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Morbid Fascination: The Undead Haunt the Met Breuer’s “Like Life” (with video)

“Ewww, gross!” exclaimed a seasoned critic (not me), disconcerted by one of many creepy, gruesome works that affront delicate sensibilities in the Met Breuer’s Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now), to July 22. This provocative flesh-fest of some 120 strange bedfellows is the fever dream of two high-profile Met curators, who have approached their common project from different art-historical time frames and contrasting interpretive angles.

Luke Syson has brought his usual astute analysis and deep scholarship to the historic works in the show, exploring their cultural contexts. Sheena Wagstaff has presented the contemporary contingent in the context of our current preoccupations with racial and gender identity, and economic and social inequality.

Luke Syson, the Met’s chairman, European Sculpture & Decorative Arts, and Sheena Wagstaff, chairman, Modern & Contemporary Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The concept that loosely holds together this hodgepodge of styles and subjects is artists’ preoccupation with replicating the human body—their methods in creating likenesses and their reasons for doing so. Hard to get a handle on, this diffuse, thematically organized agglomeration is “about our own messy human existences,” as you’ll hear Syson explain in my CultureGrrl Video, at the end of this post.

Below is one of the most lifelike (or deathlike?) inhabitants of the show, who scored high on my own gross-ometer. (Prudent publications, too squeamish to reproduce this in full, cropped it.)

Paul McCarthy, “Paul Dreaming, Vertical, Horizontal,” 2005-12, Glenstone Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although the label tells us that this X-rated geezer (the artist) is “imaginable in a backyard setting [really?!?]” and “may be sleeping or in an unconscious state,” he looked dead to me (post-masturbatory heart attack?), especially in the context of the morgue-like gallery that is the show’s funereal coda.

Museum visitors here assume the role of mourners, paying their last respects:

McCarthy is the second recumbent figure on the right

The corpse in the coffin on the left in the image above, whom you can’t see in that photo, is JFK, whose attire renders him more pauper than President:

Maurizio Cattelan, “Now,” 2004, Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another gallery is peopled by zombies of a different species—eerie dolls, marionettes and mannequins with moving parts, which “artists have drawn on…as stand-ins for real bodies,” as the wall text tells us:

Figure in foreground: Charles Ray, “Male Mannequin,” 1990, Broad Art Foundation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Mercifully, “Like Life” is not exclusively morbid and grotesque. There are also moments of sensuousness and even beauty. Having recently seen these three studies of Hercules in the Met’s (now closed) Michelangelo show

Michelangelo, “Studies for the Three Labors of Hercules,” ca. 1529-34, Royal Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth II
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…I got a charge from seeing that strongman’s muscles fleshed out, even though the label text slights him as “slightly haunchy with age” and “marvelously antiheroic.” (Maybe Luke’s just jealous.)

Here’s his “haunch”:

Attributed to Willem Danielsz van Tetrode, “Hercules,” 1568–75, on loan from the Quentin Foundation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I loved the juxtaposition of these two riffs on the Pygmalion story, even though the Gérôme deviates from the show’s focus on sculpture:

John De Andrea, “Self-Portrait with Sculpture,” 1980, Collection of Foster Goldstrom
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “Pygmalion and Galatea,” ca. 1890, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The label for the De Andrea asserts that there is no “erotic charge” between the artist and his unfinished creation. (Her sinuous legs await more paint.) I felt just the opposite: He interrupted his work to gaze at her longingly.

Another delicious pairing is these bedecked ballerinas in similar poses, but with a subversive twist: The 21st-century dancer is packing heat:

L: Degas, “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” model executed ca. 1880, cast 1922, Metropolitan Museum
R: Yinka Shonibare, “Girl Ballerina,” 2007, Collection of John & Amy Phelan
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Sometimes this two-by-two strategy results in calculations wherein the sum is less than the parts, even though the juxtaposed works may superficially resemble each other. If I never have to see this fatuous, inane piece again, I’ll be a happier museumgoer:

Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” 1988, Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That said, I welcomed the chance to revisit the astonishingly intricate tour de force which was supposed to inform our view of Koons’ Meissen-inspired kitsch. I had first ogled this confection during my 2015 visit to the Wadsworth Atheneum, arrested by the complexity of its composition and the virtuosity of its execution:

Meissen Manufactory, “The Judgment of Paris,” design attributed to Johann Joachim Kändler, ca. 1762, Wadsworth Atheneum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One of “Like Life’s” most rewarding moments, for me, was reencountering this extraordinary loan, which I had admired decades ago on its home turf:

Donatello, “Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano,” 1430s, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the label, Syson say tells us that this may be “one of few surviving early Renaissance busts with their original polychromy,” and may be based on a death mask.

Luke adds:

The sense of his spirit here may have more to do with Donatello’s extraordinary ability to sculpt in color. The dynamism of the figure’s pose and folded drapery, the animation of his expression, and the realistic coloring bring him back to life, fleetingly and permanently.

Contrast that with Wagstaff’s label for one of the show’s signature works, which confronts us as we step off the elevator:

Duane Hanson, “Housepainter II,” 1984, Collection of Jean and Catherine Madar
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Wagstaff writes:

The uncanny hyperrealism of Hanson’s painter is intended to inspire both empathy and uneasiness, suggesting a broader cultural malaise [emphasis added]. This representation of a black man painting a wall white, dressed in an old ripped shirt with multicolored streaks of paint, is intentionally provocative and symbolically charged, pointing critically to politically urgent issues of racial and economic inequality.

I didn’t feel that “broader cultural malaise” vibe. Sometimes a housepainter is just a housepainter. I should know: My grandfather started out as one when he came to New York from Poland, but eventually did well enough (investing in real estate, including the Bronx apartment building where I grew up) to pay my father’s tuition at Harvard Law. He was too busy making his way to ponder “urgent issues of racial [or in his case, religious] and economic inequality.”

Here’s another head that I was surprised to reencounter, but without the sense of happy rediscovery that I felt when I came upon the Donatello:

Marc Quinn, “Self,” 1991, Private Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Those of us who saw the landmark Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum (or at previous showings in London and Berlin) cannot forget the jolt of seeing a version of this self-portrait, cast in the artist’s own frozen blood. “Sensation” came to mind numerous times in “Like Life,” for its similar preoccupations with verisimilitude and shock value.

“Like Life” doesn’t have any preserved sharks, but it does have other biological material, contained in religious reliquaries and, most ghoulishly, in this “secular reliquary and modern mummy” (in the words of its label), which “contains the skeleton of the pioneering Utilitarian philosopher” Jeremy Bentham. (Ewww!)

Thomas Southwood Smith & Jacques Talrich, “Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham,” 1832, UCL Culture, London
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In my video, below, you’ll hear Syson tell us that as a student in London, he knew this Bentham simulacrum, “and found it the weirdest object I’d ever seen.”

As I exited the press preview, another critic accosted me with a question that I never want to deal with while still pondering what I’ve just seen:

What did you think?

In my dazed state of art-overload, I was certain of one thing—my appreciation that the Met had the guts to take a big risk. Rather than focusing on one artist or movement—its usual modus operandi—it had organized a high-concept show that was unsettling and thought-provoking.

Whatever its shocks and shortcomings, this courageous undertaking was meaty in more ways than one:

Fortana Workshop, “Anatomical Venus,” 1780-85, Semmelweis Museum of the History of Medicine/Hungarian National Museum, Budapest
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although “Like Life” doesn’t quite cohere, it’s not incoherent. Although it’s sometimes disorderly and scattershot, it’s always interesting. And it gets bonus points for adhering to the Met Breuer’s originally intended mission, which has been largely ignored during its two years of existence—putting contemporary works in telling juxtapositions with the historic collection.

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For more insights into the curators’ intentions, here’s my edited video of Wagstaff’s and Syson’s introductory remarks at the press preview:

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