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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

ART, TASTE & STORY-TELLING: "MAKING THE MET: 1870-2020"

Installation view of Making The Met, 1870–2020, on view August 29, 2020–January 3, 2021 at The Met. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Introductory gallery--Kouros by  Isamu Noguchi, center.

Well, and so The Metropolitan Museum of Art has finally reopened, after being closed for five months because of the pandemic and leaving  a gaping hole in the city's body esthetic. I attended the media preview re-opening the museum on August 26, and sashayed through the biggest of its new shows, "Making the Met: 1870-2020" (through January 3).  How nice it was to be back!  

 

This anniversary exhibition is a fitting tribute to the institution it celebrates, and an absorbing study on many fronts.  It's about art, of course, but also about taste, politics and finally, an excellent example of how all three may be incorporated into story-telling.

 

The story that this exhibition wants to tell is meant to be uplifting, and in many ways it is (though with a soupçon of downdraft that may only be evident to nonconformists like yours truly). 

 

It is a story of how the Met was founded and run throughout most of its existence by well-meaning but (by today's standards) unenlightened upper-class and upper middle-class white people of European extraction – mostly male – and how it now seen the light, and is henceforth committed to a passionately egalitarian outlook. 

 

Equal if not more time, effort and expenditure, this show suggests, is now or will be devoted to acquiring, showcasing and/or commemorating the accomplishments of every other race, class and sex.

 

Admirable though this position is, from a political standpoint, it leaves something to be desired on the esthetic one.  And this problem with esthetics is compounded by the necessity of choosing artworks to be exhibited, not primarily for their visual appeal but rather for the sake of illustrating whatever point about the museum's development that this show's organizers are trying to make.

 

Admittedly, this show is nothing if not ambitious, with nearly 300 items on view. .These works are exhibited in eleven sections, beginning with an introductory section, and then following a more or less chronological sequence – chronologically, that is, in terms of the museum's 150 years of existence, although the works exhibited in each section may or may not have been acquired during the period under consideration.

 

THE INTRODUCTORY GALLERY

 

The first gallery -- the introduction to the show as a whole --- more or less demonstrates the advantages – and disadvantages – of building a show around the need for story-telling and illustration. It is structured like a small church with a longer, narrow nave-like space for visitors in the center, and displays seven works of art.

 

On each side of this visitors' space three works are displayed in what might seem analogous to side chapels, while the seventh work, a sculpture, is placed atop a similarly raised, altar-like platform facing the entry, rather like a crucifix.  

 

The works in the side chapels adequately – or more often memorably -- represent the varied nature of the museum's holdings (if not quite every department in it).  

 

On the left (starting from the work closest to the entrance), we have first, a splendid 19th century "Power Figure" from the Yombe group of the Kongo peoples of central Africa.  This, according to the checklist, represents the department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and The Americas.

 

Next comes an equally memorable 16th century "Head of Bhairava" from Nepal, representing the department of Asian art. 

 

Third, as the representative of "European Paintings", comes "La Berceuse" (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh, an amiable but not outstanding example of this famous artist's work, and far from the greatest painting in its many-splendored department.

 

On the right side (starting from the work furthest from the entrance), we have first "The Age of Bronze" by Auguste Rodin, a full-length figure originally modeled in 1876 (though the Met's cast of it was not made until around. 1906).

 

This statue's modeling was so lively that his critics accused him of having cast the body of his model in plaster. Though other and later Rodin sculptures, most notably "The Thlnker," are far better known, "The Age of Bronze" is considered by the cognoscenti to be the artist's finest work, and makes a fine example for the museum's department of European sculpture and decorative arts. 

 

Much the same might be said of the example provided for the photography department, an exceptionally handsome and very large (nearly 2-foot-square) silver gelatin print by Richard Avedon of "Marilyn Monroe, Actress, May 6, 1957." 

 

The last of these six works is even easier on the eye: representing Greek and Roman art is a large and beautifully serene bas-relief "Marble Grave Stele of a Little Girl" (ca. 450-440 B.C.)

 

All this sets the stage for the "masterwork" at the altar-like center, representing -- fittingly -- the department of modern and contemporary art.  My candidate for this position might be "Becca" (1965), by America's mightiest sculptor, David Smith .   It is a massive but still quietly sprightly stainless steel work from his last period that the Met acquired in 1972.

 

However, Smith was a White Male (boo hiss).  Still worse, he was a modernist -- and modernism, from cubism right up to the present, is either ignored or with few exceptions represented by inferior work in this show.  

 

Thus in this place of honor we get a tall, spindly and strangely rubbery pink marble "Kouros" (1945), by Isamu Noguchi.   Noguchi (1904-1988) was a Japanese- American abstract-surrealist sculptor--a contemporary of Smith's, though not as adventurous as Smith and far from his esthetic peer.

 

Still, Noguchi's ethnicity makes him a prime candidate for inclusion in such a prominent position– as illustrating the museum's born-again attitudes toward diversity --- and the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of "Kouros" provide additional justification for its inclusion – by adding to the "story-telling" nature of the show and making for grade-A chit-chat on the label.

 

"Kouros," it turns out, was acquired in 1953, three  years after the Met had acquired its first abstract expressionist painting: "Echo" (1948) by Theodoros Stamos. The Noguchi purchase was also four years before the museum took its first real giant step into the future -- by acquiring Jackson Pollock's huge "Autumn Rhythm" (1950).   But, at the time "Kouros" was acquired, Noguchi accompanied it with a flattering little note.

 

 (I have a vague recollection of learning somewhere – possibly when I was working on my dissertation -- that when the Met acquired works by living artists, it customarily asked them for statements, though I can't remember how I learned this or whether the practice continues today.) 

 

Anyway, the label in the present exhibition incorporates the note. "A masterpiece of abstract surrealist sculpture and a rich combination of modern Western European and Japanese aesthetics," the label reads, "Noguchi's Kouros is a powerful example of how contemporary artists have responded to The Met collection over time.

 

"As the sculptor explained in a note to the Museum in 1953, 'The image of man as kouros goes back to student memories of your plaster casts and the pink archaic Kouros you acquired—the admiration of youth.' 

 

"Noguchi was likely referring to an important Greek sculpture The Met purchased in 1932 (on view in Gallery 154)." And the label adds a photo of the statue in question.

 

Okay, so it's a great little love note, and entirely defensible to the extent that the viewer is more interested in seeing The Story of the Met than in seeing the cream of the museum's crop. Moreover, the show spares the viewer most of what might appear major aberrations from the standpoint of today's tastes and preferences. 

 

There are no plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statuary, even though the Met proudly displayed them back in the 19th century (even more recently, if I understand Noguchi correctly, the museum seems to have used them for teaching purposes until at least the 1930s – and for that matter some still decorate that area where school groups gather for tours, down on the lower level of the museum),

 

This show doesn't even have a selection of those tediously academic 19th century French paintings that must have dominated the Met's exhibition space back when they  were new (many of them, in particular those by Puvis de Chavannes and Bastien-Lepage, still litter up the passageway on the second floor leading to the  major areas for special exhibitions, including this one).

 

I was in particular dreading "The Horse Fair," by Rosa Bonheur, that huge (8' x 16') and saccharine hymn to equine pulchritude that was the cynosure of the Salon of 1853.  However, according to the Met's admirable database, it is currently hanging elsewhere in the museum. After all, Bonheur was A Woman, wasn't she?  And we must display our holdings of work by women artists these days, regardless of the quality of the work.

 

A MISOGYNISTIC DIGRESSION

 

Furthermore, it seems that to be in the swim, it's necessary to feature work that – if not by women artists – at least depicts women – again, regardless of quality. 

 

True, we all know that the Met was out to lunch during the formative days of 20th century modernism, and the wall texts in this show concede as much.  However, Leonard Lauder, the cosmetics tycoon, has recently given the Met a large and mostly stellar collection of cubist paintings. 

 

Alas, "Woman in a Chemise" (1913-14), a smarmy cubo-surrealist Picasso from that gift is all that is included in this show, instead of one of the several splendid paintings from the slightly earlier period of Analytic Cubism by Braque and Gris donated at the same time.

 

Maybe this is because Picasso was greater or more famous than any of them – or maybe it's just because this painting depicts a woman, and we all have heard about this artist's many wives and mistresses. 

 

Poor old Braque!  The crime he committed was to marry one woman and stay with her for all those years while he painted still lifes, landscapes, and the occasional musician. 

 

During the heyday of Analytic Cubism, his paintings were every bit as fine as Picasso's -- indeed, even the two of them (so the story goes) couldn't tell who had done what. .But because Braque isn't as big a celebrity – and especially because he didn't paint women -- he is consigned to Outer Mongolia.

 

And this is so, not only in this show at the Met but also in the rehanging of the permanent collection at MoMA, where – the last time I looked, a year or so ago – there was no Braque at all in the gallery devoted to the creation of cubism. Instead its landmark Picasso, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," was forced to share space with a far less impressive painting with many women in it by a contemporary African-American woman painter, Faith Ringgold. But I digress. 

 

A COUPLE OF GLITCHES

 

To get back to "Making the Met." In addition to choosing work on the basis of its illustrational value (as opposed to its quality), this monumental exhibition appears to me to have a couple of other glitches in it, which I shall briefly discuss.  One of them is too much bric-a-brac; The other is too little space.

 

By bric-a-brac I mean what other people might consider objets d'art. Only about half of those nearly 300 items on the checklist are examples of what I'd call the fine arts: real live paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints and sculpture. 

 

The rest are examples of what I'd call applied arts – a plethora of vases, platters, cups, pots and teapots, jewelry and clothing, musical instruments, armor, fragments of architecture, and so on.

.

Many of these objets d'art are charming and fascinating. Some may even be moving, but I found it fatiguing to have to look at so many of them. And, by comparison with work depicting images or other compositions made solely for the sake of visual enjoyment, I generally find them lacking in soul.

 

Besides there being so many of these objects they – together with the many examples of fine art -- are crowded into what seems like too little space. 

 

Maybe I was imagining it – maybe it's only because there are so many pieces in this exhibition.  But it seemed to me that only about half to two-thirds of the Tisch Galleries are being used for this show. 

 

On many previous occasions, I have visited shows held in this space, and always turned to the right to enter it. The exit was to the left of the entry space, but for this show, one has to enter through the left and the usual right hand entrance is shut off.

 

In 2018, when I saw the Met's big show of Eugène Delacroix in the Tisch Galleries, the entrance was to the right, the exit was to the left, and the show occupied twelve galleries between the entrance and the exit with approximately half the number of entries on its checklist. 

 

Sure, it was a good long hike from the beginning to the end of the show, but it never felt cramped or crowded—unlike the current exhibition.

 

THE  FIRST THREE SCENARIOS

 

All that said, there are many lovely works in this show—with nearly 300 of them to choose from, how can all of them miss?  In the following summary of the ten principal sections of this show, I am only going to mention some of the many treasures that this great storehouse of treasures has put on view.

 

1)    "The Founding Decades" deals with the museum's earliest years, its founders and its first acquisitions, from Manet & Van Dyck to 2nd generation Hudson River School paintings, objets d'art from non-European cultures, and a sample of  the antiquities from Cyprus excavated by General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the Met's first director (in case you ever wondered where all those galleries full of provincial Greek sculpture on the museum's second floor came from). 

 

Still, the stone Toltec "Eagle Relief" (10th-13th Century) is a handsome design. It was given to the museum by Frederic E. Church, the secong-generation Hudson River School painter who was also an early trustee of the museum.  And it is always a joy to revisit the droll marble bust of Benjamin Franklin created by Jean Antoine Houdon in 1778 when Franklin was in France, drumming up support for the American revolutionaries.

 

2)    "Art for All" focuses on the formation of three of the museum's departments – musical instruments, textiles and prints and drawings, with a drawing by Michelangelo, among others.  This drawing is combined with illustrations of the works in  these collections, such as a Watteau drawing showing a lady holding  a fan and a Vuillard lithograph showing wallpaper (both illustrations for the textile department).

 

I would have preferred a Watteau painting to just a drawing, and a Bonnard anything to a Vuillard, but it's hard to argue with the intricate woodcut of "Samson Rending the Lion" (ca.1497-98) by Albrecht Dürer, and the engraving of "Christ Carrying the Cross" (ca.1475-80) by Martin Schongauer.

 

3) "Princely Aspirations" features Old Masterly donations to the museum by patrons of the Gilded Age, ranging from Benjamin Altman to Collis P. Huntington, and from Vermeer and Gainsborough to precious objects.  I could have done without some or all of the precious objects here, including the four nearly identical ointment and cosmetics jars from Egypt (ca. 1805 BC).

 

And I would have preferred a Joshua Reynolds to either Gainsborough or Thomas Lawrence, to say nothing of a Rubens to the Van Dyck in this section -- nor can I recall seeing a Velasquez, a Goya or a Titian anywhere in the show....even though the Met owns fine examples of all of these artists....

 

    Still, it is unfair to complain about everything that isn't here, when what there is offers so much enjoyment.  In this section, for example, I was very taken with the little (5 9/16 inch high) Egyptian faience "Striding Thoth" (332-30 B.C.) and the two little alabaster, heavily robed "Mourners" (ca.1453) by the Franco-Netherlanders Étienne Bobillet and Paul Mosselman.  

 

Furthermore, I can forgive a lot to see the sweet little oil painting entitled "The Toilet of Bathsheba" (1643) by Rembrandt.   It was left to the museum by Altman, the department store magnate, who it turns out had a passion for Rembrandt.  And recent scholarship has speculated that an attendant arranging Bathsheba's hair may be of African descent.

 

THE SECOND THREE

 

4) "Collecting through Excavation" is concerned with the museum's forays into on-site archaeology, mostly (though not exclusively) in Egypt and the Near East during the 1920s and 1930s, and the art it acquired in this way.

 

The section's pièce de résistance is the stunning 7-foot-high limestone "Seated Statue of Hatshepsut" (ca. 1479-1458 B.C.), depicting an Egyptian woman pharaoh.  It was excavated in a shattered condition, as her (male) successor did his best to destroy all representations of her, so it had to be reconstituted.

 

5) "Creating a National Narrative," as might be expected, deals with the formation of the museum's collection of American art, and the opening of its American Wing in 1924.  Although the press release outlining the show as a whole emphasizes how this original collection has since been enhanced by the addition of work by indigenous peoples and more recent immigrants, the core of this section is hardy perennials: Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler and (sigh) John Singer Sargent..

 

Will the world ever tire, I wonder, of Sargent's "Madame X" (1883-84)?  Still, I was very taken by the perky, upstanding portrait of "Mrs. Jerathmael Bowers (1763), done by the young John Singleton Copley.  And I responded to the luminous haze in "A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)" (1862) by Sanford Robinson Gifford.

 

6) This sixth section of the exhibition is the last that I was able to focus on with a minimum of personal input.  Entitled "Visions of Collecting," it is largely concerned with the huge bequest – of nearly 2,000 objects – given to the Met in 1929 by Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer.

 

Impressive as they are,  I'm not going to discuss the Havemeyer donations of American, Asian and Islamic art, for as far as I'm concerned, the heart of this part of the show is its Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. 

 

Not every one of the paintings in this gallery was donated by the Havemeyers, but we do get here a lot of wonderful canvases, including 2 by Cézanne, 2 by Monet, and one of my favorite paintings by Manet, the "Dead Christ with Angels" (1864).

 

True, there is nothing here by Renoir, who for my money was more of a pioneer than Degas, and we do get 4 pictures by Degas, either a) because he is such a popular favorite or b) because Louisine was so fond of him, or c) for both reasons.

 

 Still, I don't want to cavil, and, as the museum's press release says, the Havemeyer donation "broke through hidebound ideas of French art to elevate the Museum to one of the world's premier destinations for 19th century art." It's easy to forget that as late as 1929, even Impressionism and yet more Post-Impressionism were still considered suspect.

 

THE FINAL FOUR

 

The last four sections of this mammoth exhibition bring the Met's story up to date; and (before we are finished with them all) lead me into more extended commentary..

 

 7) "Reckoning with Modernism," as I've indicated, features that sad Picasso, plus 1918 photographs by Alfred Stieglitz showing the face, hands, and breasts of his then lover & future wife, Georgia O'Keeffe.  Yet another image of Woman!  I find Stieglilz's earlier works, like "The Steerage" (1907) or the series on the railroads much grittier & stronger. 

 

It was nice, I suppose, to see "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" (1928) by Charles Demuth again. It is one of many works donated in many installments after Stieglitz's death by O'Keeffe in a heroic effort to bring the Met up to speed on modernism.

 

Among three other works from that same munificent gift, it was particularly gratifying to see Vasily Kandinsky's "Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II)" (1912), bought by Stieglitz in 1913 from the original Armory Show, and the bronze "Sleeping Muse" (1910) by Constantin Brancusi.

 

The third in this group, "Cow's Skull: Red, White and Blue" (1931) by O'Keeffe doesn't do much for me, though, and where, oh where is John Marin?   The Stieglitz donation included dozens of his peerless cubist-inspired semi-abstracts, but evidently they are too modernist for the present management

 

8) Next comes "Fragments of Histories," dealing with the Met's involvement in World War II. It's interesting from a documentary viewpoint – again, rather than an esthetic one – and especially if you saw the movie on "The Monuments Men" starring George Clooney. 

 

 I did not, but I was happy to see an old favorite by Chardin, "Soap Bubbles" (ca.1733-34), included here as an example of a work stolen by the Nazis from its Jewish owner, then retrieved and ultimately acquired by the Met.  

 

9) Having ignored the 1950s entirely, and most of the 1960s, "To the Centennial Era" picks up the story of the Met in the 1970s.  This brings us into a period where I have personal knowledge of the Met's comings and goings (to say nothing of my own opinions as to how it has performed).

 

The wall text describing the Centennial Era celebrates both the Costume Institute (which I have never had much use for) and the massive gift of African, Oceanic and Native American art given to the Met by Nelson Rockefeller in memory of his son, Michael, who had died on an expedition in Oceania. Its treatment of Henry Geldzahler, founder and first curator of the museum's department of contemporary art, is more ambivalent.

 

It mentions his role as creator of its legendary survey of 'New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970."  Then it goes on to condemn him as a Bad Guy who bought and exhibited mostly white male artists – until he was forced to begin "to rectify these oversights" after protests from the African-American community. 

.

"More significant change arrived," the wall text continues, "with Lowery Stokes Sims, the Museum's first African-American curator, who championed the work of artists of color, women artists, and indigenous artists between 1975 and 1999." 

 

Sounds like she succeeded Geldzahler as curator of the Met's department of contemporary art during those years, doesn't it?  I'll bet at least 90 percent of the show's visitors who are unfamiliar with the facts get that impression.  They may even  think that the Met has been at the forefront of  progress and change ever since.

 

This wasn't exactly my recollection of events, though, so I took to the web and looked up Sims.  Though her Wikipedia entry indicates that she has done a lot since leaving the Met, it lists her only as being "on the Met's education and curatorial staff from 1972 to 1999." 

 

It adds that "she is known for her particular expertise in the work of African, Latino, Native and Asian American artists," and that her CUNY dissertation on the Afro-Cuban Chinese artist Wilfredo Lam was published by the University of Texas Press.

 

Still, when you get to the list of Met shows that she actually participated in organizing, all were of white males and almost exclusively dead ones: Ellsworth Kelly, Marin, Henry Moore, Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Hans Hofmann (I loved the Hofmann show, by the way – it was an absolute gem).

 

True, Sims also acted as the Met's coordinator for shows on Horace Pippin, Francesco Clemente, ­and Barbara Chase-Riboud, but all these shows originated with other museums. so it would appear that at most her influence was limited to persuading the Met to take these traveling shows.

 

At this point, the penny dropped, and I remembered (or thought I remembered) that during this period, the chief curator for contemporary and modern art was Bill Lieberman, former curator of prints and drawings at MoMA. 

 

Further web research confirmed that Lieberman had this job from 1979 until 2004, but also that he didn't inherit it directly from Geldzahler. Geldzahler's immediate successor (in 1978) was Tom Hess, longtime editor of Art News, and Hess died of a heart attack only six months after taking over from Geldzahler. But enough of this nitpicking!  I have what I consider in my vanity more important things to say.

 

AN ESSAY IN SEMANTICS

 

The art in this "Centennial Era" section includes (besides the obligatory Andy Warhol) the only truly abstract painting in the entirety of "Making the Met.". This is a pretty but for me vacuous Ellsworth Kelly named "Blue Green Red" (1963). 

 

According to its label, it was acquired from the artist's studio in 1963 and this makes it "one of the few examples of contemporary art acquired before the Department of Contemporary Arts was established in 1967."

 

The truth or falsehood of this statement is a matter of semantics: how do you define the word "contemporary?'

 

My Merriam-Webster (hard-copy) dictionary, 11th edition (2003), tells me that "contemporary" derives from two Latin words: "con" (meaning "with") and "tempus" (meaning "time").  It entered the English language as an adjective in 1631, and the first of two definitions given is "happening, existing, living or coming into being during the same period of time." The second definition is in two parts: (a) as a synonym for "simultaneous"   (b) "marked by characteristics of the present period: modern or current."

 

"Contemporary" as a noun entered the English language in 1638, and is defined as "one that is contemporary with another" or "one of the same or nearly the same age as another."

 

Blessed as I was with a mother who always liked to look words up in the dictionary and with inspired teachers of the English language from fifth grade through college, I am always curious about words. And it has not escaped my attention that today in the art world, the word "contemporary" has taken on a whole new meaning.

 

When used as a part of the phrase, "contemporary art," it has become a synonym or replacement (one might almost say a euphemism) for postmodernist art.

 

In other words, it means not all the art currently being created, but only that art which is descended from pop, op, minimal or any of the other styles of the 50s and 60s created as a reaction against (and not a continuation of ) the modernism of abstract expressionism.

 

You can find both kinds of definition for "contemporary" on the web now, too, so the question arises: which meaning of the word is intended by this label at the Met? 

 

If it means that the Kelly is one of the first postmodernist works to be acquired by the Met, I'd say, sure and so what?  It doesn't surprise me, but it doesn't strike me as any great accomplishment, either. 

 

Back in 1963, postmodernism was the hottest news around.   Although Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns had anticipated its arrival in the '50s, it didn't really erupt into the wider public's eye until the fall of 1962, when a famous show of pop artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselman and Oldenburg (as well as Rauschenberg & Johns was staged at the Sidney Janis gallery and greeted with an influential review by Harold Rosenberg in the New Yorker. 

 

By the summer of '63, it was even being featured in the mass media magazine with which I'm most familiar, Time. No wonder even the staid Met felt it had to have an example of it.

 

In the beginning, pop was hailed as "the new avant-garde."  But it caught on so fast that a lot of people felt that it wasn't a really a true "avant-garde."   Hence the necessity of finding a new and equally flattering term.  

 

When neo-expressionism washed over the art scene in the 1980s, bringing figurative art even more to the fore, the term "postmodernist" took over.   However, even that term began to sound overly familiar in the '90s, and various adjectives were used to bring it "up to date." 

 

First we had "cutting edge" and then that was abbreviated to "edgy." Most recently the way to make what is really pretty familiar as art in formal terms into something newsy with sales appeal is to call the latest postmodernist wrinkles "contemporary."

 

On the other hand, if the label at the Met means that the Kelly was one of the first works that the Met had acquired by a contemporary or living artist, the statement is so wrong that it's almost funny.  

 

Take it from a woman who between roughly 1978 and 1982 put together a dissertation that was largely concerned with the entire range of paintings exhibited and discussed in New York in the 1940s.  Not just the abstract expressionists, whose work was all that was still remembered, but a lot of other people as well.

 

AN EXCURSION INTO HISTORY

 

In the course of my research, I spent days going through card files at the Met which listed every painting it had acquired in the 1940s. I don't remember what else was on those cards, but I do remember looking at a lot of them (this was before the days of personal computers, let alone the web). 

 

I spent three months reading and taking notes on the microfilmed art page of the Sunday New York Times from January 1, 1940 to December 31, 1949.  I also checked out nearly every other publication I could find that covered the New York art scene.

 

My dissertation devotes about three pages to the Met's exhibitions and acquisitions during the 1940s of paintings by living U.S. painters.  (It also deals with MoMA and the Whitney, but the present review is about the Met.)  It turns out that the Met staged several big shows of such contemporary art during the decade. 

 

Most notable was the enormous "Artists for Victory" show of 1942, from which the museum acquired eight paintings.  All had been awarded purchase prizes by a jury that included Alfred Barr, fabled director/curator at MoMA and Juliana Force, his opposite number at the Whitney – so this jury was definitely considered to represent the most enlightened and informed opinion of the decade.

 

The Met had money to buy art by living Americans thanks to George Arnold Hearn (1835-1913), a successful New York dry goods merchant and Met trustee.  He donated $150,000 to the Met in his own name – plus another $100,000 to establish a similar fund in memory of his only son, Arthur Hoppock Hearn, who had predeceased him in 1910.  

 

The income from this $250,000 was to be spent on art by living American artists (the Kelly in the current show was purchased through funds from the son's fund).

 

The eight prizewinning paintings which entered the Met's permanent collection from the "Artists for Victory" show were by John Steuart Curry, Peter Blume, Jack Levine, Louis Bouché, Raymond Breinin, Charles Howard, Mark Tobey, and Kurt Roesch. 

 

Other paintings, mostly but not exclusively made in the 1940s and  acquired later in the 1940s were by Guy Pène du Bois, Franklin Watkins, Robert Brackman, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Marin, O'Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Raphael Soyer, Darrel Austin, Max Weber, George Grosz, Leon Kroll, Charles Sheeler, Loren MacIver, Clayton S. Price, Everett Spruce, and  B. J. O. Nordfeldt.

 

With the sole exception of Marin, not one of these artists is represented by a painting that was purchased by the Met in the 1940s and is still on view at the Met today.  Instead, the museum's  database would appear to suggest that all are in storage.

 

The only reason I make an exception of Marin is that there are so many dozens of entries in the database under "Marin" – almost all of them representing Stieglitz/O'Keeffe gifts -- that I simply gave up trying to check out them all.

 

 A very small number of these artists – including Benton, O'Keeffe and Weber -- have earlier examples of their work on view at the museum.  The names of a few more – among them  Grosz, Tobey, Sheeler,  Curry and Soyer – might, I  think be recognized by somebody who has recently taken an exceptionally thorough course in 20th century American art history (or, in the case of Grosz, a similarly comprehensive course in 20th century German art history)..  

 

The rest – despite once having been at least reasonably major players on what was their contemporary art scene – have been forgotten.  No wonder the "Making the Met" can now claim that it only began to collect contemporary art in the 1960s!  I don't see this as malice, I see it as ignorance. The museum's wall text writers simply don't appear to know the full extent of what was going on in the 1940s.

 

To me, it is an object lesson in how hard not to say impossible it is to avoid being a slave to contemporary taste.   The good people at the Met in the 40s thought they were making enlightened decisions, and buying art that would stand the test of time.  But it didn't take 80 years to show how wrong they were.

 

Even in the late 70s & early 80s, when I was working on my dissertation, the overwhelming majority of what the Met had collected in the 40s in contemporary American art was by artists who'd been forgotten.  I spent a lot of time in museum storage areas lookiing at such work.

 

AND A CODA:

 

9)  So we come to the final segment of "Making the Met."   This segment is called "Broadening Perspectives" and I only wish it lived up to its name.  Certainly from a purely political point of view, everything has been done to create the impression of inclusiveness. 

 

As the sole white male in this section, we have a New Yorker of Italian extraction, John Monteleone (b. 1947).  He is responsible for four very fancy guitars, named after the four seasons –"Autumn" (2005) "Winter" (2002), "Spring" (2008), and "Summer" (2004),

 

We have "Street Story Quilt" (1985) created by Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), an African American woman (whose painting at MoMA has already been mentioned).

 

We have "Iberic" (1949), a proto-minimalist geometric abstraction painted by a Cuban American woman, Carmen Herrera (b.1915)

 

There is also "Palmscape IX" (2015), a bronze casting from plant fragments by an Indian woman, Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015)

 

And finally (except for a selection of ancient religious books) there is "Dusasa II," (2007).  This shiny panoply of aluminum bottle caps and seals from liquor bottles is by El Anatsui (b. 1944), who was born in Ghana and according to Wikipedia makes his headquarters in Nigeria.

 

I'm not about to critique any of these reigning favorites. I am just going to suggest that 40 years from now, overwhelming odds favor the supposition that all or almost all of them will be reposing in storage, alongside the favorites of the 40s. 

 

Have we any reason to believe that today's curators are likely to be any more exempt from prevailing taste than were their predecessors in the 40s?

 

What will make the cut of art from the period represented by these selections, and still be of interest to museum audiences 30 years from now?   I could make some suggestions, but since this review is all about what's now on view at the Met, it is not the place to do so.  Let us merely be grateful that once again the Met has given us a memorable occasion to appreciate its splendors. Welcome back!

 

 

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