Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible - The Met Breuer, a New York Institution Searches for a Modern Identity

There is a lot of information in chatter. And there is a lot of chatter about the Met’s attempts to revamp itself, with not only a new logo but a commitment to modern and contemporary art.

(Left:  James Hunter Black Draftee by Alice Neel, 1965)

The Met Breuer is in the old Whitney Museum building. The Whitney moved to Chelsea (the Meat Packing District). It is called the Met Breuer because it was designed by Marcel Breuer, Hungarian Architect and Furniture designer. 

Some of the chatter in the high end world of art is, why the Breuer building?

Holland Cotter of the NY Times wrote: "When the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would be taking an eight-year lease on the Marcel Breuer building left vacant by the Whitney Museum’s move downtown, the first question everyone asked was: Why?"  

The New York Post said, "the 1966 Marcel Breuer, brutalist building, a somber slab of granite looming above its brownstone-and-glass neighbors has never looked better".

Architect Critic Ada Louise Huxtable once said, "or maybe we’ve just gotten used to it: “The taste for its disconcertingly top-heavy, inverted pyramidal mass grows on one slowly, like a taste for olives or warm beer”.

(Left: Unfinished work by German artist, Anton Raphael Mengs)

Love or hate the building, it already has a branded history around contemporary art. Sheena Wagstaff (Tate London), was brought to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to ramp up its presence in contemporary art. Met Breuer will be her blank walls to curate.

(Below: The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh (ca. 1870) by James Drummond)

The Met describes the exhibition -Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible: Comprising 197 works dating from the Renaissance to the present, this exhibition examines a subject critical to artistic practice: the question of when a work of art is finished.

(Left: Harlequin (1923), by Pablo Picasso) 

Picasso declared: "to finish a work is to kill it". This was also the sentiment voiced by Roman writer Pliny, Delacroix, and also RembrandtThis aesthetic style is called Non Finito, a renaissance term — a work that an artist deemed finished even though it may look incomplete 

Holland Cotter goes on to say,"ordinarily, artists stop work when they feel they’ve done enough, even if to an observer it seems they might have kept painting. And sometimes they really do stop short. They hit a creative block, or become overbooked, or grow lazy. Or they die". Hyperallergic observed this about Unfinished: "while seemingly permanent, prized objects, they are as much about frustration, irresolution, loss, failure, and uncertainty".  

(Left: Self-Portrait Reflection, Fragment (circa 1965) by Lucian Freud / credit Jack Naughton for The New York Times)

Uncertainty with a little frustration, seems to be the feeling the critics get when they reviewed the show. They were not able to fully flow with the exhibit. They were not uncertain about the work from the Renaissance to the 19th century, the critics were familiar with that work and they felt it was strong. They became disconcerted with the Met's inclusion of contemporary art.

According to Jason Fargo from The Guardian, "as Unfinished moves upstairs, and into the 20th century, it judders violently; the two halves of the show have almost nothing to link them--Its modern and contemporary holdings were weak links in the collection".

(Left: Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917–18)by Gustav Klimt)

The Critics Sense a Disturbance in the Force. The last time this type of disturbance was felt by the NY art critics was almost 50 years ago, after the Harlem On My Mind exhibit in 1969. The Met is once again moving out of their preconceived box and the critics are not prepared to challenge these changes.

Roberta Smith, of the NY Times said: "The Met is huge and old, with a history of treating contemporary art as an afterthought. Getting it to change is like turning around an ocean liner; captain and crew are perhaps understandably proceeding cautiously". But consider this, The Metropolitan Museum of Art threw everyone a curve ball in 1969 by green-lighting a project that even they weren't quite ready to deal with. This is equivalent to turning a battleship on a dime and everyone, critics, institutions and NYC itself got thrown forward and backwards in it's aftermath. It's about to happen again but not quite the same way.

(Left: The Charnel House, 1944–1945 by Pablo Picasso, Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Look at the Signs. The Met changed their long standing logo, they hired a new director - who in turn is bringing in a new curator, who is there to shake things up. Sounds familiar. The last time the Met did that (1969), the critics hated the exhibit, the city quaked in an uproar of protest, but ten thousand people did visit the exhibition on opening day.  The lesson the Met took away from 1969 was, change is good for them. But change is not good for the status quo. 

(Left -below: Untitled works by Kerry James Marshall)

Their Fears -- real or imagined.

Deborah Solomon of the NY Times said, "the Met’s Modern department might turn into the Tate of Fifth Avenue, with all that that implies about the British fascination with post-colonial cultures and a desire to dismantle Western-centric versions of art history".  

I think the American critics are alarmed at the British presence they see invading the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The new logo design contracted to London based Wolff Olins. The British architect David Chipperfield was awarded the redesign of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing at The Met Fifth Avenue. Thomas P. Campbell, the new director of the Met is a Brit he brought in. Sheena Wagstaff former head curator at the Tate Modern (a Brit too) tapped Cornelia Parker, a widely admired British sculptor for the prize roof top solo exhibit. The Met has yet to give a solo rooftop show to an American female artist. 

This was all too much for the New York art insiders. When Deborah Solomon asked Director Campbell, if there were no American curators good enough to head the department he said, “You tell your American curators to stop being such whiners,” he snapped. “This is a very competitive institution. You succeed by being good”.

The fear realized at that moment was a desire to dismantle Western-centric versions of art history, as not being good enough. In 1969 The Metropolitan Museum recoiled in horror at the Harlem On My Mind intrusion into its halls. In 1971 the Met designed their classic logo and put that incident behind them - but 47 years later it really was Non Finito ...

P.S. Alabama-born artist Kerry James Marshall's work will be shown at the Met Breuer in about a year. 

If you want a clear and concise review of Unfinished, please read -Inside the New Met Breuer’s Housewarming Show - By Carl Swanson 


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