Last November, a group of architects, designers, and artists released an open letter asking the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Harvard University to remove Philip Johnson’s name from its spaces, citing the Glass House designer’s allegiance to white supremacist ideologies. Harvard responded swiftly, renaming a private residence Johnson built as a graduate thesis project and referring to “the power of institutional naming, and the integrity and legitimacy it confers.” MoMA, however, has remained notably silent on the issue until now.
In a partial but significant victory in the fight to reckon with Johnson’s legacy, the museum has now agreed to cover up Johnson’s name temporarily during the run of its current exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America.
Instead of seeing Johnson’s name on the wall at the start of the show, visitors will find an artwork created collaboratively by the Black Reconstruction Collective (BRC), a nonprofit founded by the 10 participants included in the exhibition: Emanuel Admassu, Germane Barnes, Sekou Cooke, J. Yolande Daniels, Felecia Davis, Mario Gooden, Walter Hood, Olalekan Jeyifous, V. Mitch McEwen, and Amanda Williams.
“We invited the artists in the Black Reconstruction Collective (BRC) to join us in discussing concerns regarding Philip Johnson’s legacy,” a spokesperson for MoMA told Hyperallergic. “We accepted their exhibition design proposal to install the first work of art that visitors will experience — a 10ft x 10ft group work that introduces the exhibition — over the galleries’ exterior signage adjacent to the entrance, for the run of Reconstructions.”
The work is a denim textile printed with the BRC’s “Manifesting Statement,” a collective text that imagines the future of Black architects, designers, and artists and declares a commitment to the work of reconstruction in Black America.
MoMA also told Hyperallergic that the museum is undertaking “a rigorous research initiative to explore in full the allegations against Johnson and gather all available information.”
V. Mitch McEwen, an assistant professor at the Princeton University School of Architecture who is included in the exhibition, told Hyperallergic that MoMA is in denial of its own history.
“We met with Glenn Lowry about the gallery name on January 6th as white supremacists were storming the Capitol. He said ‘MoMA didn’t create the problem,'” McEwen said. “The fact is, when it comes to racist urban planning policies in the 20th century and a deeply Eurocentric antiblack archive of American architecture, MoMA under white supremacist Philip Johnson did largely create the problem. It innovated white supremacy in architecture.”
“The legacy of that innovation remains strong today with a department that has not one single Black staff member, curator, or fulltime employee,” McEwen added. “Other than the luminaries of guests and visiting advisors, the only Black person I saw working in MoMA Design throughout the whole 2 year process of the exhibit was one art handler. The white supremacist legacy of Johnson lives on. It will not wither of its own accord.”
Johnson worked at MoMA for nearly six decades and founded the museum’s department of architecture, which dedicated its exhibition space to the architect as a tribute in 1984. His name is also included in the title of the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design.
While his contributions to the field are widely known and praised, Johnson’s racist past is often ignored, despite the fact that his “commitment to white supremacy was significant and consequential,” the Johnson Study Group, an online organization leading efforts to document the architect’s racist views, wrote in their letter last year. The American modernist was affiliated with the Nazi party in the 1930s, translating and disseminating its propaganda; decades later, he justified his association as a homoerotic fascination with Nazi uniforms.
His racist, anti-Black views have been extensively documented. And during his tenure at MoMA, the Johnson Study Group notes, “not a single work by any Black architect or designer was included in the collection.”
“Thanks to the work of the exhibitors / @blackreconstructioncollective you will not see this on the wall through May 31, 2021. Beyond May 31st….. is up to you,” said the Johnson Study Group in an Instagram post this weekend.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.