Illustration for Holland Cotter’s Met/Whitney thinkpiece: What’s wrong with this picture?
Holland Cotter, the NY Times‘ Pulitzer-prize winning art critic, brainstormed about the future of the Metropolitan Museum in a long front-page piece in the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section, coming up with some compelling suggestions for what the Met could do with the Breuer-designed building that it plans to lease from the downtown-moving Whitney for at least eight years, beginning in 2015. He’s not a fan of the tentative plan to devote the Madison Avenue space to contemporary art.
There’s no reason why the Met couldn’t implement Cotter’s excellent ideas in its current flagship on Fifth Avenue. To some extent, it has already done so.
Cotter noted (and others, including me, have also observed) that the Met is not particularly esteemed for its contemporary art collection. The veteran Times critic would prefer a more far-ranging, innovative focus in the Whitney’s space:
We don’t need a large amount of any one kind of art, from any one culture, from any one period, in any one medium. What we need to see is what we never see: as much as possible of the more than 90 percent of the museum’s permanent collection that is ordinarily assigned to storage. And we need to see this art—all of it, not just modern and contemporary works—presented in experimental, un-Met ways….
What we want most from the Met is what only the Met can give: thousands of years of world culture brought to life in small polycultural exhibitions [emphasis added] shaped by skilled curators.
This mirrors one of my Ten Suggestions for Tom Campbell, posted on CultureGrrl one month before Philippe de Montebello‘s successor assumed the Met’s directorship in January 2009. Among my (mostly unheeded) suggestions—“more cross-cultural exhibitions.”
As I wrote then:
The proponents of the “universal museum” make a big fuss about how important it is to be able to compare art of different times and cultures in one institution. But they rarely mount exhibitions that explicitly illuminate such correspondences and influences.
One of two additional Halses borrowed for the show from private collections was (in the opinion of Met curator Walter Liedtke) misguidedly deaccessioned in 1967 by the Brooklyn Museum. Liedtke said he would be delighted if he could acquire it for the Met. But if it were to come to market, he said, its price would probably be prohibitive—about $15 million:
Hals, “The Fisher Girl,” ca. 1630-32, private collection
Fine as it was, I felt that a much larger, more ambitious exhibition was struggling to burst free of the Hals show’s confines—a challenge that Liedtke, given free reign and a generous budget, could easily have met at the Met. The first Hals that one sees on the pages of the museum’s Bulletin about the exhibition is not encountered in the show itself: It’s the sumptuous “Laughing Cavalier” (neither laughing nor a cavalier, according to Liedtke) from the Wallace Collection, London. This is the first of many works illustrated and discussed in the exhibition’s companion publication, but not seen in the show.
These glimpses at the wider world of Hals’ rich oeuvre made me wish for the full-scale retrospective that the resourceful Liedtke certainly had the ability, if not the financial support, to give us.
Walter Liedtke discussing Hals’ “Paulus Verschuur,” 1643, Metropolitan Museum
A different type of meaty exhibition could have been assembled from the Met’s own holdings. Liedtke noted that many 19th- and 20th-century artists—Courbet, Manet, Sargent, Chase, Whistler—were influenced by Hals’ loose (but not impromptu) style. To illustrate such affinities, the curator’s published essay includes a reproduction of one of the Met’s own Manet portraits, George Moore. But you won’t find it in the show.
The only non-17th-century painting that is included in the show, illustrating Hals’ influence on later artists, is this American portrait:
Robert Henri, “Dutch Girl in White,” 1907, Metropolitan Museum
How easy it should have been for Liedtke to have joined forces with his colleagues specializing in 19th-century European art and early 20th-century American art, to mine the vein of Hals-ian influence.
The cross-cultural and cross-departmental fertilization that Cotter and I crave could easily be accomplished in the Met’s main building, without recourse to the Breuer digs on Madison Avenue. There are, in fact, a couple of compelling reasons why the Met on Madison may prefer to concentrate on contemporary: The current Whitney-going public has come to expect that kind of art in that building. And the Met will need new temporary space for contemporary art if, as is being contemplated, it renovates its Wallace Wing. The Breuer building would provide back-up space for that displaced collection during the construction.
What’s really wrong with Holland’s piece, though, is the clever illustration by Matt Collins for his article, showing old masters and antiquities (including the oh-so-cute Egyptian faience hippo, “William”) being lifted from the Met’s roof and hoisted southeast, to be deposited into the Whitney’s building. Are we to think, from this illustration, that the Met decided not to return to Amsterdam Vermeer‘s celebrated “Milkmaid” (who Liedtke says is actually a kitchen maid)? It was loaned to the Met for a special exhibition that closed on Nov. 29, 2009. From the looks of the Times’ “Arts & Leisure” section, it never left and is about to disappear into the Whitney!
The Rijksmuseum should demand a correction (or else get its painting back!):
Detail from Matt Collins’ illustration for Holland Cotter’s article
(Photo taken by me from my copy of the newspaper.)
As for my above-linked “10 suggestions” for Campbell—I can’t say that he’s made great headway on any of them, except perhaps the last one—enlisting new financial support. I guess my agenda may not be his agenda.
But notwithstanding the recent Campbell-bashing piece by Jed Perl in The New Republic, these are early (and financially difficult) years in what could yet prove to be a long, distinguished tenure.
Speaking of enlisting financial support, that’s also on my personal agenda: My warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donor 172, who clicked my yellow “Donate” button all the way from Florence, Italy.
Having done so well with my Send CultureGrrl to Orlando challenge, do I dare inaugurate a Canadian Challenge, to support my “work-ation” (scroll to the bottom) that will occur later this month? I suspect that after successfully seeking reader contributions for my two-nights stay at last June’s Investigative Reporters and Editors national conference (where I was an invited speaker), I may be pushing my luck by trying again.
I won’t be too greedy, though: I’d be grateful for two nights of my five-night, two-city journey. Ded
ucting the five spot that I just received from my Florence friend, my goal would be $340. I’ll count any ads that may come my way between now and then towards CultureGrrl’s Canadian Challenge.
Let me help you to help me!