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MoMA announces the first major publication on former Director René d'Harnoncourt
René d’Harnoncourt. Hand-drawn installation plan for Arts of the South Seas. 1946. Colored pencil on paper. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, René d’Harnoncourt Papers, IX.A.6.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art announced the publication of René d’Harnoncourt and the Art of Installation, the first major volume on the life and work of René d’Harnoncourt, director of the Museum from 1949 to 1968, who revolutionized the way art exhibitions are conceived of and mounted. His genius for installation design and display, documented in elaborate preparatory drawings he created at each step of his process, guided a methodology that has informed how exhibitions are organized to this day. Written by Michelle Elligott, Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections at MoMA, the publication delves deep into the Museum’s Archives, including d’Harnoncourt’s correspondence and hundreds of sketches, to present both a concise biography of a fascinating figure and a detailed study of his pioneering approach to exhibiting works of art. The main essay is followed by a portfolio of 13 exhibitions he installed between 1930 and 1968, and a richly illustrated personal chronology.

D’Harnoncourt was a self-taught artist and curator, and René d’Harnoncourt and the Art of Installation traces his unlikely path to The Museum of Modern Art. Born a count to a landowning family in Vienna in 1901, d’Harnoncourt trained as a chemist, but when his family wealth disappeared with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1925, he set off to North America and ended up in Mexico, though he spoke neither Spanish nor English. Failing to find a job as a scientist, he relied on his natural artistic talent to work a variety of odd jobs: designing posters, sketching bullfights and portraits for tourists, painting pocket-watch faces, and decorating shop windows for department stores and pharmacies. He soon made contacts in commerce, seeking out indigenous contemporary traditional crafts and modern art for galleries and American collectors. This eventually led him to work for the United States Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and then for Nelson A. Rockefeller in the US State Department. Then, in 1944, he arrived at MoMA, where two new roles were created specifically for him: vice-president in charge of foreign activities, and director of its newly formed Department of Manual Industry. In 1949, he was named director of MoMA, a post he held until his retirement in 1968. During this same period, with Rockefeller he helped to create the Museum of Primitive Art.

With his remarkable memory, attention to detail, and draftsmanship skills, d’Harnoncourt developed a highly sophisticated installation methodology, relying on his extraordinary ability to juxtapose objects and works of art to bring out contrasting and complementary styles, relationships, and affinities. He also devoted a keen level of analysis to the visitor’s experience of art, carefully considering every aspect of its presentation. His interest in non-Western and non-modern art shaped much of MoMA’s ambitious programming in the mid-20th century: in addition to shows addressing modern art, such as The Sculpture of Picasso (1968) and Modern Art in Your Life (1949), he organized exhibitions devoted to themes not generally associated with MoMA, including Indian Art of the United States (1941), Arts of the South Seas (1946), Ancient Arts of the Andes (1954), and Art of the Asmat: The Collection of Michael C. Rockefeller (1962). After retiring from MoMA in 1968, d’Harnoncourt intended to write a book on museum-installation techniques from his house in Key West, but just two months after taking his leave, he was struck and killed by an intoxicated driver.

The deeply researched publication examines each aspect of d’Harnoncourt’s multifaceted installation methodology, and is richly illustrated with reproductions of his drawings and installation photographs. D’Harnoncourt produced meticulous drawings of every object included in his exhibitions, first as single objects and then in groupings done to scale. His approach was to visually link works with cultural and artistic affinities, and arrange them into vistas that highlighted formal, visual criteria over geographical and historical contexts. He used lighting and color as symbolic aids, so that visitors could make comparisons while moving from one section to another. His methodology is further highlighted in the 13 exhibition portfolios included in the book, which present a brief overview of each exhibition along with detailed information on circulating venues and related publications.

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