The Met Breuer Museum is hosting an exhibition of master works that were purposely left unfinished. “Unfinished – Thoughts Left Visible”
The Met is the grande dame of museums in New York, and one of the most visited museums in the world. Celebrated for the depth and breadth of its collections, the museum could reasonably rest on its well established reputation, continue to buy extraordinary works of art (2012 expenditure of approximately forty million dollars for acquisitions), and celebrate its satellite gem, the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. Events conspired, however, to allow the Met to toss its considerable resources into the highly charged universe of museums dedicated to contemporary art. The Met received a donation of 81 Cubist masterworks from the estate of Leonard Lauder worth approximately a billion dollars just as the building formerly known as the Whitney Museum became available.
Architect Marcel Breuer had been comissioned to design the Whitney Museum in 1963, creating a distinctive landmark on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The critical reception of the new building was not entirely favorable. Breuer, who had been one of the Bauhaus luminaries, designed a remarkable building in what was subsequently called the Brutalist style. Midcentury sensibilities welcomed steel, glass, and open space; Breuer’s design called for a building covered with 1500 slabs of granite, a staircase of a building, often called an inverted ziggurat. When the museum opened in 1966, Ada Louise Huxtable was architectural critic at the New York Times and one of the few critics to be won over by the building; she knew she would be alone. She described the Whitney as New York’s most disliked building but found it fascinating. “Like that fine old saying about sin,” she wrote,”first the Whitney repulses; then it intrigues; then it is embraced,” and added, “…the taste for its disconcertingly top-heavy, inverted pyramidal mass grows on one slowly, like a taste for olives or warm beer.”
It seems inevitable now that the Whitney would seek a new home, as it did in 2014, abandoning the ziggurat on Madison Avenue. This is the sort of an Ugly Duckling story that has been slow in transitioning to a happy ending.
Marcel Breuer (BROY-ER) may be best known today for his furniture design, the Wassily chair in particular, but he was among the most prominent architects of his generation. His buildings include the stunning chapel on the campus of Saint John’s University, the UNESCO building in Paris, the US Embassy in the Hague, the IBM Research Building, more than thirty significant buildings, and private homes which are considered among the most distinctive of the mid-century period. His own homes in New Canaan, Connecticut and Wellfleet, Massachusetts are among those recognized by the Museum of Modern Art and the National Building Museum among many others.
Breuer was also a teacher at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he taught the next generation of architectural giants. He taught I.M. Pei, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Eliot Noyes, Paul Rudolph, and my father; he married my mother’s sister. He was my uncle, and so, I’ve not taken the shabby treatment of his building well. With its adoption by the Met, and the adoption of the name, Met Breuer, both the building and the man have the recognition they have long deserved.
“Unfinished”. The reviews of the exhibit have been mixed, in part because the extraordinary unfinished works are not entirely contemporary. The 197 works include pieces non finito (intentionally unfinished) by Rembrandt, Titian, Cezanne, and Turner, as well as work by Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock.
The idea of looking at work intenionally unfinished so as to examine thoughts left visible, however, strikes me as a significant and entirely contemporary undertaking. The definition of art itself has been tied to the completed act of creation or invention, but surely there is art in every preliminary brush stroke, in every decision an artist considers. Conceptual art essentially asks art to question its own process and allows the artist to involve others in the completion of the work. In a very real sense, art is an event, the conjunction of the work and its viewer. So, I confess the title of the exhibition pulled me to a set of reflections not yet … finished.
The Met and the Whitney agreed to a sort of limited partnership, presenting the Met with the Breuer building for a term of eight years; after years of turmoil, the story of New York’s ugly duckling has moved rather quickly toward a happier ending for the Breuer legacy, but remains, as all really true stories do, unfinished.