criticismArchitecture and Design
Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Pablo Bronstein at the Met, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 6, 2009–April 18
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212-879-5500

Pablo Bronstein, The Museum Nearing Completion as Seen from Fourth Avenue 2009. Ink on paper, 44-7/8 x 138 inches (114 x 350 cm).  images courtesy the artist, Herald St., London
Pablo Bronstein, The Museum Nearing Completion as Seen from Fourth Avenue 2009. Ink on paper, 44-7/8 x 138 inches (114 x 350 cm). images courtesy the artist, Herald St., London

Born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and transported to London soon thereafter, Pablo Bronstein the artist, as opposed to Pablo Bronstein the little boy, thoroughly missed the Postmodern boat. By the time he emerged as a mature artist around 2000 AD, the hardcore Postmodern classicism of, for example, the Sainsbury Wing in London’s National Gallery had become the standing jest of the cultural world, a status it retains ten years on. Even its most blow-hard supporters, critics like Charles Jencks, have largely disowned the movement and would prefer not to talk about it. Only Bronstein, it seems, is willing to make a public stand in support of this much-maligned ism, as is abundantly evident in a charming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

This diminutive show consists of 7 drawings or groups of drawings, as well as a series of ink-jet prints and another series of etchings. All of these works were completed in 2009 and the majority of them have to do in some fanciful way with the architecture of the Metropolitan Museum itself. Indeed, this focus is in keeping with most of this artist’s work to date, which consists of archaizing drawings of architecture and interiors. To this critic, there is a distinctly dreamlike element to Bronstein’s art: he depicts the Met, that neo-classical temple, much as it is today, and yet strangely altered. In the largest image in the show, the Met appears as an 18th Century construction site seen from “4th Avenue,” as if nothing had ever been built in between. Dotted with palm-trees and pre-modern cranes, it is a labor of Pharaonic immensity. Meanwhile, another drawing depicts the Met as a massive quadrangle, as indeed McKim, Meade and White had intended it to be in their promptly discarded master plan.

The formal vocabulary of Bronstein’s images is, in his depictions of architecture, a mixture of the Memphis style from the mid-Eighties and the fastidiously classical idiom of Vanvitelli and Juvarra. As for his interiors, they look fondly back upon Louis Quinze and the neo-classical Adam style. Superimposed upon these formal convictions is a mood or attitude that shifts from the archness of Hockney to the pseudo-sublimity of Piranesi.

One is naturally inclined to ask what Bronstein could possibly be up to. The Met’s press release dependably communicates the party line: “[Bronstein] highlights the complicit power structures that are required to accomplish great works, in turn inviting viewers to consider the mechanisms that delineate private and public space.”

Well, there’s that: but I would suggest another reading. At his best, the artist is a really first-rate draughtsman, whole passages of whose drawings could pass for respectable exercises in 18th century architectural studies. Contemporary culture allows artists to do anything at all, anything—except the one thing that Bronstein appears to want to do, namely to design and draw classical buildings as though he were at work in a perpetual ancien regime. But because the age will not reward an artist for a forthright indulgence of this “passéism,” an ironic subtext, having to do with power structures and the art world, had to be found and has been found.

But the real reason behind these works, or so I believe, is the artist’s abiding love of old architectural drawings, a dying art that Bronstein has somehow learned to practice with impressive mastery.