Metropolitan Makes Room For Modern Art

Posted: February 01, 1987

NEW YORK — In celebrating the completion of its new Lila Acheson Wallace wing for 20th-century art, which opens to the public Tuesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has assiduously pointed out that, from the day of its founding in 1870, the museum has been firmly committed to contemporary art.

If that really were true, the Metropolitan wouldn't feel obliged to belabor the point. The inaugural installation drawn from the 20th-century collection, a curious melange of peaks and valleys, confirms what we have suspected all along - that the Metropolitan really hasn't been in close touch with modern art all these years.

With its $26-million Wallace wing, though, the museum has at last placed modern and contemporary art on an equal footing with the rest of its celebrated collections. It's not flashy, but it's the best space in New York for the art of this century, particularly the art of the last 40 years.

In a sense, the Metropolitan has built itself a splendid home for a collection that still needs to be developed. The museum can fill the space, of course - its 20th-century collection consists of more than 4,600 paintings, sculptures and works on paper - but a great museum should be expected to do more than that.

The new wing adds 60,000 feet of exhibition space, of which 40,000 is dedicated to the permanent collection. A sculpture garden on the roof, scheduled to be completed later this year, will add an additional 10,000 square feet.

Judging by the inaugural installation in the 22 permanent galleries, that's somewhat more space than the museum can handle just now, for its 20th-century collection is neither broad nor deep at the level of quality we're accustomed to finding there.

The Metropolitan has been slow to acknowledge many of the principal modernist movements of this century, and as a result, the 20th-century collection is distinguished as much by what it lacks as by what it contains.

The museum didn't even establish a department of contemporary art until 1967, during Thomas Hoving's regime. It was renamed the department of 20th- century art in 1970.

The new wing first appeared on a master plan developed in 1970, but it was designated primarily for European sculpture and decorative arts - modern art was to have only a couple of galleries. When Philippe de Montebello became director in 1978, he reassigned the space to the department of 20th-century art.

Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder with her husband, DeWitt, of Reader's Digest, gave $11 million toward the wing's construction and provided an endowment to operate it. The city contributed $8 million from its capital budget, and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor gave $7 million, which went into a huge space for special exhibitions and the rooftop sculpture garden.

With the opening of this immense, tastefully functional wing, the Metropolitan offers itself as a serious competitor to the Museum of Modern Art for major gifts and bequests of 20th-century masterpieces.

That museum has long been the standard against which any American 20th- century collection has to be measured. For the immediate future, though, the Metropolitan cannot seriously challenge its didactic supremacy.

Because of its incomparable holdings, especially in European modernism, the Museum of Modern Art can lead its visitors through a step-by-step chronology of modern art's evolution. Nothing like that is possible at the Metropolitan, whose 20th-century collection is far less complete than the Modern's, more predominantly American and also, through the 1940s, overwhelmingly representational.

William S. Lieberman, the Metropolitan's chairman of 20th-century art, couldn't have attempted a Museum of Modern Art-style installation had he wanted to, so he has elected instead to offer some unusual and, he hopes, instructional juxtapositions of paintings and sculptures.

For example, one finds a full-length portrait by the Austrian Gustav Klimt hung near a similar composition by American Robert Henri, and a small landscape by Arthur B. Carles proximate to a magnificent Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernon. The selections emphasize consonances among various national schools.

One won't find a presentation like this in any other New York museum. Lieberman has opted for this approach as a way of offering new insights and in part to camouflage the collection's most glaring deficiencies, which are numerous and, eventually, obvious.

Examples of futurism, expressionism, the Russian avant-garde, surrealism, pop and minimalism are skimpy to non-existent, at least in the inaugural hanging. (One presumes, though, that if Lieberman had even modest strength in these areas he would have displayed it.)

On the other hand, early cubism and abstract expressionism are well represented. The Metropolitan is very strong in early Picasso - it owns his monumental, iconic portrait of Gertrude Stein - Klee, Bonnard, de Kooning, Pollock and the artists in Alfred Stieglitz's coterie, but deficient in Matisse, Miro, Giacometti and Mondrian, among other artists one expects to find in a decent modernist collection.

The two galleries devoted to the major artists in the Stieglitz group - Hartley, Dove, Marin, Demuth and O'Keeffe - may be the strongest in the wing. Many of these pictures came to the museum in 1949 through O'Keeffe's gift of the Stieglitz collection.

The collection may be considerably less than comprehensive, but it does contain some genuine treasures. These include a major Henri Rousseau, The Repast of the Lion; Hartley's emblematic Portrait of a German Officer; Demuth's The Figure 5 in Gold; Balthus' enigmatic The Mountain, which could have been given more hanging space; a late Max Beckmann triptych, Beginning; Pollock's lyrical Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), and a splendid Gorky, Water of the Flowering Mill.

Unfortunately, it also includes an extensive (60 paintings by 47 artists) and eventually tiresome display of American realist painting from the period 1905 to 1940. Some of it is fine - Hopper and the major Ashcan painters are all included - but much of it is mediocre, best left in storage or saved for thematic exhibitions.

This section emphasizes the degree to which the Metropolitan's acquisitions during the first half of this century were influenced by a marked preference for the most traditional representational art, particularly American art.

The collection's major display of sculpture is offered in a 130-foot-long gallery on the Central Park side of the wing. Here one finds representative examples of Nevelson, David Smith, Caro, Bourgeois and Moore jammed into the relatively narrow room with several large paintings. Overall, it is cramped and less than successful.

Another curious aspect of this inaugural is the Metropolitan's effort to demonstrate how incontestably au courant it has become. The major evidence of this is the inclusion of Robert Rauschenberg's 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, which the artist describes as a visual autobiography.

This mixed-media piece in progress, begun in 1981, is by now about 750 feet long, and fills an entire large gallery. Its juxtaposition against early modernist works of proven quality in adjoining galleries only serves to point up how self-indulgent and vacuous it is.

But it is current and stylish, and certainly demonstrates that the Metropolitan no longer can be accused of timidity or lack of foresight in recognizing the art of the present, or the future.

The Rauschenberg, which is on loan, introduces an unseemly touch that makes one wonder whether the Metropolitan, in its eagerness to make up for lost time and opportunities, has abandoned its customary caution and judgment.

As the Metropolitan plunges wholeheartedly into contemporary art, with its obligatory Baselitz and Schnabel, and even a Red Grooms, the Wallace wing provides a powerful incentive for potential donors to offer up those works the museum needs to flesh out its collection. That's the only way it's going to acquire a major Jasper Johns, which it also needs.

Indeed, in the last few years the museum has attracted several significant gifts - from the estates of Thomas Hess and of Scofield Thayer, the Mark Rothko Foundation and Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman. So the Wallace wing had its impact even before it opened.

But it also poses a major challenge, to exercise prudent and prescient judgment in contemporary art in the years ahead without compromising the standards of quality that apply to its other collections.

Like the Louvre and unlike the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan is an encyclopedic museum. We don't expect it to jump on every bandwagon that rolls by but to function as the ultimate arbiter of aesthetic quality and as

conservator of proven aesthetic values.

Can the Metropolitan succeed in the volatile and treacherous field of contemporary art without compromising a historical perspective that reaches all the way back to Thebes and Ur?

Eventually the museum's 20th-century collection will shake down and fill out. In years to come, the Wallace wing will of necessity accommodate art of succeeding centuries, since the Metropolitan can't build wings indefinitely.

The wing's potential probably won't be realized by Lieberman or even by his successor. It will take many years for the Metropolitan to figure out how to maintain a keen cutting edge without sacrificing the principles of connoisseurship that made it a bastion of taste in the first place.

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