[Postcard] The Transhistorical Moment, by Rachel Poser | Harper's Magazine
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A museum's misguided attempt to rescue the past

The Met Breuer. Photograph by Ed Lederman

The Met Breuer. Photograph by Ed Lederman

The Breuer building, a mean pile of granite and concrete that squats darkly on a corner of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was built as a kind of monument to the Metropolitan Museum’s long-standing distaste for contemporary art. In 1929, the Met refused Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s gift of more than five hundred contemporary American works by the likes of Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and John Sloan. The Met’s refusal precipitated the founding of the Whitney Museum, which outgrew its row houses on West 8th Street and some time later commissioned Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian architect who had been part of the Bauhaus, to design what is commonly described as an inverted Babylonian ziggurat as its new home. Built in a neighborhood otherwise known for its Beaux-Arts and Renaissance Revival mansions, the Breuer opened in 1966 to near-universal derision. (Ada Louise Huxtable, though herself a fan, said at the time that the Breuer was “the most disliked building in New York.”)

Housed just half a mile from the Met on 5th Avenue, the Whitney served for a generation as a kind of poor relation to America’s largest and most visited museum, which for most of its history has preferred European traditionalism to the gut punches of the avant-garde. Early in their careers, Jackson Pollock and Louise Bourgeois joined sixteen other American artists, who would become known as the Irascibles, to write an open letter, calling the Met “notoriously hostile to advanced art.” The museum’s stance was unchanged as late as 1999, when its director sided with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an irascible of another sort, in his condemnation of a contemporary show at the Brooklyn Museum that featured supercharged works such as Mark Quinn’s Self, a frozen cast of the artist’s head made from ten pints of his own blood. The director, Philippe de Montebello, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times dismissing the Brooklyn show as “sick stuff” and complementing the mayor on his “acute critical acumen.”

When the Whitney abandoned the Breuer in 2014 in favor of a lavish new downtown home, the move reflected an unsettling of the art-world pecking order. Contemporary art, and its golden halo, had become impossible to ignore. At auction houses and galleries, contemporary works are practically the only ones being bought or sold, and some are changing hands at stratospheric prices, feeding the big business of art and powering a gilded carousel of festivals, galas, and sales from Miami to Hong Kong. The market’s massive sums have drawn the art world into their orbit so violently that museums and even universities have been swayed by their force—as has the public. Dozens of new spaces dedicated to contemporary art have opened in the last several years, and, in 2015, eleven of the fifteen best-attended shows in the Western Hemisphere featured modern and contemporary artists. More than a million people saw Jeff Koons’s suspended basketballs and Play-Doh mound at his retrospectives in Bilbao and Paris, and hundreds of thousands turned up for MoMA’s homage to the Icelandic musician Björk, despite the protestations of nearly as many art critics. These days, contemporary art is king, and it is the people and museums devoted to historical art that are scrambling to maintain their place in the world. The full extent of the change was starkly, almost poignantly, captured by the Met’s announcement that it would lease the Breuer building for at least eight years to showcase—what else?—its contemporary collection.

As the Met completes a screeching pivot to the present, Sheena Wagstaff, the museum’s chairman for modern and contemporary art, has tried to cast its vast holdings of art from earlier periods as a strength—a frame that creates unique conditions for reimagining the contemporary. She has described the new Met Breuer as a place where contemporary art can be seen within the context of five thousand years of history, as an experimental space that would create links between past and present. It is a genuinely exciting vision, if carried out successfully. But the Met Breuer’s first attempt to deliver on that promise—“Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a mammoth show of 197 works that moves from the Renaissance to Urs Fischer’s 2014 sculpture of a blue nude disintegrating on a chaise—fails both to unsettle the contemporary canon and to reanimate the art of the past.

“Unfinished” begins with an imposing trio of sixteenth-century paintings. At center, Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas shows the faun strung up by his hooves with scarlet ribbon, as Apollo’s wreathed attendant takes a knife to his chest and a musician plucks a lyre in the background, evoking the contest that led to Marsyas’s death. Titian painted his Marsyas non finito, a technique of leaving a work unfinished that was much debated in the Renaissance, and the raw dynamism of his choice is immediately apparent. The canvas bristles as though it contains hot summer breezes. For this work and its neighbor, Agony in the Garden, Titian combines large areas of gestural painting, seemingly unfinished, with moments of precise and delicate brushwork that draw the eye to key narrative elements, such as the chain mail on the Roman soldiers who wait in darkness to arrest the praying Christ. It is a first impression not easily forgotten.

As the show unfolds through the Breuer’s third-floor galleries, the works themselves continue to delight—El Greco’s stormy Vision of Saint John, a lovely da Vinci drawing, one of Klimt’s ecstatic portraits of Ria Munk—but the concept of the unfinished starts to sputter and lose momentum. To interrogate the question—When is a work of art truly finished?—the Met’s curators have gathered works that were left unfinished purposefully and accidentally by their makers, and in many cases there is debate about which is which, creating an unsteady conceptual foundation. Unlike the non-finito technique, a precise, culturally and historically bounded idea established so well in the opening sequence, the Met Breuer’s definition of the unfinished becomes shapeless and vague as it struggles to unify so many objects so distinct in period, method, and argument.

Upstairs, as the show moves toward the present, the definition of the unfinished balloons even further to encompass infinity and boundlessness, audience participation, and decay and destruction. Standing in front of Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair or Luc Tuymans’s Untitled (Still Life), the latter an enormous jug and stone fruit medley created in response to 9/11, it is hard to rank unfinishedness among the works’ most salient or interesting aspects. The two-tiered structure of the show presents contemporary art as a revelation, Old Masters’ promises fulfilled by the gospel of modernism. What is missing is the promised attempt to put these modern and contemporary works in meaningful dialogue with their distant antecedents downstairs. And connections could have been made. Donatello’s fifteenth-century Lamentation in bronze, Jacques Louis-David’s Death of Bara, and Alice Neel’s portrait of a Vietnam draftee, who came once to her studio and never returned, all demonstrate the power of an unfinished aesthetic to communicate mortality, especially the lost potential of young lives.

With “Unfinished,” the Met brings historical objects into the Breuer, but history itself remains absent. The brief references to the Vietnam War on the white placard beside Neel’s portrait of James Hunter or to the drummer boy Bara’s death in the French Revolutionary War are tantalizing reminders that art is created within a time and place, under certain conditions and constraints that form its character. Such a sprawling, thematic show as “Unfinished” has little room to provide that context, but that sort of knowledge is what prevents art objects from becoming mere curiosities. Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, for example, was painted only a few years after a Venetian military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, was flayed alive, his skin stuffed and paraded through the streets, by an Ottoman army as it captured the island of Cyprus. Whether or not the event directly inspired Titian’s painting, as some claim, the alarming immediacy of gruesome punishment to the artist’s own experience alerts viewers to the ways that trauma is reworked and managed through the realm of myth, and the ways that art participates in the shaping of history.

If “Unfinished” is any guide, contemporary art is not only colonizing space on the walls of museums, but its dominance is changing the way that the art of earlier periods is displayed and interpreted. Encyclopedic museums, understandably unsure how to pursue their educational missions in an era of expanding audiences and shrinking attention spans, are turning to the hipness of contemporary art as an answer, and doing what “Unfinished” tries to do, that is, use the present as a gateway to the past. (As an art-history graduate student, I once participated in a semester-long workshop to develop a new version of Art History 101, taught in reverse, so that contemporary art could come first, to captivate the students.) Celebrity artists, rather than art historians, curators, or even critics are now considered the arbiters of taste and teachers of art, regularly asked to curate exhibitions of historical works. The Met itself has produced a video series—now with more than a hundred episodes—of contemporary artists talking about objects in its collection.

Since the 1980s, when hedge-fund investors discovered the art market, a corporate mentality has held sway in many museum boardrooms that equates expansion with success, encouraging a construction boom. (The Met has leased the Breuer building for at least eight years while British architect David Chipperfield completes a $600 million renovation of its contemporary wing. In April, however, the Met paused the project, disclosing a $10 million deficit that was partly due to falling admissions at the main building.) Like big brands, many museums seem willing to change in whatever way ensures their continued existence with a healthy cash flow, which in some cases has meant transforming into entertainment centers with restaurants and observation decks, where no one need look too long at the art. Renzo Piano’s new Whitney building on Gansevoort Street, for example, is more adult playground than art museum, a warehouse for Instagrammers, serving up views of the Hudson River.

Museums can hardly be surprised that their audiences, adapting to this mentality, have shown a preference for spectacle art, which requires no context because it produces an immediate reaction in the body. One of the easiest ways to elicit such a reaction is through the manipulation of scale, so we are seeing a trend toward bigness and participatory or immersive environments. Random International’s Rain Room at MoMA, with its motion-sensor sprinklers, was noteworthy for having a nine-hour wait time on some days, and the Renwick Gallery in Washington has drawn crowds with “Wonder,” an exhibit whose vast installations in rainbow colors are ideal for picture-taking. Well-meaning art historians and museum directors have been united in promoting the idea that art needs no intermediary, that the best thing to do is hang the paintings and step aside, which works better for a Basquiat than it does for a trecento painting or a Buddha image from Dunhuang. Of course, our need for context increases the farther we drift from the anchor of our own experience, but presentist shows that seek to view historical works through the eyes of contemporary art or artists often fail to provide it. “Not everything of value is self-evident,” wrote the late critic Robert Hughes, “and there is no reason in the world why art should be.”

I walked north and west, leaving the gray face of the Breuer behind. Despite the missteps of “Unfinished,” the Met Breuer has not yet fallen prey to the trend of the theme-park museum, at least partly because of its original architectural vision. Unlike the openness of Renzo’s Whitney—all white paint, metal, and glass—Marcel Breuer sought a clear distinction between his ziggurat’s cave-like interior and the distractions of the street and sky outside. If you come to the Breuer, you are coming to see the art. “Unfinished” closes this month, and the Met Breuer’s upcoming retrospective of Kerry James Marshall marks a return to the strictly contemporary, but plans are in the works for a second transhistorical show that may reach as far back as antiquity. Given the uncertain atmosphere, the Met has every incentive not only to showcase contemporary art at the Breuer, but also to use the space to advertise its historical collections on 5th Avenue. At the Breuer, the Met should keep experimenting, by treating history as urgent and open to question, conveying its complexity in a way that is engaging, and making clearer and bolder arguments—not by using the past as a foil for the present.

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