Start your engines – the doors to the Met Breuer swung open last week, and it’s a celebrity-studded, jazz-filled opening. The Met has turned Marcel Breuer’s brutalist masterpiece on Madison into a showcase for everything that’s cool, digital, live, and happening.
First, the art: Superstars from the last 500 years of art history are throwing it down in a big, bold, can-you-believe-who’s-here, two-floor mash-up extravaganza, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.
Imagine turning a corner and finding a room packed with the Holy Grail of 19th-century “abstraction” – five barely-there masterworks by Mr. Turner, fresh off the plane from London. It’s not taking anything away from Titian, El Greco, or German Expressionists, who are in the show. It’s just that it’s rare for Gothamites to get up close and personal with this painter’s painter without buying a ticket to London and trekking to Millbank. Once word gets out, hopefully the Breuer downstairs admissions desk will be as jammed as the return line for Hamilton.
Yes, it’s strange to encounter Renaissance masters or a monumental Picasso when the gigantic elevator doors open on the upper floors. The fresh juxtapositions of old and new, familiar and unknown make your head spin, but in a good way.
The show features Renaissance masters, 19th century gods (see Matisse and Van Gogh’s side-by-side country cottages), and 20th century hot shots from international collections, MoMA, and 81st Street. The curatorial throw-down is something only the Met can do – scale, scope, and smarts – asking accessible questions and responding with wit from its own collection and other top institutions that have agreed to give their masterworks a trip to New York.
Eight years ago, when the Whitney Museum of American Art began planning its move to the Meatpacking District, its board approached the Met and asked if it wanted to take over the famous Breuer building on Madison Avenue.
The answer was “yes” but only if the takeover would be done the Met way – using the full scope of the Met’s holdings, leveraging its interest in new digital and performing arts, and showcasing international modern artists who might not have received the recognition here (in the United States) that they deserved. In other words, turn old-world institutionalism on its head. And they’ve done that.
Just look at the first one-woman show in the United States for Indian modernist, Nasreen Mohamedi. The delicate drawings evoke Klee, Malevich, and Agnes Martin purity and line and shed a whole new light on how modernism was being transformed on the subcontinent in the Seventies and Eighties.
Second, the live arts element: Since it will be open late on Thursday and Friday evenings, hopefully it will become new Upper East Side’s version of the Rubin’s K-2 Lounge two nights a week – a fun, lively hang-out for music, performance, and art lovers. The rear first-floor gallery has been turned into a contemplative, cool showcase for jazz, programmed by Met Live Arts. Take a look at what’s up through the end of the month with Relation: A Performance Residency by Vijay Iyer.
Third, the new: So what else has changed at 75th and Madison? The pile-up of art books is gone from the reception desk, and the welcome wall is ablaze with a classy digital marquee offering glimpses of the world’s most precious treasures at each of the Met’s (now) three locations.
In a nod to those stupendous Lila Acheson Wallace bouquets in the Met’s Grand Hall, there’s also an oversize spring arrangement gracing the welcome area.
Fourth, the familiar: People who know the old Whitney well remember the tiny clay colony that resided in a corner of the stairwell next to a window overlooking Madison Avenue. At the press preview, art critics kept pausing on the stairwell landing to marvel at the fact that the beloved Charles Simmonds piece, Dwellings, is still there on loan from the Whitney.
Look out the window and you’ll see the tiny clay and sand Dwellings nestled into the chimney and roof of the Apple Store across the street, same as they have been since 1982. Like the rest of the new Met Breuer, it might be the same place, but you’ll see lots of well-loved modern art in a new, fresh way.
And be sure to download Soundwalk 9:09 by John Luther Adams, commissioned by MetLiveArts for visitors to enjoy as they trek between 81st Street to the Met Breuer — two audio tracks from which to choose, depending on whether you’re making the nine-minute walk uptown or downtown.