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Messing with MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now

In this essay, Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library looks at the history of MoMA through the direct engagement of the artist. This research was presented in her exhibition Messing With MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now (July 1–November 29, 2015), which documented seven decades of interventions by artists, the general public, and even MoMA staff, ranging from manifestos and conceptual gestures to protests and performances. “Messing” connotes the variety of these actions, which question, play with, provoke, subvert, and comment on the paradox of institutionalizing radical art.


Tobias laurie lambrecht

Jennifer Tobias

Librarian, Reader Services MoMA Jennifer Tobias is the Reader Services Librarian at the Museum of Modern Art. She is a graduate of the City University of New York's Art History program. Her 2012 doctoral... Read more »
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Messing with MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now

In this essay, Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library looks at the history of MoMA through the direct engagement of the artist. This research was presented in her exhibition Messing With MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now (July 1–November 29, 2015), which documented seven decades of interventions by artists, the general public, and even MoMA staff, ranging from manifestos and conceptual gestures to protests and performances. “Messing” connotes the variety of these actions, which question, play with, provoke, subvert, and comment on the paradox of institutionalizing radical art.

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In this essay, Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library looks at the history of MoMA through the direct engagement of the artist. This research was presented in her exhibition Messing With MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now (July 1–November 29, 2015), which documented seven decades of interventions by artists, the general public, and even MoMA staff, ranging from manifestos and conceptual gestures to protests and performances. “Messing” connotes the variety of these actions, which question, play with, provoke, subvert, and comment on the paradox of institutionalizing radical art.

1969 kusam ma1103 cropped
"But Is It Art?" in New York Daily News, August 25, 1969

The Museum of Modern Art consistently attracts direct engagement—or what I call “messing with MoMA”—by artists, the general public, and staff. These actions take a wide variety of forms, from manifestos and conceptual gestures to protests and performances. “Messing” connotes the variety of these interventions, which question, play with, provoke, subvert, and comment on MoMA as an institution, and on the paradox of institutionalizing modernism.

Documents related to seven decades of interventions are shown here, selected from my ongoing attempt at a comprehensive chronology. (This related exhibition checklist has other examples. Additions are welcome in the comments section below.) The selections are organized chronologically, focusing on more intimate, less well-known interventions from which a common theme emerges: a consistent desire for inclusion in the messiness of the modern project, a drive to fully engage with the art of our time.

Even in its first decades, MoMA engendered debate and controversy. Much of the criticism came from journalists and concerned the nature and validity of modernism, but artists and staff sometimes joined the fray. The earliest example here is a satirical invitation to the 1939 opening party for the Museum’s new building. Miffed that some fellow staff members weren’t invited, Manager of Publications Frances Collins organized and circulated this official-looking card, complete with a deckled edge and engraving-style type. By opening the card, the front of which bore the phrase “Oil that glitters is not gold,” recipients were invited by hosts “Empress of Blandings” (a fictional sow featured in P. G. Woodhouse novels) and “Charles Boyer” (presumably the film actor) to the new digs of the “Museum of Standard Oil.”

According to Russell Lynes’s history of the Museum, Collins was especially irked that staff members such as telephone operator and “office boy” Jimmy Ernst weren’t invited.1 (Ernst, a child of artists Max Ernst and Louise Strauss, later worked in the Museum’s film library). Lynes notes, “The staff, if not the trustees, were greatly amused by what their young colleague had done.” Indeed—Collins was promptly fired.

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Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin, R.S.V.P 1939. 2007–2009

Today, Collins’s sardonic gesture would be called institutional critique—an analysis of the sociocultural context in which art functions. In fact, in 2007 the card was appropriated and incorporated into just such a work: R.S.V.P 1939 (2007–2009) by Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin. Though the works were conceived seventy years apart, they show how questioning the role of oil-industry funding in philanthropy remains prescient.

A year after the new building opened, the American Abstract Artists (founded 1936) organized a protest, demanding more curatorial attention to contemporary American artists. This accompanying broadside by artist Ad Reinhardt asks, “How Modern Is The Museum of Modern Art?” Responding specifically to the exhibitions Art in Our Time (1939), Modern Masters from European and American Collections (1940), and Italian Masters (1940), the pointed text reads in part:

1940 aaa shawchar 23892 1940
Association of American Artists. How Modern Is The Museum of Modern Art?, 1940. Charles Green Shaw papers, Archives of American Art

How Modern is the Museum of Modern Art? Let’s look at the record[.] In 1939 the Museum professed to show ART IN OUR TIME—

Whose time Sargent, Homer, La Farge and Harnett? Or Picasso, Braque, Leger and Mondrian? Which time? If the descendants of Sargent and Homer, what about the descendants of Picasso and Mondrian? What about American Abstract Art? [. . .] What about Towne and Ward—British cattle painters—turned loose on a Missouri farm? A Minnesota grain elevator painted by Daubigny? Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s done by Henri Regnault? The Nebraska prairies by Eugene Boudin? The Bowery by Eugene Carriere?

And MODERN MASTERS . . . Eakins, Homer, Ryder, Whistler. . . . Those are the only Americans included. Are they the grandfathers of the Europeans they are shown with? [ . . . ]

ITALIAN MASTERS—Caravaggio, Raphael, Bronzino! And such examples! How easy to justify a Praxiteles show! How revolutionary the Egyptians! [ . . . ]

Art in Our Time, a massive survey, was the first exhibition in the new 1939 Goodwin and Stone building (the opening party for which Frances Collins conceived her invitation). Italian Masters, a show of canonical Renaissance and Baroque art, was largely a historical accident: following their showing at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, the works were stranded in the United States at the outbreak of war, and the Museum took advantage of the opportunity to put them on view. According to curator Dorothy Miller’s catalogue introduction, Modern Masters was intended to complement the Italian Masters show, demonstrating “the great indebtedness of the modern masters to the work of their ancestors. . . .”2

As it turned out, more than fifty peeved descendants of these “ancestors” signed the broadside, including A. E. Gallatin, Agnes Lyall, Louis Schanker, and Suzy Frelinghuysen—but also Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, and David Smith, who were already becoming integrated into MoMA’s master narrative.

In the late 1950s, the esteemed art writer Calvin Tomkins made a quieter intervention. The intimacy of his gesture, his insight into it, and the feeling of being alone in a peaceful gallery is conveyed in his memoir:

. . . when I was just starting to look at contemporary art, a painting at the Museum of Modern Art stopped me cold. It was an exhibition called “Sixteen Americans [1959],” and the artist . . . was Robert Rauschenberg. The painting—its title was Double Feature [(1959)]—was covered with a number of apparently unrelated passages of messy paint . . . along with several odd collage elements [including] part of a man’s shirt, with pocket. . . . Glancing around to make sure nobody was watching me, I fished a quarter out of my pocket and slipped it into the pocket of the shirt in the painting. It was a dopey thing to do, but I felt good afterward. I’d made a connection to something that would become, for reasons I didn’t even suspect, increasingly important to me. Marcel Duchamp claimed that the creative act is bipolar, in that it requires not only the artist who sets it in motion but also the spectator who interprets it, and by doing so completes the process.3

In contrast, the 1960s are correctly associated with political activism as museums and other institutions began to be aggressively questioned by artists. MoMA in particular became a site of active debate on topics such as the artist’s role in the exhibition and the sale of his or her work, emerging and historical art movements, and overarching social issues such as the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and economic injustice. High-visibility activities well documented elsewhere include group interventions by the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC),4 Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG),5 Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, and Angry Arts. Specific gestures such as Takis’s removal of his sculpture from the exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968) and Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll (1970) are also landmarks in this period.

Organizing efforts by curatorial staff were also highly visible at the time, but it’s worth pointing out that work actions by non-curatorial staff, in particular Security and Housekeeping, have received far less attention. This press release regarding a strike by security guards is one of few traces, even though non-curatorial departments were some of the first to be unionized and their quiet but crucial work keeps the Museum functioning.

The selections here focus on individual artists’ activities, most of which are critical but quieter and often mischievous or elegiac. These involve artists Bruce Conner and Ray Johnson, Vern Blosum and William Anthony, as well as writer and curator Gene Swenson.

Conner and Johnson’s gesture is discussed by Anastasia Aukeman in her forthcoming monograph on Conner.6 She traces how his SUPERHUMAN DEVOTION sic was considered for the 1961 exhibition The Art of Assemblage, but the work was damaged during shipment to New York and declined for the show. In response, as the artist recalled, he put the assemblage back in the shipping crate and, along with Johnson, brought it to the opening:

I invited Ray Johnson to the gallery and we painted the box, drilled holes in it. I had previously asked Ray for 100 hands and he opened a box and scattered 100 watch hands in the box, set fire to part of it, glued things on it and made a rope handle to carry it. We caught a taxi to MOMA for the opening . . . and were refused acceptance at the check stand. The guard wouldn’t let me carry it inside the museum. The box sat in the center of the entryway and everyone walked around it. After the opening we took the Staten Island Ferry and Ray and I threw it off the ferry in front of the Statue of Liberty.7

Two years after Conner’s assemblage was hurled into New York Harbor, MoMA acquired Vern Blosum’s painting Time Expired (1962) as an early example of Pop art and displayed it in the exhibition Around the Automobile (1965), linking the parking meter image to the material culture of cars. Further research revealed the work to be, in fact, a critique of Pop, painted under a pseudonym, and one of several. Writer and artist Greg Allen and curator Lionel Bovier conducted in-depth research into Blosum and traced how the Museum came to understand (and misunderstand) the artist and his work.8 The theme of transience, embodied by the parking meter and time “expiring” in this work and echoed in others from the series, supported Allen and Bovier’s conclusion that the elusive artist was mourning the ascent of Pop at the expense of interest in Abstract Expressionism, to which he was committed.

In a similarly mischievous approach to the passing of art historical time, artist William Anthony’s Object Stolen, Circa 1965, by the Artist from The Museum of Modern Art (2011) incorporates a wall label “acquired” from a quiet gallery. His gesture is similar to Tomkins quarter-in-the-pocket move a decade prior, but using the strategy of removal instead of addition. In an e-mail, Anthony recalls:

[C]irca 1965 the galleries of the museum weren’t so populated as they are now. I had the gallery to myself when I did the dirty deed. After ripping the label off the wall I ran like hell out of there joining my girlfriend (now wife) Norma and some friends in a nearby gallery. I'm not sure but I think we all had dinner at the museum, shamelessly gloating over the stolen goods. Anyway I remember the gloating.

Ironically, Anthony “ran like hell” with the label for Abstract Painting (1960–61), by Ad Reinhardt, creator of the 1940 broadside objecting to the lack of artists like himself at MoMA.

A more mournful gesture from this period involves writer and (briefly) staff member Gene Swenson. According to a perceptive memoir in Artforum,9 recollections by Linda Nochlin,10 and Swenson’s own writing in the New York Press, in the context of personal difficulties and alarm about social conditions he believed would lead to revolution, in 1968 Swenson began to picket the Museum, carrying a large question mark. Later that year he stridently objected to the exhibition Dada, Surrealism, and their Heritage (1968), arguing passionately that curator William Rubin’s formalistic approach trivialized profound, psychosexual, and revolutionary aspects of the movement, an interpretation Swenson called “The Other Tradition.” Again Swenson took it to the street, placing newspaper ads and instigating a protest at the opening. One of the ads reads:

Dada is Dead. MOMA is Dead. Celebrate! Mausoleum of Modern Art . . . Artists and poets! Do your thing! Join Les Enfands du Parody in: The Transformation! Tea and black tie optional.

Photographs from the event show Swenson in front of the Museum, in black tie, leading a cohort of costumed demonstrators. According to several accounts, at the time Swenson was likely undergoing a break with reality, adding a psychological dimension to his concern with Surrealism and its reach for the subconscious. Increasingly marginalized in the art community, Swenson died in a car crash in 1969.

Performance predominated messing during the 1970s, put toward a variety of expressive ends. These included political issues, responding to art world sexism and government repression in Brazil and Russia, but also lyrical and mischievous interventions, one involving a road trip and anothera prankster.

The poster Attention! Women Artists and Feminists! (1972), recently acquired by the library, embodies this spirit. Created under the auspices of the Conference of Women in the Visual Arts for a demonstration that year, the text demands that “Women artists must no longer be invisible” as a pattern of silhouetted women marches in the background. In a similar mode, as part of a 1976 demonstration, artist Joanne Stamerra placed erasers stamped with “erase sexism at MoMA” throughout the galleries, as documented in the magazine Womanart. More recently, the long-lived activist group Guerrilla Girls paid indirect homage to her gesture with their own series of erasers.

In her photographic series 100 Boots (1971–73), Eleanor Antin thoughtfully engaged public spaces at MoMA, and her project is an early example of collaboration with the Museum. Antin conceived a series of photographs showing one hundred pairs of boots installed in diverse settings. Photographed by Philip Steinmetz, the images were intended to function like film stills, suggesting a journey from California to New York. Antin printed and mailed the images as postcards. In the one shown here, the boots enter the Museum, engaging the sidewalk.

In a series of pranks likely intended to satirize the machine aesthetic and Minimalist sculpture, in 1971 one Harvey Stromberg placed “illegal art”—illusionistic photo-sculptures of fixtures such as an electrical outlet—in the MoMA galleries. A photo essay of examples in New York Magazine is shown here, along with an invitation to an unofficial opening.

Other interventions from this period addressed global politics. For example, artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan initiated his First Russian Propaganda Art Performance at Museum of Modern Art in New York (1978) by engaging with Russian avant-garde art in the Museum’s permanent collection from the perspective of an immigrant. According to fellow émigré artists Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin, in his performance

Bakhchanyan walked around the Museum . . . dressed as a “walking propaganda center,” covered from head to toe with slogans like “Stalin is Lenin today,” “Beware, savage dog,” and “Why is there no vodka on the moon?”11

Bakhchanayan documented the event in this modest, self-published artists’ book. In the wry linking of political propaganda and the persuasive language of gallery talks, as well as interest in the diaspora of early Russian avant-garde art, Bakhchanyan’s performance and book presage the activities of Goran Djordjevic and Yevgeniy Fiks, discussed below.

Similarly, Marta Minujín’s Kidnappening of 1973 appears playful at first sight, but reveals an equally somber political undertone. In her performance, enacted during a Museum gala, selected visitors were blindfolded by artists (whose faces were painted to resemble Picasso portraits) and driven around the city in taxis. On the one hand, the work enabled art worlders to enjoy a garden party Happening and “afterparty” adventure. On the other, by essentially enacting an abduction, Minujín was inviting the subjects to experience, in highly sanitized form, the disappearances and abuses of power under authoritarian regimes in her native Argentina.

Beginning in the 1980s, with politically engaged art practices ascendant, “messing” started to become an accepted practice at MoMA and other art institutions, with artists and curators collaborating on projects. Meanwhile, independent actions continued apace.

On the independent end of the spectrum, following completion of the Museum’s 1984 expansion, the group Women Artists Visibility Event [sic] protested the underrepresentation of women artists in the opening exhibition, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. The group organized a color-coordinated series of protests, of which this flyer was part. Demonstrating their expertise in institutional critique, the group subverted the Museum’s own promotional methods, incorporating rigorous branding, curatorial statements, and even a satirical version of pins worn by Museum staff.

In a collaborative but also critical gesture, in her show Projects 9: Louise Lawler (1987), the artist mobilized MoMA’s means of production to send a political message. She designed the exhibition brochure to include this paper airplane, intended to contrast the complacency of attending cultural institutions with U.S. military action in Nicaragua.

A similar tension between participating in and being critical of the institution emerged when artist Chuck Close found a clever means to identify and fill a gap he found in the collection: Chuck Close: Head On/The Modern Portrait (1991), one of a series of guest-curated Artist’s Choice exhibitions. Close chose to assemble portraits from MoMA’s collection and wanted to include a portrait by Ray Johnson, but the Museum didn’t own any of his work. As a work-around, a portrait from the library collection, part of an extended mail art exchange between Johnson and MoMA librarian Clive Phillpot, was displayed. As Chief of Library Milan Hughston often points out, this exemplifies how the work of many now-established artists first entered the Museum through the library collection.

Returning to the theme of populations underrepresented in the collection, in the late 1990s the Guerrilla Girls organized a postcard campaign to protest the exhibition Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (1997). The card reads: “3 white women, 1 woman of color and no men of color—out of 71 artists?” Of the many cards received by the Museum, one in the MoMA Archives bears the note, “How embarrassing for you,” while another recommends “Fish, Murphy, Matthíasdóttir. Brady. Quintanilla. Rego. Celmins. Etcoff. Blaine. Neel.”

In a final example from this period, filmmaker Tony Kaye mobilized his objection to Philip Morris’s sponsorship of the exhibition Jasper Johns: A Retrospective (1996–97) by having a giant canvas erected across the street from the Museum. Perched in a bucket lift, Kaye hand-painted the quip “look at Jasper’s pictures / think we are nice / smoke our cigarettes and die.” A year earlier, when Kaye was at the Museum to receive an ad-industry award, his request to park his car in the lobby was declined. In response, he had a similar banner hoisted, reading “CON CEPTUAL.”12 Both actions suggest a figure ambivalent about the power of commercialized communications, even as he mobilizes them.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a millennial mindset prevailed at MoMA, taking the form of collection shows, a substantial expansion project, a staff strike, and a merger with P.S. 1. One of the strongest responses to the Museum’s expansion came from artist Filip Noterdaeme. Following completion of MoMA’s expansion project in 2004, Noterdaeme produced this flyer to protest high museum admission prices and to address the ongoing issue of homelessness. The flyer parodies an advertising theme created for the MoMA reopening and incorporates an image of Marcel Duchamp’s famously rejected Fountain (1917). A year later, Noterdaeme took the theme a step further with MoMA HMLSS (2005), a suitcase designed for on-the-fly display of miniature versions of objects in the Museum collection. Modeled on Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–41), the artist’s traveling miniature monograph, Noterdaeme added a critical dimension by taking the suitcase on the road, in particular to the sidewalk outside of MoMA, making his “collection” freely available to literal outsiders. Both works are part of his Homeless Museum of Art (HOMU), founded in 2002.

Returning to the theme of Russian avant-garde diaspora, artist Goran Djordjevic’s ongoing project The Museum of American Art in Berlin deconstructs the circulation of Russian modernist tenets in Eastern Europe during the Cold War via MoMA and other Western institutions. The exhibition catalogue cover shown here appropriates the design of a book by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., intended to popularize modernism. Barr’s What Is Modern Painting? (1943) was revised and reprinted for decades, and it was translated into several languages—but not Russian. Djordjevic incorporates in-depth contextual research into the MoAA project, which encompasses performance (taking on personae such as Barr and Gertrude Stein), gallery models, copies of artworks, texts, and numerous other interpretive forms.

Artist Yevgeniy Fiks explores a similar theme, but Fiks approaches the dissemination of early modernist tenets from the other direction, critically (and humorously) examining the circulation of Communist tenets in the New York City context. Through the form of a 2011 gallery tour, Fiks explored complex relationships among Western artists, the Museum, and leftist ideas during the contentious Cold War period, deconstructing how they were leveraged by the Museum (at the time, MoMA often resisted Red Scare pressures by positioning modernism as apolitical—emphasizing individual expression independent of sociopolitical context). Fiks’s ongoing project seeks to reestablish the connections, bringing out nuanced attitudes among left-leaning Western artists and their Eastern counterparts as their works mingle in the permanent collection galleries. As seen in his reinterpretation of a printed map available to MoMA visitors, Fiks’s tour articulates leftist attitudes among and between artists whose political activities are often downplayed in Modernist narratives. For example, while Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso are readily associated with Communism, Fiks brings out less well-known artists’ relationships with leftist ideology, such as Henri Matisse, Rene Magritte, and Lee Krasner.

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Maria Anwander. The Kiss, 2010

Another recent intervention is Maria Anwander’s The Kiss (2010). By giving the wall of the Museum’s atrium gallery a big smackeroo, the artist embodied both aggressive and affectionate attitudes toward the institution: she both kisses off and kisses up. Intervening during a point of transition in one of the Museum’s main galleries, she took advantage of the flux to make a gesture both outsized and intimate, political and personal. She marked the spot with a label, appropriately written and formatted in institutional style (reappropriated here in this institutional-style post), articulating the idea of kissing as a power dynamic:

Anwander uses art institutions as forums where hierarchical, social and economic models can be tested and reimagined. The piece is part of a series . . . which Anwander has developed since 2004, playing with the link between art institutions and the market . . . “The Kiss” was given to the MoMA without asking for permission . . . Kissing in some cultures and religions symbolizes the exchange of souls and powers.13

The elegance of the work lies in this contrast between the cool remove of the label copy and the visceral nature of the kiss itself—a conceptual gesture with a phenomenological jolt. We can’t help but imagine ourselves in her place, the touch of our own lips on the wall—and feel a shock similar to encountering Meret Oppenheim’s Object (1936) for the first time, or to entering a steel-and-glass museum building in 1939.

The kiss up/kiss off tension of Anwander’s gesture brings us to the present and future of messing with MoMA. In particular, consider these decades of messing in light of current art world interest in participation, performance, and social practice art, in which critical intervention has been largely institutionalized. What is the nature of “messing” in the fully participatory museum? How do contemporary ideas about the social role of art museums change relationships between participant and observer, between collusive and critical actions, between what can and can’t be messed with?

I conclude with two examples that show this tension. Thilo Hoffmann’s video series 30 Seconds (2010) falls on the sanctioned end of the messing continuum. The artist initiated a practice of brainstorming and executing brief videos about the MoMA experience. The prevalence of playful behavior in these individually imagined videos is striking: visitors and staff enjoyed cartwheeling, skipping, bicycling, play-fighting, making music, and even bathing in otherwise highly controlled Museum spaces.

On the other end of the continuum are surprise visits by Occupy Museums in 2008, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement objecting to economic recklessness and inequality. Here, music-making in the galleries was considered disruptive, even as it reflected contemporary social conditions to which most gallerygoers could relate.

These types of messing are characteristic of our very participatory present. Where will they take us? With hashtags, selfies, sleepovers, kimono-wearing, and tastings the norm, where does messing sit on the participant-observer fan-critic continuum? Will the pendulum swing back toward encounters at new levels of remove, or perhaps emerge into other forms of even more intense participation not yet anticipated? I look forward to chronicling the future of “messing,” in which artists, public, and staff continue to creatively manifest diverse forms and attitudes toward the Museum and the art of our time.


Russell Lynes, Good Old Modern (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 207–208.


Modern Masters from European and American Collections (New York: MoMA, 1940), 9.


Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Picador, 2005), xiii.


Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).


Guerrilla Art Action Group, GAAG, the Guerrilla Art Action Group, 1969–1976: A Selection (New York: Printed Matter, 1978).


Anastasia Aukeman, Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association (Oakland: University of California Press, forthcoming).


Bruce Conner, quoted in Robert M. Murdock, “Assemblage: Anything and Everything, Late 50s,” in Poets of the Cities of New York and San Francisco, 1950–1965, ed. Neil Chassman (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974), 38.


Scott Rothkopf, “Banned and Determined,” Artforum, Summer 2002, 142–145, 194.




Rosenfeld, Alla and Norton Dodge, eds. Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (New Brunswick, NJ: Zimmerli Art Museum, 2004), 146.

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