President Trump’s executive order banning travel and rescinding visas for citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations does not lack for opponents in New York — from Kennedy Airport, where striking taxi drivers joined thousands of demonstrators, to the United Nations, whose new secretary general, António Guterres, said the measures “violate our basic principles.”
Now the Museum of Modern Art — which in past decades has cultivated a templelike detachment — is making its voice heard as well. In one of the strongest protests yet by a major cultural institution, the museum has reconfigured its fifth-floor permanent-collection galleries — interrupting its narrative of Western Modernism, from Cézanne through World War II — to showcase contemporary art from Iran, Iraq and Sudan, whose citizens are subject to the ban. A Picasso came down. Matisse, down. Ensor, Boccioni, Picabia, Burri: They made way for artists who, if they are alive and abroad, cannot see their work in the museum’s most august galleries. (A work from a Syrian artist has been added to the film program. The other affected countries are Somalia, Yemen and Libya.)
The works will be up for several months, and alongside each painting, sculpture, or photograph is a text that makes no bones about why it has suddenly surfaced: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
On Thursday night I observed three curators — Christophe Cherix, head of the department of prints and drawings; Jodi Hauptman, a senior curator in that department; and Paulina Pobocha, an assistant curator in the department of painting and sculpture — mulling which works from a rolling dolly to include and, no less challenging, what to remove.
The Matisse gallery, where the masterworks “Dance” and “The Piano Lesson” hang, has been refitted with a large, intricate work on paper by the Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. In his “Mon Père et Moi” (1962), stylized gold hands and feet accompany jam-packed squares containing concentric circles and dancing glyphs. Are the two figures performing sujud, the act of prostrating oneself during Muslim prayer? They are too abstract to say with certainty. Like Matisse, Mr. Zenderoudi translated bodies into pure shapes, informed by patterns gleaned from the decorative arts.
An untitled canvas covered in dried, cracked earth, by Marcos Grigorian, who grew up in Iran, now hangs amid similarly geological works by Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies. The gallery devoted to futurism has a small bronze totem by Parviz Tanavoli, one of Iran’s foremost sculptors. (Mr. Tanavoli, who divides his time between Iran and Canada, was briefly detained last year by Iranian authorities.) Now, next to Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” is a painting by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect who died last year.
Hadid’s depiction of Hong Kong as an allover composition of interlocking shards satisfyingly fractures the gallery’s timeline of art around 1900, and other works, too, are installed almost as intentional disruptions.
A massive 2011 photograph of three billiard balls by Shirana Shahbazi — who has German citizenship but whose Iranian birth means she is now barred from this country — incongruously dominates the gallery devoted to Dada, right behind “To Be Looked At …,” Marcel Duchamp’s impish painting on glass. Next to a large, Expressionist street scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a 2007 video, “Chit Chat,” by Tala Madani, who was born in Iran, plays on a loop. The frames of the stop-motion animation derive from bold, brushy compositions Ms. Madani paints and repaints. But where Kirchner depicts the streets of Dresden with a certain alienated distance, the video — depicting men grabbing each other by the throat and vomiting up yellow paint — is quietly urgent.
America’s leading museums have been vocal in the past week about their opposition to Mr. Trump’s executive order, which is still being enforced at some airports. James Cuno, who leads the Getty in Los Angeles, called the order “ill advised, unnecessary and destructive.” Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested that the blockbuster “Assyria to Iberia” might never have happened under Mr. Trump’s rules. Artists have participated in protests, especially in Los Angeles, home to the largest Persian community in the United States. The order will also have a negative effect on arts journalism; Roxana Azimi, the arts correspondent for Le Monde, is no longer able to enter the United States, as she was born in Iran.
But the speed and directness with which MoMA — not an institution usually thought of as nimble — has responded to Mr. Trump’s ban are especially impressive. Its particular force comes from the curators’ decision to present these works on the fifth floor, in the galleries most steeped in MoMA’s flowchart narrative of Modernist development. The Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese art does not merely disrupt the old timeline of art history; it disrupts MoMA’s own institutional character. It says: Even the room in which Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” hangs is not irreproachable, but rather a particular story told by individuals, who at times must speak out.
The institution, of course, has never been divorced from power and politics. (MoMA’s continued sponsorship from Volkswagen — which admitted to installing illegal software in 11 million cars worldwide, resulting in more than $4.3 billion in fines — especially rankles.) But in the years to come, all institutions, from the most experimental to the most established, will have to decide whether to keep their heads down or whether to reply. This welcome new voice, less Olympian and more pluralistic, is not how MoMA has spoken in the past — but, then again, this is not how presidents have spoken in the past, either.