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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 01/13/2011

MoMA acquires and shows "Fire In My Belly"

By Jacqueline Trescott

The Museum of Modern Art, the influential repository of film and video work, has purchased "A Fire in My Belly," the video by David Wojnarowicz that was removed by the National Portrait Gallery.

Its removal by the museum has caused a heated debate among artists and arts organizations with artists organizing protests against the gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, and many art centers showing parts of the video in response to the decision.

The acquisition and immediate screening at the New York museum was viewed as both an imprimatur of the late artist's work and a rebuke to its critics.

"They are standing behind the film and making a statement. For a powerful, important and historic museum to make this statement, I'm thrilled," said Wendy Olsoff, the co-owner of the PPOW Gallery in New York, which handles the Wojnarowicz estate.

MoMA announced Thursday that it had purchased the original 13 minute version and a 7 minute excerpt made by Wojnarowicz in 1986 and 1987. The museum has 13 works, including photographs and paintings by the artist, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1992. "Fire" is its first video addition to those holdings.

'A Fire in My Belly' is an important addition to MoMA's collection of works by David Wojnarowicz. A collage of moving and still images, it communicates the artist's views on mortality and spirituality, in some instances using explicit iconography," said Sabine Brietwieser, chief curator of the department of Media and Performance Art at the museum. "It includes the famous self-portrait of the artist sewing his mouth closed, an image that became an icon of the movement trying to increase awareness of the AIDS crisis, which stood for 'silence=death.' "

The purchase was approved at the quarterly meeting of the Media and Performance Art department, a section founded in 2009. Breitwieser said the controversy brought the work to the museum's attention. The debate "provided us with an opportunity to look more closely at it and to deepened our engagement with this artist by adding it to our holdings of his work," she said.

The museum would not disclose the purchase price. The video was bought from the PPOW Gallery, in collaboration with the artist estate and the Fales Library at New York University, according to the gallery.

The video was immediately placed on view in the museum's "Contemporary Art from the Collection," an exhibition that looks

at art and current events since the late 1960s.

MoMA joined with the Association of Art Museum Directors which criticized the actions of the Smithsonian in removing the work.

The Portrait Gallery included an excerpt of "A Fire in My Belly" in its current show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." The exhibition, which continues until Feb. 13, is the largest in the gallery's history and the first national museum to devote a show to issues of gay love, sexuality and gender differences.

After nearly a month on view, the museum received complaints from Republican leaders, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that the video was objectionable because of an image of a crucifix with ants crawling on it. A number of conservative critics and politicians raised similar complaints. One called it "hate speech."

The section with the crucifix lasted 11 seconds.

The Smithsonian, led by Secretary Wayne Clough and museum director Martin Sullivan, ordered the work removed in late November. The two curators of the show, David Ward, the historian at the Portrait Gallery, and Jonathan Katz, an authority on queer art and images and a professor at the State University of New York Buffalo objected to the decision.

Katz said Thursday he hoped the purchase signaled a change at MoMA and other major museums in their discussions of sexuality.

"They have the work, and display the work, of many queer artists. The issue is are they talking about art, politics and sexuality. If they are not doing that, then it doesn't matter if they have the video," said Katz. "I'm thrilled if this is a change in direction."

Another New York museum, the New Museum, the site of Wojnarowicz's first U.S. retrospective, has been showing the film.

By Jacqueline Trescott  | January 13, 2011; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Kennedy Center, Museums, Smithsonian  | Tags:  David Wojnarowicz, Museum of Modern Art, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, video art  
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