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Syson Siphoned: Met’s Departing Department Chair to Direct Fitzwilliam; 2 Future Stars Emerge (video)

Luke Syson, who in 2012 came to the Metropolitan Museum from the National Gallery, London, becoming the Met’s chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts in 2014, is now poised to join the wave of high-level departures from our country’s preeminent museum. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, recently announced that Syson, who most recently co-curated the Met’s provocative “Like Life” exhibition, will step up to its directorship on Feb. 4. (It had previously lured away Timothy Potts, then director of the Kimbell Art Museum, for a short stint as its director before he won the top spot at the Getty Museum.)

Luke Syson, Fitzwilliam Museum’s director-designate
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Other major Met losses over the last few years have included: Gary Tinterow, Ian Wardropper, Rebecca Rabinow and Carrie Rebora Barratt (all to directorships), George Goldner (to advise collector Leon Black), Morrison Heckscher and Jennifer Russell (retirement).

The Met’s department-head and deputy-director departees were distinguished not only as scholars and exhibition organizers, but also as educators, fluently eloquent in communicating their depth of knowledge with contagious enthusiasm. A perfect example was Syson’s spontaneous (no text-reading) and deeply thoughtful introduction to “Like Life,” starting at one minute into this CultureGrrl Video.

Happily, two relatively new recruits to the Met’s deep curatorial bench staff are shaking up and enlivening the tradition-bound institution: Randall Griffey is an up-and-comer who daringly reconfigured and diversified the Met’s installation of its own 1900-1950 American and European holdings in his Reimagining Modernism—Expanding the Dialogue of Modern Art, which I approvingly described towards the end of this post.

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

A similar crossing of customary boundaries enlivened Griffey’s History Refused to Die (recently closed), a temporary exhibition in which he tellingly juxtaposed the Met’s recent gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation (contemporary African American works) with masterpieces from the Met’s Abstract Expressionist collection, as I tweeted here:

I also admired Randy’s Marsden Hartley‘s Maine show last year at the Met Breuer (although its narrowed geographical focus ruled out display of the abstractions for which he is perhaps best known). His most high-profile moment will come with the Dec. 17 opening of the exhibition referred to in my above tweet—Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, which includes not only works from the permanent collection, but also “loans, promised gifts and new acquisitions,” as described in the above-linked press release. Originally planned as a temporary show in the Met Breuer, it will instead be installed in the main building as an ongoing exhibition (no announced end date).

Randall Griffey in front of Thornton Dial’s “Iraq”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Assistant curator Adam Eaker is another promising member of the Met’s new wave. He has very big shoes to fill, as the museum’s resident expert in 17th-century Dutch old masters. (CultureGrrl readers previously met Eaker at the Frick Collection’s Van Dyck portraits show, which he co-organized.)

During the recent press preview of In Praise of Painting: Rethinking Art of the Dutch Golden Age at The Met, Adam impressed me with his poise, insights and graciousness in posing for me:

Adam Eaker at the Met’s “Dutch Golden Age” preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With the dislocation of the Met’s European paintings collection to allow for extensive renovation of those galleries and their skylights, the Met has moved a large selection of its Dutch paintings to its Lehman Wing, where disparate works (including some usually consigned to storage) are arranged thematically in an attempt “to tell a new story” (Eaker’s words).

Among the show’s nine themes: “Faces of a New Nation” (portraiture); “Comic Painting” (“down-to-earth and even crude” subjects); “Eloquent Things” (still life). A section on “Questions of Faith” explores the interrelationships between Catholicism and Protestantism. “Vermeer was a Catholic artist working in the Protestant Netherlands…so you have these very complex identities,” as Eaker explains in my CultureGrrl Video, below.

Unfortunately, there’s no catalogue. You’ll have to settle for a blog post by Eaker (with more, possibly, to follow) and an online audio guide, which I wish had been narrated by the curator himself. As you will hear Adam admit in my video, there are some themes—“the darker chapters of Dutch history”—that the Met is unable to explore through its holdings. Hope springs eternal for some gap-filling acquisitions.

One of the great joys of the installation is the chance to admire two key works that have been restored to vibrancy for this occasion. One has been my constant touchstone over my entire Met-going life as a native New Yorker. If only I could revitalize myself to glistening freshness, as Dorothy Mahon, Met paintings conservator, has accomplished for this beloved picture.

It almost felt like I was seeing it for the first time:

Rembrandt, “Self-Portrait,” 1660, after restoration
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The other restored work in the show—a rarity in the Met’s collection for the gender of its Dutch old-master artist—now has even more eye-popping appeal than when it arrested me during the late, great Walter Liedtke‘s magisterial 2007 show of all of the Met’s Dutch old masters (some 228 works, at that time) :

Margareta Haverman, “A Vase of Flowers,” 1716
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Now come join me in the galleries as Liedtke’s worthy young successor elucidates these three highlights from his 67-work installation: 

Vermeer, “Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” c. 1670-72
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Rembrandt‘s haunting “Self-Portrait,” pictured above (which Eaker contrasted with a self-portrait by the artist’s first pupil, Gerrit Dou)…

…and another Met icon:

Vermeer,”Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,” c. 1662

Here’s what Adam told us about these paintings, in my excerpts from the broader press tour:

The dislocations cause by renovation provided a rare opportunity for the Met to strike up conversations among works that are ordinarily separated from each other by donor decree. For the two-year duration of this display, works from the Lehman, Linsky and Altman collections, usually restricted to their own fiefdoms, can cordially commingle with the rest of the Met’s collection.

In light of Eaker’s obvious pleasure in being temporarily released from donor constraints, I asked if he had ever wished there were “a statute of limitation on how long donors can segregate their works.” He offered the appropriate reply:

You know, we’re just so grateful to have these pictures in the building.

His less circumspect answer to my follow-up question provided a first glimpse of how things may change when the European paintings collection is rehung in its renovated galleries:

ROSENBAUM: Will organizing this show influence how you organize the works that can be shown together? Will things change?

EAKER: We’ve been having a wonderful conversation amongst the [European paintings] department about what we want to do when we go back. We have about five years to figure it out. But I do think the strict division among national schools that we’ve had so far is something that we’re revisiting. If you go upstairs to the temporary hang, you’ll see that we’ve done much more intermingling of Flemish and Italian art, trying to create that pan-European conversation.

ROSENBAUM: Will this be organized thematically? Chronologically?

EAKER: Mostly thematically, within a chronology.

My apprehension about such sweeping changes is somewhat allayed by the intelligence and abilities of those who will effectuate them. This is but one area of the collection targeted to undergo a sea change under the potentially transformative directorship of Max Hollein. (More on another, later.)

For now, let’s give the last word to Luke Syson. Rebutting my impertinent tweet suggesting that he might have “craved the top spot at the Met,” Luke wrote this to me:

Just for the record, I didn’t crave the top job at the Met! Being given a chance to go to the Fitzwilliam, with its astonishing collection, meets both personal and professional needs—a return to my homeland and, at the same time, a great new challenge in a museum ripe with opportunity.

America’s loss is (for now) England’s gain.

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