Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible
The Met Breuer, New York
18 March – 24 September 2016
The Met Breuer, New York
18 March – 5 June
by JILL SPALDING
Ten blocks from the mothership, the Metropolitan Museum has thrown down a gauntlet. With a new tenant and a fresh logo, Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer’s storied (though, astoundingly, not landmarked) brutalist building, shuttered when the Whitney moved south, has grandly reopened as the stanchion of the Met’s controversial entry into the arena of the art of our day. Leased for eight years (with an option to extend), the inverted ziggurat will stage the venerable museum’s venture into contemporary art until David Chipperfield overhauls the south wing of what New Yorkers are already calling Met Fifth for its permanent tournament field.
To those who have repeatedly asked “Why?”, the answer is obvious. Given that patronage is every museum’s lifeline, the resolve of its director, Thomas Campbell, that the Met “is not going to cut itself off from supporters of the future” recruited Sheena Wagstaff from the Tate Modern and gave her the curatorial carte blanche to attract them. Let cynics attribute the move to feathering a nest for new donors, the takeover is a triumph. You will applaud the Met Breuer. After several years and $18m (£12.6m) of refurbishment, the result is perfection. Less a transformation than a taming, the building presents the very same brash facade to the world that classicists love to hate, but has been reined in with the sure hand of pedigree that modernists hate to love. As ever, at the top of its game with lighting and wall colour, the Met has achieved a Petit Prince miracle, gentling a formidable structure into a gracious and congenial home away from home. Its rough stone exterior newly serves as a carapace to shield a museum experience that is as refined as an atmosphere and open-ended as a university. In the glow of its silver-tipped bulbs, revived blue-stone floors and the recreation of the famed Marcel Breuer reading room that introduced cozy-minimalism, the Whitney’s rough and ready persona has muted to one of intimacy and quiet contemplation; even the famed trapezoidal windows now seem less architectural than spiritual.
What appears a smooth transition must have been daunting. Hired to ease this nation’s Versailles of museums into the 21st century, Wagstaff has had to walk the plank of derision (compete with MoMA?), disbelief (too late out of the gate, gal, all the good stuff’s bought up), and dismay (what if the endeavour collapses under the weight of unrealistic aspiration? Who will go, who will care?) Unfazed, and in happy collusion with the time-tested architectural restoration firm Beyer Blinder Belle, Wagstaff took a bold new approach. Drawing on the sophistication of an encyclopedic collection and an age older than Italy, the Breuer’s industrial spaces have been reimagined to invoke something between the Florentine studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro and the house of a prosperous 17th-century Antwerp merchant.
The smaller spaces don’t lend themselves readily to concrete and slate, but the shift was deliberate. In contrast to the 2m square-foot Met Fifth, a teaching institution devoted to the history of art, the more pliable 25,000 square-foot Met Breuer plans to offer – via exposition, juxtaposition and a condensed cross-association of art spanning 5,000 years – myriad stories of art. Art that is still very much part of the world: art less as treasured collections than as connective tissue, living narrative and zeitgeist.
The complete antithesis, in other words, of what New York anticipated. We expected the inaugural exhibition to be a flashy performance, a muscular parade of high-profile auction-busters in the order of a nose thumbed at any who hold the Museum of Modern Art and the new Whitney the last word on the art of our time. Auguring well for the future, instead of a chest-thumping, “We’ll show you contemporary!”, Wagstaff chose to open with a time-spanning inquiry: “What is Unfinished?” Thoughtfully curated by Andrea Bayer of the Met’s European paintings department and Kelly Baum of its postwar and contemporary art department, the question is complex. Translating the state of incompletion as due variously to the artist’s intention or circumstance – boredom with the subject, aborted funding, a more lucrative commission, or, terminally, death – this inaugural show traces through five centuries the implications – philosophical and aesthetic – for both artist and viewer, of work left incomplete. More intriguingly, it poses the profound question, introduced in the Renaissance by the notion of non finito – of what artists reach for with the formal gestures of deliberately loose brushwork, smudged details, streaky lines and bare canvas in work left intentionally unfinished. What can be learned by both maker and viewer from possibilities left open? From an image in evolution? From unresolved space; and from under-drawing playing off polish? What tension and what mystery might build from the frisson sparked in artist and viewer by what’s missing?
These concerns are not new, but rarely have they been addressed with comparable resources. Drawing on its borrowing power and bottomless inventory, the Met Breuer allots two floors to explore the spectrum of work held unfinished from the Renaissance to the present. Beginning on the third floor, as you did at the Whitney, the monumental elevator brings you face to face with the show’s opening statement. Placing a trio of majesterial Venetians on the very wall whose parting shot for the Whitney was a near-pornographic Jeff Koons cannily updates shock and sets the Met’s vaulting agenda going forward. A wrenching Bassano, a raging Titian, and a lilting Tintoretto – wow, wow, wow!
Teaching moments abound; aha revelations show the elaborate tangle of drawing that Jan van Eyck, the revered pioneer of oil paint, worked up into the high gloss of enamel; how even at the height of his powers Rubens was trying out three arms on a warrior for the panoramic Henry lV on the Battlefield before abandoning the commission when the Medici provided the wrong measurements and delayed payment; how Rembrandt – golly! who has ever even seen an unfinished Rembrandt? – worked the spaces in his preparatory sketches very differently from those floated like silk between the strong pen strokes of his finished drawings; how Gustav Klimt used his signature background-florals as scaffolding to support the still-unresolved body of the nubile Ria Munk lll, a portrait he attempted several times but, blocked perhaps by her suicide, left as-is on his easel at his death.
There are works whose sheer beauty leaves the thematic point mute – the unresolved weather in the unfinished Turner landscapes, the aching voids in Van Gogh’s sky, and the landscape that Caspar David Friedrich abandoned after suffering a stroke, but showed anyway because he felt that it had “enough life”, pull at your heart not your mind. Illustrating how transparent process can lead the viewer to new readings of familiar material, the smoky shapes that hover over Picasso’s The Charnel House convey as poignantly as his Guernica the horrors of blitz and massacre. Confirming that Wagstaff has accomplished her mission to “make older art seem urgently relevant”, who would have thought to link Anton Raphael Mengs to John Baldessari, but for an uncompleted rococo portrait that leaves the sitter’s face a blob and her lapdog a puzzle piece? The same holds for the Met Breuer pledge to “reinvigorate the position of modern and contemporary art in its relation to history”: who would imagine, until seeing it, that Elizabeth Peyton would want to repaint Jacques-Louis David’s incomplete portrait of Napoleon? Who would have thought of Rodin’s marble hand as unfinished until, in the challenging context of Louise Bourgeois’s severed wrists and Alina Szapocznikow’s scattered tumours, it, too, emerges as a fragment, provoking the viewer to fill in the dots of the original scheme.
Filling in the dots as its own scheme is cleverly addressed by three otherwise disparate works, with Andy Warhol’s Do it Yourself (Violin) – a finished painting of an unfinished offering from a paint-by-numbers kit – marking the pop movement’s fine line between popular and fine art, and questioning the impact on its commercial value had the purchaser filled it in. Speaking to cross-generational, cross-cultural, past and future,James Hunter Black Draftee, Alice Neel’s portrait of a soldier called to the front before the next sitting, whose painted-in face and hand speak to his origin, and sketched-in body to war’s finality, dialogues poignantly with a portrait by Kerry James Marshall, whose declaration, “On some level, in one way or other” all of us “want to be part of an institution like the Met”, together with his forthcoming retrospective at the Breuer, announces the staying power of the African-American matinee idol generation.
As played out on the fourth floor, the curatorial thesis is uneven; partly because the late-20th-century canon is marched out in the linear fashion Wagstaff had pledged to disrupt, and partly because contemporary art is prolific and contentious. Knowing the Met’s reach inevitably raises questions of selection. Why this and not that, and in the case of Lucian Freud, why three? Just because Luc Tuymans riffed on Cezanne, should he be included in a show at this level? And you may find yourself wondering whether Zoe Leonard’s diminutive stitched orange peels were included as a nod to her triumphant inversion of the Breuer’s oculus into a camera obscura for the Whitney’s farewell biennial here. There are other stretches – one of the three stripes comprising a Barnett Newman painting did not receive its third coat; a pile of signature Félix González-Torres candies, installed intact but depleted by viewers, reverses the condition of “unfinished” into concept. While it is understandable to give a wall to Cy Twombly because Wagstaff had given the artist a Tate retrospective and wanted to acknowledge him for proposing this inaugural show’s theme, why the 1986 Untitled l-lV (Green Paintings) – coarsely streaked and clearly unfinished but, for reasons unknown, signed, and for reasons too evident, never shown? And, begging the question that by dint of its stated new mission the Met repeatedly will come up against, isn’t the inclusion of auction-ready art anointed by the galleries representing it – such as Urs Fischer’s 2 bronze parody of “unfinished” – pandering to branding?
Possibly to counter vulgar notions of commerce, Wagstaff leaves you with a sophisticated dessert. The show on the second floor is pure gossamer; a beautiful survey of quiet furrowed photographs and deceptively spare ink-on-graphite drawings by the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, which share the defining sensibility of Agnes Martin’s grid drawings, but on closer inspection reach farther and burrow deeper, into Mohamedi’s Muslim heritage, fragile health, and call to abstraction, to construct, through repeated erasure and redrawing, a new visual vocabulary that ratifies the Met Breuer’s open-ended commitment to a dialogue with art across cultures.
The way to leave is by the newly polished stairs, and, ideally, after lunch, once the restaurant opens. Pause in the lobby gallery to listen to the Met’s musician-in-residence, Vijay Iyer, and again outside to look down on the moat, freed now of clutter and awaiting the shade of an alley of trees. I would add that since the “suggested” admission price now covers all three Mets (had you forgotten the Cloisters?), admission to this glorious experiment is free.
Yet, not all has been praised; New York Times architectural pundit Paul Goldberger, for the most part, enthusiastic, bemoans the digital video board covering (“not replacing, I checked”) the slatted back lobby wall designed by Breuer to hold catalogues. Some fault the inaugural show as too timid, others as too muddled. On the part of the press, the problem seems one of after-image – the Whitney’s raw take on recent art still imprinted on the brain. With the previewing members, I suspect the crowd factor. It is difficult to commune with work refined down to an elite private collection in mass company. Until and unless the excitement abates, intimate contemplation of these stunning offerings, all brilliantly hung as over a coffee table, will surrender to selfies and elbow-rubbing convergence.
In the end, though, the growing pains of a new project remain beside the point of actual achievement. Even crowd-pleasers move the needle only if they serve the greater purpose of revelation. A museum is a vessel. The institution is the captain, the material shown is the ship, and curatorship the rudder: it takes an ineffable mix of them all to produce wonder. The ineffable stands on its own – like breath, it is or it isn’t – it can’t be imposed. The Met Breuer, assembled with connoisseurship, access to top material and a soupçon of magic, is the product of such alchemy. We may have only eight years to follow thoughtful presentations spanning 5,000 years of art history, since it’s doubtful that Met Fifth will need the Breuer after 2020, when its shiny new wing will have given it a Cecil B DeMille stage to peacock its jubilant march to the future.
Until then, should you feel the need to experience masterpieces as collected on grand tours, displayed in small demesnes and in conversation with work of our time, go on a rainy day or early morning, check your coat and busy schedule, and inhale them.