A Dialogue Across Centuries

| 07 Mar 2016 | 03:59

The world just got more beautiful, at least the world around Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The Met Breuer opens to members March 8 through the 13, and to the public on the 18th. Two exhibitions inaugurate the space; one is filled with understated elegance, the other with jaw-dropping masterpieces. Each is extraordinary, and together they mark the first step in a new journey for the museum, which hopes to offer audiences a longer, wider view of modern and contemporary art.

Just as The Cloisters specializes in presenting medieval art in its unique space, the Metropolitan Museum has leased the building that once housed the Whitney to start a dialogue about art of the 20th and 21st centuries and how examples from each relate to the art of the non-Western world and the past. “Especially for a younger audience,” said Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director and CEO, “when they see historical work, they see the fact that it’s historical before they actually see the work. I think seeing the work in this Brutalist, modern setting gives a whole new freshness and resonance.”

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990), whose solo exhibition fills the second floor, is relatively unknown to American audiences. Her work is spare and graceful. With a limited palette and visual vocabulary, her paintings, drawings and photographs capture a timeless quality through the lens of modernism. Across the 130 works, one senses stillness — the slow progression of a shadow across a wall, the rhythm of a shuttle’s slide back and forth to weave a carpet.

“Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” is a sweeping look at a question all artists face. When is it time to call it done, and is it ever done? Some 190 works spanning more than 550 years, in various states of completion, offer a fascinating glimpse of how artworks evolve. The same questions that plagued Titian in the 16th century may have haunted Alice Neel in the 20th. The same restless energy that propelled Leonardo da Vinci to a new page may have inspired Jean-Michel Basquiat’s impassioned poetic painting.

Two floors are filled with works presented roughly chronologically. The earliest work in the show, “St. Barbara” by Jan Van Eyck (1437), is glorious. Its unfinished or intentionally skeletal state (nobody’s sure) reveals intense delicacy and complexity that might have been obscured by even thin washes of color. The exhibition ends on the floor above with a suite of six Cy Twombly works never before exhibited.

The presentation is focused on mostly European and American works from the Renaissance through today. Some may find fault with a lack of cohesion or diversity. If you want to quibble with curators for mounting two shows, only one of which is dedicated to a non-male, non-white, non-Western artist, go right ahead. I’d rather spend my time contemplating a dazzling grouping of Michelangelo’s stunning red chalk “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” next to the exquisite “Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata)” done at the turn of the 16th century by Leonardo, flanked by yet another da Vinci, sketches in silverpoint and ink preparing for his painting, “The Virgin of the Rocks.” The unsurpassable quality of the works and the ability to secure these loans is astonishing. “The Met can do this. I can’t imagine too many other museums can,” the museum’s president, Daniel Weiss, said. “And that’s what we’re hoping to bring – a really different perspective on the creative process and the relationship of tradition to modernism.”

On the fourth floor, more recent works are on view, from a roomful of Picassos in dialogue with Cézannes, to Pollock and Warhol, to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ multicolored pile of wrapped candies, to a surprisingly delicate Louise Bourgeois marble sculpture.

Some of these works were never completed because the commission fell through, others because the artist died or moved on, some because the artist could never let go. Turner (a breathtaking roomful of his art is presented) was known to take a brush and keep adding strokes even when his paintings were hanging on gallery walls. Rembrandt was so focused on the drama of a moment he often didn’t bother with pesky details like hands and shoulders; everything he wanted was captured in the crease of a brow or the glint off a shining blade. In the 20th and 21st centuries, process came to take precedence over the product. Artists observe time, rather than trying to capture it. Robert Smithson’s earthworks, even within a building, can never be completely stable. Janine Antoni’s “Lick and Lather,” two sculpted busts, one made of chocolate the other of soap, are meant to be decomposed. Was that work finished the day Antoni completed it, or the day it ceases to exist?

“I hope very much visitors spend some time going through the exhibition and then revisiting it, because it opens up many questions … that you can explore the answers to,” curator Sheena Wagstaff said. “They’re there in the canvases, and they’re also in you. It’s about engaging you to ask those questions of yourself.” The Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibitions are filled with hundreds of spectacularly beautiful works seen together for the first and only time. There are things you have never seen and ones you will never forget. Don’t lose the chance to experience something remarkable and formulate your own answers to complex artistic questions.