Disability Art at MoMA

Disability Art at MoMA



As I have begun to study disability in settings where I previously did not consider accessibility, lack of access in everyday life has become much more apparent, especially living in New York City. Many historically-preserved buildings lack elevators, accessible subway stations are far and few-between, and audible traffic signals are inconsistent throughout the city. The Gallatin First-Year Writing Seminar “Disability Arts and Culture,” taught by Professor Jessie Male, has led me into thorough analysis on how accessibility does not only exist within practical, day-to-day means but in overall culture as well. New York is a hub of art and popular culture, with creative expression engulfing life in the city. Although I remember my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown at fifteen years old, the reveal of the $450 million expansion of MoMA served as an apt occasion to evaluate how the art on the museum’s wall reflects strides in public knowledge of disability culture.1 While my knowledge of modern art is not very extensive, I was able to visually identify artworks that depicted some form of disability as well as recognize the names of well-known disabled artists. In my analysis of each work, I consider each artist’s role as a nondisabled/disabled creator as well as the implications of each work within current ableist notions that are prevalent in society. Each work that stood out to me in the museum has its own role and impact on disability culture.

As I moved through the six floors of MoMA, I noticed an overwhelming amount of art dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what can be recognized as a body. These arts border on the edge of disability art, but cannot be considered as such in my eyes because of how the artist statements focus more on the abstractions of modern art rather than the impact of depictions of the body on disability scholarship. One example of this is Woman I  (1950–52) by Willem de Kooning. The canvas shows an array of thick multicolor brush strokes creating the image of a woman with exposed teeth and uneven eyes. She is squatting, and her waist is a thin line going through the bottom half of her torso. The accompanying statement of the piece mentions the misogynistic undertones of the work, and how de Kooning once said, “I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.”2 While this piece doesn’t explicitly display disability, it still brings major disability studies concepts to mind. This includes exploitation, fetishization of, and gawking at unconventional bodies. Tobin Seibers writes that much of modern art focuses on “misshapen and twisted bodies, [a] stunning variety of human forms, intense representation of traumatic injury and psychological alienation.”3 Throughout the museum, similar works pushed the boundaries of what a body looks and acts like for the sake of artistic freedom, not necessarily considering the social impact of the body itself.

Because of the overwhelming number of artworks that showed figures and faces in this way, I chose to focus on those that had more concrete themes of disability, whether that be in the artist’s life or in the pieces themselves. According to disabled artist Karrie Higgins, “Disability art, by contrast to art about disability, makes a statement about our identities. No longer are we mere metaphors for abled people’s struggles.”4 Artworks about disability often perpetuate ableist gazes and exploitation. My prior knowledge of Van Gogh and Kahlo compelled me to include them in my tour analysis due to their roles as disabled artists, even though their works on display do not depict disability. As far as the other works, I searched for clear visual alterations of the socially accepted “normal” body as well as descriptions and titles mentioning disability. I then went back and researched the disabled/nondisabled status of each artist, tying it into the analysis of the work as well as reassessing the possible intentions of the work alongside the meanings I perceived upon my initial reaction.


The Surrealist works at MoMA included the highest concentration of displays of disability. In the Machines, Mannequins, and Monsters collection of the David Geffen wing, several photos and illustrations of disability demonstrated a similar theme of disability as a means of entertainment and shock value. Dora Maar’s untitled black and white photograph (1935) depicts a white male with no nose or mouth leaning against a tree. Although the work is not accompanied by an artist statement, a Google search of Dora Maar’s photography shows all types of altered bodies, from disembodied limbs to faceless figures. Maar was a nondisabled artist, meaning that her work can be easily interpreted as having a similar purpose to de Kooning’s art, except with more explicit depictions of disability. The work is still a nondisabled person’s exploitation of an unusual body for the sake of artistic shock value, therefore making it art about disability rather than disability art. Even deeming the art as “surreal” is dehumanizing to those with visible disabilities. Karrie Higgins writes about a similar art exhibit involving photographs of disability, “It is a kind of abstraction, and to my eye, a representation of the abled gaze–ultimately, dehumanizing rather than humanizing”5. The work seems shallow in its lack of consideration towards greater ableist society and disabled individuals, therefore dehumanizing them for the sake of artistic commentary on the body.

In contrast to the possibly unintentional exhibition of disability in Maar’s work, Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits often use surrealist concepts to present disability at the forefront of her self-depictions. Although Kahlo’s paintings that depict disability explicitly are not on view at MoMA, her painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair(1940) represents autonomy and Kahlo’s rejection of gender roles. The painting shows Kahlo seated in a wooden chair wearing an oversized men’s suit. Her hair is cropped short and slicked back, with clumps of hair all over the floor. She’s holding a pair of scissors with one hand and a lock of hair in the other. Kahlo was a disabled artist; her pelvis was impaled in a bus accident when she was eighteen, leading her to start her art career while bedridden. Many of her paintings were self-portraits, which she posed for using a mirror attached above her bed. By looking at this work through a disability-art lens, I immediately thought of YouTuber and activist Annie Segarra’s 2018 video “Navigating Disability Fashion and Gender Presentation.” In the video, Segarra discusses the relationship between personal style and disability’s impact on what is comfortable to wear. She says in the video, “There are some days when I truly do not want to wear a skirt or dress or present myself as feminine at all, but I still have to wear those items for the sake of my pain levels.”6 She highlights how disability interacts with gendered clothing, citing a story in which her Ehlers-Danlos syndrome affected her ability to fit into a gendered dress code for a wedding where women were asked to wear dresses. Due to her fluid symptoms affecting her feet, she could not wear heels that matched with her dress. To be more comfortable, Segarra opted for a suit and orthopedic shoes instead. Kahlo often depicted herself wearing feminine dresses, and although she has never explicitly stated how she feels about fashion and gender roles, the surface interpretation of this unique painting of her in a suit definitely has connections to Segarra’s video.

The AIDS crisis of the late 20th century came long after surrealism, but still has as much to do with disability as it ties into external perceptions of those affected. Although HIV-positive individuals aren’t always associated with common perceptions of disability, many people living with HIV identify as disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website states:

Persons with HIV disease, either symptomatic or asymptomatic, have physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities and thus are protected by the ADA. Persons who are discriminated against because they are regarded as being HIV-positive are also protected. For example, the ADA would protect a person who is denied an occupational license or admission to a school on the basis of a rumor or assumption that he has HIV or AIDS, even if he does not.7

This shows the relationship between the stigma of HIV and other ableist ideas. Wolfgang Tillmans’s Suzanne & Lutz, white dress, army skirt (1993) continues the exploration of the body that has become central to modern art. The photo depicts one feminine-coded person and one masculine-coded person standing side by side in front of a white background. The feminine-coded person is wearing a long, simple white dress with their arms behind their head, hands resting on the lower part of their shoulders. The masculine-coded person is wearing a green U.S. Army T-shirt and a matching skirt with the name “Witherley” spray painted across the bottom. Much of disability art scholarship focuses on how much the artist chooses to incorporate disability experiences in their work. “I found out I myself am HIV positive but I have never made that an active subject in my work,” Tillmans stated in a 2017 interview with Dazed Magazine. “People are so scared of AIDS that everything in the world foreshadows this.”8 HIV is uniquely stigmatized in a way that mobility impairments are not: HIV is seen as highly contagious and a result of promiscuity, and more of an individual punishment than an illness brought by fate. This could explain why Tillmans chooses not to foreground HIV as a part of his artistic identity. Still, Savannah & Lutz displays the body in a way that creates it as a spectacle. Also, the intent gaze of the person with their arms behind their head can be interpreted as a response to common ideas of staring at disabled people. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “Starers gawk with abandon at the prosthetic hook, the empty sleeve, the scarred flesh, the unfocused eye, the twitching limb, but seldom does looking broaden to envelop the whole body of the person with a disability.”9 By allowing the subject of the photograph to stare in response to those looking at her arms instead of her other features, she flips the narrative of who is gawking at who.

Outsider Art

From my prior visits to MoMA, I knew that the museum had a piece by outsider artist Judith Scott on display. The description for the piece was refreshingly unpatronizing despite to the fact that Scott communicates nonverbally, and the unknown author of the statement was not affected by the same disability as Scott. Judith Scott was institutionalized for thirty-five years due to her learning and mental disabilities. In 1985, her twin sister was granted guardianship of Judith and she began attending the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. After two years of little engagement with creating art, Scott took on fiber art as her medium. Her untitled work at MoMA (2002) consists of two blue plastic letter As attached through colored fibers. The top part of the piece is mostly covered in red and white fibers, and the bottom is covered in thicker green fibers with hints of yellow. Because she communicated nonverbally, all of her art is unaccompanied by her own statements. This provides a more speculative level of artistic interpretation for Scott’s work compared to artists that write their own statements and are interviewed in order to narrow down the meaning of their pieces, Scott is more often considered a contemporary artist rather than an outsider artist. Britannica defines outsider art as “any work of art produced by an untrained idiosyncratic artist who is typically unconnected to the conventional art world—not by choice but by circumstance.”10. However, Scott’s background at Creative Growth shows what I believe to be an immense stride in her accommodation compared to her previous institutionalization. This is because institutionalization has had an historically oppressive role in disabled people’s lives, fitting in with the “cure” narrative of disability that does not place focus on accommodations and accessibility in society.

While not an outsider artist himself, I was surprised to find out that artist John Outterbridge was highly involved in organizing the Watts Towers Art Center’s classes for disabled adults. I came across his sculpture, Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series (c. 1978–82) and immediately saw disability aesthetics at play within the work. The sculpture depicts a headless and armless body, with one leg bent at a ninety-degree angle in front of the figure. The other leg looks to be amputated at the knee, with a prosthetic cover over it. The torso is decorated with assorted fabrics, and the entire figure is seated upon an ammunitions box. The work is not accompanied by an artist statement, but I interpret it as a commentary on war and death, using disability as an expression of tragedy. The idea of dancing in the title creates a sense of pushing the body to its limits in a disciplined way as well as a sense of celebration of the body’s abilities and release of energy. However, with the the word “broken” in the piece’s title comes the association of the medical model, in which disability is viewed as needing to be fixed or cured. If Outterbridge’s intentions were to convey some aspect of war and its effects, leaving a visible disability out of the message would have eliminated the harmful medical model from the work while still effectively conveying his point.


One Post-Impressionist piece in particular, The Starry Night (1889), has been on display at MoMA since the 1940s, but the painting is hardly recognized for its ties to institutionalization and ableism. Vincent Van Gogh took inspiration for the painting from his window at a mental asylum in Southern France.11 The painting depicts a night sky with small circular brush strokes of blue making up the center of the painting. The stars are in various shades of yellow. In the foreground there is a dark tree-like shape with no leaves. At the bottom of the painting, there are multiple houses and buildings with yellow lights in the windows, and a mountain in the horizon. While observing this painting, I began to think about the concept of being a mad genius or a tortured artist. Why is artistic talent so closely associated to mental illness? Sophia Whittemore states that the trope of romanticizing a mentally disabled creative is harmful “because that leads to the dangerous stigma of the mentally ill being unusually violent.”12 Van Gogh often reflected on his psychotic episodes in his writing, but never clearly identified as disabled. His lack of documented self-diagnosis or proper accommodation in his life demonstrates the stigma around mental illness that deems mental disability to be a threat to society rather than a condition to be accommodated.


Something interesting I came across in the aforementioned Machines, Mannequins, and Monsters collection was a photograph with the artist labeled as “The Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men.” Given the connotations of the word “crippled” as ableist language, I viewed this photograph as being taken through a nondisabled lens for nondisabled viewing. The photograph depicts a French War veteran with a prosthetic arm. He is assembling a wooden structure, with the end of his prosthetic holding a nail in place. He is about to hammer the nail in with his other hand. This photograph uses the visual rhetoric of the wondrous in depicting disability, or as Garland-Thomson states, “capitalizes on physical differences in order to elicit amazement and admiration.”13 Similar to Maar’s work (yet more direct in intentional exploitation of disability), the photograph falls into the viewership’s power in staring at a disabled subject without fear of the subject staring back. The photo conveys guilt-free observance of the non-disabled viewer and comments on the expectations of production in capitalist societies, where disabled people have historically been oppressed and categorized as less valuable to the workforce. I interpret the photograph as exploiting disability and reassuring the ableist notion that disability is something to be overcome.


Furthering the argument that disability experiences are unique to each individual, Jean- Michel Basquiat’s relationship with disability began when he was seven years old. He was involved in a car crash that injured several of his internal organs and his arm. After he underwent surgery to remove his spleen, his mother gave him a copy of the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy, sparking what art historians believe to be his artistic fascination with the body. Throughout nearly all his artistic works, which I have always interpreted as commentaries on the black body’s value in society, included “disembodied skulls next to torsos,” surrounded “with music, prophecies, good tidings, and crowns, as if, upon his command, these disparate parts could dance back together again.”14.  Basquiat’s only painting currently on display at MoMA is Glenn (1985), based on his friend and art writer Glenn O’Brien. The painting depicts a disembodied head with vaguely painted facial features against a background of other smaller sketches and paintings. Skeletal features can be seen on the jaw, and red and black strokes are coming out of the mouth. At first glance, I interpreted Glenn as just another form of disability aesthetics without consideration of disability. I then remembered Basquiat’s relationship with disability, both through himself and his institutionalized mother and how his fascination with the body and its limitations in appearance seemed to be inspired by a form of personal disability.  Without this biographical context, the work can be easily interpreted as a depiction of disability for the sake of shock value, somewhat similar to Maar’s photography. While biography is not the single determining factor in interpreting an artist’s intentions, personal experience with disability suggests a sensitivity to the way disability is consumed by nondisabled observers.


The role of being disabled or nondisabled while creating art using disability aesthetics is imperative to the message of each and every artwork. I collectively interpreted the works by the nondisabled artists as capitalizing off of disability as a spectacle rather than considering disabled lives as they exist in the world outside of art. The disabled artists and their works seemed to treat disability as more of a layer of artistic identity. Those artists with invisible disabilities seemed to recognize the stigma of having a visible disability, strategically allowing the disabled subjects to redefine the ableist stare through size and facial expression. These works also demonstrate how there is not one singular narrative of disability and how experiences vary by type of condition, background, societal expectations, and intersections of race and gender. It is within the disabled artists’ creative license to choose how much of their experience with disability they want to incorporate into the work. The nondisabled artists participated heavily in disability aesthetics as defined by Seibers, with photographs fitting into Garland-Thomson’s idea of visual rhetorics. While much of the nondisabled modern art world sees not issue with depicting altered bodies as a means of provocation, the body is ultimately engrained in notions of disability status, both in practical life and in culture.

  1. Evan Brown Brown, Evan Nicole, “MoMA Is Finally Reopening. We Went inside the $450M Expansion,” Fast Company, October 17, 2019.
  2. Gallery label from Collection 1940s–1970s, MoMA, Floor 4, 403, The David Geffen Galleries, 2019.
  3. Tobin Seibers, Disability Aesthetics (University of Michigan Press, 2010),4.
  4. Karrie Higgins, “Lisa Oppenheim: Spine – On Disabled Bodies and Ableism in Art,” Karrie Higgins (blog),  June 17, 2018.
  5. Higgins, “Lisa Oppenheim.”
  6. Annie Segarra (Annie Elainey), “Navigating Disability Fashion and Gender Presentation,” October 10, 2018, YouTube.
  7. Questions and Answers: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Persons with HIV/AIDS,” American with Disabilities Act, www.ada.gov.
  8. Anna Cafolla, “Wolfgang Tillmans Speaks Candidly about Life with HIV,” Dazed Digital, April 10, 2017.
  9. Rosmarie Garland Thomson, “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (Modern Language Association of America, 2002), 57.
  10. Colin Rhodes, “Outsider Art,” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 2, 2013.
  11. “Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night,” MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).
  12. Sophis Whittemore, “The Mad Genius Trope,” Sophia Whittemore (blog), March 5, 2017,.
  13. Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring,” 59.
  14. Aisha Sabatini Sloan, “On Basquiat, the Black Body, and a Strange Sensation in My Neck,” The Paris Review, October 26, 2017.
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