Campbell Didn’t Screw Everything Up: Celebrating a Year of the Met Breuer

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

As Met director Tom Campbell addressed the press on Monday, he seemed miserable. And who could blame him? He’d just been fired, and an unflattering Vanity Fair article that morning had painted him as an incompetent creep out of his depth in nearly every respect. In that piece, nearly everyone who had once supported him gladly fired on-the-record potshots about his decisions, among them financial mismanagement, sexual impropriety and an ill-conceived plan to update the museum’s modern and contemporary holdings.

But on this last count—that the Met had wasted time and money attempting to take on its modern art blind spot—the critics are absolutely, positively, dead wrong. Over the course of an eventful year, the Met Breuer has quietly become the best place in New York to see modern and contemporary art.

For nearly its entire history, the Met’s engagement with modern art has lagged behind fellow institutions. Some lowlights: in the 1920s, it turned down a gift of more than 500 pieces from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Undaunted, Whitney used those pieces to start a new museum—the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1949, an artist could still write an open letter asking how the museum still didn’t own a single piece by Seurat, van Gogh, Matisse, Rouault, Modigliani, Braque, Chagall or Bonnard. When the forward-thinking curator Robert Bentley Hale managed to improbably convince the museum’s trustees to buy Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm in the 1950s, the museum’s president told him, “You know, Bobby, you’ve ruined my museum.” For many years, the museum’s lone contemporary art show of note remained 1969’s New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970. Curated by the museum’s first Modern art curator Henry Geldzahler, the museum’s trustees paid more attention to the see-through tops and pot smoke at the exhibition’s opening than to the art itself. In recent years, the disparity between the Met and the city’s other modern art museums has only widened, and what new works the museum has acquired (late period Warhols fresh off the Xerox, a Hirst shark) have been criticized for their pandering faddishness. No wonder that in 2009 the New York Times critic Holland Cotter could still characterize the museum’s reputation as “a fusty backwater for contemporary art, and an object of scorn in the art world.” So while it’s easy to criticize Tom Campbell for attempting to fix a blind spot as old as the museum, the fact still remains that for an institution so concerned with the idea of being encyclopedic, the Met’s collection has always been incomplete.

When the Whitney’s space opened up, it seemed like the sort of fortuitous coincidence that might begin to finally shake the Met out of its century-old rut. One can argue just how fortuitous this actually was—rumors of unsavory backroom dealings over the space will likely never go away—but it really doesn’t matter. However it came about, the Met Breuer is a triumph, one of those black swans that once it’s happened seems like a complete no-brainer.

In one of its boldest moves, the Met has used the Breuer building to put its modern holdings and loans in conversation with older pieces it already owns. “The Met, I think, is unique in the way in that we can show contemporary art on a grand scale,” says modern and contemporary art curator Ian Alteveer.

Its new Marsden Hartley show, for example, contrasts Hartley’s work with paintings by Winslow Homer and woodcuts by Hokusai, a juxtaposition that not only enhances Hartley’s paintings, but also reinforces this idea of a “grand” narrative of art. And it does so while highlighting Hartley’s lesser-known paintings of Maine, rehabilitating the idea of “regional art” in the process.

In one of its most lauded shows, the debut exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, incomplete works by Da Vinci, Titian, Cezanne, Pollock, and Alice Neel all shared gallery space. Curated under the direction of Sheena Wagstaff, the chair of the museum’s modern and contemporary art department and director of the Met Breuer, the show served as an early mission statement for the space. “It was an opportunity to begin the program by focusing in on what the artists were really interrogating,” says Wagstaff, “every single thing you saw in that show, you had to ask, ‘Why did Leonardo stop then? What was Donatello trying to say? Was he just making a short cut? What was Titian actually doing when he was over-painting? Why did Alice Neel invite this man into her studio, and why did she actually hold on so long for the possibility of his coming back to sit for her again? Each one of them had a story that was incredibly compelling.”

In fact, the show was so unusual in the way it approached the works on display that it became a blockbuster. “What happened as a result of it, and we didn’t really anticipate this,” says Wagstaff, “is that the show was so rich with individual stories—a sort of massive compendium of short stories—that people came back again and again. I met a woman who had been to that show seven times, because she wanted to spend time pursuing its stories and to think about them herself.”

Wagstaff has no illusions about where the Breuer stands regarding that Uffizi down Fifth. “The MoMA is the greatest repository of Modern art in the world, and that is not going to change,” she says. “That should be lauded. That is what MoMA has to offer the world, which is an incredible trove of modernist treasures.”

What isn’t acknowledged enough, though, is that owning Les Demoiselles d’Avignon isn’t necessarily a good thing; in fact, having all the iconic works of 20th century modern art in the next room over seems to breed a sort of curatorial laziness. On a recent visit, I was shocked by just how poorly curated and exhibited everything at the MoMA is. At the Francis Picabia show—which should have been a landmark tribute to an underappreciated genius—walls were so overstuffed with art that it was difficult to actually focus on one painting for any real amount of time. The recently concluded exhibition of the museum’s ‘60s holdings was even worse, with trippy op art, a large Benglis wax sculpture, a Warhol Marilyn, Arte Povera installations, a Nam June Paik television, psychedelic concert posters and a Jaguar all displayed together without any real sense of what to take away from the whole thing, other than “weren’t the 60s neat?” Going to the MoMA, one can’t help but be reminded of the scene in the film Spring Breakers in which James Franco lays all his possessions on his bed, shouting, “Look at all my s**t!”

For the scrappier Breuer, the opposite has held true. The limitations of the Breuer’s space and the Met’s modern art holdings have bred an inventive spirit unparalleled among New York museums. In lieu of dusting off some Rothko in the basement, seldom exhibited, vital artists like Marisa Merz and Nasreen Mohamedi get the sort of full-scale retrospectives they’ve deserved for decades. Even important artists like Diane Arbus and Marsden Hartley can receive unconventional shows that challenge conventional notions of their work. “There’s a revelatory aspect to it,” Wagstaff says of her program. “This is an opportunity for people to become aware that the story of modern art is a far broader, far more nuanced and far more exciting one than the story told through the canon.”

Beyond the quality of the works themselves, a large part of this comes from the intimacy of the Breuer. In contrast to galleries built today, many of which seem to be reverse engineered for galas (think of the MoMA’s enormous, purposeless atrium), the Breuer feels more like a small gallery with the resources and curatorial acumen of a major institution.

Alteveer positively contrasts the personal nature of the Breuer galleries to the main building’s Tisch and Cantor exhibition spaces, which are both over 10,000 square feet. “The plates at Breuer are slightly smaller,” he says, “which makes for a more intimate scale for exhibitions.”

Listening to Wagstaff to talk about what’s on the agenda for the space’s second season, it is easy to see how the Breuer’s constraints have re-invigorated the Met and given it a mission distinct from every other museum. There are more exhibitions that put art from the past and the present in conversation—“ancient and modern shows,” she calls them. There are trans-cultural shows—in his glum remarks on Monday, Campbell announced that the museum’s new retrospective of the Brazilian artist Lygia Pape would be the first of many centered on Latin American art. Wagstaff also plans on focusing on cultures further afield—she’s hired a curator of South Asian art and a curator of Middle Eastern, North African and Turkish, and says, “They are all creating exhibitions that speak to the vibrant art that has been made in the 20th century in [cities like] Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut—major centers of modern art and, depending on the moment, contemporary art.” Talking about the success of the Breuer’s Kerry James Marshall retrospective, she promises a deeper engagement with the work of African-American artists. “Only very recently has mainstream art history begun to realize just how important these artists were—artists working just as actively as their white brothers and sisters, and creating incredibly significant bodies of work.” In this, Wagstaff says, she sees her fellow institutions as not just the MOMA and the Whitney, but the Studio Museum in Harlem.

It’s an expansive curatorial program. But given how authentically the Breuer has already engaged with these underrepresented and under-shown groups and movements, there’s no reason to think that Wagstaff and her team won’t succeed.

The last part of the Breuer that deserves praise is its new restaurant, Flora Bar. Strangely, it is in this basement eatery that the Breuer project fully comes together. Run by Thomas Carter and Ignacio Mattos, the team behind Nolita hotspot Estela, the restaurant has attracted rave reviews since it opened in December. Less acknowledged, though, has been how well the restaurant works with the museum as a whole.

Asked whether he sees a connection between his restaurant and the museum itself, Carter demurs: “For the food, not really. For the space, of course—I mean, there’s a certain vernacular with the space, and you can’t really deviate from that vernacular. You have to stick to the building’s language.” But it’s hard to take Carter at his word here: everything that Flora bar serves seems indebted to the museum. The minimalist, disc- and cube-shaped tapas the restaurant serves mirror the Brutalist geometry of the Breuer building and its interior elements so perfectly it’s hard to imagine that the Whitney had a Sarabeth’s in the same space.

One of Mattos’ signature techniques is combining different, seemingly incompatible flavors—often from different cuisines—into surprisingly tasty dishes. A pickled daikon and olive, for example, mixes bitter, salty, and sweet flavors into a delicious whole. In Flora Bar’s most revelatory dish, endive, pecan, and blue cheese are mixed together in a way that brings out all the sweet, sour, nutty, bitter, crunchy and chewy qualities of the ingredients. While some skeptics might question whether such an ordinary dish really merits a $17 price tag, it is so sublime that it brings to mind the classic defense of abstract art: “If anybody could have done that, why didn’t you?”


All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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