THINK­ING INSIDE THE BOX

The Met Breuer, the new home for the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art’s mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion, has opened in New York with a Nas­reen Mo­hamedi ex­hi­bi­tion. Andy Battaglia re­ports on the in­sti­tu­tion’s new com­mit­ment to a global per­spec­tive

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Andy Battaglia is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view. He lives in New York.

There’s a spot in the Met Breuer, a bold and am­bi­tious new ad­di­tion to the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York, where visi­tors might find it oddly hard to stand. The floor feels some­how mis­aligned against the axis of the Earth. Bal­ance is dif­fi­cult to come by; the walls seem to wa­ver all around.

The cause is not ar­chi­tec­tural neg­li­gence – this is a land­mark build­ing de­signed by one of his­tory’s great ar­chi­tects, af­ter all – but rather the quiet, solemn power of the drafted line.

Lines are el­e­men­tal in art, a com­mon lan­guage and a recog­nis­able tool that can some­how be suf­fused with the char­ac­ter of the artist who marked them.

So it goes with the hyp­notic, mes­meris­ing lines of Nas­reen Mo­hamedi. The In­dian artist, who died in 1990, is known for geo­met­ric painting and draw­ing, and is the sub­ject of a new ret­ro­spec­tive in­stalled to in­au­gu­rate the Met Breuer, one of the most mo­men­tous and an­tic­i­pated mu­seum open­ings in the United States for years.

The oc­ca­sion is a big one, for the Met and oth­ers who or­bit it as sup­port­ers of the idea of mu­se­ums as noble pur­suits. The main mother­ship Met, founded in New York in 1870, oc­cu­pies a mas­sive Beaux-Arts build­ing on Fifth Av­enue, the an­chor of Mu­seum Mile and a des­ti­na­tion for more than six mil­lion visi­tors last year. Its col­lec­tion cov­ers 5,000 years of art from around the globe, with more than two mil­lion works in its col­lec­tion. It is, in the sim­plest terms, one of the most dis­tin­guished mu­se­ums in the world.

The new Met Breuer is a few blocks away, in a build­ing that played home for decades to the younger, hip­per Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, which moved with great fan­fare to a gleam­ing new lo­ca­tion down­town in the spring of last year. The va­cated build­ing was de­vised in 1966 by Mar­cel Breuer, one of the most fa­mous de­scen­dants of the Bauhaus school of mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign. Af­ter his ed­u­ca­tion and work as a teacher at the school, Breuer left Nazi Ger­many for Lon­don and later the United States, where he set­tled shortly be­fore the Sec­ond World War.

For the Met, Breuer’s rad­i­cally mod­ernist build­ing – with its stacked pla­nar façade and stark dy­namism inside – of­fered an al­ready-iconic home for the mu­seum’s grow­ing am­bi­tions in the realm of con­tem­po­rary art. For much of its his­tory, the Met had been in­dif­fer­ent or even hos­tile to the no­tion of art of re­cent vin­tage, plac­ing its faith in­stead in the con­se­crated wis­dom of the ages. Other mu­se­ums could race to con­tend with the present and re­cent past; the Met, in all its grandeur, had many more thou­sands of years to ad­vo­cate.

That mode of think­ing be­gan to change with the ap­point­ment of a new di­rec­tor in 2008, which set the course for a jour­ney to the present and that strange, seem­ingly wob­bly spot now on the Met Breuer’s sec­ond floor – where it is hard not to lose one’s bear­ings while staring deep into ethe­real geo­met­ric space traced by Mo­hamedi’s lines. The im­pact of the work is dizzy­ing and the pres­ence of such work also says a lot about the Met’s evolv­ing sense of self and the broader con­text of con­tem­po­rary art. It’s a worldly, en­ter­pris­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of an artist ef­fec­tively un­known in the West, and the ef­fect of it has real po­ten­tial to res­onate for years, maybe ages, to come. At a press pre­view a few weeks ago, Met di­rec­tor Thomas Camp­bell mused over “the rich con­text of our global and his­toric col­lec­tions” that range “across time, ge­og­ra­phy and mul­ti­ple art forms”. His in­vo­ca­tion of global ge­og­ra­phy was familiar to those who had been pay­ing at­ten­tion, as broad­en­ing the Met’s con­tem­po­rary purview has been part of the mu­seum’s nar­ra­tive for the past few years.

His­tor­i­cally, when the Met traf­ficked in con­tem­po­rary art it was with a ten­dency to fix its vision on the West. The realm of con­tem­po­rary art has changed though, and among its most dy­namic as­pects is the pointed, ac­tive and even manic cross­ing of bor­ders into newly-per­ceived hotspots, rang­ing from Latin Amer­ica and East­ern Europe to South Asia and the Mena re­gion.

To mar­shal the change, Camp­bell hired Sheena Wagstaff as chair of the Met’s mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary depart­ment; she’d spent 10 years as chief cu­ra­tor at Lon­don’s Tate Mod­ern.

For Wagstaff, the no­tion of bor­der­less­ness was nat­u­ral. Talk­ing just be­fore the Met Breuer opened to the pub­lic on March 18, our con­ver­sa­tion quickly turns to a bor­ough in New York in which 120 lan­guages are spo­ken, by a wildly di­verse pop­u­la­tion from all over the globe. That bor­ough, Queens, is just a few sub­way stops away from the Met Breuer’s home on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per East Side.

Wagstaff says she chose to sig­nal a sense of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism in the Met Breuer’s name, which high­lights the role of an émi­gré ar­chi­tect en­listed at a his­tor­i­cal point in time when Amer­ica was as­sert­ing it­self as a world power and a global cen­tre for art.

“We have a vis­i­tor­ship that has a nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to look at work from dif­fer­ent cul­tural back­grounds,” Wagstaff says, while not­ing that the Met’s col­lec­tions in dif­fer­ent de­part­ments in­stinc­tively cover “not only 5,000 years’ worth of cre­ative ac­tiv­ity but also an enor­mous global span”.

As chair of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art, she says, “My job is to re­flect that span and iden­tify the most in­ter­est­ing cru­cibles of artis­tic ac­tiv­ity across the world. That varies enor­mously and changes all the time.”

Among her main ar­eas of in­ter­est is the Mid­dle East, re­flected in her ap­point­ment of a des­ig­nated cu­ra­tor for the Mid­dle East, North Africa and Tur­key. (Other ar­eas with spe­cial­ist cu­ra­tors so far in­clude Latin Amer­ica and South Asia, with hopes for more to come.)

Clare Davies, who started in the job late last sum­mer, boasts an eclec­tic re­sume with ex­tended stints liv­ing as well as trav­el­ling through­out the re­gion. Af­ter grow­ing up with aca­demic par­ents who worked in the Gaza Strip and then Tu­nisia, Su­dan and Egypt, she went to univer­sity in the US, in Cal­i­for­nia. “Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, I worked at some gal­leries,” Davies says, “but I was read­ing about the art scene in Cairo and thought it sounded much more in­ter­est­ing than what I was ex­posed to in Los An­ge­les.”

She moved back and took up work at down­town Cairo’s Town­house Gallery. Af­ter that came grad­u­ate stud­ies in the US with a dis­ser­ta­tion in Egyp­tian mod­ern art, a fel­low­ship in Ber­lin and, now, a new post in New York with the weight of a for­mi­da­ble in­sti­tu­tion be­hind her.

In ini­tial dis­cus­sions with Wagstaff, Davies found a depart­ment head whose en­gage­ment with her ar­eas of in­ter­est was suf­fi­ciently nu­anced and com­plex.

“There’s a grow­ing in­sti­tu­tional pres­ence in some­thing called ‘mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art from the Mid­dle East’,” Davies says. “But as that in­sti­tu­tional pres­ence has de­vel­oped, there’s a ten­dency to lock in a nar­ra­tive, and cer­tain tropes be­come as­so­ci­ated as a sort of short­hand. What’s hap­pen­ing now and his­tor­i­cally is much richer than what gets re­flected in that process. What I’m in­ter­ested in is how com­pli­cated it is, how nu­anced it is, how many dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions it leads you in. There are a lot of blind spots that are not able to ac­count for all that.”

The col­lec­tive sense of ac­count­ing has held out some sig­nif­i­cant signs of deep­en­ing rev­er­ence for art from the re­gion, in­clud­ing the as­tute 2014 New Mu­seum sur­vey Here and Else­where, with 45 artists from 15 coun­tries in the Arab world, and an im­pres­sive “Me­nam” fo­cus at the Ar­mory Show last year.

A high-pro­file solo show by the Le­banese artist Walid Raad was on view at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art un­til Jan­uary, and right now, a month­long Live Ideas festival pro­gramme is near­ing the end of a slate of events in New York un­der the ban­ner “MENA/Fu­ture – Cul­tural Trans­for­ma­tions in the Mid­dle East North Africa Re­gion”.

Ac­tiv­ity of the sort is wel­come and in­creas­ingly en­gaged, but Davies says she re­mains wary of the pit­falls that can at­tend other, more su­per­fi­cial, ge­o­graph­i­cal sur­veys that are over-gen­er­al­is­ing sta­ples at bi­en­ni­als and art fairs.

“I want to avoid the false friends of leg­i­bil­ity in terms of un­der­stand­ing artis­tic prac­tice,” Davies says. “Some­times you get a bet­ter sense of where an artist is com­ing from when they’re de-fa­mil­iarised. For a work of art pro­duced in Le­banon in the 1960s, get­ting a sense of what was at stake at that mo­ment for the artist and then also re­flect­ing on what it means to see this work in 2016 at the Met Breuer in New York – that dis­lo­ca­tion is im­por­tant to con­sider. It’s a com­pli­cated set of is­sues to grap­ple with. I don’t want to gloss over the com­plex­ity.” How mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art from be­yond the West will ul­ti­mately be sit­u­ated in the new Met Breuer re­mains to be seen. For now, there’s the pres­ence of Mo­hamedi in a show with quiet, sus­tained and sur­pris­ing power.

“I was think­ing about the ne­ces­sity to do an ex­hi­bi­tion as a coun­ter­point to Un­fin­ished,” Wagstaff says, in ref­er­ence to the other open­ing show, Un­fin­ished: Thoughts Left Vis­i­ble. That one, splayed across two floors and draw­ing on bluechip hold­ings and bor­row­ings from the Re­nais­sance to the present, sur­veys art that was never com­pleted or else comes across as evanes­cent in some way.

The ex­hibit has borne the brunt of some bad re­views, most of which praise the older art (Ti­tian, Manet, Ver­meer) while point­ing out that, when it comes to work of more re­cent times, the premise wears thin. One re­view, by Jerry Saltz of New York mag­a­zine, laid into the Met for not tak­ing bet­ter ad­van­tage of its worldly hold­ings in a show that fixes on too many familiar places and names.

Wagstaff says the sur­vey was orig­i­nally meant to ven­ture more widely into an­cient Egypt and Africa but that the choice had been made to fo­cus on west­ern art and its legacy of painting. A worldly coun­ter­point, she said, was con­ceived from the start by way of a fo­cus on Mo­hamedi.

Lit­tle known in the West, work­ing at a time when men dom­i­neered, and ac­com­plished in min­i­mal­is­tic, geo­met­ric modes of­ten at­trib­uted to move­ments in the West, Mo­hamedi pro­vides a re­sound­ing re­buke to many ideas and pre­con­cep­tions that, in the past, might have worked against her.

Vi­jay Iyer, a jazz mu­si­cian com­mis­sioned for a 21-day per­for­mance res­i­dency at the Met Breuer, was so taken with Mo­hamedi’s art that he wrote a com­po­si­tion in its spirit, newly re­leased as an al­bum on ECM Records ti­tled A Cos­mic Rhythm

With Each Stroke.

“It’s a knock­out body of work,” Iyer says of the Mo­hamedi show. “I was re­ally in­spired by the fact that she was from In­dia and that she oc­cu­pies the his­tor­i­cal mo­ment she did. She pre­fig­ures a lot of what hap­pened in the West. As you think more about it, she kind of rewrites art his­tory.”

Wagstaff says epipha­nies of the sort are part of what she has in mind for the Met Breuer’s new course. “We’re at the edge of time mov­ing for­ward, and for those of us who be­lieve in progress and those who don’t, it be­comes about how hu­man be­ings have been mak­ing marks and creat­ing ob­jects out of ma­te­ri­als they find around them,” Wagstaff says. “Here we are at this time where you have this ex­tra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege to get to un­der­stand your­self as part of that.”

Courtesy Comma Foun­da­tion, Bel­gium

James Hunter Black Draftee (1965) by US artist Alice Neel.

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