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The names read like a who's who of major artists from the past two centuries: Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Dali, Rothko, Kahlo, Pollock and O'Keefe. It's like a top of the pops of the art world.

Opening on Saturday, MoMA at NGV: 130 years of Modern and Contemporary Art features 230 works from New York's Museum of Modern Art, widely regarded as one of the largest and most influential collections of modern art in the world.

It's the first time more than half of the works exhibited have left the walls of the New York gallery since they were acquired and the first time 205 of the 230 works have been shown in Australia.

To say it is big is an understatement – the largest of the National Gallery of Victoria's Winter Masterpieces thus far, it takes up the entire ground floor of the gallery.

But it is the quality of the works that is most extraordinary, ranging from the impressionists to pop art offerings such as Andy Warhol's Marilyn series and Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl through to current day artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons.

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"It's amazing to think how many people would love to get this calibre of loan," says National Gallery of Victoria's director, Tony Ellwood.

MoMA's director Glenn Lowry is in Melbourne for the opening of the show. He says the installation is beautiful. "The show has a great deal of poetry to it and, of course, it's utterly fresh and revealing.

Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA

Photo: Eddie Jim

"It's looking at our collection in ways that are totally different from how we currently display our collection and that's exciting."

Mr Ellwood says it was critical the NGV had a voice in the curation: "We wanted to make sure this was not just New York coming [to Australia], but New York coming with an Australian lens, to complement holdings that are here. So it's very much a tailored experience with the two organisations working closely."

The exhibition was made possible because MoMA is currently renovating. Works are underway that will add 4600 square metres of new space to the midtown Manhattan location; when completed in 2019, overall gallery space will be increased by 30 per cent.

"I can't wait til it's finished," says Mr Lowry. "It's kind of like Australian Rules football – organised mayhem."

The NGV exhibition is structured so that it's thematic but also chronological. It explores the emergence and development of major art movements, as well as reflecting the wider technological, social and political developments.

Design has been woven into the narrative of the show. The seminal computer game designed in the 1970s, Space Invaders, for example, features in the same room as conceptual paintings of the time.

Elsewhere is a propeller from 1925, an unlikely contender perhaps, a beautiful piece of design but also an innovative piece of engineering.

"Industrial design – a propeller, a ball bearing, a fan – can be considered art as much as a painting or a sculpture," says Mr Lowry.

This kind of context is a mark of MoMA's multi-disciplinary approach. Works are drawn from the museum's six departments: architecture and design, drawings and prints, film, media and performance art, painting and sculpture and photography.

"The whole gambit of our new project is to show our works in an integrated or synthetic way – design, film, photography, painting and sculpture all co-exist in the conversation with each other," Mr Lowry says.

"We've been experimenting with how to do that in the last several years in the museum. In this show we bring those different media together and it's exhilarating the kinds of relationships that emerge."

Walking through the exhibition with Mr Ellwood yesterday, Mr Lowry says he turned a corner and saw Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory. "Are you kidding, we lent that?" he joked.

While it is strange to see his babies hanging here on the other side of the world, he is also thrilled.

"To see something that is so charged, so important to the history of art, I hope it will bring as much joy to visitors at the NGV as it does to visitors at MoMA."

The show offers visitors with a chance to see contemporary artists as well as the bigger names, many of whom have made an impact globally but not been seen much in Australia, including California-born, New York-based artist Kara Walker, whose work focuses on race, gender and sexuality, and Ghanaian sculptor based in Nigeria, El Anatsui, who has previously only shown at Carriageworks in Sydney.

Alongside the main exhibition are dedicated, interactive offerings for children, as well as New York-inspired music on Friday nights, with performances by Brooklyn-based, contemporary jazz trumpeter Maurice Brown and Melbourne's own Cookin' with 3 Burners.

The exhibition runs until October 7.

For a full lineup see ngv.vic.gov.au

Kerrie O'Brien

Kerrie is senior writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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