They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s certainly true of the home that Marcel Breuer designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art, a brutalist cinderblock slotted between the neoclassical facades of New York’s Madison Avenue. When it opened in 1966, the Breuer building was reviled: critics called the inverted concrete ziggurat ‘oppressively heavy’ (Emily Genauer), ‘gloomy’ and ‘stygian’ (Ada Louise Huxtable). But it has weathered well the tempests of time and taste. After nearly two years of renovations, the building reopened last week as Met Breuer, home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary collection and programming. The high temple of art now has an outpost in postmodernism’s impregnable fortress.
The Met has performed a subtle facelift on the building, refinishing floors and restoring minor details to their original (if slightly enhanced) state. Their respectful treatment of a controversial landmark makes clear its architectural importance. Breuer’s cramped, dark galleries may be poor spaces for viewing contemporary art, particularly as it grows to match swollen egos, but the building is an elegant work of art in its own right. Compared to the voluptuous curves favored by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Breuer’s blocky concrete façade seems radical in its plainspoken severity.
In just the past decade, contemporary art has enjoyed a tremendous surge in interest and The Met is only the latest historical institution jockeying for a piece of the action; Tate may have set the trend when it opened its dedicated modern and contemporary outpost, Tate Modern, in 2000 (it now receives nearly 6 million visitors a year). The Met’s takeover of the Breuer building, though bold for a typically cautious institution, is a clear gamble to satisfy visitor expectations and expand its donor base. Cosmetics mogul Leonard Lauder, who promised his renowned collection of cubist paintings to the museum in 2013, was a chief supporter of the move.
The Met is a leviathan, its institutional history and reserves as hulking as its stone edifice. These blessings can be burdens when it comes to contemporary programming that favours smaller, nimbler spaces. But the quiet and pristine Nasreen Mohamedi retrospective, one of Met Breuer’s two inaugural shows, avoids this problem altogether.
Born into a Muslim family in pre-partition Pakistan, Mohamedi attended London’s Central St. Martins in the 1950s but spent much of her career in Bombay, where she produced a vast body of work, mostly hard-edged abstract drawings. Her delicate yet precisely layered graphite lines form complex spatial geometries that recall (yet predate) 3D mapping technology. Their overlapping transversals are especially beautiful in the Breuer building’s refurbished third-floor gallery, where they echo the woodgrain in its famous parquet floor and the rigid joints in its concrete coffered ceiling.
The show includes a range of other media: a number of photographs on view document Mohamedi’s travels across the subcontinent, their abstract subjects ranging from ebbing sea foam to shadows cast by camels. One particular image, Untitled (1972), seems to graft Mohamedi’s graphite grids onto the real space of sunken courtyards in the former Mughal capitol, Fatehpur Sikri: the photograph’s high horizon focuses attention on water channels, paving stones and the pencil-thin shadows at their points of intersection. In another photograph from 1967, also called Untitled, a few granaries stand against a cloudless sky, their alien industrial forms a possible nod to Bernd and Hilla Becher. An intoxicating abstract sensibility coheres somewhere between these black and white photographs, early expressionistic paintings and Mohamedi’s better-known drawings. Even without consulting the wall text, her vision shines through clear as day.
The exhibition is a perfect reflection of the Met’s academic and global strengths. Introducing Western audiences to historically important artists excluded from the Euro-American canon is exactly what Met Breuer should be doing; it’s the most contemporary thing about the new museum.
Upstairs, though, the Met’s curators handle the building’s mute, stubborn spaces with less aplomb. ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible’, a sweeping five-century survey of allegedly unfinished or ‘non-finito’ artworks, opens in Venice with The Flaying of Marsyas (c.1570), one of Titian’s last paintings, alongside striking works by Tintoretto and Jacopo da Ponte. Their ‘unfinished’ effect comes from rough patches of paint: in Agony in the Garden (1558–62), Titian’s lantern flame is an ejaculatory stroke of brilliant white, reminiscent of the fleecy décolletage on Rembrandt’s final portraits. (With loans like these, as with the two entrancing preparatory sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck in the next gallery, the Met is flexing its institutional muscle.) At times, artistic abandonment produces utterly weird results: a 1775 portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs depicts a faceless aristocratic lady holding a section of unpainted canvas shaped like a dog, her hair and costume rendered in crisp detail. A painting Degas quit in 1897 shows a fallen jockey impossibly lying beneath the galloping horse that bucked him. In later galleries, it’s not clear that the works on view are actually unfinished at all; most historians believe that J.M.W. Turner’s famous late landscape paintings, filled with startlingly abstract bursts of white, brown and orange, to be complete works, finished when the painter’s eyesight was failing.
On the fourth floor, the exhibition makes conjectural leaps as it jumps through time to cubism and beyond. Many works there, from an oversized Luc Tuymans still life to a Piet Mondrian tape-on-canvas study, are not so much ‘unfinished’ as they are liberal with negative space. While browsing this latter half of the show, I couldn’t help but wonder what the featured artists would think of their inclusion. Does Yayoi Kusama really consider her precise and repetitious paintings non-finito? Is Sol Lewitt’s fugal installation Incomplete Open Cubes (1974/82) really a collection of partial objects, as its title suggests, or variations on a geometric theme central to the sculptor’s practice? What, if anything, is missing from Hanne Darboven’s series Letters and Indices to 24 Songs (1974)? The minimalist paintings of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, when falsely characterized as unfinished, look like effects of laziness rather than rigorous transcriptions of painterly theory. Whatever few aesthetic similarities can be gleaned from a quick scan hardly relay differences in content or context. They also unintentionally invite derision: what makes many of the iconic artworks of the last half-century ‘contemporary’, it seems, is their slapdash appearance.
What, for instance, justifies grouping a Felix Gonzales-Torres candy spill together with Zoe Leonard’s desiccated fruit sculptures and Robert Smithson’s Mirrors and Shelly Sand (1969–70)? A wall label proposes the theme of ‘entropy’ – are the curators suggesting that the works aren’t ‘done’ until they’ve disappeared completely? Leonard’s and Smithson’s works are static objects, and Gonzalez-Torres’s candy gets regularly replenished. Entropy does not simply mean physical decomposition – it is a transmission of matter from one state to another. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that this transmission is cyclical; the energy expelled by deteriorating bodies gets absorbed and reused by other matter. The exhibition presumes that artistic process is always oriented toward an end goal – but what if that process is itself the end? If a work is designed to ceaselessly change its shape, can we really declare it ‘unfinished’?
In both its strengths and weaknesses, ‘Unfinished’ is just what you’d expect: a dazzling parade of Old Master paintings chased by a disorienting jumble of postmodern art. The Met still excels at the older stuff; but with contemporary art it faces a steep learning curve. Met Breuer will succeed if those who manage it value contemporary art for more than just visitor figures. The historically conservative institution may never show the kind of ‘new media’ art that shocked and awed at last year’s New Museum Triennial, but it can be contemporary in its ideas: not fresh names but fresh analysis. It would have been far more provocative, for instance, to juxtapose modern and premodern, new and old. Perhaps the splashy gestures of Pollock’s Number 28 (1950) would read differently if hung beside the scintillating figures in Rubens’s unfinished history painting, Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry (1630). What would happen if you put Mengs’s faceless woman opposite the disembodied head in Lucien Freud’s 1965 self-portrait? Or Turner’s late pale, blotchy seascapes next to the muted white impasto of a Ryman?
Of course contemporary art is a tiny capstone on the pyramid of history - just a recent cultural blip of the anthropocene. Trawling through 5,000 years of art history while programming contemporary exhibitions is a formidable challenge, but one the Met can surely handle as well as any institution on the planet. Looking forward by looking back: this is Met Breuer’s paradoxical task. It must use the old to interrogate the new. Until that happens, it has unfinished business to attend to.