Amid protests over racist and white supremacist views espoused by the late architect Philip Johnson, the Museum of Modern Art has temporarily covered Johnson’s name on wall signage in the New York institution’s architecture galleries. Johnson, who died in 2005, worked at MoMA in its architecture department during 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and designed its sculpture garden in 1953.
According to Hyperallergic, which first reported the news, the obfuscation of a wall sign bearing Johnson’s name was done as part of a project being shown in the current MoMA show “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” a survey devoted to architecture and Black communities across the U.S. and the first of its kind at the museum.
The work appearing on top of the sign is a denim textile print by the Black Reconstruction Collective, a 10-person group that includes Walter Hood, V. Mitch McEwen, and others. It bears out a message featuring the text of “Manifesting Statement,” which has been posted to MoMA’s website. “We take up the question of what architecture can be—not a tool for imperialism and subjugation, not a means for aggrandizing the self, but a vehicle for liberation and joy,” that statement reads, in part.
The covering of Johnson’s name comes several months after an open letter by the Johnson Study Group, which, according to its Instagram bio, is devoted to “studying the legacy of a 20th century white supremacist who founded the most significant modern architectural institutions in the United States.” In that letter, the group claims that Johnson relied on MoMA “as a pretense to collaborate with the German Nazi party” and that he “effectively segregated the architectural collection at MoMA,” having never acquired a work by a Black architect during his time there.
Johnson has historically been a controversial figure within the art world. Although he has been widely acclaimed for his designs, which distilled architectural forms to their most basic elements, his politics have been decried by many. He espoused anti-Semitic and fascist views, and attempted to form his own political party in the U.S. based around them. During World War II, he consorted with Nazi leaders. The FBI investigated him for his Nazi connections, though he was never prosecuted.
After the Johnson Study Group’s letter, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design stripped Johnson’s name from a structure on campus that he designed and once called home. “Undoing that legacy—of the field, not only of Johnson—is arduous and necessary, and as a school and community we are committed to seeing it through,” Sarah Whiting, the school’s dean, said in December.
In a statement to ARTnews, a MoMA spokesperson said, “To move forward with the exhibition thoughtfully, honoring the communities that the artists and their works represent, we feel it’s appropriate to respect the exhibition design suggestion and cover the signage with Johnson’s name outside the Architecture and Design galleries on an interim basis. To confront this matter, the Museum currently has underway a rigorous research initiative to explore in full the allegations against Johnson and gather all available information. This work is ongoing.”