After much anticipation The Met Breuer opened to the public yesterday. Contrary to other underwhelmed reviews, overall, it didn’t disappoint. Securing the vacant Whitney Museum space, the Marcel Breuer-designed building will serve as the newly dubbed ‘Met Breuer’ for the next eight years. The objective here is to encourage a new cultural conversation and re-address the relationship of the old and new by displaying works from the early Renaissance through to the present. The pressure to commit to contemporary art is apparent and crucial given today’s climate where it is said that more than half the world’s collectors are investing in contemporary art. Acutely aware of this much needed rejuvenation, it is yet to be determined whether or not the Met has succeeded in standing alone against respective contemporaries like the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim and the MoMA.
Assuming this initiative is Sheena Wagstaff, formerly a Tate Modern curator, with fellow curators Andrea Bayer and Kelly Baum of the Met, and Nicholas Cullinan of London’s National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition features exceptional loans from both the Met’s own collection as well as international private collections, totaling close to 200 borrowed works. Wagstaff’s wealth of clever curatorial practice confirmed her as the right women to spearhead the influential role as chairman. She told the New York Times, “My work at the Tate Modern… was very much about re-addressing the Western canon, re-addressing the idea of what modernism actually means, and broadening and expanding that scope”.
The museum’s first of two inaugural shows is Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s must-see retrospective. She emerged as one of the most significant artists of her generation in post-Independence India, and is deserving of its own review. The second, sees us delve deeper into this notion of the “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”. Thus questioning the very definition itself – “when is a work of art finished?” Chronologically, guided by the refreshingly welcoming staff, it starts on the third floor. Eager with anticipation the elevator doors unlock, agasp, you enter this world of sixteenth century Italy—commencing with Jacopo da Ponte’s The Baptism of Christ and then two large scale pieces by Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas and The Agony in the Garden. The Flaying of Marsyas in particular by the Italian painter, on loan from the Czech Republic, renders you wonderstruck and sets the tone for what is about to unfold. Excited, I advanced. Weaving around the crisp gray walls of galleries, a myriad of works covering the fifteenth through to the seventeenth century evolved. The Italian term non finito confronts us, meaning quite literally, “not finished.” From the Renaissance to the Baroque, Donatello to Rembrandt, we witness the work of remarkable old masters all under one roof, something that not many other museums could pull off. Michelangelo Buonarroti’s recognizable Studies of the Libyan Sibyl is rather playful in spirit and appears to have been executed in haste. It could be argued that he was notorious for his unfinished sketches. Works such as this remind us to reflect on the premise of the show; the act of creation. Supporting this is El Greco’s The Vision of Saint John, where again the unfinished piece lures the contemporary viewer in with bold, vibrant brushstrokes. If the main objective here was to merge the worlds of past and present – thus determining a greater level of interest between the old and new—then The Met Breuer is victorious. Such works can often be misunderstood or perhaps deemed inaccessible to the current climate of visitors. By featuring works of such grandeur, mid-creation, it aids in our understanding of old masters, creating a modern slant which in turn is easier to digest.
It would have been a great disappointment had the work of Alberto Giacometti been missed, after all he never regarded any of his pieces as finished. The late portrait Annette, depicting his wife, explores his gestural process. The sharp, expressive brushworks in the face epitomize the artist’s technique, shaped with an abstract background. Hanging beside Giacometti’s work is Ferdinand Hodler’s watercolor of Valentine Godé-Darel, which depicts his dead lover. The eerie figure lays there alone and incomplete. Another unfinished painting. Another unfinished life perhaps. The common thread throughout this floor of the exhibition seems to imply that the majority of the works featured, were first executed with the intention of completion. Are these works in fact seen as failures then? My question remains unanswered. Looking at Alice Neel’s unfinished piece of the sitter who is rumored to have never returned after the first sitting and then Lucian Freud’s Self-Portrait, it’s clear these are not failures, but something of majesty. It also allows us, the viewer, to marvel at the spectacle and better understand the artistic process of each master.
Reluctantly, it was time to move on from the incomplete work of other heavyweights like Leonardo, Bruegel, Rubens, Turner and Degas, to the fourth floor.
“To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul”. -Pablo Picasso
Greeted by works from the twentieth century, I felt underwhelmed when comparing my reaction to the floor below. Pollock, Bourgeois, Dumas, Celmins, Warhol, Richter—you name it, they had it. This shouldn’t merit strong criticism, however the rush through Cubism was disappointing. In search of a blank wall for a moment of reflection, I passed Pollock’s supposed unfinished piece without regret, unphased. Kerry James Marshall’s painting offered some respite. The 2009 acrylic painting pokes fun at the idea of completion through the depiction of a ‘paint by numbers’ backdrop. The subject sits holding an oversized pallette, beckoning the viewer in, inspiring participation.
The sculptures in the earlier galleries where certainly intriguing. Robert Smithson’s Mirrors and Shelly Sand could have done with being exhibited in a larger space, free from distraction of other works. The play on what we see and what really exists is key in Smithson’s work, whether it was right for the concept of this show however is undetermined. Stepping back from that, I stopped mid-stance, avoiding a potential ‘crunch’ underfoot. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, a pile of colorful candies, toy with the shows notion of ‘Decay, Dwindle, Decline.’ The piece is brought to life through the interaction of the museum visitors, with the words ‘please take one’ screaming at you, encouraging the viewer to participate in the work’s decline and erosion. Towards the far end of the gallery, Urs Fischer’s piece reclines in all it’s splendour. The nude, headless female body oozes confidence, embodying an air of mystery that we come accept upon closer inspection. The incomplete, beautifully broken body sits awaiting completion, echoing not only decay but sexual violence.
Cy Twombly’s six works of cascading green and white late paintings transport you to an enchanting forest. We don’t know whether or not these works were finished, which begs us to question whether they are fitting in light of the shows concept. In spite of this, the paintings stunningly executed, with drips spilling onto the frames, serve as a unifying blend between Titian’s treasures witnessed at the start of the exhibition.
In brief, would I recommend the trip? Was the hike uptown worth it? Yes, absolutely. The sheer volume and quality of work is astounding and worth discovering. The concept of the “unfinished” however—is left unfinished. The potential is indeed there, however such a contemporary idea deserves more clarity and precision, the extent of work within each gallery, although exciting, was at times crowded and overwhelming.