Where in the world is modernism?

What if the nationality of every artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art’s collections could be mapped to illustrate the Museum’s geographic diversity through time? Watch the data visualization below of 121,823 artworks at MoMA.

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Introduction

“The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired its first artworks in 1929, the year it was established. Today, the Museum’s evolving collection contains almost 200,000 works from around the world spanning the last 150 years. The collection includes an ever-expanding range of visual expression, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, and media and performance art.

“MoMA is committed to helping everyone understand, enjoy, and use our collection. The Museum’s website features 79,870 artworks from 26,215 artists. This research dataset contains 135,804 records, representing all of the works that have been accessioned into MoMA’s collection and cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each work, including title, artist, date made, medium, dimensions, and date acquired by the Museum. Some of these records have incomplete information and are noted as ‘not Curator Approved.’

“The Artists dataset contains 15,757 records, representing all the artists who have work in MoMA’s collection and have been cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each artist, including name, nationality, gender, birth year, death year, Wiki QID, and Getty ULAN ID.” – from MoMA’s website.

I have downloaded this dataset as a spreadsheet, imported the data into a visualization software called Tableau Public, and then proceeded to dissect this data to answer the following question:

What can big data reveal about the history of curating and the growth of museum collections?

The results are presented below in three case studies with accompanying infographics. Hover over the graph or toggle the buttons to explore the data in depth.

These infographics are not affiliated with MoMA. MoMA does not endorse the conclusions of the authors, who themselves take sole responsibility.

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Case Study One:

Geographic and Gender Diversity

The map below visualizes the nationalities of ~15,757 artists whose work is displayed at MoMA. There are 121,823 data points below. The data can be browsed by year or by department. This illustrates the constantly evolving geographic breadth of collections. Beginning in the 1930s, over 80% of artworks were from the four key countries of the US, UK, France, and Germany. Beginning the 1960s, the museum acquired some of its first works from Latin America and Japan. And, post-1991, the museum acquired the bulk of its collections from Russia and China. Recent years have seen a slight growth in African art.

An important distinction: This map does not show where each artwork was made. Rather, it shows where each artist is from. Nationality and national identity are, depending on the artist, an important influence shaping the unique perspective artists bring to their work.

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The bar chart below shows the gender distribution of artworks by date. On the horizontal axis: the date acquired. On the vertical axis: the number of artworks acquired in this year. Each bar is divided into three colors: Blue for artwork by a male artist. Pink for art by a female artist. Grey for art where the gender of the artist is not known.

This data can be explored by year and by department. Across departments, male artists comprise the large majority of holdings. The departments with the greatest number of works by female artists: Photography and Drawings. The department with the least female representation: Prints & Illustrated Books. The department with greatest number of works where the artists’ gender is unknown: Architecture & Design. However, across departments, the representation of female artists has slightly increased over the past few decades from around 0% to somewhere closer to 20%.

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Case Study Two:

Do newer acquisitions tend to be smaller?

The two graphs below plot the relationship between year produced, year acquired by MoMA, and the dimensions of each artwork (width in cm). I’ve plotted 12,250 points. They are color coded with the same blue, pink, and grey system as the previous chart.

In the first graph, we see how new artworks are becoming progressively larger and larger. In 1929, the year of MoMA’s founding, the width of the average work being produced was less than 100cm. Today, the average width of newly produced works in the collection is around 400cm – and is steadily increasing.

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In the second graph, we see how MoMA’s new acquisitions are becoming progressively smaller, even though newly produced artworks are larger than before. In 1929, the average width of a new acquisition was over 300 cm. Today, the width is less than 150cm.

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Contemporary artists seem to be working in ever larger dimensions – at least the contemporary artists whose work MoMA acquires. But, newer acquisitions tend to be smaller. Does this reverse correlation indicate that the growing costs of buying and storing art have priced MoMA out of larger artworks? What is the relationship between size and the decision whether or not to acquire a work?

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Case Study Three:

Is the scope and definition of modernism expanding to include older artworks?

The challenge facing any museum dedicated to modern art is: keeping up-to-date. Modern art is constantly being produced. Like any leading museum, MoMA is:

  • growing its collection of newly-produced contemporary works

  • while also enhancing its collection of older works

  • and expanding the geographic and national representations of artists and artworks

The graph below compares the relationship between production year and acquisition year for 7,797 items. The red trend line is the average of the acquisition (horizontal) and production (vertical) axes. Dot color indicates gender. Dot size indicates the number of works by this artist acquired in this year.

In 1929, most new acquisitions were produced in the 1920s – modernism was a new movement and a new idea. Today, new acquisitions range in date from the late 1800s to the early 2000s – the definition of modernism has grown to encompass both newer and older works. But, the average date of new acquisitions is between 1950 and 1960. There is modern art recently produced, and then there is modern art that is not as new but can reveal the history and birth of “modernism.” This is, so to speak, the history of the present.

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Modernism is not a geographically limited phenomenon. With globalization and the march of capitalism, the area effected by modernity is growing. And as new regions of the world come into contact with modern technology, materials, and ideas, the qualities of their respective art and the practices of their artists will change. Cultural institutions, particularly museums dedicated to modern art, are positioned to curate these global trends through the kinds of works they acquire and display in their galleries. More broadly speaking, the kinds of stories museums and curators can tell about history may reflect the geographic, gender, and temporal strengths (or weaknesses) of their collections.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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A Brief History of Art

…according to the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

 

According to its founding mandate: “The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality.”

Over the past few years, the Metropolitan Museum has catalogued over 25% of its holdings online. This represents ~590,000 objects, covering over 5,000 years of human history from 17 curatorial departments. The diversity of objects in a museum’s collection (and the amount of contextual information known about these objects) may reflect the kinds of narratives a museum can curate about artistic and global history. This animation charts the provenance and year of production of every single object that is catalogued on the Metropolian Museum website, whenever this information is known.

 

 

In this animation, each colored dot indicates one geographical location represented by art in the Met’s online collection. The dot’s location indicates where this object was created. The dot’s size corresponds to the number of objects from this location. The time each dot appears corresponds to the year this object was created. Collectively this animation reveals the potential geographical and temporal preferences of the Met’s online inventories for objects collected in the common era (the year 1 c.e. to present-day). The dots above are assumed to be a relatively accurate sample size.

However, there are many objects in the collections with known provenance but unknown production date. Figure 1 below illustrates objects with known provenance and known year. Figure 2 shows objects with known provenance, regardless of whether year is known. The data-set in figure 2 has approximately double the number of objects, but these are concentrated in the same regions as objects in figure 1. This is because objects with known year also tend to have known provenance. Hence, figures 1 and 2 exhibit similar tendencies.

 

Art objects from ancient cultures like China, Egypt, and Sumeria frequently have known provenance but unknown year of production. This year might be estimated to the level of century with the help of carbon dating and through comparison with similar objects whose date is known for certain. Were the dates of these ancient objects known for certain, they could have been included in the animation above, thereby increasing the size and density of dots in under-represented regions. In this case, the animation would have resembled figure 2.

There is one more interpretive problem: Does this visualization reveal more about the diversity of the collections, or the preferences for which objects are selected for inventory online? For instance, does the statistical absence of objects from East Asia, in comparison to France, mean that the Met collects objects from East Asia less actively and in fewer quantities? Or, does this absence merely mean that fewer objects from the East Asian collections are selected for display on the museum website?

Metadata for this animation was downloaded here from the Met Museum’s website, then edited as a spreadsheet in excel and visualized in Tableau Public. This data was published by the museum staff in the public domain under a Creative Commons license. I am also publishing this visualization as an interactive map; it is open source and free to download  at this link.

 

Columbia University

A Map of Campus

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This drawing depicts every building, window, tree, and architectural detail on campus as visible from an imaginary perspective 500 feet above the intersection of 110th and Amsterdam and looking northwest toward campus. The number of windows on each facade and details are faithful to reality. There are about 2,000 windows in this image and about 50,000 individual lines. The image measures 26 by 40 inches and is framed in my room on campus. The personal objective of this project was to create a souvenir through which to remember my formative experiences and time at Columbia.I draw the little world I find at Columbia so that, years from my graduation date, I can look at this image and reflect on the formative four years I spent here.

The perspective in this image was formed by using Google Earth satellite photos combined with information extracted from Google Maps street view. To read an interview and article about this project: click here.

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Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches. Click image to launch full resolution.

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Columbia Campus

Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches. Click image to launch full resolution.

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Columbia in a Box

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Before my first day as a Columbia College first-year, I assembled a miniature model of Columbia’s campus out of folded paper and cardboard. This creation, featuring most of Columbia’s Morningside campus, folds out of a vintage cigar box that measures a mere 5 by 9 inches, and 3 inches deep. The model was made by taking flat sheets of paper, etching the silhouettes of the campus structures onto each sheet, decorating these sheets with windows and architectural details, and then finally cutting out the silhouettes and folding each into the shape of the structure. Each building is made with no more than one sheet of folded paper.

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Timelapses of Morningside

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This is a project of six time-lapse sequences of Columbia. I placed a camera horizontally above my desk as I draw and paint each watercolor. Painting is meditative for me, and each painting an opportunity to reflect on my formative time at Columbia University.

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How to Run a Canal

The film featured below illustrates the opening and closing sequence of an early canal lock: The Duke’s Lock on the Oxford Canal.

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“The Oxford Canal is a 78-mile (126 km) narrow canal in central England linking Oxford with Bedworth, near Coventry. Completed in stages between 1770 and 1790 during the English Industrial Revolution, it connects to the River Thames at Oxford and is integrated with the Grand Union Canal. The canal was for approximately 15 years the main canal artery of trade between the Midlands and London; it retained importance in its local county economies and that of Berkshire.

“Today the canal is frequently used in weekend and holiday narrowboat pleasure boating, as seen above with rented narrowboats passing through Duke’s Lock, No. 44.”

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– adapted from Wiki.

Evolution of the English Country House

 

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This four minute animation traces the evolution of English country house design from the period 1660 to 1715, which was broadly defined by the arhcitectural style of the English Baroque. Roughly between 1660 (near the end of the English Civil War) and 1715 (with the beginning of the Georgian monarchy from Germany), English Architecture witnessed a profound shift in country house design from the compact and square-ish form of the fortified Elizabethan and late-medieval country house to the more open and less compact plan of the Baroque and later Palladian country house. This shift too in design followed a new embrace of the aesthetic relationship between country house and its surrounding, bucolic landscapes. The objective of this animation sequence is to visually illustrate these aesthetic and architectural changes. Click to watch the video above, or watch the slideshow automatically play below.

This animation sequence is part of the progression to my degree in Architectural History & Theory from Oxford and Columbia University.

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Music: Franz Schubert_ Piano Trio in E Flat, Op. 100. Link to soundtrack.
Link to powerpoint presentation here.
Creative Commons permission is granted to download and circulate this video for non-commercial purposes, provided attribution is given to Myles Zhang.

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Eiffel Tower – Animated Construction Sequence

 

The Eiffel Tower was built during 18 months – between August 1887 and March 1889. This film shows the construction sequence, starting with the foundations et ending with the completion of the cupola. I downloaded Sketchup to create the computer simulation, and the post-production was made with iMovie. This model and video represent about two days work, or twenty hours.

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The source file for the model was downloaded here from the Sketchup 3D Warehouse, a database of free architectural models. Or, to view this model in virtual reality, please click here. The historic construction photos featured in this video were downloaded here from the Eiffel Tower’s Wikipedia page. And the blueprints consulted to create this animation are from a 2002 reprint of the Eiffel Tower structural plans.

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Burford Church – Two Minute History

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Beautiful Burford Church in Summer

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Construction Sequence

At the conclusion of my year as an art history student at Oxford University, I chose to base my final research project on Burford Church in Oxfordshire County, England. This is a Grade I listed structure by English Heritage, roughly constructed between 1175 and 1475, with continued modifications in the Victorian era. With the generous supervision of my art history tutor, Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and constructed a computer model that documents the structure’s gradual construction and expansion over nearly 300 years work. I converted the finished model into a short, two-minute film, featured below. The original source files for this project can also be freely downloaded here from the “3D Warehouse“, a database of architectural models for the use of designers, historians, and researchers. The subtitles of this sequence are transcribed here:

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Around 1175, work begins on the Norman church – a simple structure with choir, nave, and tower between. Here we see the structure being erected from east to west. Notice the round Norman windows.

By 1200, a small side chapel is added to the south of the tower. An aisle and entrance foyer on the south are also added. These changes require demolishing part of the existing structure.

By 1250, the side chapel is demolished and replaced by a north transept, south transept and expanded chancel.

By 1400, a crypt is added and the tower extended up. At this point, the architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic – from round arches to pointed.

The local cloth merchants also construct a guild chapel – detached from the main church and built at a slight angle.

By 1475, the guild chapel is partially demolished. On its foundations the Lady Chapel is built.

Meanwhile, most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two aisles on either side of the nave, a larger west window, and new clerestory-level windows.

Two chapels are added on either side of the choir as well as a 3-story entrance tower. Neither of these additions are visible from this angle.

This completes the construction sequence of Burford Church.

We are now circling around the church – working our way clockwise.

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Visual Analysis

The film below is a brief visual analysis of the church’s architectural fabric. Through my analysis, I seek to understand the following: What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social and cultural history can be deduced from the church’s decoration? And, in the absence of a written historical record, how can we detect the sequence in which the church was erected on the basis of architectural fragments alone?

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Image Gallery

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Newark Celebrates 350

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As Newark celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1666, I created this series of drawings based on historical images and maps of Newark’s downtown. The above video briefly summarizes 350 years of Newark’s history in two minutes.

The sound track accompanying this video was assembled via free audio clips from Freesound. As Newark develops from a small town to a bustling industrial metropolis, the sound track shifts from recordings of quiet woodlands to the din of the vibrant city. And as time passes, the skyscrapers we now see in Newark’s downtown gradually rise.

History is learned textually through reading books, newspapers, and original documents. But, history is experienced visually and acoustically in a way that engages all the senses. History is dynamic, vibrant and three-dimensional, but it is recorded via two dimensional means. This brief history of Newark aims to visually and acoustically represent history as a living and fluid process of transition and change. My aim is not to comprehensively represent Newark’s history but to offer insight into the scope of feel of this storied city’s history.

As Newark looks forward to the future, it stands on 350 years of history that shape the social, economic, and political forces that drive this city forward.

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New York Chinatown: Time Lapse

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A 60  hour time lapse of New York City’s Chinatown, accompanied by the Chinese song: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum).

The original watercolor measures 26 by 40 inches with the tenements of Chinatown in the foreground and the skyscraper canyons of Lower Manhattan rising above.

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Chinatown

View of Chinatown bounded by the Bowery, Canal Street, and Columbus Park.

Jane’s Carousel

A wind-up music box featuring Jane’s Carousel along the Brooklyn Waterfront. When closed, the antique cigar box measures a mere 7 by 7 by 3 inches deep. When open, the Brooklyn Bridge and historic Jane’s Carousel fold out. The carousel spins to the tune of the music while the moon gently slides across the night sky. Materials: $4 cigar box, $5 wind-up music box, electrical wire (for trees), plastic lids for wheels, string (for motion), tape measure (for spring), tin foil (for water), and thick paper.

Jane’s Carousel with my hand and a pen for scale. Dimensions: 7 by 7 by 3 inches.

Pictures of Newark

As a proud, lifelong Newarker, I’ve spent much of the past few years painting and photographing my changing city. Pictures features a selection of my work, complemented by Mussorgsky’s seminal composition: Pictures at an Exhibition. Five movements out of an original fifteen are selected, each of which represents the feel of a certain part of Newark. The following five locations are featured:

THE PASSAIC RIVER – Promenade (1)
ESSEX COUNTY JAIL – With the Dead in the Language of Death (13)
MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY – Promenade (8)
DOWNTOWN NEWARK – Two Jews: One Rich and One Poor (10)
PORT NEWARK – Promenade (3)

 

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 Featured work from the above film

Renaissance City

Growing up in Newark, I was inspired and saddened by my inner city environment. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. But I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of ostensible progress. “Renaissance City” depicts the Newark of my childhood with garish signage and decayed structures blanketing my city’s architecture in a medley of color and consumerism.

Urban decay in Newark to the tune of Mozart’s death march (k 453a)

Essex County Jail

 

 

The former Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights “neighborhood,” the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America.  Abandoned for over thirty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.

Gradually, the urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the veritable old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners formerly pruned and weeded is now overrun with weeds. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.

Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A constant trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd “valuables,” cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they aimlessly wander city streets. Ironically, the physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into a metaphorical bastion of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.

 

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Unmanufactured Landscapes

Visiting China, I was shocked by the massive reach of globalization. On the train, I witnessed an endless treadmill of mile after mile of identical crops, villages, and cities. The polluted skies and downcast weather hinted at the relentless combine of economic growth. I swore to myself that such a sterile environment was fit for helpless ants.

Returning home, I earned greater appreciation for my own artistic creations. They seemed so much more innocent, smaller, and quainter. I had something independent of “the combine” I could call my own. No matter how much the volatile world changed, my art would forever remain the same, my Unmanufactured Landscapes locked in time.