MoMA curator Ann Temkin shares art that inspired her as a Yale student

Works by Picasso, van Gough, and Duchamp are among the masterpieces on display at Yale that inspired Temkin ’82 M.A., ’92 Ph.D. to pursue a career in art.

Her “a-ha moment” that she wanted to pursue art history, said Ann Temkin ’82 M.A., ’92 Ph.D., came when she was reading aloud her description of Picasso’s painting “First Steps” to her Yale roommate, who was a medical student. Her roommate responded that she had not understood the work before, but after hearing Temkin’s explanation, she decided she loved the painting. Temkin recalls thinking: “I could do this for the rest of my life.”

Temkin is now the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. She returned to Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) on April 20 to share her impressions of the works that impacted her as a student at Yale and have continued to inform her shows. All works mentioned are currently on display at YUAG.

The painting First Steps by Pablo Picasso

First Steps,’ Picasso, 1943, Yale University Art Gallery

Though he was declared a “degenerate” artist by Hitler, Picasso remained in Paris during WWII, moving full-time to his studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins. This painting depicts Picasso’s maid with her young son.

Notice the economy,” Temkin said. “The way the mother and son fill the whole painting. It gives a sense of the claustrophobia he felt, that it’s hard to breathe.” In the painting, the son is both a part of the mother, and beginning to exert his independence in his uplifted foot. Temkin said that curating a Picasso sculpture show at MoMA was “one of the great joys of my career” since the artist did not like to sell his sculptures. “He thought of them as friends.”

Le café de nuit (The Night Café),’ Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Yale University Art Gallery

The Night Cafe by Vincent van Gough

I was fortunate to have such unparalleled masterpieces on the walls of the Yale University Art Gallery,” Temkin said. Despite the fact that van Gogh has become, in his iconic status, almost a cliché, ubiquitous on dorm room walls, she said, “He deserves it.” In “The Night Café,” Temkin said, “These lights become animated, living things. They seem as alive, or more alive, than the occupants.” Add to that the foreshortened floor and mysterious clock, and “as you look, you can’t help but feel that what van Gogh is portraying are existential questions,” she said.

Tu m’,’ Marcel Duchamp, 1918, Yale University Art Gallery

Tu m’ by Marcel Duchamp

This was one of dozens of works commissioned by arts patron Katherine Dreier, which was sized to fit over a bookcase in her library. “It’s a catalogue of his work,” said Temkin, indicating the bike wheel, the hat rack, and the pointing hand. The title, she noted, translates to “you bore me,” perhaps a reference to Duchamp’s feelings toward painting — this was his last work on canvas. Of Dreier, a collector and artist, Temkin said she could not convince those at MoMA, when she first began working there, to include her art in a show as Dreier was deemed “not famous enough.” Temkin’s curatorship has meant Dreier’s art has found a home on MoMA’s walls and in a highlights book. 

The sculpture Yellow Bird by Constantin Brancusi

Yellow Bird,’ Constantin Brancusi, 1919, Yale University Art Gallery

Brancusi was thought of as a master of simplicity, said Temkin, but underlying that simplicity was a complex series of ideas. “The key of Brancusi as sculpture is the interlocking connection of opposites.” In discussing this piece, she points to the yellow marble, the limestone zig-zag beneath, and the carved oak pedestal.

In 1995, Temkin worked on a retrospective of Brancusi at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and borrowed this piece. For that show, they created low islands to honor Brancusi’s hand-designed pedestals without having them touch the floor directly.

Tochil’schik Printsip Mel’kaniia (The Knife Grinder or Principle of Glittering),’ Kasimir Malevich, 1912-1913, Yale University Art Gallery

The Knife Grinder or Principle of Glittering by Kasimir Malevich

1913 was the most important year as far as art goes,” Temkin said, admitting she had proposed a 1913-dedicated show at MoMA in 2013, but did not get approval for it. “Painters got lit on fire by each other,” she added, noting that Malevich in this work is referencing his contemporaries but in a very Russian way. “With the knife vibrating on the wheel, we have him teaching himself how to be abstract,” Temkin said. “The feeling of explosion is emblematic of the euphoria artists felt at that moment.”

The sculpture Hands Holding the Void by Alberto Giacometti

Mains tenant le vide (Hands Holding the Void),’ Alberto Giacometti, 1934, Yale University Art Gallery

This sculpture is an original plaster, which have become more important in recent decades, said Temkin, because “that’s where the artist’s hands were involved.” The work came at the end of Giacometti’s Surrealist period, and depicts a woman in a kind of cage — framed by bars, legs blocked. After this sculpture, said Temkin, Giacometti spent nearly a decade without making art. “The pathos in this work comes through,” she said. “Oftentimes the work knows, even when the artist doesn’t.”

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