The Metropolitan Museum of Art Inaugurates the Met Breuer

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Inaugurates the Met Breuer

Great artists reinvent themselves continually. Great museums do too. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the biggest museum in the Western Hemisphere, houses an encyclopedic collection that spans history and the globe, with important works from ancient Egypt to sound pieces commissioned this year. Its strong suit has never been Modern and Contemporary Art, until a mammoth gift in March 2013 of eighty-one Cubist masterworks from cosmetics billionaire Leonard A. Lauder. Now, the museum has to make room for it. The move in March of the Met’s contemporary art department to the famed Breuer building on Madison Avenue (designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and formerly the home of the Whitney) is one of the most significant changes in its 150-year history.

In a city with more than five hundred art galleries, it might seem as though another outpost for contemporary art, even the most vaunted, would be superfluous. But the Met Breuer intends to stand out. It’s gearing up to highlight global modern and contemporary art, and, with that in mind, Sheena Wagstaff from the Tate was brought in to head the department in 2012. Wagstaff, an army daughter, lived in five countries before going to university. Her vision is progressive and international. She’s bolstered the staff with fresh young curators expert in South Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and North African art, as well as in contemporary European and American art, to fill the new venue.

To announce the Met Breuer’s presence, the museum has lined up opening exhibitions that underscore their unique strength in both old and new, Western and non-Western, art, presenting a breadth and depth that no one but the Met can. “For our inaugural season,” Wagstaff noted in a press release on December 1, 2015, “we have developed a far-reaching program that explores themes that stretch across history, geography, and art forms.” She added, “Great works of art can transcend both time and place.”

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible is curated by Wagstaff, along with Andrea Bayer, who’s been exhibiting Renaissance through Impressionist works for more than twenty years; Kelly Baum, who focuses on work being done today; and Nicholas Cullinan (who’s since left the Met), guided by Wagstaff’s cutting-edge sensibility joined with respect for the past. Five hundred and fifty years of art will be surveyed, presenting a question that’s vexed artists seemingly forever: When is a work complete?

Some two hundred works, ranging from Titian and Rembrandt, up to Berthe Morisot and Eva Hesse, examine the idea of when a work is finished. The delicately detailed Saint Barbara, half-drawn and half-painted by the Flemish master Jan Van Eyck in 1437, raises some of the same questions as does Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather (1993–94), in which the artist created busts of herself in chocolate and in soap, and then disassembled them as suggested by the title.

The range of the exhibition, Wagstaff said, “throws into sharp focus the ongoing concern of artists about the ‘finishedness’ of their work—which, in the twentieth century, they co-opt as a radical tool.” Unfinished Thoughts considers what went on in the mind of the artist and why he or she stopped at a certain inflection point. It also seems to reflect the museum’s own unfinished journey.

On another floor, Nasreen Mohamedi, a twentieth-century modernist painter from India, will be featured in a solo exhibition. Rare for her adherence to strict abstraction half a world away from the New York School, Mohamedi’s compositions of monochromatic geometries and grids are focused on line, space, and light, and influenced generations of Asian artists.

Also inaugurating the space will be newly commissioned pieces. Soundwalk 9:09 (2016) was conceived and created by Pulitzer winner John Luther Adams in part from audio clips submitted online of sounds encountered while walking the nine-minute, nine-second walk from the Met to the Met Breuer. Vijay Iyer, the Met’s current artist in residence, will bring the lobby to life with performances of music, dance, and poetry, along with a light installation by Tatsuo Miyajima.

The Met has taken over Breuer’s iconic space for eight years, with an option to continue for another five, while the south wing of the main building undergoes a major rebuild. That’s a lot of seasons and some twenty-nine thousand feet of exhibition space to fill. If a pattern emerges, it’s likely to be one of exploration—global, temporal, conceptual, and visual—reflecting Wagstaff’s worldview and the museum’s efforts to highlight great works of history while remaining current.

Mary Gregory is an arts writer and novelist whose exhibition reviews appear regularly in New York magazines and newspapers.


Photo Captions

  1. The Met Breuer photograph by Ed Lederman
  2. Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible installation view
  3. Jan van Eyck, Saint Barbara, 1437, Metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood, 12 3/16 × 7 1/16 in. (31 × 18 cm) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen
  4. Adolph Menzel, Altar in a Baroque Church, ca. 1880–1890, Oil and blue pencil on oak wood, 19 11/16 × 24 in. (50 × 61 cm), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
  5. Alice Neel, James Hunter Black Draftee, 1965, Oil on canvas, 60 × 40 in., COMMA Foundation, Belgium
  6. Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible installation view with JMW Turner paintings
  7. Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rough Sea, ca. 1840–1845, Oil on canvas, 36 × 48 in. (91.4 × 121.9 cm), Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
  8. Andy Warhol, Do It Yourself (Violin), 1962, Synthetic polymer paint and Prestype on canvas, Private Collection
  9. Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather, 1993-1994, Chocolate and soap, Head I: 24 × 13 in. (61 × 33 cm) Head II: 16 × 13 in. (40.6 × 33 cm), Collection of Jill and Peter Kraus
  10.  Nasreen Mohamedi installation view
  11. Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, ca.1975, Ink and graphite on paper, 9 1/2 × 9 1/2 in. (24.1 × 24.1 cm), Sikander and Hydari Collection
  12. Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, 1969, Collage and watercolor on paper, 13 3/4 × 20 in. (34.9 × 50.8 cm), Collection of Gayatri and Priyam Jhaveri


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