Two new exhibitions at the McNay Art Museum focus on the collection started by founder Marion Koogler McNay.
In Donald Moffett + Nature Cult + The McNay, native San Antonian Donald Moffett pairs his own large-scale artworks with a bevy of works drawn from the museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, which includes a genteel drawing by Georges Seurat that inspired a young Moffett during childhood visits to the McNay.
Paired with the Moffett exhibition is the straightforwardly titled Marion Koogler McNay’s Legacy. Originally intended as 8 Create: SATX, an exhibition featuring eight local artists responding to works from the museum founder’s original collection, the show underwent a revision when six of the artists pulled out following a censorship controversy.
The new version of the show is billed as the most extensive presentation of works from Koogler McNay’s original 1950 bequest that created the first museum in Texas dedicated to modern art.
The opening wall of the exhibition describes Koogler McNay’s biography, surrounded by major artworks including a late Vincent Van Gogh painting, a Amedeo Modigliani portrait, and other significant examples of modern art.
During a tour of the exhibition, Head of Curatorial Affairs René Barilleaux said, “We immediately give you the sensation of how brilliant a collector she was by showing all these masterworks together.”
Typically, Barilleaux said, the artworks would be shown separately in various galleries. By gathering them together, the McNay “wanted to give that impact of how significant these works are, and how fundamental they were to the formation of this museum.”
Assistant Curator Lauren Thompson emphasized Koogler McNay’s focus on women as artists and subjects in her collection, and also as featured in her own artwork. A group of boldly rendered watercolor portraits painted by Koogler McNay in the late 1920s detail women of various eras.
“She primarily depicted women, and so I personally find that very exciting,” Thompson said. “She was ahead of her time as a woman.”
The controversy surrounding the original version of the show centered on artwork by San Antonio artist Sarah Fox, whose commissioned video animation Bad Bunny Gets Lucky showed a troubled female bunny puppet and a male fox puppet engaged in brief sexual relations, culminating in the bunny devouring the fox.
The work was deemed inappropriate for the exhibition, and when Fox declined to provide alternatives, she was disinvited from 8 Create. Five artists invited to participate in the show then pulled out in support of Fox, necessitating a greater focus on the McNay collection.
“It’s very sad that the show couldn’t be realized the way that we envisioned it,” said McNay Director and CEO Rich Aste. “We identified all eight artists for the show because we believe in those artists.” He noted that several of the original artists, including Fox, have been featured in prior McNay exhibitions.
“The mission at the McNay is to engage in material that is challenging,” Aste said. “We are not shy when it comes to challenging conversations.” He added that the museum wants to have discussions — like those before and during the 2019 Transamerica/n exhibition featuring transgender-themed art, and in other shows and artworks that focus on female sexuality and rage — “in the right context.”
However, those conversations require time to develop with the McNay community, he said, and the timeline for the 8 Create exhibition did not allow for such an effort.
“According to our mission, we engage everyone, a diverse community,” Aste said, “and that work was ambiguous at times. And if there is ambiguity … we have to own all of the possible interpretations of that work to include it as is. And we are not there.”
Bad Bunny and work by the other 8 Create artists will be shown in April in an independent exhibition organized by Fox at the Blue Star Arts Complex.
Two of the original local artists, Drew Morros and Joshua Perez, have remained in the Marion Koogler McNay’s Legacy exhibition, with art responding to specific works in the collection.
Perez reflected on the Van Gogh painting, an everyday scene depicting two women walking through a field, with a wall of large-scale black-and-white images in the tradition of street photography.
Morros made two gossamer textile pieces in response to six 17th-century tooled leather Portuguese chairs that Koogler McNay had collected during her various world travels. In a video included with the exhibition, Morros says she appreciates Koogler McNay’s penchant for collecting, and lightheartedly describes herself as “a hoarder.”
Her artworks consider the impulse to collect and preserve things as an outgrowth of personal inheritance, she said, noting a confluence between the ornate Portuguese chairs protected in the museum’s storage vaults and a wrack of chairs kept by her grandfather that was destroyed when the roof of a storage shed had caved in.
“It seemed like a perfect contrast to me,” Morros says.
The Donald Moffett + Nature Cult + The McNay and Marion Koogler McNay’s Legacy exhibitions open to the public March 17 and continue through September 11. Both require regular museum admission for entry.