“This!” Deborah Kass said to me last Wednesday evening, as if it were obvious. We were standing on the steps of the Temple of Dendur, trading favorite museums. She gestured at the sprawl of the Metropolitan Museum of Art around us, beyond the crowd of attendees at the launch of the museum’s third web series to date, “The Artist Project,” which features 100 artists discussing a specific gallery or work that has particularly intrigued, inspired, or otherwise strongly impacted them. Kass appears in the first season, all twenty episodes of which are now available to view online; four more will be released over the course of a year.
The program’s director, Chris Noey, gave a short introduction, followed by screenings of Kehinde Wiley’s John Singer Sargent-themed episode, and then Nina Katchadourian’s ode to Early Netherlandish portraiture. Noey addressed the unusual video format, which features a slide show of photos of the artist with their chosen work or works, supplemented by an artist voiceover. Instead of live action, he said, it was decided that photos would more closely recreate the experience of a work of art for the audience.
“The Artist Project” is only the latest step among the Met’s recent strides to better integrate contemporary art into its historical pantheon. (Piotr Uklanski’s photograph series, “Fatal Attraction,” currently on view, is another such example). Thus far, their efforts have been gracefully implemented, refreshingly progressive without sacrificing the kind of lifelong visitor loyalty that begins for many in elementary school.
“We always had class trips when I was young,” said Kass. “The Egyptian stuff was great…” She trailed off. “I was also thinking of doing period rooms and the porcelain [for my episode], but I chose the Athenian vases because I know the least about them.” Also: “When I was growing up I knew all the Greek and Roman myths, and I really loved those. I’m a pantheist—I think it’s a past-life thing.”
Kass told me she had originally taped two interviews with two different selections, and her Greek vases ended up making the final cut. Regarding that selection process, Noey only commented that there were vague “development issues,” but added, “Now that we know what we’re doing, artists come and they get one gallery and one work of art. The issue, we found, was that the artists could talk about the whole museum. We had to somehow limit it, and we wanted to create some way that we could represent the sweep of the place.”
I asked another question. “Hold on,” he apologized. “I think we’re going to take a picture.”
All the participating artists present that evening—not just those featured in season one—congregated for a photo under a disco of camera flashes from the iPhones of onlookers. “All right,” said the photographer, heaving his serious camera up to eye level. “Let’s break the internet!” he called as a lightning bolt bounced across the water. He got the photo before the laughter had completely died.
Noey darted back. “I’m not allowed to tell you who we have in mind for the next season. It’s like…you know, I’m not going to tell you what’s happening on the next season of Girls either. But it’s going to be great.”
Fair enough. I turned around, and at some point in my attempt to politely escape a roulette of curators, journalists, PRs, and museum patrons, I found myself in an (enjoyable) conversation with Kalup Linzy. He had also been included in the group picture. Without even asking, the first words I heard him say were, “I think I’m number 30.”
“Oh,” I said. Then—“Oh! You’re going to be in season 2 then.”
“Well, I don’t know actually,” he said, looking uncertainly over at Noey’s back some five feet away. “I don’t know how much I’m allowed to reveal. Who do you write for?”
After the brief detour, he relented. “I talked about Manet in relationship to performance art. I was actually going back and forth between Manet, Monet, and Gauguin. The three of them had a relationship in their work I see in my own work. I was seeing Impressionism and some romanticism in my own work. But in the end I went with Manet.”
At some point, I ended up polling him as I had Kass. “I don’t know if I have a favorite, [all of the museums in New York] have different vibes,” he said, looking away thoughtfully. He quickly added, “I really like the historical aspect of the Met. I don’t think I’ve come close to seeing everything here….It kind of feels like home.”