Its signature opening show, ‘Unfinished,’ has 500 years of art and thrums with energy but flags as it nears the contemporary
No matter what the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to do, good or bad, the opening of its new branch, at the Whitney Museum’s Marcel Breuer–designed former home, was guaranteed to be the event of the year in the New York art world.
Anticipation has been running high—expectations, too.
It has been four years since the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, tapped Sheena Wagstaff, then Tate Modern’s chief curator, to chair the museum’s department of modern and contemporary art. She has overseen an uneven schedule of shows since then, causing many, including me, to grow nervous. But this is her big test—the reason she was brought on board.
And so it is a relief to report that there is reason to celebrate. Wagstaff and company have delivered a confident, serious, and subtle performance with the Met Breuer, as the new location has been dubbed.
Simply entering the building is a thrill. It has been nearly a year and a half since the Whitney decamped for downtown, and the Breuer’s doors have been closed to the public the entire time. That break has been used well. Working with the architects Beyer Blinder Belle, the Met and the Whitney have completed a precise and thoughtful restoration of the building, confirming it as an absolute masterpiece, a work of art in its own right. It is “bloody amazing,” as Wagstaff recently told an interviewer. (By some perverse machinations of New York City bureaucracy, though, it is actually not landmarked.)
The original silver-tipped bulbs have been installed in the lobby’s classic light fixtures, the floors and walls have been fixed up, and elements that were added after its completion in 1966 have been stripped away, like the retail shop in the lobby that always felt awkward and crowded.
In the shop’s place is a “book bar,” conceived by Breuer, which offers just a few titles. That is a small touch that sends a big message: catalogues—which is to say, scholarship and ideas—matter here. A retail shop and café will open on March 18 on the fifth floor, when the museum opens to the general public. (Not quite every addition has been removed, though: Charles Simonds’s permanent 1981 Dwellings work remains on view in the stairwell, freshly dusted but otherwise looking as peculiar and wonderful as ever.)
The most high-profile inaugural show in the new spaces, “Unfinished” is a rich essay of an exhibition on its title—works that are incomplete, literally, apparently, or just metaphorically. The show is not perfect—its approach becomes ponderous and specious as it moves into the contemporary—but its overall experience is profound. The roughly 140 works (including many juicy loans), stretch across more than 500 years, from the Renaissance to the present. It turns out that paintings encased in European Rococo frames from the 17th century look comfortably at home within the Breuer building.
Both sections of “Unfinished,” on the third and fourth floors, open with a bang. On the third floor, predominantly focused on pre-20th-century work, one steps off of the Breuer’s cavernous elevator, that old friend, in front of huge canvases by Tintoretto, Bassano, and (with a double feature) Titian. Together, those pieces encapsulate the expansive approach taken to the topic by the show’s curators, the Met’s Andrea Bayer and Kelly Baum, and Nicholas Cullinan (who left the museum to lead National Portrait Gallery in London and initially proposed the idea after a conversation with Cy Twombly), all working under Wagstaff.
The Tintoretto, a six-and-a-half-foot-long stunner from the Met’s collection, of a Doge of Venice being introduced to Christ, was purposefully unfinished, a sketch with Saint Mark represented by only a few quick, ingenious lines. The Bassano, a dramatic, shadowy scene of Christ’s baptism, though, was left incomplete by the artist’s death in 1592. And then there are the Titians, which are unfinished only in a less literal sense, filled with sections that vary from polished to loose.
That third floor contains a treasure trove of works, tightly hung—Leonardo’s Head of a Woman (1500–05) from the Galleria Nazionale di Parma in Italy, which seems to glow from its place on the wall; Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew (1657) from the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego, its achingly realistic rendering giving way into artful strokes of the brush at close range; and Rubens’s frenetic Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry (ca. 1630) from the Rubenshuis in Antwerp, Belgium, with its right side most dramatically incomplete, a horse’s body only outlined, which was the result of the artist stopping work on the painting after a misunderstanding with the French court.
Portraits by Hals, Velázquez, and Rembrandt, with wildly different finishes, and ranging degrees of realism, offer a master class in the diverse ways in which Westerners have thought about representation over time, and how various approaches could connote various degrees of intimacy, class, or just the time an artist had on hand to make a work.
Throughout, there are (usually rare) chances to see masters at work, their process naked before the eyes of viewers. A circa 1927 Juan Gris portrait of a woman that the artist left unfinished at his death is less than half painted, and a fascinating scaffold of diagonal lines undergird his Cubist construction. A 1784 self-portrait by George Romney from the NPG in London dissolves below his torso into just a few brown strokes, hinting at how he might have continued the picture. In an oil sketch from 1878 or ’79, Manet outlined the Irish writer George Moore with sharp, angular lines, but abandoned the portrait before filling it in.
Occasionally, politics or life intruded to leave a work unfinished. Benjamin West’s American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain (1783) is empty on its right side, supposedly because the British representatives would not sit for him, and so that blank space stands in for years of future enmity, for death and destruction.
Just a few feet away is an Alice Neel portrait, James Hunter Black Draftee (1965), in which she completed only the head. Hunter rests his cheek on one hand, and stares down, anguished, the rest of his body just a few spare lines. Neel had met him a week before he was due to leave for Vietnam and he did not return for his second sitting. She decided it was done and signed it. And not far away is a swirling, nearly psychedelic scene from an 1890 Van Gogh is heartbreakingly incomplete—nearly done except for a few swatches of raw canvas amid the blue sky, which the artist did not fill in before killing himself that same year.
You will need at least half a day to properly handle the sheer quantity of material on the third floor alone. Who wouldn’t want, after, all to spend some serious time in a room with a suite of Turner’s mysterious paintings? Done in the mid-19th century, the landscapes are sometimes little more than streaks of raspberry and lime against tans and whites, prefiguring Twombly a full century before his start.
Sadly, the thrills dissipate on the fourth floor. The exhibition there starts strongly enough with four Picassos, one a shocking 1931 portrait of a woman, its otherwise smooth, curving lines interrupted by a violent mess of blacks, whites, and grays where her face should be. And then comes a tranche of still lifes and portraits by Picasso and Cézanne, one of the grand masters of the consciously unfinished aesthetic (a particularly intriguing flower bouquet from around 1898 that Braque once owned is alone worth the price of admission).
But this majestic suite shares space with—brace yourself—a typically bland Luc Tuymans still life of a jug and fruit against an expanse of washy white that measures larger than 16 feet long by 11 feet tall. Yes, the piece was inspired by an unfinished Cézanne, as a wall label notes, but it is a jarring, disheartening juxtaposition, effective only in revealing how portentous and weak a painter Tuymans is, despite his bewildering status as a favorite of curators.
This modern and contemporary floor takes an even broader approach to the idea of the unfinished, reasoning that the concept could incorporate ideas like the infinite, participation (the viewer completing the work), process, and the entropic. Fair enough, but by that logic almost any work of contemporary art would seem to fit the bill. And so one gets a LeWitt serial sculpture, a Pollock splatter painting, a Kusama Infinity Net, and a Smithson sand-and-glass sculpture. The issue is perhaps that the unfinished is so central to art in the bleak, shattered 20th and 21st centuries that to point out its presence at all is to risk coming across as pedantic.
Regardless, the end result is a display of contemporary art that looks like a pretty generic display of contemporary art in most major museums, albeit with a few cute spots, like a section of paintings by Kerry James Marshall, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns that all incorporate paint-by-numbers in various ways.
The one truly grand moment on the upper floor is an installation at the center of one gallery that has rough-hewn sculptures of heads and hands by Rodin, Medardo Rosso, Alina Szapocznikow, Louise Bourgeois, and Bruce Nauman. These body parts are fractured, fragmented, growing out of hunks of raw stone, or, in the case of Szapocznikow, molting out of resin skin. Various time periods collapse in on each other, and the works become greater than the sum of their parts. It feels like a signature Met achievement—the sort of moment that only a museum with encyclopedic collections and an eye on the long game of art history could create. It should strive to create more of these charged arrays of objects.
Setting aside the comparatively weak modern and contemporary section in “Unfinished,” there are reasons to be optimistic about the museum’s work in the field. A much-needed Marshall retrospective is on tap for the fall, which will be accompanied by a show of objects the painter has cherry-picked from the collection. Recent artist-selected exhibitions at the Met’s main building—the Met Fifth Avenue, as it’s now styled—by Piotr Uklański and James Nares have been impressive affairs. (And I am sure I am not the only one who still thinks about Kara Walker’s 2006 effort.)
Another fine sign is the elegant, understated retrospective of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990) on the Met Breuer’s second floor, which signals that the institution is staking a claim as a vital venue for presenting alternate strains of modernism, developed by artists from beyond the United States and Europe, which remain too little seen in the city’s museums.
The Met has an eight-year lease on the Breuer, but some minor lighting issues aside, it seems that it already has a solid understanding of how to handle the new spaces. Wagstaff has said that era-spanning shows in the style of “Unfinished” will be part of the programming at the Met Breuer. If she and her staff can find ways to more incisively engage the contemporary, they will really be cooking with gas.
For now, though, this much is clear: this is a golden age for Manhattan’s art museums. Last year the Whitney scored a triumph downtown, and now the Met is upping its game. MoMA, meanwhile, is readying an expansion of its own, and recently revised its plans to answer some much-deserved criticism. As the competition heats up, art fans rejoice.
Click on the images below to see installation views from the Met Breuer’s “Unfinished” exhibition.