Text: Eduardo Andres Alfonso
At 10 a.m. on Friday, March 18th, a grainy live feed camera showed New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio walking into the dark grey granite lobby of the Met Breuer. This was not the fanfare of the Costume Institute’s openings. Politicians clad in nice, but conventional, suits strolled in along with the Museum’s directorship and donors in what seemed to a be a show owing much more to the power brokers of old New York. After having seen the live-feed over coffee, I visited the Whitney later that week.
The fortress-like monolith on Madison, affectionately known to many as The Old Whitney, seemed anything but that. The museum by Hungarian-born Bauhaus-taught architect Marcel Breuer, originally opened in 1966, has been restored by New York firm Beyer Blinder Belle, who highlighted the visual hallmarks of the museum through a deep cleansing of accumulated renovations-of-convenience that had been done over the past 40-some years. The concrete bridge from Madison into the museum is melodramatic as ever with a coat of bright red paint; every chrome-dipped light bulb in the lobby was on (now with dimmers!); the post cards and artsy tchotchkes the cluttered the lobby cleared—all this done in preparation for part of The Metropolitan Museum of Arts collection to move from Central Park East to Madison Avenue. This move is part of a more complex choreography of expansion taking place over the next ten years: the re-location is giving the Met room to amalgamate another extension to their complex of conjoined buildings. The Met has singled out David Chipperfield, famed for a severe and austere exhibition spaces, most notably at the Neues Museum in Berlin and the ultra lux Valentino flagships of New York and London, to create the “the Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art, and potentially for [the] adjacent galleries for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.” The seven-year lease the Met has taken of the Breuer Building ensures that their Modern and Contemporary Collection won’t be missed in the meantime.
All this isn’t to say the move is one of pure convenience and the two exhibitions presented certainly take advantage of the flexible nature of Breuer Building. Of the three floors on which work is shown, one is dedicated to the drawings, photographs and paintings of Nasreen Mohamedi, and the other two to a pan-historic exhibition exploring the incomplete. Both exhibitions, which have been criticized and being a soft-pander to the contemporary museum going crowd, are the flexing of a massive art institution's muscles that only The Met could pull off.
The exhibition of Nasreen Mohamedi’s work is notably a nod to an outsider (a women from post-independence India afflicted with an invisible genetic mentally degenerative condition). Her incredibly delicate work, whether it be photography or drawing, require a strain to view, but the effort is worthwhile. The press release notes an affinity to the work of Agnes Martin, an artist admired for similar qualities and parallel life circumstances. In this case the grand comparison proves fulfilled. The curation and installation depart from the normal life-to-death linearity typical of many single-artist shows and allows for more of a meander through, which forces you to double back on certain soft spoken works that may have been missed. The issue of having to screen off the beautiful trapezoidal periscope window looking down 72nd street is also cleverly resolved by the presence of a lovely reading room. The lounge is also a reminder that the Met is equally invested in the Breuer building as a viewing space and a piece of iconic architecture.
The marquee exhibition, “Un Finished: Thoughts Left Visible,” encompasses 500 years of art and draws from a massive cache of work to explore the history and aesthetic of process. This exhibition delivers on the promise of grandiose juxtapositions. If you have ever gone to through the labyrinths of the Central Park palace and felt like you wanted to bring over a Matisse and hang in the Venetian Period room (a personal fantasy) this exhibition has certain line-ups that deliver on that desire. A moment that stood out was a line-up that started off with two Lucien Freud paintings from 1965 and 2002, followed by an Elizabeth Peyton portrait from 2005 and capped off with a Picasso self-portrait from 1900. It is moments like this that make a very convincing argument the Breuer Building as a neutral zone in which the Met can depart from its usual historical narrative. Other incredibly breathtaking moments include two rooms, one dedicated to J. M. W. Turner’s impressions of weather and the other to Cy Twombly’s green paintings, which would easily become pilgrimage destinations if they remained installed for a long period of time.
There are moments in which that promise of extraordinary encounters between works of art is missed. The Renaissance paintings which open the exhibition lack a contemporary counter-point that would have made them feel more like part of the crew and a room highlighting Pop Art ends up being just that—a room with Pop Art in a museum—but the breadth and frank-convenience of having so many works so close is appreciated. In a last departure from the organizational scheme the Whitney utilized for the building, The Met has converted the top floor into a café. Though it may feel like somewhat of a waste of space, the forced funneling of tourists out through the gift shop is not indulged by the shuffle of program, reminding that The Met is, after all, a classier, older New York institution.