Met Breuer’s inaugural shows: the incomplete works

The Metropolitan Museum’s new outpost opens to the public with a pair of contrasting exhibitions, both full of surprises
Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Street in Auvers-sur-Oise’ (1890) © Ateneum Art Museum

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art opens its new Madison Avenue branch, Met Breuer, with a brace of philosophically opposed exhibitions. Nasreen Mohamedi is a lingering close-up on an artist of refined craftsmanship and reticent virtuosity. Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible is the museum equivalent of a paintball match: a chaotic, entertaining splatter involving scores of participants.

Mohamedi had to beat back a debilitating illness in order to maintain obsessive control over her fine pencil lines and animated grids. The artists in “Unfinished” left their work rough for all kinds of reasons: distraction, study, aesthetic purpose, or the careful construction of spontaneity.

The juxtaposition is meant to flaunt the Met’s range and multitasking facility in modern and contemporary art. Instead, it suggests an institution unsure of its mission, more eager to entertain provocative ideas than to follow them through with curatorial rigour.

Untitled ink drawing (c1960) by Nasreen Mohamedi © Nasreen Mohamedi

Mohamedi, an Indian artist who died of Huntington’s disease in 1990 at 53, helps to widen the museum’s vista on the 20th century. Little known in her life­time, she has become an emblem of Modernism’s global reach and of the currents flowing outside western capitals. The Kiran Nadar Museum in New Delhi and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid co-organised the retrospective.

In her monochrome, quietly utopian world, diagonals slice across white paper like the contrails of jets flying in formation. Lines intersect, form nodes, and make waves. They cast shadows and coalesce into hovering forms. In her photographs of pavement stripes, coastlines and walls, she is always alert to the world’s mysterious rhythms.

Andy Warhol's 'Do It Yourself (Violin)', (1962) © Andy Warhol Foundation

The more her body betrayed her, the more exacting she became, as if to insist that random suffering could be palliated by the discipline of beautiful geometry.

“Unfinished”, however, is half-baked. It includes hundreds of pieces from five centuries, harvested from a score of museums plus the Met’s own capacious vaults, all grouped under one vaporous rubric. The notion of examining the artistic process through products that were left incomplete looks good from a distance; up close it dissolves into a jumble of bouncing pixels.

Jacopo Bassano's 'The Baptism of Christ' (c1590) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Jacopo Bassano died in 1592, he left his “Baptism of Christ” still hauntingly partial, with blurred figures adrift in dark shadows. Almost 400 years later, Lygia Clark fashioned articulated puzzle-like contraptions in the hope that the public would complete them by moving and squeezing and stroking. (Naturally, the museum forbids the public from actually doing this, dooming Clark’s works to perpetual incompletion.)

Jackson Pollock bent and danced over “Number 28, 1950”, then titled, signed, and exhibited it, but here it is considered unfinished because his method of flinging and dripping paint on the floor “postpones closure and completion”— he could, it seems, just keep working indefinitely, without ever being done. Bassano, Clark, and Pollock have nothing to do with each other, and summoning them to this ahistorical imperfection convention doesn’t really make the case that they do.

You can almost imagine the discussions over what forms of unfinished-ness should count and which should be excluded. Yes to artists who invoke infinity. No sketches or preparatory studies, the curators announce in a wall text — and then include some anyway. Because, really, who could resist a chance to display the notebooks of Michelangelo? Leonardo, with his gloriously tragic inability to bring much of what he began to fruition, is practically the show’s patron saint and we can savour some of his divine fragments. Graffiti art doesn’t make an appearance, even though the genre practically defines the hit-and-run aesthetic. Yet Basquiat’s “Piscine versus the Best Hotels”, which suggests a crayon doodle or high-school locker collage, is actually the product of a meticulous mind. The quintet of curators, led by Sheena Wagstaff, seem more interested in works that look unfinished than in those that actually are.

Lygia Clark’s ‘Bicho/Pan-Cubism Pq (Version II)’ (1960-63) © Lygia Clark

The curtain rises on Titian’s “Flaying of Marsyas”, a work from his later years when, escaping from technical virtuosity, he played vigorously with paint, daubing the figure of the martyred satyr — who dared to lose a musical duel to Apollo — with frenzied strokes and blobs of colour. Bits of white fleck the surface with maniacal animation. The work is not unfinished, though. Rather, the rude vitality is typical of Titian’s late paintings, which Giorgio Vasari described as “judicious, beautiful and astonishing”.

How could a survey of “thoughts left visible” fail to discuss the effects of old age on style? Late in life, Rembrandt, like Titian, traded in the theatrical realism of his early work for viscous brushstrokes and psychic depth. These searching portraits are not by-products of infirmity. Pulpy surfaces in golden tones look spon­taneous, but are in fact calculated to convey melancholy inwardness, the sense of a deep and authentic bond between the artist and his subjects. Rembrandt’s students excelled at reproducing the master’s buttery brushstrokes and intense emotionality. They imitated him so convincingly that it remains difficult to distinguish a Rembrandt from a not-Rembrandt, or a psychological imperative from an affectation.

Rembrandt’s ‘The Great Jewish Bride’ (1635) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Maybe it’s apt that an exhibition’s attitude should get tangled up with its topic, but I wish the Met had thought better of mounting such a run-on first draft. I felt like staging a bout of guerrilla editing, and scrawling questions on the walls in red pencil: who decides whether a work is complete — the artist, the patron, posterity or connoisseurs? One faction of curators joins forces with the Romantics, who prized unforced effusions of the febrile imagination — and found them retrospectively in the work of artists like Frans Hals. Wagstaff’s team wrestles with two overlapping but distinct definitions of “finished”: polished and complete. The opposite of the first is rough, spontaneous, and vital. The opposite of the second is interrupted and fragmentary. The curators repeatedly conflate these concepts, to intensely annoying effect.

We stumble through all these puzzles into a room of roughly textured sculpture. Rodin’s gnarled anatomies share a family resemblance with works by Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and with Alina Szapocznikow’s “Tumors Personified”, a malignant spray of resin-coated clods, each marked with a malformed self-portrait. But if a deeper connection exists among all this bumpy organicism, the museum leaves that argument unmade.

There’s a certain appeal to this loose tangle of masterpieces and mediocrities — whenever you find yourself in a thematic blind alley, there’s always something stunning to see. What’s disheartening, though, is that Unfinished is meant to herald the Met’s new mission — to trace the threads that bind contemporary art with history — and it does the job badly. This is an institution busy reinventing itself with new branding, new digs, new staff, and plans to construct a modern and contemporary art wing. In that expansive spirit, the museum has mounted a show that demands too much from its audience and leaves out too little.

metmuseum.org/visit/met-breuer

Photographs: Ateneum Art Museum; Lygia Clark; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Nasreem Mohomedi; Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York

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