“Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But, she’s not there.”*
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Van Eyck, Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Mondrian, Basquiat, Whistler, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, Klimt, Munch, Whistler, Robert Smithson, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, and on and on. “Unfinished” is a mimi-Museum unto itself that probably rivals quite a few entire Museums. “Unfinished,” along with the “Nasreen Mohamedi” Retrospective, were the inaugural exhibitions at The Met Breuer (TMB), the first shows of two new eras- The Met’s new 8 year Breuer Building Lease (at a reported $17 million a year 1), and Sheena Wagstaff’s tenure as Chairwoman of The Met’s Modern & Contemporary (M&C) Department. No pressure there. It’s a show that leaves you wondering “Why didn’t anyone think of this before,” before you’ve even gotten to it’s second floor.
Well, for one thing, though many of the works here come from other sources, not a lot of places have the resources The Met has, so yes, a part of this is “showing off.” They’ve chosen to install this in a brand new branch that previously held the entirety of one of the other “Big Three” Manhattan Museums, before the Guggenheim made it the “Big Four.”
If that’s not showing off? I don’t know what is.
The rest is the pure joy of discovery, of seeing a curtain lifted and getting an all too rare chance to see some of what goes into making a masterpiece, a work of Art. And? The hits just keep on coming. The big names, that is, if not the most well-known work by any of those names. 197 works in all filling the 3rd & 4th Floors. While nothing here is “famous,” even in their, supposedly, incomplete state (either left unfinished on purpose, or not, in the case of Lucian Freud’s “Portrait of the Hound,” which was left as we see it on his easel when he died), these works hold up just as they are, making this a show jam packed with excellent, even important pieces. Yes, curating a show of “unfinished” work THIS well is also showing off The Met’s superb staff. Along with the pleasure of looking, they also provide fascinating, voyeuristic, even unique, insights into the Artist’s process- both working and thought. Some, as in Alice Neel’s “James Hunter Black Draftee’, 1965, are, perhaps, more evocative than it might have been had it been “finished.” Mr. Hunter never returned for additional sittings. We are left to wonder why not.
The whole question of “When is a work of Art, finished?” comes front and center here as well, and no less than Rembrandt chimes in on it.
Highlights? I’ll list those that come to mind quickly because there are so many. For me, Jan Van Eyck was the very first Artist who truly captivated me as a kid. Shortly after getting my driver’s license, I drove the almost 6 hours each way just to see his “Annunciation” in Washington’s National Gallery, then drove right back. Seeing his underdrawing for his unfinished St. Barbara was just breathtaking. It’s truly unbelievable to think that something like this lies underneath his finished masterpieces, like The Ghent Altarpiece! While he is legendary for the extraordinary and exquisite detail of his painting, which has held me in disbelief for all these decades, apparently, he could also draw every bit as well2
Just astounding. Oh, and sitting a few feet away was a da Vinci portrait profile that was positively otherworldly. When the show opened (along with the Met Breuer) in March, it was flanked by Leonardo’s “Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child” and Michelangelo’s “Study for the Libyan Sibyl.” Since “Unfinished” was up for a very generous four and a half months, the later two were replaced after a while, no doubt due to their fragility. It seemed to me they may have been there in honor of TMB’s opening. Both works are in TM’s permanent collection. More showing off? (Slight smile)
Oh, all of this is in the 2nd room. In the first room, upon getting off the elevator on the 3rd Floor, at the show’s beginning, you’re immediately faced with 2 large, powerful Titians that are guaranteed to stop you for a good long while, and a Jacopo Bassano.
Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew, a whole room of Turners, a beautifully selected print gallery, a very “different” Degas of a horse race, a Van Gogh who’s color filled the entire room, a stunning Munch self portrait…all on the 3rd floor, wowed me.
On the 4th Floor, getting off the elevator was no less dramatic. No less than 4 amazing Picassos greet you, one of which is “the Charnel House,” the work which bookends (with “Guernica”) his WW2 years. While “Guernica,” rightfully, is seen as one of the landmarks of 20th Century Art (and one I’m eternally thankful I got to see in person at Moma’s Picasso Retrospective in 1980 before it was moved to Spain as Picasso’s will required), here is a work that I think deserves more attention. It’s surrounded by 3 other pieces, in 3 other styles (in addition to 2 others in the next gallery, and a few more on the 3rd floor), that show Picasso in the process of thinking through the problems inherent in each work- each one in a different style. After the 1921 “Portrait of Olga,” right, below, he was inventing each of these styles. It’s akin to inventing a new language. There was no one else to help him or guide him. Some artists, like Jackson Pollock, have done this once. Picasso? There’s three in this one gallery, and it doesn’t even include Cubism.
There was quite a bit of fanfare paid to The Met’s announcement of The Met Breuer as a “Contemporary Outpost,” especially during the years when the 5th Avenue Modern & Contemporary Galleries were to be undergoing the reconstruction they had also announced. Yet, in this co-inaugural show, we get quite a bit of what The Met is famous for, along with about two thirds of the 4th floor of more recent works. The size of many of these newer works seems to cut down on the number of pieces, however, making the show feel skewed towards older Artists. Of the 197 works in the show, I counted 74 works by Artists born after 1900, 12 by Artists born after 1950. (The youngest Artist represented is Urs Fischer, who was born in 1973, and who’s mysterious cast bronze “2,” from 2014 is also the newest work here by my reckoning.)
“But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there”*
Yet, even among the M&C pieces here on the 4th floor, there are memorable pieces. In additon to Urs Fischer’s “2”, the unfinished Mondrian struck me as a revelation. Yayoi Kusama’s genre defying paintings of consecutive numbers gave pause for thought, as did Sol LeWitt’s amazing tour de force “Incomplete Open Cubes” nearby and, Kerry James Marshal’s “Untitled,” 2009, was a nice appetizer for his much anticipated “Mastry” show opening at TMB October 25. The show concludes with a wonderful selection of sculpture, including haunting works by Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled (No.2), 1996, and Alina Szapocznikow’s work about her own battle with breast cancer, “Turmors Personified,” 1971, in dialogue alongside 3 Rodins. The final gallery consisted of only one work- a series of 6 pieces by Cy Twombly, entitled “Untitled I-VI (Green Paintings), 1986, which provided a meditative, cleansing experience I found especially memorable.
Overall, what I took from this show as a whole was a possible template for what The Met plans to do going forward, the kinds of Artists they may include in their “new initiative.” It’s something I plan to watch closely as it unfurls. I should say that I have been in the minority regarding The Met and M&C Art. I liked that they were taking their time and allowing time to give some perspective on Contemporary Art before jumping in. It’s always been an honor to be in The Met- they have the best of the the best across all cultures and all times. Yet, given the unprecedented popularity of M&C Art today, they have opted to move more fully into it. Ms. Wagstaff, who I met in June, seems to have a great sense for all of this, and if anything, “Unfinished,” is a show that consists of work across at least a few Met Departments. Being able to work, apparently, so well with the other Met Departments augers well for the future. After all, The Met has 2,000,000 items in it’s collection. Showing M&C Art along side of selected objects in their collection is something I am all for.
For me? That’s what this show says- Here are (unfinished) works by many of the greats. This is where we are starting from. Let’s see how other work that may, or may not, have been influenced by them, looks alongside these. The show may be seen as a number of conversations between Artists they are displayed alongside- Leonardo with Michelangelo. Van Eyck and Durer, Rembrandt with Velazquez(!). Degas and Manet. Van Gogh and Whistler(!). Picasso and Cezanne. Pollock and Kusama. Smithson and Fischer. Marshall and Warhol. Szapocznikow and Rodin. Rauschenberg and Mondrian. And, Picasso, also…with himself, among them. I say bring it on!
Still, there’s no denying that The Met Breuer is a HUGE gamble. Who knows how long Contemporary Art will stay as “hot” as it is? For that matter, who knows how much longer record number of viewers will go to see Art, as they have these past few years? The Met is locked into this for 8 years, and they have already announced a budget deficit that caused them to put off the previously announced reconstruction of the Modern & Contemporary Galleries, and, more sadly, even forced an unknown number of lay offs.
When they return to better times, IF they decide to move forward with those reconstruction plans, they will, most likely, need additional space for the temporary display of their Modern & Contemporary holdings, and Special Exhibitions. What will they do? Extending the lease on the Breuer will be VERY expensive. So far? I have yet to see it’s galleries very crowded. The “Diane Arbus; In The Beginning” Show, which recently opened on the 2nd floor, seems to be drawing pretty well, and “Unfinished” was fairly crowded during it’s last weeks. Yet? They’ve already closed the 5th Floor Cafe & Bookstore and remodeled it as additional Gallery space, which indicates that they want to have more going on there for visitors to see, and their basement restaurant is scheduled to open in about a month, which will be open during some hours The Museum is not. Obviously, this is all new, and still in flux. The Met seems to be reacting fairly quickly, which is a good sign. They did away with late Thursday nights, which I seemed to be among the very few that went to, and changed to late Friday & Saturday nights, like TM, 5th Avenue.
So far, on very little evidence, I like the direction TM is going at TMB, and with M&C Art. “Nasreen Mohamedi” was a revelation that struck me as the “perfect choice” to be the first M&C Show. “Unfinished” was an unexpected blockbuster the likes of which has never been seen before, which is somewhat startling given how long there have been painting shows. The Diane Arbus show is fascinating and features a ground breaking installation. Also, not to be lost is the reconfiguration of the M&C Galleries at TM on 5th Avenue- I love what they’ve done. The Art has been imaginatively rehung in fascinating new combinations, with some pieces given new prominence, like Edward Hopper’s majestic “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,”1929, and other pieces shown that have long been in storage. Along with this, Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” Mural appears to have now been permanently housed, at the center of supporting works and works that enter into interesting dialogue with it nearby. Other galleries are arranged by theme, instead of chronology.
So? There’s been a lot of action coming from new M&C Chairwoman Sheena Wagstaff and her Department. There’s a long way to go, but so far? It’s hard for me to give her less than an “A” for what she and they have accomplished.
Most of the Artists in “Unfinished” won’t get the chance to finish what they started. The Met will.
*-Soundtrack for this post is “She’s Not There,” by Rod Argent, recorded by The Zombies, and published by Marquis Songs, USA.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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- http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/05/arts/design/breuer-building-expands-the-imagination-and-the-budget-of-the-met.html?_r=1 ↩
- Yes, I saw “A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece” at TM proper, which featured a drawing of the Crucifixion from Rotterdam that may, or may not be, by Van Eyck. I came away VERY impressed by it to be sure, but remaining to be entirely convinced. ↩