Sure, the world was turned upside down by COVID. But as we gladly return more and more to museums and galleries and “normal,” we still gotta take the bad with the good.
Case in point: the six paintings recently gifted by Georg Baselitz to the Metropolitan Museum. For business reasons — collectors love that institutional cachet — we can guess why Baselitz gave them away. But the real question is, why did the Met accept these bland, enervating canvases?
First, some boilerplate from the Met’s website about this clumsy body of work: “Made in 1969, they are among the first works in which Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) employed the strategy of inversion, an approach that continues to be of interest to him. The paintings mark a critical moment in the artist’s career as he sought to expunge narrative content and expression — elements present in his earlier work — in order to focus on painting itself.”
Indeed, judging by the sludgy paint handling, wan colors, flabby limbs, and doughy faces on view here, Baselitz successfully jettisoned engaging “content and expression” — his “strategy” of presenting topsy-turvy figures conveys little interest in his sitters. By 1969, painting for painting’s sake was far from revelatory, and there is precious little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found here.
Excepting of course … he turned his figures upside down.
Maybe Baselitz should’ve taken a page from Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter and portrayed his figures at an angle. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to commune with Peter as he contemplates the spike driven through his left hand, the weight of his powerful torso beginning to bear on pierced flesh, the executioners’ faces obscured by their own heaving limbs — shadowy lackeys of murderous empire — all of their separate agonies beautifully frozen within the composition’s wrenching equipoise.
But I forget that Baselitz was not painting sitters who were actually upside down, he was painting portraits in which they appear in that position. Such a distinction may or may not flutter the conceptual pulse, but after the artist achieved his goal of expunging “narrative content and expression,” he left viewers with … what, exactly?
And to be fair, comparison to practically any of Caravaggio’s tableaux — every bit as dramatic as his compeer in the Baroque zeitgeist, Shakespeare — is a tall order for even the greatest of painters. So here’s an experiment you can perform yourself at the Met — something that wasn’t so easy to do when Baselitz’s blunt innovations were first hung: Take a cell phone shot of one of these clunkers and then rotate the image on your screen. Is it, at least, a compelling figure? A captivating portrait?
Only if you like desiccated paint surfaces, deflated patterns, and lazily proportioned figures. It doesn’t matter if Baselitz is a righty or a southpaw because he could not be more cack-handed.
But you’re at the Met, so don’t let the day go completely awry. In a nearby gallery you will find a portrait of Saint Ambrose (1465–70) by Giovanni di Paolo.
Go ahead: Click. Flip.
Whoa. No doubt this Quattrocento master had his problems — like Baselitz — with hands and faces. But he had compositional chops to spare. Start with that bowed white trim encircling his robe, bisected by the surreal knuckle-like knots of his flail, which, doing a 180, rise like bony smoke, the totality revealing an underlying awareness of the abstract marrow necessary to give any painted image a sense of life.
But perhaps it is still an unfair comparison — too many props and too much gold leaf. Well then, another gallery or two along and we come to El Greco at his most splendiferously mundane: Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1595–1600). Do that 21st-century-phone whirl and here’s what you get:
Just the racing flourishes of that ruffled collar spanning burnished wedges — a swooping matrix reminiscent of one of Ed Clark’s abstract helixes — is worth the price of admission.
But if a skeptic out there thinks this is a case of comparing Old Master apples to post-war oranges, truck on over to the Alice Neel show, which is up until August 1. After all, it was Baselitz who not long ago proclaimed that women can’t paint, so go ahead and pick one of Neel’s paintings, whip out your phone, take your shot, and hit the rotate icon. You’ve got nothing to lose. ❖
Thomas Cole, like us, lived in interesting times. Born in 1801, he grew up in an England disrupted by the industrial revolution and unsettled by the fervid passions of romanticism, where the poet and painter William Blake wrote of a “green and pleasant land” being overrun by “dark satanic mills.” Art historian Tim Barringer sums up this period in the catalogue accompanying the Met’s wide-ranging exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings”: “Mechanization, offering profit for investors and entrepreneurs, often caused entire occupational groups, such as the skilled handloom weavers of Bolton [Cole’s hometown], to be cast from relative prosperity into poverty,” a situation that led to riots, arson, and attacks on mills that were “weaving by steam.” Like Blake, many displaced workers viewed the flames tinting the night skies as precursors to God’s vengeance on corrupt church leaders and rapacious capitalists, strains of apocalyptic thought that would drive England’s romantic movement as well as Cole’s life’s work.
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When Cole was in his early teens he found work carving designs into woodblocks for fabric patterns, another job that would soon disappear, as England’s international textile industry — fueled in part with cotton grown by slaves in the young United States of America — continued to shift from handwrought craft to mechanized drudgery. In 1818, Cole’s father, a serial failure in business, moved the family from England to America, where Thomas was apprenticed to an engraver in Philadelphia. The family then moved to Ohio, where Cole, bored with his father’s wallpaper business, studied with an itinerant portrait painter and taught himself from a British painting manual and by drawing from plaster casts. The Met’s exhibition includes some of his early nature studies, such as an 1823 ink drawing of a gnarled tree.
In 1825, Cole traveled to New York City, which was then becoming an important hub of international trading and had a thriving market in both European and domestic art prints. A specialty of the nineteenth-century art world was spectacularly painted, room-size panoramas, a genre described by its inventor as “an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round.” This concept would have a profound influence on Cole.
Early success with landscapes painted in the Catskills — which, in the mid 1820s, was still a rough-and-tumble region rife with wildlife — made Cole a founding member of the National Academy of Design, in 1826, but it was in 1829, when he returned to England to study, that his artistic path began to solidify. In London the ambitious young artist was dazzled by the visceral brushwork and narrative drama of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s 1812 Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, in which tiny figures make their way under clawing gray clouds. The sun, glaring like the eye of a leviathan, has been painted as thickly and emphatically as an egg yolk. Born in 1775, Turner had grown well past any academic restraints. But Cole aspired to be a gentleman, and was taken aback by his elder’s demeanor, later writing in his sketchbook: “I had expected to see an older looking man with a countenance pale with thought, but I was entirely mistaken. He has a common form and common countenance, and there is nothing in his appearance or conversation indicative of genius. He looks like a seafaring man, a mate of a coasting vessel, and his manners were in accordance with his appearance.… I can scarcely reconcile my mind to the idea that he painted those grand pictures. The exterior so belies its inhabitant the soul.”
Both Turner and another towering figure of British landscape painting, John Constable, displayed a bodily engagement with their materials, through thick vortexes and gossamer slashes of paint. Cole would eventually subjugate this to clarity and refinement in his own work. Compare in the exhibition Constable’s small 1825 oil sketch Study of a Cloudy Sky to Cole’s similarly sized Stormy Landscape (1832). Through darting washes and bright squiggles, Cole conveys the glistening luminescence of capricious weather, but Constable does him one better in capturing nature’s elemental forces with brushstrokes that thrust with the power of a boxer’s uppercut. Included in the show are canvases by other English romantics, who depicted apocalyptic deluges and divine destruction, scenes that reinforced Cole’s own view, imparted during his childhood, that the Garden of Eden was always under siege from man’s greed.
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From London, Cole embarked on a grand tour of Europe. In Italy he studied centuries of masterpieces and painted deep-perspective vistas of tumbledown Roman aqueducts crowned with weeds, as well as other tableaux of civilization gone to seed. He returned to America in 1832, and two years later took the oath of American citizenship on the same day various factions battled with knives and clubs and destroyed ballot boxes during New York City’s first mayoral election. It was an ugly time in Cole’s new country, which was led by the wealthy, slave-holding, pro-states’-rights populist Andrew Jackson. Cole wrote of his new president, “It appears to me that the moral principle of the nation is much lower than formerly.… It is with sorrow that I anticipated the downfall of pure Republican government — its destruction will be a death blow to Freedom — for if the Free government of the U[nited] states cannot exist a century where shall we turn? The hope of the wise and the good will have perished and scenes of tyranny and wrong, blood and oppression such as have been acted since the world was created — will be again performed as long as man lasts.”
It was in this mood that Cole turned his analytical eye toward broad sweeps of history. In the passionately ambitious series The Course of Empire (1834–36), five large canvases enclose the viewer in a half-round of intensely colored, obsessively detailed, sumptuously imagined events. The first, The Savage State, features a bowman and other figures in poses from classical European antiquity, surrounded by a majestic landscape dotted with teepees and canoes. By the time Cole was working on this canvas, however, the Native American population of the Eastern U.S. had already been decimated, and still more were being resettled west of the Mississippi River as a result of President Jackson’s signing of the Indian Removal Act — brutal legislation that led to death by disease, starvation, and exposure of thousands of human beings along the Trail of Tears.
Cole continued his more idyllic vision with a scene of Arcadian splendor that leads to the centerpiece, The Consummation of Empire, in which grandiose architecture and affluent crowds now cover the epic wilderness found in the first two paintings. Sunlight cascades over opulent drapery and classical columns, yet Cole provides us a glimpse of troubles ahead by illustrating that all this pageantry is in honor of a conquering hero returning with the spoils of subjugated lands. This representation of aggressive war can be read as the artist’s warning that America’s young democracy must avoid the rot inherent to royalty and warlords, and he drives this point home with the final paintings in the series, Destruction and Desolation. In Destruction we see buildings aflame and bridges collapsing under the weight of citizens fleeing rampaging warriors. Cole’s richly detailed naturalism — whether the milling crowds in Consummation or herons nesting amid the ruins of Desolation — pulls viewers in to discover the multiple layers of his narrative, the crucial concept being that man’s loftiest achievements are but an eye blink in the course of nature’s patient, inexorable dominion. Cole brings us full circle — the natural landmark of a craggy promontory in the first painting also dominates the background of the last, but instead of the lush, untamed vegetation foregrounded in The Savage State, we get weeds jutting through tumbledown walls and vines climbing columns that no longer support roofs. As Ozymandias, King of Kings, laments in Shelley’s verse:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In later works, Cole focused on the scenery of upstate New York: hunters laden with fresh game returning to waiting wives lofting waving babies, picnickers gathering flowers near meandering rivers that reflect lush foliage and regal mountains. This is the pastoral America Cole wished to preserve from the wanton greed of the Jacksonian era — he had witnessed what environmental degradation and class warfare wrought in the country of his birth. And while Cole’s paintings could not stave off the deflowering of America’s virgin wilderness, he did inspire a generation of artists to capture the beauty of the Hudson River valley and beyond. One of Cole’s students, Frederic Edwin Church, managed to marry Cole’s exacting observation with a measure of the sublime abandon found in the work of Turner and Constable. Church reveled in nature’s most garish moments, and shortly after Cole died, in 1848, the student honored his teacher with a painting featuring one of Cole’s favorite vantage points on a Catskill mountaintop. It is early morning, and the rising sun is burning through clouds so pink they might be on the verge of ignition. A solitary bird stands in for Cole’s journey to the heavens.
‘Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings’
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through May 13
On January 4, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it was changing its “pay-as-you-wish” policy to one in which adults from outside New York State would be required to fork over a mandatory $25 entrance fee, while students from anywhere beyond the tri-state area would get hit for twelve bucks. Kids under 12 will continue to get in free, and locals with I.D. to prove they live in the Empire State will still choose what they pay. The decision has artists’ Facebook pages buzzing, art critics debating, and residents firing off letters to the New York Times.
Those of us not born in New York may remember the first time we looked at art in the city, and the often mind-blowing impression it made on us. For many aspiring artists, a pilgrimage to the Met—with its millennia-spanning collection ranging from Egyptian mummies to Nigerian sculpture to New York School paintings—is a rite of passage. Now, though, might a family visiting from the hinterlands bypass the expense, never fully realizing what they have missed?
What does it mean when an international city decides to put our shared cultural heritage behind a paywall? Is it just another way to soak the rubes? Village Voice art writers R.C. Baker, Jennifer Krasinski, Siddhartha Mitter, Mallika Rao, and Christian Viveros-Fauné sat down to discuss the machinations of the Met’s decision.
R.C. Baker: So, what do we think of charging various classes of visitors different prices to see the same works of art?
Mallika Rao: Differential pricing is hardly a new practice. My experience at the Taj Mahal is that it is essentially free for Indians, and quite expensive for tourists. But that rationale is buoyed by the fact that often the locals in those economies are poorer than the tourists. Also, tax money is used to maintain the site. And I’m kind of confused why the Met gets so little money from the government—the press release says they get only 10 percent of their budget from taxes.
Siddhartha Mitter: I was going to raise the same point as Mallika, that differential pricing is very common around the world, but not in what we would call developed countries. Still, I don’t like the pay-as-you-wish model. I think there is a value to transparency about exactly how much everyone is being charged.
I think that pay-as-you-wish is a kind of noblesse oblige poor-shaming. It is passive aggressive because people don’t know how much to give because of the way it is enforced in museums that do it, in that they charge you the full amount unless you assertively say that you want to pay less. I would be all in favor of having a set rate—and there’s nothing wrong with an adult rate, student rate, senior and youth rate: just make it transparent and make that rate something that people can afford.
Rao: So impose a rate, but much lower than $25.
Mitter: Yes. I would be okay with a $10 adult rate, $5 discount rate.
Christian Viveros-Fauné: I think the problem with that is that the original lease with the city from the late 1800s demands, essentially, that New Yorkers attend for free. Period. And there were two lawsuits in 2013 where they were arguing for clarity on the admissions language, to get rid of it and just make it 100 percent free for everybody. And unfortunately, the judge decided that she didn’t want to allow that.
Now, the $6 to $11 million that the museum and the city agree they will make with this new policy doesn’t seem like a lot of money. There are a lot of ways of getting around this problem, besides coming up with a specific fee for particular groups to pay.
The first dilemma we’re facing is whether to charge or not to charge. And then the secondary thing is, OK, if we decide to charge to help maintain the well-being of this institution—which is certainly an institution everyone around this table wants to protect—who do we charge and how much? But I think we all agree here, that none of us are for the Met charging.
Baker: Sure. But it is part of the mix of how they support this place and keep it open 360-plus days a year. I did question whether it’s a good idea to just soak the out-of-towners for the benefit of the locals. The problem is, we New Yorkers view New York as an international town—which is why some other parts of America hate us—and we want to share this great institution with everyone else.
Jennifer Krasinski: Well, particularly when the museum is full of ill-gotten gains. The Met was founded on some robber baron money back in the day, and so I think to pretend that this is a New York resource only would be a shame. And I was surprised at how little money will come in from this change—$6 to $11 million? Which is nothing to sneeze at, but isn’t it money that can be scratched up somewhere else?
Baker: And how ironic—not to say hypocritical—is it for the Met, a bastion of civilization, to allow the Koch brothers to finance a fountain when their businesses directly threaten civilization through seeking to weaken environmental regulations? Would it be more moral to take their blood money for, say, a big enough endowment to make admission free to all in perpetuity?
Mitter: But there are a couple different issues here. I’m OK with the Met and other museums charging as long as it is a low rate. In principle, I have no problem with that—I’m not offended by a museum charging in the way that I am offended by having to, say, pay $5 for a luggage cart when you arrive at JFK airport when everywhere else in the world it’s free.
However, the second issue is, if we’re doing an analysis right now of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its financial practices as an economic entity, then, yeah, hiking up an obligatory charge to $25 for any major class of visitors is quite offensive, relative to everything else we know about the finances for the Met.
Rao: For me, it’s a slippery slope. Clearly they’re getting as much money as they can within the constraints of those long-ago laws. So if you don’t have some kind of protection in place, presumably every museum will end up charging what they can. The idea that a museum would operate out of some kind of sense of civic duty, and goodness of its heart, seems tenuous to me these days.
Viveros-Fauné: I’m not sure why it seems tenuous, though, because that’s the way museums were initially conceived.
Rao: Yes, but when they’re pushed up against a wall, they’re going to do whatever they need.
Viveros-Fauné: Exactly. They’re ceding ground to a managerial imperative at the same time that the city is doing a similar thing. With Mayor de Blasio and Tom Finkelpearl, a super-liberal commissioner of cultural affairs, what they decided to do—and this is where their interests meet—is to somehow or other shave money from the Met and give it to less wealthy institutions. And that probably means institutions like the Queens Museum, it probably means a number of institutions at the margins, and that’s great that they’re giving money to them, but they’re peeling it off the Met to do that.
Mitter: Is that what’s happening?
Viveros-Fauné: Yeah, that’s me reading between the lines. That’s the only way I think this administration rationalizes this move: essentially, the Met can feed itself.
Mitter: So the problem is the city seeing cultural allocation as zero-sum as opposed to positive-sum.
Viveros-Fauné: But also that the Met has decided, in the persons of [Met president and C.E.O.] Daniel Weiss and the trustees, to back away from an imperative that was far more civic just yesterday.
Rao: Right. And my point was not to justify the Met’s behavior; it’s that there need to be protections put in place by some sort of objective party. If we say that museums should be either low-cost or free, I think you have to assume that’s not going to happen if they’re allowed to charge.
Viveros-Fauné: That’s true, but that safeguard is supposed to be the city. The other safeguard is supposed to be us, the fifth estate.
Mitter: The watchdog press.
Baker: Did you say the “washed-up press”?
Baker: Another thing in this vein is that if you go back to the age of great government subsidies, in the 1930s and ’40s, we had a benevolent leader—you could call FDR a benevolent dictator in some ways—in the U.S., so we had the WPA and we got some great art out of it. But then you also had National Socialist art in Nazi Germany and Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union, and these were state-subsidized forms of art that … well … didn’t work out so hot. So I’m wary of just saying let the government subsidize, because then we get into NEA controversies such as the censorship of [Robert] Mapplethorpe in the 1980s.
Krasinski: But again, $6 to $11 million? This is all we’re talking about with this change? But we’re also talking about a museum that recently acquired a second wing—the former Whitney, now the Met Breuer. So, the smoke-and-mirrors dance—”Oh, we’re hurting for the money”—that is what is pissing me off. There’s an exceeding lack of transparency, and I think that this has more to do with a sort of ethic in general than it does with a particular need. You can’t take $65 million from the Koch brothers to build ugly fountains and then try and charge people 25 bucks to come see them.
Rao: To me, this is such a clever work-around of the lawsuits. And it is so gross—it’s like, “OK, fine. You’re going to make us change the wording on the admissions signs, guess what?”
I remember when the lawsuit broke and people made fun of it, but it was actually a quite interesting suit, that they were deceptively wording the signage. And so they were forced to change the wording to make it clear that paying full admission is voluntary, that it is actually “pay-as-you-wish,” and the outcome of that is that they’ve now made it not voluntary.
Baker: I remember coming up here from art school in Baltimore, our professors always said, “Go to the Met. It’s basically free.” And you’d see the sign and say, “Okay. I can pay a quarter.” And when I moved to New York, I always laughed at people who had a membership.
Rao: But you shouldn’t laugh at them—they’re helping to pay the museum’s cost.
Baker: Right, I understand that now. But you still have the painter who is coming to see just one painting and she says, “Here’s a dollar, because I’m only going to be here half an hour.”
Mitter: I did read an article in the last few days about how [Jean-Michel] Basquiat used to go and look when he was a kid.
Baker: Sure. It’s the place where—you’d be talking about a painting the Met has with someone at an opening, and the next day you’d go there to see it—and the beauty of the Met is it could be an early Renaissance panel or a Jasper Johns, because the collection’s so broad.
Rao: To Siddhartha’s point about the poor-shaming aspect of “pay-as-you-wish,” actually you could essentially “rich-shame.” You could do a very clever marketing campaign.
The lawsuit was unfortunate because it was pointing out an issue, and the Met sidestepped it. They could have created signage that did a sort of natural selection, where the richest people feel pressured to pay the most.
Roberta Smith suggested this approach at the Times. That’s an interesting effect of membership. Because who becomes a member? It’s wealthier people who want the perks of the Met. They want to say, “I’m a member of the Met.” You get previews and access and you’re part of the scene.
Mitter: The way we pay for things now, electronically, and after the order comes and the three different tip amounts arrive—do you want to give 15 percent, 20 percent, or 25 percent—and there’s this whole notion of nudging people in a certain direction. If you were given, at a certain point, an option of how much you want to pay, maybe you could be given three prices, and maybe it’s directed in such a way that, psychologically, richer people will realize that they should pay more, and less well-off people won’t feel bad.
Rao: What if you pay when you leave? Like a service: “How good was it?”
Baker: Yeah. How much of a tip do you want to leave your cultural server? So instead of taking your little metal badge off and throwing it in the bin, like in the old days, you’d get something more like a taxicab screen of percentages. And it could say “If your annual income is this much, this is the suggested amount to pay for your visit.”
Rao: And they could even put up stats: “It takes this many people to run this place. It takes this much for upkeep.” And then you choose. I would put money in.
Viveros-Fauné: But for all these possible funding schemes we’re mentioning, they presuppose at least a refresh of a civic ethos that we as a culture are rapidly forgetting. Part of that erosion is on display right here, with this discussion. The fact that the Met’s decided to charge in the first place plays into this idea of the financialization of art.
Rao: That’s the question. Why did they immediately go to this? Why were there no other options?
Viveros-Fauné: In a way, it is a crisis of imagination. Weiss got an MBA in management from Yale, so you’d think he and his people would be thinking through ideas like these. The suspicion is, if they did, they just bulldozed right over them because there’s a faster way to get from A to B, B being a quicker path to the financial imperative.
Krasinski: Is this strategic? This does have that awful smell of a consumerist belief that you get what you pay for. So, if you’re paying for something it must be more valuable. We can see how that would feed into something potentially sinister.
Baker: And that gets at our current class of patronage, in which the oligarchs and hedge fund managers are firm believers that your worth is strictly your bank account, as opposed to the art creators, who just want to pay a dollar to visit one painting.
Viveros-Fauné: Just to run with the ethos of “you get what you pay for,” which is often sort of the implied idea that you never get art without big money, that you never get art without the Medicis, you never get art without the Kochs, you never get art without any big collectors—that’s simply not true. Leonardo did a lot of doodling on his own, and some of Velazquez’s best paintings were done, not even on spec, but just for himself, and Goya made The Disasters of War and never even published them, and he lost money on the Caprichos, and so on. These stories are part of artists’ lore. Collectors are important, but they’re not a precondition for artists to make important art.
Baker: But artists don’t think “you get what you pay for.” They—
Krasinski: Well, at least they didn’t used to.
Baker: Sure, the ones like [Damien] Hirst and [Jeff] Koons do think that way; they make it part of their art.
Rao: I think art, as we experience it, is different in the past ten years than it was before. I remember going to see the Rain Room [at PS 1]. It was like going to Disney World.
Someone involved with this current decision called the Met an “attraction.” And to me there is lot about this that just doesn’t sit right, because this was not the obvious logical conclusion they needed to jump to, and yet they did.
Baker: You touch on it when you say they called the Met an “attraction.” It’s like “Six Flags Over Manhattan.” We all know it’s not that—that’s the whole point of the Met; it’s not a rollercoaster ride.
Mitter: Can we toss in something else: This is a really weird policy to enforce. There’s all this paperwork—
Baker: What? You have to show your ConEd bill or something?
Krasinski: You need to show some sort of New York State ID.
Mitter: There are a lot of issues around that. But looking past those issues, it sends a really terrible signal to visitors outside New York, that they have to pay a very large amount of money—25 bucks each is a lot of money—if they’re a family or group, and they’re stuck paying that much when locals don’t, considering that—talk about attractions—this is an exceedingly unpleasant town to get around for tourists. The subways are a catastrophe, the airport is a catastrophe—if they’re foreign they had some terrible experience getting in—and this is a very hard city to get around if you’re not from here. So this only compounds that effect.
Krasinski: “Welcome to JFK. It’s flooding in JFK, and it’s going to cost you and your family $75 to go to the Met.”
Viveros-Fauné: I just remembered that the Prado is free for Spaniards, like most museums in Spain. Just tourists have to pay.
Rao: But to charge Midwesterners more for the Met than, you know, Trump, a New Yorker—
Baker: But that’s what his whole presidency is predicated on—winners and losers.
Mitter: It’s political expedience. This is something going on with the city government, so it’s easy because the city is only accountable to New Yorkers, and non-New Yorkers can’t vote against de Blasio.
Baker: Maybe the attendants at the Met should wear those T-shirts that say “Welcome to New York. Now go home” as they take your tickets.
Krasinski: That’s the other thing. How much is this going to damage the number of attendees?
Rao: I think greatly. Seventy-five bucks for a family? That’s nuts.
Viveros-Fauné: But I wonder if, for example the Modern’s pricing, which is fairly new, and very much outrageous, has hurt their gate at all. I would guess probably not at all—
Baker: Not on days I’ve been there.
Viveros-Fauné: This is a city that attracts visitors, and those visitors tend to have money.
Mitter: You’re talking about financialization again. What is the maximum amount we can extract from people before they turn away? That’s the same thing as the airlines: How small can we make the seat?
Viveros-Fauné: The financing model in other developed countries clearly is one where the government is more involved and the notion of the public interest is still maintained.
For instance [scrolling through phone] at the Louvre, they have preferential pricing, but it is a huge group that benefits—let’s see. “Free for visitors under the age of 18, 18-to-25-year-old residents of the EU, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, teachers of art and art history and the applied arts, artists, job seekers, or people on income support,” and it is open free some Sundays, and on Bastille Day. Of course.
Viveros-Fauné: I think there’s a way of seeing the Met’s admission hike as the circuit breakers of civil government here having failed. Because up to now, there has been a red line that trustees were not willing to cross, since there was some notion that these institutions should be more accessible than not.
We’re in an environment now, nationally, where these circuit breakers have sort of started to corrode, fail, and the equation doesn’t measure up the way it used to. The ideal that people should not have to pay for a gift like entering the Met is going the way of the dodo.
Mitter: Just as you can have financial accountability, there’s a problem with moral accountability—
Viveros-Fauné: Civic accountability.
Mitter: Right. It is a moral accountability of a civic flavor. We should be asking, at a time of financialization and neo-liberalism and Trump and decay of education—we should be asking—of all institutions, whether government or nonprofit or foundations—we should be asking of all institutions that purport to be acting in the civic interest, how it currently conceives that civic interest in light of the situation around it.
Rao: Yes, and the Met has been very mute on what its duty is. I don’t know if they still have a sense of what the point of the museum is now.
Baker: The hedge-fund mentality has taken over the asylum.
Krasinski: Ironically, if the Met really wanted to brand itself in this moment as a relevant, vibrant cultural institution—which we know it is once we go through the doors—it would be taking the opposite stance: “You know what? Everybody in!” As disparity increases, education dissolves, and so forth, they should say, “We open our doors to absolutely everybody.” This is a missed opportunity for them.
At 8:15 on Sunday morning, I sat on the Met’s front steps — the first time I could ever remember having them all to myself — watching runners cut through the fog and proprietors of not-yet-open-for-business Fifth Avenue hot dog carts study their phones. The museum wouldn’t open for nearly two hours, but I had an appointment: the Museum Workout.
I’ve experienced a broad spectrum of New York City fitness classes, but this one was unlike any other. Even calling it a “fitness class” feels a little like calling the Met the world’s fanciest storage unit. Workout is a collaboration between the contemporary dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company and artist and author Maira Kalman, who narrates the choreographed series of exercises and curated the artwork highlighted within. Tickets start at $35, which is 53 cents cheaper than the after-tax price of one SoulCycle class.
The Great Hall would be abuzz with activity by the time the Met opened, at 10 a.m., but when my classmates and I strolled in at 8:20 the place was utterly silent, a deserted cathedral. Awaiting us on the museum’s grand staircase were two women in sequined dresses and New Balance sneakers standing at attention, their hands clasped behind their backs: choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, who wore gold, and her longtime dance partner and collaborator Anna Bass, sparkling in a dark shade of copper.
The duo offered a brief introduction as to what we were about to experience, “a physical and interactive journey” through a few of the museum’s familiar corridors and galleries. Other than that we were to never, ever, under any circumstance touch the art (again: don’t touch the art), our only instruction was to do as the dancers did, exactly as they did it. With the press of a key on creative producing director Robert Saenz de Viteri’s computer, “Stayin’ Alive” boomed into the Great Hall. After stretching back on each heel, Barnes and Bass took off at a trot, their elbows bent at their sides and bouncing in time with the music.
What followed was magical — something like a grown-up, musical version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or maybe Sleep No More as a light comedy. We spent the next 45 minutes in almost constant motion, the squeaks of our sneakers careening incongruously through the solemn, cavernous galleries. The dancers themselves were silent, acting as docents by means of where they chose to pause.
We performed modified jumping jacks in front of Antonio Canova’s eight-foot-tall Perseus With the Head of Medusa. We lunged as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Ben Franklin looked on. We strode through Arms and Armor with both arms raised overhead in a power pose. We squatted to the beat of the Commodores’ “Easy” in front of Madame X, positioned to make direct eye contact with John Singer Sargent’s decidedly unimpressed Lady With the Rose (she seemed to be judging my form, which admittedly could use some work).
The playful soundtrack, heavy on disco and funk — think “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “More Than a Woman” — would be cheesy if Barnes and Bass weren’t so earnestly committed. Instead, the implicit suggestion is that Sly and the Family Stone are a worthy accompaniment to, say, Washington Crossing the Delaware. I won’t argue with that.
The morning’s activities were far from a vigorous workout, but that wasn’t the point. The performance’s biggest draw is, of course, its once-in-a-lifetime setting. I felt giddy in the early-morning stillness, like I was getting away with something illicit. My fellow audience members–slash–backup dancers were totally unselfconscious, quick with a giggle, and occasionally unable to resist singing along to the hits.
When you’re marching in place or pumping your fists skyward, there’s no time to read labels, no time to interpret, intellectualize, or grasp for a clever observation to make to your companion. The art washes over you. And when the flesh-and-blood contingent is so vastly outnumbered by marble statues and portraits in oil, you begin to feel like maybe it’s you who’s on exhibit for their benefit. I’m a little depressed to think that, the next time I visit a museum, it won’t be under such magnificent circumstances.
It’s always interesting to see how an artist’s ideas can fall flat in one medium but resound in another. Whether due to an uneven mastery of craft or to the particular nature of his efforts of late, French artist Pierre Huyghe is having just this kind of moment with two works recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Editor’s note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of review.]
Huyghe has long investigated the ways in which nature and humanity both consort with and conspire against one another, and his latest projects — a video and a rooftop installation — are no exception. The difference is that one of these works is terrifically compelling, while the other isn’t in the slightest.
Huyghe shot his video Untitled (Human Mask) in Fukushima, Japan, in 2014, three years after a tsunami touched off the world’s largest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. The piece opens with images of the city’s gutted buildings and decimated streets, then quickly cuts to the quiet of an abandoned sake house where we observe a solitary monkey, masked, wigged, and dressed to look like a young girl. For nearly nineteen minutes, we watch the primate sitting, waiting, pacing the confined, creepy space, our eye continually redirected to the visual disruptions between animal body and human costume.
Huyghe isn’t rethinking audience pathos and the performing animal. This isn’t Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar — or even Hollywood’s Doctor Dolittle — but the work’s twisted achievement is the way in which it undermines the emotional expressiveness audiences typically project onto cine-creatures. The monkey’s expressionless white mask and prim uniform disconnect a viewer somewhat from the depressing spectacle of her domestication. Is she happy? Is she sad? Who can tell? Huyghe doesn’t seem at all interested in probing the depths of human barbarity in this case. Rather, his camera remains shortsighted, enamored only with the monkey’s uncanny presence.
If catastrophe teaches one lesson, it’s that time is never on our side. Although the moving image has always shadowboxed this inevitable blow, Huyghe unfortunately taps none of the power of video to develop his ideas and images via their duration. What Untitled (Human Mask) ultimately reveals is standard-issue art world trauma laundering — an act of apocalypse chic. He reduces the whole of the Fukushima disaster to a few short establishing shots, adrenalized by a twitchy editing style and a fashionably cacophonous soundtrack: a soupçon of atrocity tourism to whet a viewer’s palate with the illusion of gravitas.
By contrast, Huyghe’s smart, subtle installation on the Met’s rooftop garden is nothing if not alert to time as the great coconspirator. Here he plays at excavating the primal landscape of the island of Manhattan, removing certain of the Met’s heavy granite roof tiles to create miniature topographies of native stones, thin streams of water, and sprouts of indigenous plants. A sizable piece of schist sits at one end of the roof, while a chunk of lava floats in an aquarium at the other. Swimming inside the tank are a lamprey eel and a few tadpole shrimp, ancient creatures unchanged by evolution’s push forward.
The tank drips into the artist’s manmade landscapes, watering the flora that’s doomed to be pulled sooner or later from its temporary place. Artificial ecosystems always manage to serve as unsettling metaphors for “growth to nowhere,” and this may be Huyghe’s sharpest move of all.
Look up and west from the museum’s roof to gaze over the treetops of Central Park. To the east you’ll see a grand apartment building encased in scaffolding, its restoration under way. To the south, behold the gross overgrowth of the midtown skyline, now dominated by 432 Park Avenue, a Kafkaesque malignancy that promises New Yorkers “the grand experience of estate living — in the sky.” For the moment it’s the tallest building in the neighborhood, but will soon be bested by two others concurrently going up along the same corridor.
This too, you may remind yourself as you look from Huyghe’s weird and witty return to Eden, is all just future rubble.
Correction published 8/19/15: The original version of this review stated that Untitled (Human Mask) was currently on view at the Met; in fact it closed August 9. The rooftop garden installation remains on view until November 1. The above version reflects the corrected text.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through November 1
When does a hanging of just four paintings constitute a powerful exhibition? When those pictures happen to be allegorical canvases of overripe flowers by history’s most Instagrammed, photographed, and postcarded painter.
[pullquote]‘The last days in Saint-Rémy I worked like a madman. Great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses.’[/pullquote]
If there ever was an artist whose insanely popular work demands that it be scrutinized in careful detail, that man is modern art’s Dutch secular saint, Vincent van Gogh. A figure whose stripped-down style and pumped-up suicide made him the all-time poster boy for creative self-sacrifice, van Gogh has spawned scads of false familiarity in modern times. Partly because of his rare epistolary habit — no other artist has left anything like the 980 letters he swapped with brother Theo — audiences generally think they know everything about him. Then there are the steamy biographies and biopics; when it comes to the cliché of the painter’s tortured genius, the public is all ears.
Van Gogh’s tragic story line largely overlooks the artist’s most enduring contributions: his paintings. Gussied up by blockbuster museum exhibitions, multimillion-dollar auction prices, and masscult claims to old-time mastery and therapeutic self-expression, the physical objects rarely break free from their velvet straitjacket. But that’s exactly what four deceptive-looking paintings manage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses.” A show that brings together two still lifes of flowers from the Met’s own collection (a bouquet of irises and another of roses) with a corresponding canvas apiece from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (irises) and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery (roses), the display practically lets the pictures speak for themselves. Unlike earlier van Gogh exhibitions at the Met — most notably the Reagan-era spectacular “Van Gogh in Arles” — “Irises and Roses” proves the anti-blockbuster in every way.
Created in an explosion of optimism in May 1890, a little more than a year after he cut off his ear and mere weeks before he checked himself out of an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, van Gogh’s pictures of spring flowers poured pints of brawny physicality onto four modest-size, rectangular canvases. Painted from bouquets the artist cut from the institution’s blooming gardens, the images were rendered in quick, forceful strokes and in strong, contrasting colors. (Owing to his use of an unstable red pigment, the violets and pinks have faded to blue and white.) Van Gogh elaborated on his exuberance in a letter to his sister Wil: “The last days in Saint-Rémy I worked like a madman. Great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses.” Now that’s spring fever.
Taken individually, each of the Dutchman’s painted sprays enacts a lesson in aesthetic fundamentalism. The Van Gogh Museum’s contribution, cobalt-colored irises contained within a background of swirling daubs of gold paint, brings to mind nothing so much as a Christlike halo. The National Gallery’s droopy roses are lifted by an eddying pattern of faded white and green waves. The Met’s twosome likewise brings black outlines, gnarled brushwork, and prominent impasto — not your typical Mother’s Day bouquets, in other words. As a suite, the paintings make up a final chapter in van Gogh’s life: He died two months later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Far from the dappled flowers of detached Impressionism, viewed together the four canvases capture sacramental modernism at its sacrificial birth — art as evangelical feeling.
To further emphasize van Gogh’s strength of purpose, the presentation at the Met unites the canvases’ shared horizon. Hung in a straight line, they appear much as they might have when nailed to the walls of the artist’s cell. Despite van Gogh’s posthumous fame and the current valuations of his works — the artist’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, painted in June 1890, sold at auction in 1990 for 149 million of today’s inflation-adjusted dollars — these still lifes eclipse the status of billionaire pictures. They constitute an abbreviated via dolorosa. An interrelated passion narrative composed of four Stations of the Cross, van Gogh’s vivid paintings of crestfallen flowers represent correspondences between human emotions and the natural world, while at the same time introducing new secular symbols for life in death.
On a wall facing the quartet, the Met displays a slideshow that reveals how van Gogh’s colors have faded over time. But “Irises and Roses” chiefly celebrates what has stayed the same for these and other paintings: — their intensity, modesty, and doggedness. Despite the artist’s popularity, these qualities buck easy consumption. Call them van Gogh’s secret.
Van Gogh: Irises and Roses
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
Through August 16
“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” said George Carlin. Words to live by when looking at much contemporary art, the phrase is especially useful when considering two concurrent exhibitions at the Met that feature Polish artist Piotr Uklański —”Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs” and “Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects From the Met Collection.” Contrived skepticism rules in one; the other pulses with vibrant energy.
An artist known for working in a wide variety of media — including photography, film, installation, fiber art, resin paintings, and collage — Uklański, who was born in Poland in 1968, represents a popular trend among artists of his and subsequent generations. The Met terms his anti-style “strategic cynicism,” elaborating that the artist generally “invests overlooked and exhausted styles with new meanings.” What the museum’s PR actually means to say is that Uklański can’t pass up poking fun at art clichés — usually in a manner loaded with in-crowd insincerity.
Cutting-edge calculation or clever cul-de-sac? If recent New York art fairs are any indication, the question evidently shadows Uklański’s work and that of several cohorts of global artists. In the hands of younger imitators, Uklański’s cool irreverence quickly turns sophomoric. Yet Met curator Douglas Eklund, who organized the artist’s show of photographs at the museum, insists Uklański “uses cynicism the way a painter uses a paintbrush.” But what to make of the fact that Uklański proves a livelier curator than an artist at the Met? As with other serial quoters, this part-time shutterbug’s art only really comes alive when he’s busy tweaking others.
Take part one of Uklański’s museum double feature. The first-ever survey of the artist’s photography, the Met’s show brings together 31 works, half of them from his Irma Rombauer–inspired series “The Joy of Photography” (1997–2007) — a set of photo prints that drolly imitate the look and subjects of a 1979 how-to-Kodak manual. The camera, and its counterfeit candy-color effects — as seen in pictures of a misty waterfall and a postcard sunset, for instance — blithely present cornball versions of the photographic sublime. As with Justin Bieber’s Comedy Central roast, kitsch is both the butt of the joke and the star of the show. Uklański’s exhibition also resembles Mad Men. If the artist’s pictures recall the series’ final invocation of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” then Uklański channels Don Draper. His is the last laugh on the booboisie as they snap selfies in front of his truculent images.
If you’re exhausted by this artist’s shooting morbidly obese fish in a barrel, then part two of the Met’s twin bill will be more to your liking. An installation of 71 artworks from 11 of the museum’s curatorial departments, the artist’s selection of sexed-up grotesqueries from the institution’s vast storehouse of objects proves a history lesson in man’s obsession with screwing and mortality. Built around twin themes that Dr. Freud psychologized as Eros and Thanatos — the life and death drives — the display thrives precisely where Uklański’s photographic exhibition grows tiresome. Unlike skewering museum visitors, sex and death remain two human arenas where bad faith is not merely hip, but welcome.
Fueled by his longstanding interest in taboo and marginal representations, Uklański begins at civilization’s beginning, with a gorgeous thirteenth-century-B.C. yellow jasper fragment of an Egyptian queen’s face. From there the show glides through the ages in rhyming forms: lips repeat, as do intertwined bodies, skulls, arms, eyes, guns, penises, and buttocks — the last of which the critic Kenneth Tynan asserts are the human body’s nearest approach to abstract art. There’s no letup in the show’s two packed rooms. Uklański’s exhibition presents a full-on orgy of art, complete with parental advisory.
While a number of famous works get the invite — among them a naked Venus from Lucas Cranach the Elder and Robert Capa’s photo of a Spanish Republican soldier being shot — Uklański’s preferences run to the outré and the perversely less prominent. His Met treasures include a bronze cast of Modigliani’s death mask, an August Sander portrait of an SS officer, and an absinthe-tinged self-portrait of Picasso being fellated like a rock star. Yet best in this show, hands down, goes to Sarah Goodridge’s keepsake-size watercolor of her luminously rosy breasts. (The museum had to take the tiny piece off view last month; a spokeswoman explains that “the medium (watercolor on ivory) was too fragile to be out for the full run of the show.”) Painted in the early nineteenth century for her purported lover Daniel Webster — the statesman whose dour statue can be found only a few blocks away in the park — it doesn’t merely advertise of the potency of sex. This luscious gem celebrates the power of making art like you mean it.
When the Metropolitan Museum’s latest Costume Institute show asks, “Do I look fat?” it’s not fishing for a compliment. Spread over 30,000 square feet — that’s three times the size of any previous fashion show at the museum — “China: Through the Looking Glass” knows it’s only shopping at Lane Bryant.
Chub is no biggie if you’ve got a heart of gold, but alas this lady is a gold digger. Seemingly calculated to extract yuan from the pockets of moneyed Chinese collectors — the ones who are increasingly prominent at the auctions (witness Chinese movie tycoon Wang Zhongjun’s headline-making purchase of a Picasso a few weeks ago) and on the art-fair circuit — “China” is built on bloat and bling. You’ll leave it feeling a little dirty, reminded that the Met is just another business seeking a piece of the globe’s second largest economy. If anything, it shows to what lengths — at least as long as the train on RiRi’s dress on opening night— the institution will go to get it.
To the Met’s credit: Prominent behinds were expertly smooched in the making of this show. It’s a massive splash of a thing that celebrates not only dresses decorated with dragons and pagodas, but also Chinese filmmaking: a double whammy of glamour. And the sponsors did come. Opening text thanks “several Chinese donors” (they remain nameless) alongside corporate backer Yahoo, which here seems to be attending to both its nascent fashion vertical and its Alibaba spinoff in the writing of one fat check. Also credited: the House of Wintour (er, Condé Nast). But as gala supporter Wendi Murdoch recently told the Wall Street Journal, it’s those anonymous benefactors who’ll pay long-term dividends. “They’ll get involved more in the Met in the future, not just the Costume Institute but also the Met museum,” she said. We haven’t seen such pandering to the wealthy since the baffling kitsch of the museum’s JAR jewelry exhibition…last year.
There’s no shortage of flash here: A bamboo garden made from illuminated Plexiglas is one of many extravagant set pieces; wall-size video screens display clips from Chinese films, a selection edited by powerhouse director Wong Kar-wai; and you’ll espy the hautest of haute couture, from the likes of Valentino, Dior, and Chanel, all cinematically lit. Somewhere, too, are art and artifacts of Chinese culture — crystal snuff bottles, porcelain pieces, Manchu robes. But where, exactly? Oh wait, I see them! They’re in the shadowy vitrines hugging the walls of the Asian galleries, or downstairs in the Costume Institute galleries, where Qing dynasty garments lurk behind Tom Ford numbers like pickpockets trolling for wallets.
Though the show is billed as a collaboration between the Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art (which celebrates its centennial this year), it’s clear the fripperies of Costume Institute staffers Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda won the day. The museum’s Asian galleries have been mined here more for their acreage than their artifacts, and serve as backdrops for expensively clad mannequins. There are some interesting moments — see Li Xiaofeng’s contemporary art dress made from porcelain fragments, which looks as if Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings and Winged Victory had a baby. Glimpses of cultural complexity are here, too, in nineteenth-century blue-and-white porcelain whose willow motifs, the wall text tells us, were influenced by both English and Asian tastes. But it’s tough to register details in rooms illuminated like nightclubs. Is this 1 Oak or a museum?
As for the elephant pacing these galleries: Here’s what the opening wall text has to say about postcolonial critique as championed by Edward Said, whose commentary would drape this show in red flags: “While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue[s]…outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism…as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.”
Ed, we see you there under that M4 bus.
Politics, schmolitics, “China” seems to say. Another example comes from designer John Galliano’s recent resurgence, which proves that no matter how heinous one’s gaffes — remember his anti-Semitic rant, caught on video in 2011? — one may rejoin the fold so long as one cuts well on a bias. At the Met, the museum’s Astor Court plays backdrop to pink and teal confections from Galliano’s spring 2003 Christian Dior haute couture collection themed on Chinese opera.
Those interested in examining the workmanship therein will find the pieces inaccessible. (Sorry, fashion students, these duds are not for you.) The room’s skylights have been darkened and some shiny stuff placed on the floor to evoke water; it’s as if the dresses were marooned in a koi pond. Such display choices are more the rule than the exception here. At times the presentation verges on the inexplicable: Witness the mannequins enclosed in inch-think plastic cases, like bank tellers behind bulletproof glass. Explanatory text is often hard to find — history being less relevant than the wow factor.
But what’s really missing here is soul. Compared to two recent Costume Institute triumphs — the incomparable Alexander McQueen drama of 2011 and the portrait-of-an-artist that was last year’s Charles James affair — “China” is all sequins, no silk. With McQueen and James we felt, miraculously, that their spirits had entered the building. The current show is a hodgepodge pulled from the pages of Vogue with a few vintage heavyweights like Paul Poiret thrown in — in other words, a large-scale advertorial. Wall text informs us that what we’re looking at “is not about China per se but about a collective fantasy of China.” More like a museum’s collective fantasy.
Martha Graham, who died in 1991, famously plundered the literature of ancient Greece and nineteenth-century America to find subjects for her great modern dances. But leave it to the teenage Gotham Chamber Opera to marry William Shakespeare, Henry Purcell, and contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho with four members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, in service of a new work by Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti — up in Central Park at the Metropolitan Museum. Veggetti directs The Tempest Songbook, a lyrical interpretation of the Bard’s last play, which has video by French multimedia artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière and musical performances by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, baritone Thomas Richards, and an ensemble playing period instruments.
In couplehood, familiarity may breed contempt, but it also frees one from certain banalities of attention. “Madame Cézanne,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 15, is an exquisite exhibition that brings together 24 of the 29 known portraits Paul Cézanne painted of Marie-Hortense Fiquet, his longtime mistress turned wife and mother of his only son. For over two decades, Fiquet served as subject and surface for the painter whose genius was marrying sight and touch. A quartet of paintings of the madame in a red dress (all circa 1888–90) are displayed together for the first time — an exceptional occasion to see what the master saw.