper said, adding that curators are part of “a complicated system” of influence.
“But I may pull against that,” he added. “If every museum has a work by X, Y and Z, that gets boring. I think it’s important to have surprises, to have artists on the wall that people have never heard of.”
Preference for Kelly’s blocks of color eclipsed the Miró tapestry’s historical link to the building’s design. In her research, Whitmore discovered interviews and correspondence detailing the involvement of Pei, the Mellons and even Henri Matisse (who served as a go-between in the multiyear process from commission to installation). She also learned that Miró initially suggested a ceramic piece but that Pei didn’t like that idea. They agreed on a tapestry.
Museum officials commemorated the opening of the modern building with four commissions and five purchases. The three other commissions — Calder’s gigantic mobile, Anthony Caro’s site-specific sculpture “National Gallery Ledge Piece” and Henry Moore’s sculpture “Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece” — are still on view. Of the five purchases, three are on display, including Robert Motherwell’s “Reconciliation Elegy.”
The 1979 documentary emphasizes the connection between Pei and his design and the Miró commission. “The art would have to have a capacity for monumental concepts, with a sense of color and scale appropriate to the site,” intones narrator Lary Lewman. “A unanimous choice was Spanish artist Joan Miró.” The documentary ends with admiring crowds gazing at the massive work and a smiling museum director J. Carter Brown saying: “I just love it. It is everything we had hoped.”
But some critics and curators judged it harshly. “Joan Miró’s huge tapestry might please at posterscale, but its whimsy is too slight and its colors too garish for its enormous size,” Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in May 1978, before the building’s opening. “It seems a heavy, mirthless joke.”
Curator Jeffrey Weiss told the New York Times in 2003 that the National Gallery had been seeking to replace the tapestry. “Fortunately, we had a large wall looking for a great work of art and Ellsworth [Kelly] had a large work looking for a big wall. It was a perfect marriage,” said Weiss, who was Cooper’s predecessor. (Weiss, now a curator at the Guggenheim Museum, declined to comment for this article.)
The Post’s Blake Gopnik weighed in on the change, too, writing in 2003 that the tapestry had been “the butt of gibes in the Washington art world. ‘Macramé with a runny nose’ is one comment I’ve heard.” He added, “We won’t have that old girl to kick around anymore.”
Although the documentary attributes the tapestry to the Spanish artist (and shows him in the studio as it was woven), the National Gallery’s online catalogue credits the work as “after Joan Miró, woven by Josep Royo.” The gallery also has the 8-by-5½ foot oil painting that served as the model for the tapestry in its collection. It is attributed to Miró.
The distinction doesn’t make sense to Rosa Maria Malet, the director of the Fundacio Joan Miró, a modern art museum in Barcelona, who described Miró’s textile work as his “last expressive adventure.”
“Of course Miró did not directly weave the tapestries. But his indications about the final result he wanted to achieve were precise, and his follow-up of the process, exhaustive,” Malet said in an email. She pointed out that the signatures of both artists are woven into the tapestry and said, “Miró always avoided the direct transposition of his works into textile. He didn’t want just a copy.”
Miró created about 50 works, including seven tapestries, between 1970 and his death in 1983. The National Gallery’s work is the only tapestry in the United States; another was destroyed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. At least four are on view in Spain, including two in museums in Barcelona and Tarragona.
Cooper says he hears from members of the public frequently about what they like and what they miss. He said he considers their suggestions but gives more weight to education curators, who interact with large groups and “who let me know that certain works are important to what they do.”
Whitmore, meanwhile, is disappointed in the reasons for the change and the fact that the piece is still in storage. The museum’s publicist encouraged her to enjoy the Miró paintings in the permanent galleries and left open the possibility of the tapestry being reinstalled.
But that is small consolation.
“To me, the tapestry was far more memorable and inspirational than any painting hanging in the collection,” Whitmore said. “I still miss the tapestry a lot, and without it, the atrium feels kind of staid.”