At the Met Breuer

Hal Foster

When a beloved building goes dark, a hole opens in the urban fabric: so it was when the Whitney Museum left its old home on New York’s Upper East Side, constructed by Marcel Breuer in blunt granite and concrete in 1966. Its new headquarters, designed by Renzo Piano in elegant steel and glass, opened in Chelsea last May. For many months a cultural beacon in uptown Manhattan was dimmed, and the architectural dialogue between the inverted grey ziggurat of the Whitney on Madison Avenue and the expansive white spiral of the Guggenheim on Central Park, another masterpiece of late modernist building-as-sculpture created by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959, was suspended. But now the Metropolitan Museum has taken over the old Whitney for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, and, at least for the time being, the building, renamed the Breuer, looks much as its architect conceived it. Its bright lobby is cleared of commercial clutter, its signature bluestone floors, gridded concrete ceilings and great hooded windows are cleaned up, and its moat patio under the gangway entrance is planted with alders. With this restoration (done by Beyer Blinder Belle for $15 million), the Breuer becomes the prime artwork in the modern holdings of the Met. Yet the building is only on lease from the Whitney for eight years, and neither party will say what will happen afterwards.

For the interim it is a good arrangement. The Whitney had tried to extend its exhibition space for decades, but proposals of various merit by Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas and Piano were all shot down, largely because of the effect they would have had on adjacent brownstones which, though nondescript, had landmark status. With the new deal the Whitney could leave uptown, and appear generous in doing so, while the Met could signal a new relationship to modern and contemporary art, which it rarely foregrounded under the thirty-year directorship of the traditionalist Philippe de Montebello. It didn’t help that the Met had stuck its 20th-century collection in a badly scaled wing at the very back of its immense building on Fifth Avenue (driven by donor ego, such wings rarely fly, architecturally or museologically). It was unfortunate too that the modern department favoured exhibitions from outside curators that were often a bust (an overblown Pop show in 2012 springs to mind), and shows of famous collectors which, however important (Gertrude Stein and Alfred Stieglitz were recent subjects), still put the museum at a remove from art practice and art history alike. In short, the Met appeared aloof from modern and contemporary work, and even though artists love to explore its galleries, a gulf remained between its uptown and their downtown.

The Breuer allows the Met to break with this past and to connect with the present. Of course, the move was also encouraged by those Met patrons who collect new art and, although the museum has more than six million visitors a year, the prospect of an expanded audience was a prompt too. In addition, the deal gives the museum time to develop new spaces for modern and contemporary art back on Fifth Avenue, which are to be designed by David Chipperfield on a budget of $600 million (the rumour is that this amount will be reduced). Four years ago the Met’s current director, Thomas Campbell, hired Sheena Wagstaff, head of exhibitions at Tate Modern, to lead the curatorial charge, and she has brought her own team with her. This has ruffled feathers: the New York Times published a nasty profile that smacked weirdly of Anglophobia (Campbell, Wagstaff and Chipperfield are all English cosmopolites – oh dear!). The reaction inadvertently revealed why the transformation is needed.

New Yorkers like to say they are in love with change but often react badly when cultural institutions propose it (just ask the directors of the Public Library or the Museum of Modern Art). Our outlook can be both presentist and parochial, and now there is a wicked wind of nativist xenophobia as well. For all these reasons the double agenda laid out by Wagstaff – to connect modern art to historical traditions and to set contemporary practice in international contexts – is welcome. The programme is right not only for the Met, which is well suited to attempt both, but also for the ecosystem of museums in Manhattan: neither the Modern, nor the Guggenheim, the Whitney or the New Museum can delve into the past or range globally to the same extent. For the Modern and the Guggenheim ‘international’ still mostly means Europe, with occasional forays into Latin America and East Asia, and they favour established figures, while so far the new Whitney is rather limited in its geographical range (Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, two familiar New Yorkers, headline its list of retrospectives), and the New Museum is fairly restricted in its generational scope (‘Younger than Jesus’ is the title of a recurrent survey). But then my view of things might be Pollyannaish politically; after all, the Met board does include people like David Koch, who gave the museum a grandiose fountain emblazoned with his name that would be right at home in Kazakhstan. In fact, most of these institutions are connected by an umbilical cord of gold to neoliberal billionaires for whom philanthropy is often business conducted by other means.

The programme to connect modern and contemporary practices to the past and to frame them internationally is split between the inaugural shows at the Breuer, and one challenge will be to integrate the two in future exhibitions. On the second floor is a retrospective of the esteemed Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-90), who is virtually unknown in the United States. With an extensive array of paintings, drawings, photographs and diaries on view here, one can follow the development of her distinctive version of geometric abstraction; though her art appears intimate, even introspective, it also reflects on a wide range of traditions and figures from Mughal architecture and Sufi poetry to Le Corbusier, Rilke and Camus. That the curators have begun with such a serious body of work in a presentation that avoids spectacle is a statement in its own right. It also sets them up to exhibit modern art from different places in a way that frames modernism not as a chronological sequence of Western ideas that can only be imported colonially or imposed imperially, but as an anachronic relay of international practices in complicated conversation. This is the liveliest initiative in academic studies of modern art, and it would be good for museums like the Met to join or even lead the discussion.

On the third and fourth floors appears Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, curated by Andrea Bayer, Kelly Baum and Wagstaff, an exhibition of artwork left undone. Here the focus is on the Western tradition, from an exquisite 1437 silverpoint drawing by Jan van Eyck of Saint Barbara seated before an also unfinished cathedral, to a trashed 2014 nude in bronze and clay by Urs Fischer, the figure strewn headless along a chaise longue. In a show of institutional strength, master artists are drawn from many collections: Leonardo and Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Rubens, Turner and Courbet, Friedrich and Menzel, Cézanne and Picasso, Mondrian and Pollock. But they are hung with lesser figures, as if to underscore that the causes of abandoned projects – death, distraction, a broken commission, a lost inspiration – can affect anyone. It is a tonic for habitués of contemporary art at the old Whitney to enter the third floor and to confront Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas (1570s), a late painting of the satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical competition and had his hide stripped away for his hubris. In a way it is an emblem of the show: failing to finish might feel like punishment for overreaching, at the extreme a flailing or even a flaying. One possible compensation is that, posthumously, an unfinished work can also seem both current and untimely.

The exhibition includes many works that only look incomplete; once a sign of failure, the unfinished came to be a cherished effect. Before the 19th century artists generally progressed through prescribed stages on the path towards a finished painting – these included the esquisse or sketch on paper, and the ébauche, or preparatory outline on canvas – but a new interest in the non finito or non fini disturbed this hierarchical order. The Romantics privileged the fragment and the ruin: sublime rupture vied with beautiful completion, and indices of time were injected into painting and sculpture in ways that put pressure on neoclassical decorum, according to which the arts were separated into spatial and temporal categories. With the arrival of the avant-garde, finish was associated first with bourgeois taste and then with commodity kitsch; the unfinished was taken to resist such fetishistic effects, and to advance values like sincerity, spontaneity and immediacy. Although research has driven countless artists, from Leonardo onwards, experiment became its own virtue in early 20th-century art, and by the mid-20th century process became a thing to expose too, first as evidence of the presence of the artist and then as an invitation to the viewer to participate in the work imaginatively – ‘thoughts made visible’.

There are drawbacks to the show. As often in broad surveys, sculpture is given short shrift, even though the unfinished is important to its transformations, especially after new materials and methods came to the fore in the wake of Minimalist art. Sometimes, too, finished works are presented as unfinished and vice versa, and the second half of the exhibition introduces categories that do not always clarify the subject. (Is infinity unfinished? Well, yes. Is entropy? I suppose so, until heat death arrives.) But then the unfinished is an intrinsically ambiguous idea, inevitably attended by contradictions.

The exhibition pivots on Picasso, and most of the fourth floor is devoted to postwar work, which may be a sign of things to come. For a long time modernist art was heralded as the greatest break since the Renaissance (‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’); today, a hundred years later, it is ‘a thing of the past’ in the Hegelian sense, and its ruptures do not seem so radical: painting was transformed, to be sure, but it remained painting, more or less; ditto sculpture. Moreover, the aesthetic debates of the early 20th century (representation versus abstraction, say), and even of the late 20th century – the auratic masterwork versus the multiple image – seem quaint to students today who grew up with Facebook, Instagram and all the rest. As the art of industrial modernity, modernism was steeped in the ‘mental life’ of such metropolises as Paris, London and New York. That is not how the lives of most people born after 1989, even those with the luxury to attend to such art, are triangulated.

If modernist art now looks more continuous with the 19th century, the salient break, not only with given mediums but also with institutional spaces, comes later, in the 1960s, and that is when ‘contemporary art’ is often said to begin. This is the vintage of the Breuer building too, and with its emphatic materiality, embodied space and transparent construction, it is well suited to the art of the period that features many of these same qualities and, with its various galleries at different scales, to the art that follows as well. Hence the best solution for the Met is to retain the building after the lease is up, even if it does cost a reported $17 million a year to operate. The Whitney hardly needs to move back uptown, and this arrangement would reduce the pressure on the Met to build a vast new extension. (Such extensions are difficult even when the best architects are involved, as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, among others, attest.) The Met and the Breuer could establish a dynamic relationship like the one between MoMA and PS1 in Long Island City, only better, with no river to divide them, and the idea of the museum as a laboratory for experiment, which the old Bauhausler Breuer surely had in mind, could be reactivated. But then critics only propose; the financial gods dispose.