Artist Kerry James Marshall wore the perfect shirt to the opening of the Met Breuer on Tuesday. A bright grass green, it provided a focal point among the black, gray, and navy sea of arts writers assembled to observe just how Marcel Breuer’s 1966 Whitney Museum building looked under long-term lease. (The museum opens to the public March 18.)
Backed by Breuer’s elegant staircase between lobby and basement, Marshall’s shirt recalled the colors, pigmented to pop, of the modern, large-scale American art the building was made for. Breuer’s earthy interior palette of concrete, bluestone and oiled bronze set off the color fields and metallic experiments of its era, a hard shell for work that ranged from Calder mobiles to Jay DeFeo’s two-ton Rose.
The Met’s new, controversial branding also embraces color, with two slim standards on the museum’s Madison Avenue wall and the underside of the concrete bridge both a brilliant red. On the long skinny flags, the new logo, whose attached verticals make me feel queasy, looks good. It read better at city scale than on any of the print and digital media I’ve seen to date, simple and bold.
As I strolled the first two exhibitions in the galleries, one a retrospective of Indian minimalist artist Nasreen Mohamedi, the other a survey show of uncompleted artworks titled Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, I missed that sense of friction and performance. The Met’s deadly greige had taken hold—for now.
I was there more for the architecture than the art, truth be told, and it has been some time since the original building looked this good. Some years ago, when it was still the Whitney, the exterior granite panels were cleaned, transforming the inverted ziggurat form from a monolithic gray to a more delicate striated brown.
Now the inside has also received a thorough cleaning, masterminded by restoration architects Beyer Blinder Belle. Breuer believed in patina and chose materials accordingly. They kept that in mind, lightly scrubbing the the oil of a thousand hands from concrete on top of the built-in lobby bench, and removing the evidence of less-thorough cleaning from the "mop zone" around the baseboards. The bluestone floors were cleaned and rewaxed, to resemble how they were originally treated to look more like slate. Broken lamps in the lobby’s gridded ceiling were replaced and retrofitted with LEDs with dimming capability.
More importantly, the architects stripped the spaces of decades of additions, made as technology and museology changed. "It was head of design Susan Sellers’s number-one priority to declutter the lobby as much as possible," says Brian Butterfield, senior exhibition designer at the Met, who worked closely with BBB on the restoration. Breuer’s custom granite front desk—with its landscape of niches for catalogs and brochures—remains, but the slatted wall behind it has been replaced by a massive interactive information screen. Posters are gone from the walls and postcard racks from the floor. The coatcheck’s high ceiling is back. Wires that had begun to snake over the concrete, even on the underside of the entrance bridge, were removed.
Some of the changes are more incongruous. A set of ticket machines designed with curving bases, looks out of place, however more efficient than a retrofit of a period coin-op machine.
Because the Met only has an eight-year lease on the building, they couldn’t remove gallery signs noting the Whitney’s most generous donors. Instead, they added concrete plates with the Met’s own donors’ names, in their own proprietary font. It’s a palimpsest of typography and philanthropy. (Dwellings, the miniature city of mud in the stairwell by artist Charles Simonds, also remains.)
When I visited the #emptymetbreuer in January, it was a joy to discover the staircase between the first floor and the lower level again, long blocked in by an annex to the gift shop. Here’s hoping, once the restaurant goes in this summer, the lower level and sunken sculpture court, currently communing through giant panes of glass, still feel open to the public.
Along the Madison Avenue wall of the court, landscape architect Guther Vogt planted a stand of quaking aspens in a shiny stainless box. They looked rather like wintry sticks, but when they leaf out their foliage should make a fluttering sound, amplifying the sense of being in a secret forest under the street. The treatment of the court immediately recalls the summer rooftop installations at the Met Fifth Avenue (as we are now meant to call it; I prefer Met Proper). Butterfield says the museum is trying to connect the court to the roof all the way up the third Met institution, the Cloisters, "a third outdoor public space looking at the treetops."
It was not the art, but the architecture, that was compromised on the second and third floors, where curators have chopped up the wide-open spaces into a winding chain of galleries, treating an idiosyncratic building like extra square footage.
I asked Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art, what it was like to install in a building that was, as Met Director Thomas Campbell had said in his opening remarks, "a sculpture in its own right." She stressed that the sculptural presence was exterior, in the building’s relationship to the street, and in the craftsmanship evident in his use of materials. "It is a museum par excellence," she said, "with an amazing sense of proportion and scale, as well as degree of flexibility. Each level has distinction, but it never compromises the art it houses."
It was not the art, but the architecture, that was compromised on the second and third floors, where curators have chopped up the wide-open spaces into a winding chain of galleries, treating an idiosyncratic building like extra square footage. You are aware of Breuer’s clever ceiling grid of concrete coffers, hiding the lights and ducts and wires, but have to push to the back to find one of Breuer’s signature windows.
Along the way you pass through, in the case of the Mohamedi show, room after room of monochrome, medium-size works or, in the case of the first centuries of the Unfinished show, gray walls in a space with a gray ceiling and a gray floor. A giant Titian—positioned just off the elevators as if confirming that the Whitney is gone, gone, gone—fails to pop.
I’d been looking forward to seeing what old art would look like in this midcentury space—Wagstaff stressed that the Met’s presentation of modern and contemporary would, by virtue of access to the museum’s pre-1900 collection, be distinctly different from its competitors—but the works didn’t seem to be gaining anything from being here. The gilt didn’t glitter. The painted skies didn’t call to the winking windows. Klimt looked just okay. I found myself looking at the heavy, snake-edged shadow of the frame on the Corot, rather than the Corot painting itself.
On the fourth floor, greeted by a great Picasso, it was different. Here the curators divided the great, high-ceilinged room into fewer parts, installing a writhing landscape of body-based art before the full glare of the museum’s principal window. Seeing Rodin next to Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois felt like a worthy competition, and the sinewy forms held interest without competing with Breuer’s blockier shapes.
The postwar work was made with museums like this in mind, as were the Sol LeWitt, the Robert Smithson, and the Felix Gonzales Torres candy pour. They seem comfortable in the space, without reference to the exhibition’s theme, and brought light and contrast in a way the old masters failed to. The Gonzales Torres sweets, all twisted in shiny rainbow wrappers, recalled the last show at the Whitney, a ridiculous Jeff Koons retrospective that, nonetheless, looked great. Color against monochrome, whimsy against rock.
The gilt didn’t glitter. The painted skies didn’t call to the winking windows. Klimt looked just okay.
I told Wagstaff that my fantasy, once the Whitney decamped, was to see the building installed à la 1966. Not out of nostalgia, but to experience it in its era. "I want to see a giant Barnett Newman on the wall," I tell her. "There’s your Barnett Newman," she replies, pointing to a medium-size two-tone canvas behind me, adding suggestively, "You may see your fantasy fulfilled." While I’m waiting, the Met has commissioned new photography of Breuer’s public work by Luisa Lambri and Bas Princen, which will be exhibited this fall along with a retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work. I’m crossing my fingers that this second set of exhibitions shows that the Met’s curators do understand how to set off this superior piece of sculpture.