The certified, pre-owned luxury car of museums, the Met Breuer opened March 18 for an eight-year stay in the Whitney’s old Madison Avenue home, while demolition at the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing on Fifth Avenue gets underway to make room for expanded modern and contemporary galleries. That’s the what, where and when of the situation; the why remains more elusive. Yes, the Met Breuer represents a play for contemporary art relevance, but the main inaugural offering—a disappointing roundup of five centuries’ worth of paintings and sculptures contemplating the question, When is an artwork complete?—makes you wonder if that’s reason enough.
In truth, the Whitney turned Met responds to several developments over the past decade or so that have apparently goaded its parent institution into focusing more on recent art as not only a good idea but necessary for long-term viability. First, countries such as Egypt, Greece and Italy began to curtail the flow of antiquities to overseas collections like the Met’s in the name of preserving their cultural patrimonies. Aggressive expansion, meanwhile, put MoMA head-to-head with the Met for the role of Most Important Museum and the tourist dollars that follow. Finally, when London’s equally august Tate Gallery opened Tate Modern in 2000, the Met likely took notice of the crowds flocking in.
Not coincidentally, Sheena Wagstaff, Tate Modern’s former chief curator, is now programming the Met Breuer. Pressed to explain how she’d distinguish its approach from other contemporary museums, Wagstaff has answered that the Met Breuer is uniquely positioned to contextualize contemporary art within the 5,000-year span of the Met’s holdings. That’s the theory, anyway, put into practice here by a crowded show that siphons the joy out of viewing the art with a premise that’s as undercooked as it is overdetermined.
For starters, the exhibit is an apples-to-oranges comparison between pieces left incomplete by design and those left incomplete by circumstance. The former, however, is a mostly 20th-century phenomenon, and while the Met aims to draw connections between these differences in artistic intent, it undercuts its own proposition by isolating pre- and post-1900 artworks on different floors.
Exhibits like this one also require reading along with viewing, but too often, the wall texts conclude by informing visitors that while the work before them may look unfinished, it is actually complete! That has to be the most dumb-ass observation ever put on a museum label.
There are certainly plenty of excellent works on view, but this exhibition should have been confined to a single floor of felicitous pairings across the ages. Instead, the organizers display a failure of imagination that suggests the Met Breuer may be finished before it really gets started.