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The Met Breuer

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
945 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10021 40.773 -73.965
at 75th St.  See Map | Subway Directions Hopstop Popup
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Tue-Thu, 10am-5:30pm; Fri-Sat, 10am-9pm; Sun, 10am-5:30pm; Mon, closed

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6 at 77th St.


$25, $17 senior citizens, $12 students, free for children under 12 for out-of-state visitors; pay-what-you-wish for New York state residents and students from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut

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“Every single one of the works here has a story attached to it,” says Sheena Wagstaff, the British curator hired away from the Tate Modern to direct the Met’s dramatic expansion into contemporary art (and into the old Whitney building on Madison Avenue, which it’s renting from the Whitney for that purpose). The drawbridge reopens March 18 on the reflagged Brutalist redoubt, and the Met hasn’t done much to the building itself — the same philanthropists’ names remain inscribed on the galleries — but the bluestone floors are polished; there’s a zippy new video-display wall when you first walk in and a new reception desk; the lightbulbs in the lobby’s famous grid of ceiling lamps are now LED; and by this summer there will be a new restaurant. The Whitney had moved its offices out of the fifth floor to make room for more gallery space, but now there are offices there again (Wagstaff remembers that, when she was at the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1982, then-director Tom Armstrong had a little balcony with tomato plants up there). She gave me a walk-through of the installation of the first big show, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” and her thoughts, which mostly involve the shifting parameters of what it means that a piece is unfinished.

That Wagstaff et al. chose this theme, illustrated by works dating from 1437 to 2015, could be read as a gesture toward something like transparency (unusual for the Met) or even humbleness (even more so). But the first show also furthers an imperious claim: that the canon the Met has long seemed to embody is not a story with a fixed endpoint but one that’s ravenously open to the contemporary (a period, and market, that art patrons are ravenous for these days, and the Met has always been an academicized trove of billionaire’s bling, so it has to stay with what it finds currently covetable). Although only about a third of the pictures are drawn from the Met’s collection (six come from MoMA’s), the exhibition shows off what Wagstaff has said all along the museum was planning: putting contemporary art in context, including the surprising influences on the later artists — what you can learn from the imperfect.

She started with the Titian that opens the show (The Flaying of Marsyas, considered a bit underpolished for a Titian), stopping here and there to tell anecdotes. (Of a big blue Brice Marden: "He was very resistant — well, reluctant, to let us show this. But in the end he okayed it. So this is something that is absolutely unfinished. He’s kept it and kept it and kept it. He said he throws nothing away.") There's a 1931 Picasso, probably of his mistress, although one can't be sure, since the face is violently squeegeed away. We pass a blue-and-burgundy Barnett Newman from 1970 which was considered incomplete because it needs another layer of blue paint (there are three of burgundy, but only two of blue), finishing up with the finale of the show: Cy Twombly's Untitled I-VI (Green Paintings). “These have never been published or seen,” she says. “They were painted in 1986 and Twombly designed the frames as well and they’re onboard." He never allowed them out of his studio, in Gaeta, outside Rome, and were never included in the catalogue raisonné of his works, published after his death, in 2011. “His partner, Nicola Del Roscio, didn’t know why Cy had an issue with these; he felt they were finished."

Twombly is credited with the idea for the show —"[I]t was important to me to be able to cite an artist for who came up with this idea," Wagstaff says — dating from when she was at the Tate and there was a retrospective of his work there.

The unfinished conceit is flexible — possibly too flexible, and too encompassing, which makes the largely chronological installation feel a bit too abrupt at times, like you've turned the corner and wandered into a different and sometimes abruptly less-engaging museum show. Unfinished can mean abandoned mid-creation, because of the death of the artist (or the person paying for it), but more often the work is left a bit ragged or open-ended on purpose to achieve some stylistic or rhetorical point.

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