Modern and Contemporary Art

The collection of modern and contemporary art at the Gallery is noteworthy for exemplary works from the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century. Particular strengths are an exceptional group of avant-garde artworks from 1920 to 1940 represented in the Société Anonyme Collection, as well as an outstanding collection of mid-20th-century American paintings.
Homage to the Square: Dense-Soft
Red Abstract
Oval Construction
Le renversement (Somersault)
Bec-Dida Day
1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 Cross and Tower

About Modern and Contemporary Art

The early years of the 20th century were characterized in the visual arts by a radical international reassessment of the relationship between vision and representation, as well as of the social and political role of artists in society at large. The extraordinary modern collection at the Yale University Art Gallery spans these years of dramatic change and features rich holdings in abstract painting by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as in paintings and sculptures associated with German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, Dada, and Surrealism. Many of these works came to Yale in the form of gifts and bequests from important American collections, including those of Molly and Walter Bareiss, B.S. 1940s; Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903; Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, B.A. 1929; Katharine Ordway; and John Hay Whitney.

Art from 1920 to 1940 is strongly represented at the Gallery by the group of objects collected by the Société Anonyme, an artists’ organization founded by Katherine S. Dreier and Marcel Duchamp with Man Ray. This remarkable collection, which was transferred to Yale in 1941, comprises a rich array of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by major 20th-century artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, El Lissitzky, and Piet Mondrian, as well as lesser-known artists who made important contributions to the modernist movement.

The Gallery is also widely known for its outstanding collection of American painting from after World War II. Highlights include Jackson Pollock’s Number 13A: Arabesque (1948) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Blam (1962), part of a larger gift of important postwar works donated to the Gallery by Richard Brown Baker, B.A. 1935. Recent gifts from Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, and Thurston Twigg-Smith, B.E. 1942, have dramatically expanded the Collection with works by artists such as James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud.

The department continues to support the Happy and Bob Doran Artist-in-Residence program founded in 2003. Invited artists take advantage of the greater intellectual and physical resources of the University. Participating artists have included Janine Antoni, Carol Bove, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Yun-Fei Ji, Kerry James Marshall, Thomas Nozkowski, Richard Rezac, Tris Vonna-Michell, Richard Tuttle, William T. Wiley, and Paula Wilson.

Note from the Curator

This spring a new installation in the contemporary art galleries highlights the work of numerous female artists from the museum’s collection. In addition to paintings, prints, and sculptures by Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, June Leaf, Louise Nevelson, Marisol, Julie Mehretu, and Mia Westerlund Roosen, the display also features several works on paper by artist Kiki Smith. Throughout her decades-long practice, Smith has taken a multidisciplinary approach inspired by reflections on the human condition and our relationship with the natural world. In her prints, she often transforms images of her own face and body or merges human and animal features and accessories, as in Falcon. Smith also employs visual elements drawn from myth and folklore, but she invokes these sources to explore social issues and traditional stereotypes. In works such as Spinster Series I–VIII, she juxtaposes the nude bodies of eight women with a spinning wheel, using fairytale imagery, notably the enchanted object from Sleeping Beauty, to create a highly disturbing work. For conservation reasons, works on paper can only be displayed a few months at a time, so we encourage visitors to engage with these fascinating pieces while they are on view, and to discover the other works on view by important contemporary female voices.

Kiki Smith, Spinster Series I–VIII, 2002. Set of 8 2‑plate, double‑printed Iris prints. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Kiki Smith and Pace Editions, Inc. © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery

Kiki Smith, Falcon, 2001. Hard‑ and soft‑ground etching in three colors with sugar‑lift, aquatint, and spit bite. Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery

Kiki Smith, Untitled, from Out of the Woods, 2002. 5 digitally manipulated photogravures with hand-set type. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Craig and Elizabeth Zammiello. © Kiki Smith. Courtesy Pace Gallery

Related Exhibition

Matthew Barney: Redoubt
March 1, 2019June 16, 2019

In his first major exhibition at his alma mater, the renowned and provocative contemporary artist Matthew Barney, B.A. 1989, presents his latest work, including a new feature-length film titled Redoubt.

Further Reading

Chaffee, Cathleen. Eye on a Century: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2012.

Farrell, Jennifer. Get There First, Decide Promptly: The Richard Brown Baker Collection of Postwar Art. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2011.

Fisher, Susan Greenberg. Picasso and the Allure of Language, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2009.

Gross, Jennifer, ed. The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Gross, Jennifer, ed. Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 2009: State of the Art: Contemporary Sculpture (2009).

Herbert, Robert L., Eleanor S. Apter, and Elise K. Kenney, eds. The Société Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Josenhans, Frauke V. Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.

Reynolds, Jock. Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper, exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2018.