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Mad Met: More on the Met Breuer’s Misfire on Madison

While the Met Breuer’s inaugural show, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, may prove to be a popular success, given the interest in the Metropolitan Museum’s new Madison Avenue initiatives, it got mostly tepid to negative verdicts from the critics (five review links), with two major exceptions—Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, who exclaimed that “pretty nearly everything on view is exemplary,” and Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe, who found the show to be “crowded with poignant beauty.”

The public opening of the Met Breuer is still ten days away, but many critics have already weighed in, so as not to be upstaged by their colleagues.

My initial take (with images), calling the show “a dispiriting letdown,” is here.

To be sure, many of the works in “Unfinished” transfixed me. I think the signature work for the show—the one confronting you when you step out of the Met Breuer’s third-floor elevator—should have been this Rubens, which floored me with its wallop of energy and chaotic complexity, triumphing over the adversity of incompleteness. (“A miscommunication with the French court” had caused the artist to abandon this project, the Met’s label informs us.)

[All photos by Lee Rosenbaum]

Rubens, "Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry," c. 1628–30, Rubenshuis, Antwerp

Rubens, “Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry,” c. 1628–30, Rubenshuis, Antwerp

Instead, we are greeted on arrival with three dark, dour masterpieces:


Here’s the centerpiece of the trio:

Titian, "The Flaying of Marsyas," probably 1570s, Archidiocese Olomouc, Archiepiscopal Palace, Picture Gallery, Kroměříž

Titian, “The Flaying of Marsyas,” probably 1570s, Archidiocese Olomouc, Archiepiscopal Palace, Picture Gallery, Kroměříž

Titian’s depiction of the gruesome death of the satyr who lost a musical contest with Apollo was the subject of what, to me, was the most intriguing essay in the show’s catalogue (maybe because of my advanced years)—“Old-Age Style and the Non Finito” by David Bomford, chairman of the department of conservation and interim head of the department of European Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

What Bomford says about “Marsyas,” a late work, is far more interesting that anything on the museum’s exhibition label and exemplifies what this inaugural display too often lacks—the deep curatorial insight that we have come to expect from the Met.

In his catalogue essay, Bomford notes that “Marsyas” evinces what Kenneth Clark had described as the “reckless freedom of facture” characterizing old-age style—“brushwork piled up with such apparent randomness, bordering on formlessness, that it defies all notions of conventional finish,” in Bomford’s words. He writes that “the surface of ‘Marsyas’ is often described as ‘shredded,’ echoing the flaying theme of the subject. And yet, real form and narrative do emerge from the maelstrom of paint strokes in the most extraordinarily powerful way.”

In contrast to that lively drama, here’s the Met’s ho-hum label:


Part of my own disappointment with “Unfinished” stemmed from my visit the prior week to the Met’s “Reimagining Modernism” in its flagship building, which admirably lived up to the following description on the museum’s website (interspersed with my photos) by organizer Randall Griffey, the Met’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art:

“Reimagining Modernism” places icons of the Museum’s collection…into dialogue with lesser-known works from the collection—many of which have been either on view infrequently or are presented here for the very first time.

The Odd Trio: de Kooning, 1944; Neel, 1946; Kuhn, 1930, along with modernist chairs Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Odd Trio: de Kooning, 1944; Neel, 1946; Kuhn, 1930, fronted by modernist chairs

The installation is also enhanced by an increased numbers of works of art by women, including Helen Torr and Elizabeth Catlett, and artists whose derivation falls outside the strictly European or Euro-American nexus, such as [African American] Hale Woodruff and [Japanese-born] Bumpei Usui [not to mention Mexican Diego Rivera and Native American Nampeyo]:

Partners in Life, Reunited: L, Helen Torr. “Crimson and Green Leaves,” 1927; R, Arthur Dove, “Reaching Waves,” 1929

Bumpei Usui, “The Furniture Factory,” 1925

Diego Rivera, “The Café Terrace,” 1915

Nampeyo, Hopi-Tewa, Jar, c. 1900

A blend of chronological and thematic approaches, the project suggests possibilities for the Metropolitan Museum’s engagement with and presentation of modern and contemporary art over the upcoming months and years as the museum prepares to move into and to program the iconic Marcel Breuer building previously occupied by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This permanent-collection reinstallation, while hampered by the limitations of the Met’s modern-art holdings, led me to anticipate a more groundbreaking show at the Met Breuer than the one we got. In his above-linked New Yorker review, Schjeldahl presumed to psychoanalyze the unenthusiastic critics, stating that we “seethe with unstated resentments.” (Gee, Peter, can’t we disagree with you without necessarily being mentally unbalanced?)

My beef with the Met is that its own buildup had led me to expect much more than it delivered. We already knew they could be counted on to round up great masterpieces, and I don’t minimize the importance of that.

But this was supposed to be “the type of groundbreaking show [emphasis added] that can result when the museum mines its vast collection and curatorial resources to present modern and contemporary art within a deep historical context,” in the words of the show’s press release. In mining that “deep context” for scintillating insights, “Unfinished” rarely struck gold.

For fresh takes, maybe the Met needs to mine the ideas of its less deeply entrenched staff members. Here’s a lesser-known scholar (assistant curator, Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas) who may be onto something. Below are images that he sent me in a tweet reacting to my gripes about the inadequate audio guide and the absence of labels at the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Picasso Sculpture show:


For more inventive, boundary-breaking juxtapositions, maybe the Breuer Baton needs to pass into the hands of younger experts in less prominent curatorial departments, who have less siloed intellectual mindsets.

After all, isn’t the Met Breuer supposed to be about cross-cultural experimentation?

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