Friday, March 18th, 2016

The Case For Understatement

Met Breuer opens its brutalist walkway to the public March 18 with two exhibitions, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” (to September 4) and “Nasreen Mohamedi” (to June 5).

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas, 1570-76. Oil on canvas, 83 x 81 inches. Archbishop's Palace, Kromeriz
Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas, 1570-76. Oil on canvas, 83 x 81 inches. Archbishop’s Palace, Kromeriz

When news first circulated that the Metropolitan Museum was to lease Marcel Breuer’s building from its original occupant, The Whitney Museum of American Art, the word was that the Madison Avenue facility would be the Met’s new contemporary wing. We should be grateful, on the evidence of its opening exhibitions, that that does not appear to be the plan. Contemporary art needs to remain visible and vital at 1000 Fifth Avenue for the Met to thrive fully as a encyclopedic museum, for there is nothing like being able to see the work of a living artist within close proximity to achievements of distant eras, to be reminded of continuities and ruptures alike, of shifting aspirations and perennial concerns.

Breuer’s architecture is sold short, furthermore, if we think these sumptuously grave galleries are exclusively suited to modernist and contemporary art. As in the museums of Louis Kahn, the dark, rich timbres of exposed concrete and raw slate beautifully offset the textures of many kinds of art and artifact. Just as high modernism looks startling and fresh in classical settings, so too, anything from medieval armor to Mughal miniatures can take on unexpected resonances in stark modernist surroundings. A case in point: Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas. Although arguably a little cramped and deserving a wall of its own, the Venetian master’s late glory is the magisterial opening salvo of Met Breuer’s inaugural survey exhibition, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” It is an incredible privilege to see this picture in New York City.

It feels unsporting to spoil the celebration with an inconvenient observation, but this painting is surely not unfinished. “Unfinished” (a title and concept that recall the New Museum’s 2007 re-launch exhibition, “Unmonumental”) is an audacious and enterprising way of connecting the satellite with the mother ship. Emphasizing art of the last 150 years while sustaining broader historical attention, the exhibition draws a thematic thread from old master tradition into contemporary sensibility. But by what specific criteria is The Flaying of Marsyas unfinished? It is a painting in the fast, loose, bravura old-age style of Titian, but if every aspect of a picture’s demeanor is meant and felt by its author (and the style of this painting is totally commensurate with contemporary works by Titian) why should its lively, self-consciously ambiguous painterliness be designated “unfinished”?

Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, ca. 1970. Ink and graphite on paper 18-3/4 x 18-3/4 inches. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, ca. 1970. Ink and graphite on paper 18-3/4 x 18-3/4 inches. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi

Maybe it would have been better to title the show “Unfinish” — in the present tense. This would suggest a proto-provisionalism in the colorito of Titian’s late touch and to justify the whole range of intentionality in the works this survey assembles. Provisionalism is, of course, a hot button contemporary label that makes the nonagenarian Renaissance master sound like a Bushwick hipster, but the term is no more anachronistic that the likes of “romantic” and “impressionistic” which would have been the natural ways to describe Titian’s late surfaces not so long ago. Of course, there are many works in this exhibition that were abandoned, or just meant as sketches, or in some fashion disrupted, and the process and pictorial thinking laid bare is indeed illuminating. But the key problem with “unfinish” as deployed here is that it privileges tightness, all-overness and gloss — literal “finish,” as in signed and sealed — as somehow yardsticks of artistic accomplishment, or the norm from which the plethora of artists in this show are deviating. But these are good problems for an exhibition to have because they have us pay attention to surface, think deeply about intentionality, and allow for disruption of canonical successions and period divisions.

Even more encouraging and heartening is the choice of artist for the first solo presentation at Met Breuer. Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-90) was a minimalist of exquisite poise, rigor and resoluteness. This comprehensive retrospective focuses on her graphic works and monochrome paintings. The quiet austerity of her vision is the perfect complement to Breuer’s dignified architectural understatement. But more significant is the defiance of marketing expectation on the part of the Met’s curators in choosing a relatively unknown artist from outside the international mainstream and contemporary fashion: “difficult” art in “slow” mediums. It signals, let’s hope, that Met Breuer is to be placed at the service of the best that museum scholarship can come up with, defeating any sense that modern and contemporary equals flashy and populist.