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Abstraction Dejection: Riffing with Griffey at the Metropolitan Museum

It’s always dangerous for a critic to bring preconceptions to an exhibition she hasn’t seen yet. But it’s a pitfall that I sometimes fall into, against my better judgment.

I went out on a limb in October when I optimistically touted an exhibition that wasn’t opening at the Metropolitan Museum until mid-December—Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, organized by Randall Griffey, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. Hailing Randy as “an up-and-comer” at the Met, I expressed my admiration for his Reimagining Modernism, History Refused to Die, and Marsden Hartley‘s Maine installations, all of which had struck me as fresh takes, intelligently explicated.

Randall Griffey in front of
Thornton Dial’s “Iraq” at the Met’s “History Refused to Die” preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I confidently looked forward to a similar performance in his next production, a (mostly) permanent-collection installation, ambitiously billed as “Epic.”

Instead, there was a stumble at the starting gate, with introductory wall text that rehashed conventional wisdom about Abstract Expressionism’s progenitors: “In the wake of [the] unprecedented misery and devastation” of World War II, those artists “came to believe that abstract styles—often executed on a grand scale—most meaningfully expressed contemporary states of being.” (Actually, there was also a more basic driving force—a desire to forge new paths, breaking with artistic forebears.)

That and other threadbare maxims caused me me to gripe to Griffey (at the press preview) that some of the wall text struck me as “Abstract Expressionism for Beginners.” He conceded that “the panels [as distinguished from the labels for individual objects] are very basic. We have so many visitors coming from all over the world and I do have a background in teaching, so I tend not to assume too much preexisting knowledge. I feel a professional obligation to meet an engaged general visitor at least halfway.”

I would have preferred less basic introduction, more deep erudition and insightfulness. In that regard, one line from Roberta Smith‘s harsh NY Times review spoke to my dissatisfaction:

“Griffey’s specialty is American art before 1950” [emphasis added].

In that case, he should have been more circumspect in his pronouncement about today’s hot artist, Mark Bradford. The label text for his 2016 mixed-media work on canvas, purchased by the Met the year after it was created, anointed him as “one of the preeminent artists of our time.”

He’s good, but declaring him “preeminent” seems premature. Even the artist’s gallery is more restrained, calling him: “one of the most significant and influential artists of his generation.”

Mark Bradford, “Duck Walk,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That said, many of the object labels were illuminating. After getting through the first two galleries (dominated by the obligatory Pollocks and Rothkos), I tried to get with the program—taking the “New York” out of “New York School” and broadening the canon by gender and geography.

Hence, the contrast between the two artists in the show’s subtitle:

Jackson Pollock, “Number 28, 1950”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Carmen Herrera, “Equilibrio,” 2012
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Both Roberta Smith (linked above) and Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker wondered in their reviews why this black-and-white Herrera (less visually engaging than her most vibrant works) was given pride-of-place in the installation’s subtitle.

It’s not that hard to figure out, if you read the credit line at the bottom of the Met’s label:

Promised gift of Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky

Brodsky, a Herrera devotee, is chairman of the Met’s board. He loaned three works from his collection to the Whitney Museum’s masterful 2016 Herrera retrospective, for which he also provided financial support. The Met’s title can be seen as a hat-tip (or donation pitch?) to the chairman.

In his opening remarks at the press preview, Griffey explained the Cuban-born artist’s star billing as an attempt “to telegraph our desire for collection development well beyond [artists from] New York” (not to mention a desire to include more women in the mix). There were, in fact, several loaned works in this “permanent-collection” installation that the Met hopes to be given.

The installation’s wider lens only heightened my hunger for prime examples and interpretive intelligence. Partly chronological, partly thematic, partly stylistic, the installation and explications were disappointingly scattershot.

The sketchiness of the Met’s contemporary holdings are part of the problem. As I noted in a 2006 post—The Met’s Generation Gap—the museum’s decision-makers (especially longtime director Philippe de Montebello) have had an ambivalent relationship to the art of their own time, which has hobbled acquisitions.

With a new director, Max Hollein, who prides himself on his strong contemporary-art creds, and with a recommitment to plans for a renovated and expanded wing for modern and contemporary art, the Met’s weakness in this area may begin to be remedied. But at this late date, it’s going to be difficult to make up for lost time and missed opportunities.

For now, a number of the installation’s lesser-known artists are represented by less than “epic” examples. The best works of Alfonso Ossorio and Hedda Sterne, for example (see my posts here, here and here), are more alluringly vibrant than the lesser examples now on the Met’s walls.

Speaking of “alluringly vibrant,” I was happy to make the acquaintance of Ilona Keserü, a Hungarian artist (b. 1933) previously unknown to me:

Ilona Keserü, “Wall-Hanging with Tombstone Forms,” 1969
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a closeup of this chemically dyed linen with stitching:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Many of the other women in the installation—Alma Thomas, Helen Frankenthaler, Anne Truit and the two Joans (Snyder and Mitchell)—were relegated to the next-to-last gallery, with Morris Louis, Frankenthaler’s Color-Field colleague, as the only male interloper.

L: Helen Frankenthaler, “Western Dream,” 1957, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
R: Morris Louis, “Pungent Distances,” 1961
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

This back-of-the-show placement gave me flashbacks to the seeming marginalization of Kehinde Wiley‘s “Barack Obama” portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington—behind a rear wall (reminding me of the back-of-the-bus era) in the renovated “America’s Presidents” installation. Griffey told me that the concentration of women towards the rear of the Met’s display was “totally happenstance,” noting that a smattering of women was scattered through other galleries.

A similar fate befell Frankenthaler in the 2016 reinstallation of the contemporary collection of the National Gallery, Washington. As I described it in my Wall Street Journal review, her signature work—the delicately stained “Mountains and Sea,” 1952—was “exiled downstairs” with other women’s works, instead of being included on the main level with the male Color Field artists:

Installation shot of the Frankenthaler at the National Gallery in 2016, with Joan Snyder on right and Elizabeth Murray on far wall
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The coherence of the “Epic Abstraction’s” organization couldn’t have been helped by the precipitous decision to relocate it to the Met’s main Fifth Avenue building. As recently as July 18, as evidenced by this press release, it had been set to open on Nov. 28 at the Met Breuer outpost. This change was said to be in accordance with the stated desire of the Met’s new director, Max Hollein, to forefront contemporary art in the flagship building.

It also had a practical advantage, as Griffey explained to me:

[Pollock’s] “Autumn Rhythm” [105″ x 207″] couldn’t have fit in the elevator. My joke when it was to be in the Breuer was that the show’s subtitle was: “Up to 140 Inches”…Epic Abstraction, but not too epic!

That’s not to say that the installation in the Fifth Avenue building’s Wallace Wing was without logistical challenges. A wall had to be removed to accommodate the most monumental work—Louise Nevelson‘s “Mrs. N’s Palace” (which could have fit into the Breuer’s elevator, because it can be disassembled):

Louise Nevelson, “Mrs. N’s Palace,” 1964-77
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For better or worse, “Epic Abstraction” is intended to be a semi-permanent installation of the (mostly) permanent collection, with light-sensitive works and loaned works rotating in and out.

Griffey stated:

If your favorite abstract artist happens not to appear on these walls, come back in six months or a year. [Calling Sol LeWitt!] This is, in my mind, a living installation that points the way to our future.

Maybe so…but we’re not quite there yet.

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