In case you haven’t heard, the exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum is immensely popular. So much so, in fact, that the Met extended its run and for the first time in its history will stay open until midnight, on the show’s last two days, Aug. 6 and 7. After the Met’s regular closing hours ( 9 p.m. on Saturday and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday), visitors can enter the museum at the 81st Street and Fifth Avenue entrance, just south of the front steps. It is also offering extended hours, until 9:00 p.m., on Aug. 4 and 5.
But wait. Where is the critical outrage over the Alexander McQueen fashion house being the exhibition’s main sponsor? Remember the Guggenheim’s company-funded BMW and Armani shows (1998, 2000-01, respectively), and the Met’s own Chanel exhibition in 2005? Headline scandals all. Critics were wringing their hands about the ethical quandary of art and commerce and nonprofit institutions, selling out and curatorial integrity.
The show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, speculates, “people are tired of that argument.” The implied criticism that the museum is “selling out” is “frustrating as a curator when the alternative would be not to have the show,” he told A.i.A. Bolton acknowledges that it would’ve been difficult to realize the curatorial vision and to re-create some of McQueen’s projects without the fashion house’s support. But, he emphasizes, the museum did not give up curatorial autonomy.
“Savage Beauty” has had 550,000 visitors since its May 4 opening, and is on track to break attendance records. People have been queuing up to get a look at the visionary work of the British designer, who committed suicide in 2010, age 40. That macabre fascination, coupled with the fact that the fashion house draped Kate Middleton (and her sister Pippa) for the royal wedding, have contributed to the show’s popularity.
“McQueen said his work was very autobiographical,” explains Bolton, “and he embedded feelings in his designs.” On some level, Bolton feels that the public is responding to the conceptual and emotional complexity of the show. “The circumstances of his death heighten the emotional response and imbues the show with more poignancy,” he says.
McQueen’s visionary designs have strong Surrealist motifs. His runway shows were fantastical, elaborately staged performances, with direct and indirect references to Bill Viola, Marina Abramovic, Joel-Peter Witkin, Hans Bellmer, Hitchcock and such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Deliverance and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. McQueen also cited such artists as Sam Taylor-Wood, the Chapman Brothers, Marc Quinn, Rebecca Horn and Flemish artists as inspiration. Bolton believes that this pairing of art and fashion is also contributing to the show’s broad popularity.
Are McQueen’s designs, such as the aluminum and black leather Spine Corset (1998); the black feather, angel-of-death dress The Horn of Plenty (2005-06); or the ensemble It’s Only a Game (2005), a mashup of NFL football gear and Japanese kimono, actually wearable? Is McQueen’s “Bumster” Skirt (1995-96) to blame for the not-distant-enough, butt-crack-revealing trend? Does it matter?
Above: Dress from Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter 2010-11 collection. Courtesy of Alexander McQueen. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce.