MuseumsWeekend

Never Mind the Bollocks, It’s the Met’s Breuer Now

Pablo Picasso, “Painter and His Model” (1914), oil on canvas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I realize that I’m coming late to the party with Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, one of the three debut exhibitions of the Met Breuer, and I have little to add to the conversation about the fundamental problem with the show, which Eric Gibson in The Wall Street Journal sums up as “accord[ing] a centrality to something that is more often than not aesthetically peripheral.”

I did, however, feel a sense of wistfulness for the old Whitney, which started when I attempted to take the stairs from the third floor to the fourth, and encountered a pair of large, heavy, closed black doors. I couldn’t remember those doors ever being closed before. The same hindrance of access held true on every floor.

The Whitney’s decision to move to larger quarters was all but inevitable: compared with its sprawling Renzo Piano digs on Gansevoort Street, the museum’s former Marcel Breuer home feels shockingly tiny. But when I found the doors to the stairwell closed, I began to realize that, for all its blunders — and they were innumerable, especially in its wave upon wave of failed Biennials — the Whitney was the rare museum willing to go out on a limb, make a fool of itself, wake up with morning after regrets. With Unfinished, the Met seems to be shutting the door on gawky, adolescent openness, assuring us that the grownups are now in charge.

And they’ve taken charge in a spectacular way, opening the show — as every review has noted — with Titian’s savage “The Flaying of Marsyas” (1570s), arguably one of the world’s greatest paintings. But the canvas’s wildness is undercut by the hushed, dimly lit, dark gray room in which it hangs, the stodgiest of Old Master settings.

Gustav Klimt, “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III” (1917-18), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

If the Met Breuer, as a program, is attempting to demonstrate connectivity across centuries of art-making by way of its own encyclopedic collections — not to mention its global clout in securing such phenomenal loans as the Titian, the Leonardo da Vinci sketch, “Head and Shoulders of a Woman (La Scapigliata)” (ca.1500-1505), in oil, earth, and white lead pigments on a poplar panel, and Jan van Eyck’s painting/drawing hybrid, “St. Barbara” (1437), in metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood — then the contemporariness of older art must be underscored. If low-wattage lights are necessary to protect the paintings, lighter-colored walls would at least help nudge the artwork from its cordoned-off historical precincts into the present day.

In her review for The New York Times, Roberta Smith calls attention to the dearth of juxtapositions between time periods, which perhaps marks a missed opportunity to investigate Renaissance and Baroque paintings as things — material objects that are manipulated, puzzled over, revised, rebuffed, left for dead — in a way that’s no different from how we approach the new. Taking the show’s subtitle, Thoughts Left Visible, at face value, such comparisons might be as vexing as they are illuminating, tipping the balance between intentionality and context on one side and ideation and facture on the other, but they would be worth the floor fight they’d incite.

Instead, we are teased with guessing games, repeated throughout the wall labels in the first part of the show, over what is meant to be unfinished and what is not, while the second part includes, as stated in the museum press release, “works that appear unfinished—open-ended, unresolved, imperfect—at the volition of the artist.” Or, it should be stated, at the volition of the curator: paintings by Yayoi Kusama and Jackson Pollock and sculptures by Sol LeWitt and Piero Manzoni, which appear fully finished to the naked eye, are included based on the ‘open-ended’ or “infinite” aspects of their creators’ methods.

The exhibition’s historical segregation and conceptual over-determination feels controlling and strained, with such untamable artists as Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse neatly stored in tidy vitrines (to be fair, the glass case housing Hesse’s untitled sculpture from 1967-68 is part of the artwork, but in the context, it appears to entrap her spiky formal and material expansiveness), while the final gallery, filled with artists as diverse as Medardo Rosso, Gerhard Richter, Maria Lassnig, and Cy Twombly, comes off as a jumble of leftovers.

But if you’re an artist, or a viewer fascinated with the making of things, you can’t help but be engrossed with much of what is on display. The above-mentioned masterworks are absolutely astonishing. Titian’s fiendishly complex use of space pulls the eye around and through the jagged, interlocking columns of figures, the fractured space and faceted surface, aggressively frontal here, deeply recessed there. Leonardo’s portrait contrasts the silver skin tones of the woman’s face against sketchily improvised squiggles of hair in a coming-together of opposites that can only be described as otherworldly, even angelic. And the razor-sharp precision of van Eyck’s monochromatic drawing against the washy, yellow-and-blue sunset sky is as jarring as it is exhilarating.

Alice Neel, “James Hunter Black Draftee” (1965), oil on canvas

Closer to home, in the 20th century, the authority that Alice Neel exerts at the beginning stages of her eternally searching portraits — her “James Hunter Black Draftee” (1965) is an assured, powerful line drawing augmented by a fully painted head — serves as a marvelous contrast to the tangle of charcoal swirls making up the patterned gown in Gustav Klimt’s “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III” (1917-18), a revelation of process that makes this habitually locked-down painter seem much more humanly tentative and vulnerable.

And then there’s Pablo Picasso’s “Painter and His Model” (1914), which, as the wall label tells us, was painted “at the height of Cubism’s success, [exemplifying] an entirely different style known as classicizing figuration, which Picasso would fully embrace a few years later, at the conclusion of World War I.” This “art historical anomaly,” as the text calls it, is a monkey wrench in the gears of a well-oiled narrative, a reminder that whatever chapter we think of as closed is perforce open, a recognition of complexity and contradiction that a museum like the Met is uniquely positioned to impart.

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible continues at The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 4.

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