At the New MoMA, a Fresh Palette of Paint Colors Challenges the White Cube

Casey Lesser
Dec 23, 2019 1:00PM

Installation view of "Surrealist Objects," in Gallery 517, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Farrow & Ball's Sulking Room Pink.

At the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art, the walls of gallery 517 are painted in Sulking Room Pink. A product of the luxe British paint and wallpaper purveyors Farrow & Ball, the color looks just as it sounds: a deliciously moody, mauve-y pink that’s deep and velvety. It’s a dusty rose I’d imagine in one of Marie Antoinette’s lavish private salons at Versailles, not necessarily at MoMA. Yet, these pink walls only intensify the priceless works of the “Surrealist Objects” gallery: Frida Kahlo self-portraits, Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, mystifying canvases by Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, not to mention Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks. Sulking Room Pink may be the perfect sort of neutral to suit the enigmatic genius of Surrealism.

The color is part of a new paint palette featured in MoMA’s freshly renovated galleries. Museum curators and exhibition designers partnered with Farrow & Ball to select colors that would complement the artworks and enhance the ambiance. And while experience tells us that the white cube gallery, with its pristine, whiter-than-white walls is the best environment for showing modern and contemporary art, various new galleries at MoMA prove different.

Installation view of “19th Century Innovators ,” in Gallery 501, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art.

Farrow & Ball's Elephant's Breath.


On a recent morning at the museum, curator Sarah Suzuki, who oversaw the expansion, noted that major changes to how MoMA’s collection is being shown necessitated a new approach to the physical gallery spaces. The museum is now presenting various artistic mediums together, and is giving greater visibility to some artists who have been historically underrepresented. As the museum aimed to surface new dialogues among artists, it also needed to, as Suzuki put it, “move away from traditional modes of display.”

MoMA’s director of exhibition design and production Lana Hum and her team were charged with this task. “We were thinking about and questioning this kind of anonymous white box, which is really the language of modern and contemporary art display,” Hum said. “All of the works at the time they were made were revelatory and radical, and we wanted to capture that…but we found that the white box falls short. It’s too anonymous. It doesn’t give you enough context.”

At the same time, different mediums have different requirements: Paintings can take a lot of light; works on paper can’t; film is typically shown in the dark. Wall color became an important tool for problem-solving, but also for setting tone and developing rhythm across mediums, while honoring the dialogues among artists.

Installation view of “Early Photography and Film,” in Gallery 502, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo Jonathan Muzikar. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art.

Farrow & Ball's Pelt.

Walk into the first gallery on the fifth floor, and you’ll likely see a crowd huddled around Starry Night (1889), but you’ll also find yourself enveloped in a warm gray named Elephant’s Breath. “It’s intimate, but it stands up for itself as a color against the kind of swirling, tumultuous colors of Van Gogh as well as the more quiet domestic watercolors of Mary Cassatt,” Hum said.

The next gallery shows late 19th- and early 20th-century photography and early film footage of the New York City subway. The room offers a counter to the typical black box film gallery. The paint color is a deep, aubergine called Pelt, which not only makes the film feel pronounced on the wall, it reflects the photographs’ brownish, reddish tones.

There is still plenty of white and subtle neutrals at MoMA. Wimborne White and a pale gray called Skimming Stone are the “building blocks” of the museum’s palette, Hum explained. These neutrals are key in some galleries that are making a statement through bringing together works from disparate time periods. Case in point: gallery 503, which uses Skimming Stone and houses the triumphant pairing of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967).

Installation view of “Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” in Gallery 503, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art.

Farrow & Ball's Skimming Stone.

Skimming Stone is “one of those ever-changing colors,” Hum explained. It looks different depending on the lighting and environment, she said, pointing to its distinct appearances in the museum with Henri Matisse’s Swimming Pool (1952) and Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” (1941).

Between big swathes of white galleries housing iconic works, curators were keen to develop galleries that offer a moment of pause. Such is the case with gallery 507, which is painted in a deep blue called Serge, which creates a necessary interruption. The gallery offers a deep dive into artist books and works on paper by Russian avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova and Olga Rozanova.

Installation view of "Artists Books and Prints in Russia," in Gallery 507, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Farrow & Ball's Serge.

Hum noted that in some cases they found colors based on curators’ ideas, informed by their knowledge of the artists’ work and the mood it conveys. This was the approach for the room dedicated to Florine Stettheimer and likeminded artists, which is painted in a pale blue called Cabbage White. One of the curators requested a subtle blue, drawing from one of Stettheimer’s paintings. “She said, ‘As if blue could blush. What would that look like?’” Hum recalled.

A singular experience was necessary for the gallery that houses Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26). The color, called Wevet is “almost not a color,” Hum said. The inscrutable shade is best described as luminous. They studied other museum displays of “Water Lilies,” namely the L’Orangerie in Paris, which Monet designed himself, and chose Wevet. “It was the best expression of that sun-dappled light of Giverny,” Hum explained.

Installation view of "Florine Stettheimer and Company," in Gallery 509, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Farrow & Ball's Cabbage White.

When it comes to choosing a paint color for various distinct works, it’s a matter of finding balance, Hum explained: “It’s not cacophonous, it’s not specific to each work, it’s this environment that feels right and still gives each medium what it needs to stand out.”

The same rules can apply to choosing paint colors for a home filled with art. Patrick O’Donnell, a brand ambassador for Farrow & Ball, noted there aren’t hard and fast rules, though it’s important to let the art breathe, not to overwhelm it. “Color should be the glue in a room, it should bring everything else together, rather than be the main star of the show,” he said.

O’Donnell said that choosing a paint color from a work of art you own can be a strong strategy, as the MoMA curators did with the Stettheimer room. It should be a color that is not too prominent in the piece. “There will be a nice marriage, without it looking too matched and twee,” he explained. One of his go-to Farrow & Ball colors is Light Blue, which has hints of gray and green, and changes with the light.

Installation view of Claude Monet, Water Lilies, in Gallery 515, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Kurt Heumiller. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art.

Farrow & Ball's Wevet.

If you’re looking for a white for a home, he suggests one with hints of yellow or red pigment, so as not to feel too cool. “They’re a little bit warmer, that kind of takes that clinical edge off.” If a warm white doesn’t feel right, color expert Martin Kesselman created a custom white with Farrow & Ball, recently renamed Martin Kesselman White, which has no undertones. He’s used it in homes and galleries, including New York gallerist Anton Kern’s new Window space in Tribeca.

Ultimately, it should be a color you genuinely like and want to live with. O’Donnell added, “The last thing you want is to go the route of ‘I really hate this color, but it makes my art look good.’”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.