The Museum of Contemporary Art was established in 1988, and its collection started out with some 3,000 works from the period after 1945 that were transferred from the National Gallery and from Riksgalleriet (the travelling art gallery of Norway). With these works as its dowry, the museum was given national responsibility for the documentation of post-war Norwegian art. The initial set of works the museum inherited represented the official narrative of post-war Norwegian art history and select international art-works.
When in 1990 the museum opened its doors to the public in the former headquarters of Norges Bank at Bankplassen in Oslo, an art nouveau-inspired building designed by the architect Ingvar Olav Hjorth, its collection had already grown by a good number of both Norwegian and international works that were central to the museum’s acquisition policy in its founding years.
We are deeply indebted to our colleagues from the other institutions who parted with substantial parts of their holdings to enable the foundation of a national collection of contemporary art and to our predecessors at the Museum of Contemporary Art who have so impressively set the guiding lights for the development of the collection, not least by securing works from the context of arte povera, minimalism, and conceptual art, which are as much a focal point in the collection today as they were twenty-five years ago.
In 2003, the museum became part of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, and today the collection of contemporary art comprises more than 5,000 works by Norwegian and international artists. It covers a broad spectrum of genres and media from painting, print-making, drawing, photography, sculpture, objects, and installations to video art.
To limit ourselves to a selection of 150 highlights out of a collection this extensive was anything but an easy task – in fact it was often painful, as it meant not being able to include many of the excellent works we own. But this only spurs our ambition to compile a comprehensive inventory catalogue that will present the wealth of our collection in its entirety. Fortunately, today much of the collection’s holdings can already be found online at the digital museum website.
But back to the book at hand: With this miniature kaleidoscope of the collection, it was important for us to cover works of all media, and from every decade, with an even mix of Norwegian and international art and a more balanced representation of male and female artists than perhaps your traditional art history textbook might have aspired to. In fact, the earliest work in our selection is an outstanding tapestry by Hannah Ryggen from 1949, and the latest is a series of exquisitely deceitful drawings by Ane Mette Hol from 2014.
In between this span of sixty-five years, you will find a wealth of artistic styles, languages, and physical manifestations. When we surveyed the collection for the purpose of this publication, we were confirmed in our perception that artists over the past seventy years have been concerned with universal themes that have occupied artists for centuries, such as the human condition, landscapes and cityscapes, the political, and the metaphysical.
There are excellent abstract paintings or kinetic works from the 1950s and 60s by Norwegian and international artists such as Anna Eva Bergman, Jean Dubuffet, Julio Le Parc, Serge Poliakoff, Jesus Rafael Soto, Odd Tandberg, and Jakob Weidemann. A number of these artists evince the National Gallery’s interest in the French schools ever since the late nineteenth century. At the same time, these works may have served as an inspiration for later generations of abstract painting from the mid-1970s and beyond, like those of Olav Strømme, Bjørn Ransve, Arne Malmedal, or Olav Christopher Jenssen. On the other hand, the politically engaged art of Hannah Ryggen later finds echoes in the iconic Vietnam painting of Kjartan Slettemark and the work of Per Kleiva, Berit Soot Kløvig, and more recently Victor Lind and Marianne Heier.
The importance of textile in Norwegian art history is recognized by the inclusion of major works by Synnøve Anker Aurdal, and Løvaas & Wagle. We see works that celebrate the line, the primordial artistic gesture conveying the essence of the idea of a work of art, the desegno, like Jan Groth’s Tegn, stående or Tone Vigeland’s dazzling Skulptur I, a levitated spatial drawing composed of straight and bent lines made out of thin steel wire. Works by the pioneers of video art like Marianne Heske and Kjell Bjørgeengen have since been followed by those of Lotte Konow Lund, Ole Jørgen Ness, and Knut Åsdam and range to the breathtaking nine-screen video installation Ten Thousand Waves by Isaac Julien. The collection’s strong holdings of photography include such artists as Tom Sandberg, Dag Alveng, and on the international side Bernd & Hilla Becher and the generation that followed them, including Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky.
It comes as no surprise that many of the works we have chosen for this highlights catalogue date from the 1990s and the early 2000s, the decade when the museum was ambitiously expanding its collection to take charge of its new role and habitat. In this period, large-scale installations enter the collection. This includes temporary ones, such as those by Gilberto Zorio and Christian Boltanski, and perhaps even more importantly the permanent installations, such as: the sculpture Shaft by Richard Serra, Per Inge Bjørlo’s Inner Room V, and Ilya Kabakov’s The Garbage Man: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away. These signature works have in the last two years been complemented by Marianne Heier’s Promesse de Bonheur and two gallery rooms dedicated to works of Louise Bourgeois, with her Cell VIII as the main attraction.
We have followed in the footsteps of our founding colleagues, who made it their goal to also acquire works by international artists that reference the context set by the large holdings of Norwegian art in the collection. We are proud that many artworks acquired in recent years had already received considerable international recognition, like Harun Farocki’s Deep Play, which was co-produced with and shown at documenta 12 in 2007, the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland by Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson, which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011, or Susan Hiller’s Die Gedanken sind frei, which was shown at the documenta 13 in 2012, to name only a few.
We are now again at a turning point, looking forward to crossing another threshold, not unlike our colleagues when the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1988. In June 2012 the Norwegian Parliament approved funding for the construction of the new National Museum in Oslo, which will be the home for all its collections under one roof. Like our earlier colleagues, we have several years ahead of us to further our collection, to assure that it will become an even more distinct and significant voice in the concert of European museums. This is a mission of supreme pleasure, dedicated scholarly work, and terrifying beauty –, in short, – a dream. We have made it our goal to acquire works that will make it necessary five years from now to present you with a new highlights catalogue and to give you an extended picture of the significance of contemporary art for our time.
And even more importantly, when the new National Museum opens its doors in 2020, contemporary art will shine its bright star in the company of the National Museum’s other collections in brand new galleries. And then, after having crossed the threshold, it will become evident for the beholder that all art has indeed been contemporary.
Sabrina van der Ley
Director of Contemporary Art