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Posts tagged Metropolitan Museum
Stepping into the living room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Little House from 1912, a permanent display at the Met, I thought to myself how ridiculous it was to have a big piece of someone’s house sitting inside the museum. And then, after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that it made a great deal of sense to have a big piece of someone’s house sitting inside the museum if it was a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Wright built hundreds of single-family houses throughout the country during his lifetime, and they’re famously difficult to maintain. Over decades they’ve been plundered for their Wright-designed furnishings, renovated by owners, and punished by the elements. When I visited the Robie House in Chicago ten years ago it was badly peeling and patched, in need of a serious structural and interior overhaul. It was raining heavily that day, and while standing inside the iconic living room, with its dazzling horizontal proportions, I felt incredibly vulnerable, as if the roof and windows might collapse in on me and the other visitors at any moment.
Frank Lloyd Wright did not build his houses to last; it simply was not a priority. In a marvelous essay about Wright’s Jacobs House in his book Strange Details, architectural historian Michael Caldwell outlines Wright’s complicated, cavalier attitude toward construction. Wright wasn’t governed by the same tangle of national and local building and safety codes that architects today are. And he was highly inventive, often incorporating untested building and mechanical systems, driven by overall spatial and sculptural effects rather than soundness. The Little House, built in Wayzata, Minnesota, was ready to be razed when the Met purchased it in 1972. The house’s library is now on display at the Allentown Art Museum, a hallway at Minneapolis Institute for the Arts, and its remaining furnishings were sold off like parts from a junkyard car. (In 2009 two pairs of windows from the house were resold at Christie’s for $45,00 each, which might be about what the house originally cost to build.) Wright houses are magnificent structures. So if one can’t be maintained properly in situ it makes good sense to move it inside a larger building, or even build a super-structure right over it.
I subscribe to the myth, still. I believe that Modernism is something entirely divorced from what went before, a historical rupture, a revolution. But the exhibit celebrating reknown nineteenth-century New York furniture maker Duncan Phyfe on view now at the Met makes it seem much less so. Phyfe opened his workshop in 1794 and died in 1854. His work impresses because, like a lot of great work, while it seems absolutely of its time it also looks far forward.
As displayed in the small, open, interconnected galleries in the museum’s American Wing, adjacent to the work of his contemporaries, Phyfe’s pieces have a singular assurance. They are finer, smarter and less fussy, with more elemental profiles. And they are stronger, more fit, than the other Victorian pieces, which seem to be drowning in their own over-ripe Gothic and classical embellishments, some so much so that it’s hard to determine what purpose they serve. Is that a side table or an umbrella stand? A console or a bench. After taking in the Phyfe exhibit my friend and I walked through galleries packed with Arts and Craft, Art Deco and Shaker treasures, arriving finally at the museum’s famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed period room. The Duncan Phyfe exhibit was a perfect overture.
A tour guide leading a group of visitors through the new galleries of Islamic art at the Met explained that all of the works fell into four categories: calligraphic, vegetal (or arabesque), geometric and figural. After seeing the galleries I understood that all four of those things are the same. They are all about the line, and the art on display is essentially graphic.
The most powerful pieces are the manuscripts filled with text and illustrations. Sometimes a page requires careful inspection, and you fall into tit like a diorama. And sometimes a page compels you to step back so that the words, rendered in an extravagant, expressive Arabic script, collapse into a pulsating all-over pattern. The drawings of the human figure are naturalistic but not realistic. The artists were obviously looking at the body as they drew, but cared more about composing a fine, ideal figure on the page than about getting the proportions right. The scenes — of mythology, courtly life, war, and love — are well-observed but, to a western visitor, stubbornly anti-perspectival. Like so much of the artwork on display, it rests on the surface.
There’s been much ballyhoo about The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia at the Met. None of the artwork is new; these objects have been part of the Met’s permanent collection for decades. But current geopolitics make it important to look at this part of the world (basically, the Muslim world) more attentively. And as we do we can congratulate ourselves for learning about another culture. The Times (unintentionally, I’m sure) captured the ambivalence perfectly in the title of their review, A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty. There’s the same faint condescension in it that there was when taste-makers first looked at African art.
In rebuilding these fifteen galleries, the Met had an extraordinary opportunity to restage works with contemporary museum protocol, and they had an extraordinary inspiration for design — Muslim architecture. But the new galleries aren’t so different from the Met’s other, older galleries: smallish, squarish, oatmeal-colored rooms, with ceilings cluttered with tracklights. There are small gestures here and there to the traditions of Muslim architecture: a white marble floor with colored inlay, two rows of hanging glass lamps, a magnificent gilded coffered ceiling, and an eighteenth century house from Damascus. As some kind of proof of historical continuity, the final gallery has been finished entirely (and handsomely) by eight craftsmen from Morocco. But none of the displays have the flair of those at the Neues Museum in Berlin, which shroud each object in magic. A generic all-white environment would have served the work better, and also offered a more sophisticated curatorial view. Over one of the explanatory wall texts, there’s a grainy black and white photo of the Great Mosque at Samarra, a huge rectangular hall with a cone-shaped ziggurat in front. There’s more architectural power here, in this small image, than in all of the new galleries combined.
“I don’t do event dressing, because every day is an event.” This is the philosophy of Daphne Guinness, heiress, socialite, and patroness of the haute couture, whose clothes are on display now at the gallery at FIT. It’s a brilliantly-curated collection of theatrical, avant-garde clothing, with large doses of Azzedine Alaia, Karl Lagerfeld, Gareth Pugh, and Chanel. But the heart of the exhibit (and Guinness’ closets) is given over to Alexander McQueen. Guinness was frequently described as McQueen’s muse. She owned many of the pieces on display at the Met’s summer show, dressed for the opening gala of that exhibit in the shop windows at Barney’s, and, at the designer’s funeral, entered St. Paul’s in an enormous, black, McQueen-designed cape that trailed her like a storm cloud. The day called for drama, and she delivered.
Alexander McQueen presides over the Guinness exhibit in another sense too. His spectacular Met retrospective raised the bar for fashion exhibits and for museum display design. Other shows I’ve seen at FIT’s main gallery, a flat basement space, felt less like special events than like archival study, with groups of plain white mannequins set out on flat stands with explanatory labels. For the Guinness exhibit FIT constructed six small alcoves from mirror, glass, and fabric scrims. And they’ve hung screens above showing the short films that Guinness starred in and produced. The result is a sense of multiplicity and transparency that’s right in sync with the image of the lady in question, and of anyone, really, who participates fully in fashion.