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The Metropolitan Museum Takes a Big Step With The Met Breuer

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The Met Breuer. Photo: Ed Lederman.

The Met Breuer: Bridging the Gap Between Historic and Contemporary Art

It takes about nine minutes and nine seconds to walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue and 82nd Street, to its new outpost, the Met Breuer, on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. Or at least that's how long it took Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams to walk the stretch from the stately colonnaded museum to the blocky grey modernist one. On the occasion of the opening of the Met Breuer, Adams was commissioned to compose a piece, resulting in Soundwalk 9:09, an ambient track of filtered and sculpted street sounds that museum-goers can ostensibly download and listen to on the short walk between the two institutions. The sonic effect is something like being in an electronic tunnel, beaming you from one space to the next through some kind of teleportation device.

Unfinished, installation view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright 2016.

In some ways, traveling from one Met to the other is indeed like crossing through space and time. The spatial remove demonstrates, in physical terms, the kind of leap the Met is taking with its new initiative at the Breuer building. By moving into the Breuer, the Brutalist former home of the Whitney Museum, the Met is hoping to expand its program of modern and contemporary art, "reconnecting and reengaging in a new way with art from our own time," as Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Met, announced recently. Historically, for the Met, this is a big step.

Unfinished, installation view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright 2016.

As critic Calvin Tomkins notes in a recent issue of The New Yorker, the Metropolitan has suffered from an "anti-modernist myopia" for much of its history, but now that modern and contemporary art have become such big draws for audiences and collectors alike, the museum can no longer afford to ignore it. With such historic lacunae in its collection, the process of deepening the Met's commitment to and coffers of modern and contemporary art has been likened to changing course on a giant ocean liner.

Nasreen Mohamedi, installation view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright 2016.

The opening of Met Breuer is a highly publicized corrective, but also an opportunity to stage exhibitions that could not be mounted by any other institution, given the extraordinary breadth and quality of works that make up the museum's encyclopedic holdings. "Unlike any other museum of modern and contemporary art," points out curator Sheena Wagstaff, recently recruited from the Tate, "we can tell stories that reach...back to any point in five millennia of art." For its inaugural exhibition, the Met presents Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, a thematic survey of unfinished works, intentional or otherwise, drawn from 500 years of Western art, as well as a monographic exhibition of the little known but important Indian modern artist Nasreen Mohamedi, co-organized by the Reina Sofía in Madrid, with the collaboration of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

Jan van Eyck, Saint Barbara, 1437, metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood, 16 3⁄8 × 11 × 2 3⁄8 in. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.

Both exhibitions are surprising to encounter in a space that had been hitherto devoted solely to American contemporary art. An exhilarating selection of works, from the collection as well as on loan from other institutions, is on display, from Jan Van Eyck to Titian to Van Gogh to Warhol. Yet, as many critics have identified, the strengths of the exhibition lie in its treatment of older works, while the very area that the Met Breuer promised to address is where the curatorial premise falls apart. As New York Times critic Roberta Smith points out, "around contemporary art, [the museum's] learning curve seems steeper than expected."

Alice Neel, James Hunter Black Draftee, 1965, oil on canvas, 60 × 40 in. COMMA Foundation, Belgium © The Estate of Alice Neel.

The Met Breuer has an eight-year lease on Madison Avenue, during which time it is reported that the wing of its flagship building housing its modern collection will be demolished and replaced. In which case, it seems safe to say that the Breuer period could be viewed as a time of experimentation for the Met, before it brings the art of our time fully into its fold.

Andy Warhol, Do It Yourself (Violin), 1962, synthetic polymer paint and Prestype on canvas, 54 × 72 in. Private collection, © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Met Breuer opens with Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible on March 18, up through September 4, 2016, and Nasreen Mohamedi, from March 18 to June 5, 2016. The museum will be open for extended hours during its inaugural weekend, from 10am-10pm on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, and from 10am-5:30pm on Sunday March 20.

--Natalie Hegert