The Metropolitan Museum Is Still Very Eurocentric and Conservative

El Greco’s "The Vision of Saint John” ( c. 1609–14) in one of The Met Breuer’s new galleries (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
El Greco’s “The Vision of Saint John” (c. 1609–14) in one of the Met Breuer’s new galleries (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

If you thought the Eurocentric gods may have been toppled from their comfortable perches at the top of Mt. Met, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Metropolitan Museum’s renovation of the Marcel Breuer building, which reopens this month, has left it largely in the same state we all remember, and, with the exception of a few touchups and finesses, largely unaltered. Add to that the fact that the museum is marking the coming-out of its new contemporary- and modern art-focused pavilion with a show dedicated to “the unfinished,” and you have a rather underwhelming experience.

Installation view of 'Unfinished' at the Met Breuer
Installation view of ‘Unfinished’ at the Met Breuer, with Alina Szapocznikow’s “Tumors Personified” (1971) in the foreground and works by Medardo Rosso and Auguste Rodin in the background (click to enlarge)

There is nothing radical about the Met Breuer; in fact, there is something staid about the expansion from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue. The main exhibition provides an almost exclusively Eurocentric stroll through Western art history, starting with the European Renaissance and continuing on through Auguste Rodin, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Urs Fischer. These are known quantities that fit neatly into the history of art — nothing radical here.

The idea of Unfinished is peculiar to begin with, and even the wall text often questions whether the works on display are finished at all. For Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (probably 1570s) — one of the must-see masterpieces in the exhibition — the text is strangely rambling: “We do not know for whom Titian’s late masterpiece was painted, whether it was completed to the artist’s satisfaction (although it is signed), or whether it was altered following his death.”

Each work is a puzzle, but there aren’t many answers, and that’s OK. The general mood suggests that unfinished works have a contemporary air about them, like they offer insight into an artist’s mind that finished works could not, but is the concept strong enough for an entire show at the center of a new building’s relaunch? Not really.

The Met’s reboot, new logo and all, has been highly anticipated and promised a more global and contemporary vision of the history of art. What we’ve gotten so far has been a watered-down version of that exciting promise.

A view of the Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition at the Met Breuer
A view of the Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition at the Met Breuer (click to enlarge)

Even the second-floor exhibition, which is devoted to the work of South Asian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi, is largely pedestrian. The work is conceptual and tends toward the minimal. Mohamedi’s art only reinforces established hierarchies of taste and art, while only offering a geographically expanded version of them. Mohamedi fits almost too neatly into established art historical narratives, allowing the Met to avoid questioning the functionality of the narratives themselves. She went to school in India and the UK, and then spent most of her life creating beautiful abstractions that are expertly conceived and highly refined, even if they tend to be somewhat dull and rather repetitive. This is a show that reinforces the rightness of Eurocentric narratives and justifies the established hierarchies, which dovetail with the global art market. Mohamedi could’ve been included in the Met’s galleries at any time — we didn’t need a reboot for that to happen.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect the Met, a Eurocentric institution of encyclopedic proportions, to change much. Maybe it’s too ambitious to think that its curators even know that the current conversations about decolonizing museums are raging all around them. What we’ve gotten is an outpost of the venerable institution closer to the commercial hub of its neighborhood. But don’t fret, because it’s still the Met. There are masterpieces galore, there is luxury around every corner, and be assured that the crowds will follow.

I’ll be watching eagerly to see how the programming develops and how Sheena Wagstaff, the chairwoman for the Met’s new department of Modern and contemporary art, and her staff will shake things up. Retrospectives of Diane Arbus and Kerry James Marshall are on the way, and Vijay Iyer’s performance residency continues. Will the new Met change the way we understand art? Probably not, but that’s a continuing conversation.

The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) opens to the public on March 18. Unfinished runs March 18–September 4. Nasreen Mohamedi runs March 18–June 5. Stay tuned for Hyperallergic’s reviews of both exhibitions in the coming weeks.

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