The Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”) is one of the world’s largest art museums. It has two buildings in New York City: its main building is on Fifth Avenue and its Cloister in Fort Tryon Park.
The Met has more than two million works of art in its collection that span five thousand years from prehistory to the present and from every part of the globe. Its permanent collection has a large collection of sculptures; American and modern art; Asia, Africa, Islam, ancient Egypt, and Byzantine art; musical instruments, weapons; and armor from around the world.
The Met’s huge Impressionist Collection includes a number of pieces from all of the major and a number of lesser-known impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. It has a particularly large and unusual collection of Monets and a number of iconic paintings by other of our favorites such as Renoir, Cezanne, and Van Gogh.
Just outside the Impressionist galleries are wonderful works of two “not quite Impressionist” Norwegian artists, Edvard Munch (an artist whose museum we visited in Norway) and Aksel Johannessen.
While we enjoy seeing our favorites from the Met’s permanent collection, we are especially drawn here for many of its special exhibits.
2022: Winslow Homer–Crosscurrents
The huge, retrospective was defined around the themes that come together in one of the artist’s most famous, late paintings, The Gulf Stream (1906), which, as discussed below, addresses issues including human endurance, conflict and its uncertain resolution, the power of nature, racial politics and probably many others.
It begins with a brief mention of his early work as an illustrator, which took him to Virginia to cover parts of the Civil War. He began painting here, producing a small series on the civil war (including his famous Sharpshooter) before moving on to reconstruction (including a memorable image of a former plantation mistress’s uncomfortable discussion with former slaves) and The Cotton Pickers which suggests how little the former slave’s lives changed after the war. Then back to the northeast where he examined the declining role of rural life in an industrializing country and the hope and promise of youth, which he viewed as a salvation from the devastation of war.
By the 1880s, he began to turn his attentions to his longstanding fascination with the sea, from a few placid and hopeful seascapes as sites for leisure and opportunity (as in Breezing Up) to the ever-present dangers as exemplified by his many images of ships—not to speak of their crews—in peril, shipwrecks, and heroic rescues, as in his 1884 oil of The Lifeline.
His love of the sea led him to move to Prout’s Neck Maine and to his regular winter trips to the Keys and the Caribbean. Here he worked exclusively in watercolors and increasingly used them as focused, small-scale studies for future and more epic-scale oils. (An American version of the pioneering use of oils by England’s J.M.M. Turner.) This is particularly evident in the series of watercolors that represented parts of and the final study for his iconic oil, The Gulf Stream which portrays a precariously listing boat on which a Black man lays with stalks of sugar cane (produced by slaves). The boat is surrounded both by the sharks that surround the boat and by a waterspout on the horizon—an image of human struggle against the forces of nature, isolation, racial politics, the U.S.’s turn-of-the-century imperialism, and much more. These themes continue in the form of a Bahamian shipwreck and the uncertain fate of a man lying on the shore.
By the 1890s he turned increasingly to seascapes, and especially storms from the window of his Prout’s Neck home with dramatic rocks and pounding surf—mostly without people. Several times Homer returned to finished paintings to remove characters that he had initially inserted (such as in his 1901 Northeaster).
By the late 1890s and early 1900s, as if turning a focus to his own mortality, Homer switched his painting subjects between:
- Pastoral pursuits like fishing, to hazardous activities such as white water rafting, and between
- Confident, relaxing images like Kissing the Moon to more foreboding images, like his somber, more abstract representation of Cape Trinity.
The exhibition ended with the curator’s assessment of Homer’s long-term legacy which he concludes, is primarily for his mastery of watercolors, partially as shown in examples including Woods at Prout’s Neck, An October Day, and A Great Pool, which provide wonderful examples. Also, as with Turner, Homer pioneered the use of watercolors in creating capturing small-scale spontaneous images and in using them to create studies for his oils.
2022: Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois is a French-born, American artist who became most known for her very large-scale sculptures of spiders. This exhibit explored the generally dark palettes and brooding pictures of the early stage of her career. It provides a preview of the psyche of the woman who built a career around giant black spiders.
The exhibit begins with the artist’s hopeful image of Runaway Girl (1938) which shows her running across the ocean from Paris to New York. The Home of My Brothers portrays nostalgia and a long series of increasingly morose, red, and dark-color images which reflect her previous studies of surrealism and architecture. She integrated these studies into a series of sketches and prints of “housewives” whose heads and upper torsos are replaced by buildings, suggesting her vision of homes being both shelters and prisons.
A disorienting red portrayal of her apartment building with a wrecking ball and a subsequent series of skyscraper images, at least according to the interpretive notes, view them not as structures but as metaphors for the human condition of alienation, isolation, and a failure to communicate.
Although all of the displayed images reflect some figuration, her images become increasingly abstract until 1949 when she abandons painting in favor of sculptures, two of the earliest of which are included in the exhibit.
At the end is a somewhat incongruous quote about how she loves living in New York—something which is hard to glean from her early painting or subsequent focus on spiders.
2022: Charles Ray: Figure Ground
This exhibit provided a brief survey of 50 years of Charles Ray sculptures. The generally reverse chronological order of the exhibit begins with the large-scale (at least 2x)) characterization of a section of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Jim, the huge black escaped slave that is escaping the south in the company of a youth white boy who is escaping an abusive father. While the white boy shows deference that belies his youth, the sculpture shows the nurturing, deferential slave to be generally sheltering the boy. An illustration of another episode shows Jim kneeling behind Huck while sewing a hem of the boy’s skirt (a long story). Other works include a realistic, relatively life-sized aluminum casting of a tractor, and several disconcerting images including one of a boy that appears to be curiously, but callously exploring a frog, a naked, hand-holding family, and a similarly disconcerting man-sized mannequin with a very boy-like features.
2022: Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrara
The exhibit focuses on the large-scale, abstract work of America’s pioneering American Expressionists in search of a new artistic vocabulary to express the angst of a world emerging from a Depression and World War and under an even more ominous cloud of nuclear weapons. Examples focus primarily on works of the best-known masters including Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Frankenthaller, Kline and David Smith. Among the other, lesser known, and somewhat more contemporary contributors to the perspective are Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Gilliam, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehruto and of course, Carmen Herrara.
2022: Thomas Hart Benton
And as typical for our visits to the Met, we re-explored the museum’s incredible Impressionist and post-Impressionist Collection and introduced ourselves to a few new (at least to us) sections of the vast museum, particularly that dealing with the rapidly industrializing country of the first third of the 20th century, including a discovery of Thomas Hart Benton’s huge (ten canvas), room-sized, America Today panorama of American industry, culture, and society at the time. A section of the museum to we plan to revisit.
2021: Surrealism: Beyond the Borders
The Met’s exhibition on Surrealism examines the movement across boundaries of geography and chronology. It starts by talking about how Freud’s 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams had a deep influence on poets, artists, and political scientists. Surrealist artists built on his concept that dreams provide windows into repressed experiences and emotions. These dreams could be instrumental in resolving underlying issues.
Surrealist artists including Dali, Miro, and Magritte have become cultural touchstones and each has its own museum. Surrealism, however, was much more than an artistic movement. It was also an exploration of the unconscious and was used as a tool for unlocking new and progressive ideas and for promoting political, social, and personal freedom. All corners of the world used this tool to promote progressive political and social objectives—objectives that differed between countries and regions. These also continually evolved, playing different roles in different areas over time.
By the 1920s, surrealist societies had arisen in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Most had their own ideas of what surrealism was and how it should be used. They produced their own manifestos, journals, poetry, and artwork and shared them with each other.
Over the next decades, these ideas jumped to other countries via mail, media, migration, and other means.
- European, African, Arab, and Oceanic intellectuals applied them as a means of protesting colonialism and promoting liberation movements.
- Japan used them to slow the rush to mechanization and industrialization.
- South Americans used surrealism to promote democracy and overthrow dictators.
- In the Caribbean, political exiles Roberto Lam and Eugenio Granel used surrealism to urge students to pretext and fight for the rights of blacks.
By the 1940s the so-called Cairo Group issued a manifesto condemning government control over ideas and art generally and the Nazis condemned “degenerate art” in particular. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, artists used surrealism to express the horrors of WWII (as via German Expressionism). In Eastern Europe (especially Hungary) surrealism was used to protest Soviet occupation (a movement that was rapidly extinguished). By the 1950s, surrealism expressed the anxieties of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. By the 1960s, Chicago became the focal point of U.S. Surrealist-based political action with the “Surrealist Insurrection” underground newspaper promoting protection against the Vietnam War, segregation, and worker repression. The group’s activities culminated in the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Artists, meanwhile, saw surrealism as a tool for harnessing dreams to promote introspection, break through social and psychological roadblocks, and unlock new ideas by harnessing dreams and unleashing their minds. While some did so themselves, via séances and drugs, it was generally viewed as an inherently collaborative process by which different people contributed new ideas to arrive at some form of synthesis to which different artists would bring their own interpretations. By the 1930s, California Surrealists began promoting the concept of Post-Surrealism as a means of introspection and rearranging emotions.
All of this is explained in text and demonstrated with dozens of paintings, sculptures, poems, and videos that span eight decades of work from 45 countries.
2021: Alex da Corta: As Long as the Sun Lasts
This partially whimsical, partially ominous single sculpture rooftop exhibit by da Corta reimagines the cultural icon of Sesame Street’s cheerful yellow Big Bird in a somewhat melancholy blue swinging on a sliver of moon. It seems to be a warning of the world that today’s children are likely to face.
2021: In America: A Lexicon of Fashion
This special exhibit explores United States fashion in an attempt to establish a modern vocabulary of American fashion based on what the clothes supposedly say about the individuals wearing them. This exhibit is the first of a two-part exhibition that presents characterizations of American fashion. The exhibition shows 100 or so men’s and women’s ensembles created by different designers from the 1940s to the present. Each outfit is interpreted in a bubble defining the emotional quality that each supposedly portrays: qualities including Nostalgia, Belonging, Delight, Joy, Wonder, Affinity, Confidence, Strength, Desire, Assurance, Comfort, and Consciousness. It was a bit contrived to us.
2021: Faberge from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundations Collection
Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé created thousands of objects of incredible delicacy and beauty. As “Goldsmith by special appointment of the Imperial Crown” the Russian imperial family was his primary audience. Fabergé also became a jeweler to the “masse”—hiring 500 designers and craftsmen, streamlining production methods, and expanding output to allow him to market his wares globally and sell them at fair prices. That, of course, was before the Russian Revolution after which Fabergé lived the remainder of his life in exile in Switzerland.
Fabergé’s beautiful works of art never fail to fascinate us. We were fortunate to visit the largest Fabergé single egg collection in the world at the Faberge Museum in St Petersburg Russia.
The Met’s Fabergé collection comes courtesy of the foundation of Matilda Geddings Gray who amassed one of the finest Fabergé collections in the world at a time when few Americans had ever heard of Fabergé. The current display includes treasured Lilies of the Valley Basket and three Imperial eggs, including the Imperial Napoleonic Egg which commemorated the centenary of the Russian victory over the armies of Napoleon.
2017: David Hockney
The 60-piece Met show was somewhat less ambitious than the major retrospective of Hockney’s work that we saw in Melbourne. But it was more focused, covering a 60-year period in his career. It begins with his Modernist Abstraction works, peppered with a liberal dose of some of his initially controversial, blatantly homo-erotic pieces.
By the 1960s, when he established dual residence in London and LA, he created a large series of seemingly straightforward, generally realistic works of LA swimming pools and backyards and large-scale single and dual, naturalistic portraits of friends and relatives. These galleries also contain a number of preliminary sketches for his portraits.
His relentless experimentation continued in the ‘70s with a number of Cubist-inspired photo collages that integrate multiple views of objects into the same scenes. By the later part of the decade he had built a studio in the Hollywood Hills, whose winding rides through the canyon and his mountainside views inspired a series of vividly colored, abstracted, cubist-like representations of the mountainous landscape.
By the 80s and 90s, Hockney began taking more inspiration from British landscapes, especially around Yorkshire. While this exhibit incorporates only a few paintings from this highly productive and experimental era, the Melbourne exhibit included much more, including a number of large-scale, wall-size murals and particularly fascinating videos.
By the 2000s, Hockney, well into his 60s, saw a new opportunity—creating sketches directly on iPhones and iPads. While the Melbourne exhibit had a much larger display and more descriptive explanations of this work, the Met exhibit digitally demonstrates how Hockney creates and continually refines these works.
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer
We know Michelangelo as a great sculptor and painter and gifted architect. This exhibit demonstrates that his drafting skills were critical not only to his own success as a sculptor, painter, and architect but also to that of a number of other artists. The exhibit contains more than 200 works, including 133 of the master’s drawings. It begins in Michelangelo’s teenage years as an art student, when hundreds of his sketches, paintings such as The Torment of Saint Anthony, and sculptures including The Archer marked him as a unique talent.
Although he was gifted in all types of artistic endeavors, he always viewed himself primarily as a sculptor of marble in the Hellenistic and Roman traditions. Even in his 20s, the artist was already being invited to submit proposals for major commissions against much older, much more accomplished masters—including Leonardo da Vinci.
While his reputation may have earned him the invitations, his design skills and his drafting skills were instrumental in creating the proposals (called “cartoons”) that were so instrumental in winning these commissions. The exhibit was loaded with cartoons and the more detailed sketches and drawings that guided his actual work on these projects.
Although he won numerous sculptural and architectural commissions throughout his early career, his greatest success came when Pope Julius II commissioned him to create the Pope’s own tomb and especially, the fresco that would become one of the defining measures of Western artistic achievement—a fresco to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (One gallery is devoted to a quarter-sized photo-replica of the ceiling and dozens of the artist’s preparatory drawings and sketches.
So successful were these commissions that two successive Medici Popes, Leo X, and Clement VII) granted him massive commissions for the architecture and sculpture of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Last Judgement architectural fresco for the wall behind the Sistine Chapel’s altar, on the condition that he work on no other commissions until he completed these projects.
By this time, Michelangelo was famed throughout Europe and was in continual demand for portraits created “by the hands of the master”. While he already had more work than he could handle, he accepted commissions to create sketches and chalk drawings from which other artists would paint the actual portraits.
Later in his career, he was occupied with large commissions for sculptures (such as the masterful marble bust of Brutus) and architectural designs (including those for Rome’s Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Capitoline Hill). The drawings for these later projects were among the most spectacular of his long career, with three-dimensional perspectives and a type of luminosity that was new to the genre.
His skills as a painter, however, remained in high demand. Although he did not have time for these, he continued to produce sketches and drawings from which his students and friends would produce paintings. Interestingly, however, none of his students would achieve noteworthy artists in their own right.) The highlights of the exhibition’s drawings, however, were produced not for paid commissions, but as gifts for Tommaso de Cavalieri—a Roman friend with whom Michelangelo was infatuated. It is these sketches that have been dubbed the “Jewels of Michelangelo’s draftsmanship”.
2017: Da Vinci to Matisse
Coming on the heels of the record-breaking ($475 million) sale of a Da Vinci portrait (Salvator Mundi), this exhibit, built around dozens of drawings from the collection of Robert Lehman, portrays the evolution of European prints from the 15th through the early 20th centuries. Beginning with a mention of medieval drawings on animal skins that were bound in books, it portrays the Renaissance era focus on human and animal forms (including those of Da Vinci) and the realistic studies and tonal range of Northern European artists including Rembrandt and Durer. It progresses through the 18th and 19th century French Academy’s shift from Neoclassicism to Romanticism and the innovations of the Italian Venetian School (especially Tie[polo) and ends with French Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and the emergence of Modernism through works from Renoir, Degas, Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh and of course, Matisse.
2017: Lehman French Oil Collection
This incredible collection traces French Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism through masterworks (including Renoir’s incredible Two Girls at a Piano and Cezanne’s Aix-en-Provence) from virtually all of the French Masters, with the notable exception of Monet.
2017: Rodin at the Met
This call-out to the 100th anniversary of the Met’s first permanent installation—that of its initial collection of Rodin statues, some of which were donated by the sculptor. Over the years, the collection has expanded and now occupies two galleries filled with dozens of the artist’s most famous marble and bronze works.
2017: WWI and the Visual Arts
A review of prints and posters from the outbreak to the aftermath of WWI, this exhibit provides a view of the evolution of artist’s representation of the entire, brutal war that was characterized by years of bloody, trench warfare, poison gas, bombs, and other never before seen means of violence. Much of the initial art, driven by combinations of patriotism, nationalism, and adventurism, was generally intended to rally support for the war and cast the enemy as evil incarnate. The longer the war dragged on, and the more images of violence, death, and devastation that reached the home front, the more the change in the focus of the art. Propaganda and rallying cries turned to calls for peace. Post-war art was a combination of celebration of the new peace, a recounting of the horror, and a prayer that this was the war to end all war. And all of these messages were delivered in styles that were unique to the individual artist—from realistic to abstract, from polemical to satirical.
2017: Frederick Remington
An overview of the Eastern artist’s two-decade fascination with the Wild West of old, with a particular focus on the heroism of American soldiers. It examines his multi-faceted career from his illustrations, paintings, sculptures, and his less well-known watercolors.
2017: Gilded Age Drawings
This exhibit of late-19th/early 20th-century watercolors, pastels, and charcoals includes lovely examples from a Who’s Who of American turn-of-the-century artists from Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer to Whistler, Mary Cassat, and John Singer Sargent.
2017: Sol LeWitt
Wall Drawing #370 is one of the artist’s black-and-white geometric conceptual art installations which covers a roughly 50-foot wall.
2017: Age of Empires
This exhibit covers two dynasties between 221 BC and 220 AD. Qin, which consolidated vast regions of current China under a single government, and Han, which consolidated the empire and formalized and unified legal and tax systems, introduced gold coin-based currency, initiated huge public works projects (including beginning construction of the Great Wall and forming the foundations for the Silk Road international trading network).
By the time the Qin dynasty came to power, China had already begun to believe in eternal life and the dynasties dramatically upped the wattage on this belief by creating massive and luxurious tombs including the thousand+ man army of terra cotta warriors (some of which are on display), elaborate jade suits in which leaders were encased, and multi-chamber, palace-like tools that included the clothes, precious jewelry and personal and household goods that would be required for a comfortable afterlife. And to keep the deceased entertained, the tomb also included retinues of terra cotta musicians, dancers, and retainers. The exhibits show examples of all of these.
It also has fragments of elaborately patterned textiles, bronze tools, and bells, and even a model of a seven-story multi-story housing complex (which was probably more of an exercise of imagination, than an actual development in an era when there were few buildings over two stories).
2017: Irving Penn Photographs
This exhibit provided a comprehensive overview of the incredibly broad body of work created by the famed fashion (Vogue magazine) photographer over his career. The exhibition began with a sampling of his fashion photographs and then examined the branching of his career into innovative and highly revealing celebrity portraits and into one of his true loves of still life photography. In addition to traditional still-life subjects, the exhibit included fascinating and innovative combinations of haute couture. His work also both glamorized and de-glamorized smoking, as with exotic, even semi-erotic smoking shots as well as his own series that portrayed used, crushed, carbon-crusted cigarette butts laying on the road and in gutters.
The exhibit also included several examples of his fascinating Small Trades series, which constituted the largest body of his oeuvre. These included dozens of shots of everyday tradespeople, garbed in their work attire, holding the tools of their trade, and demonstrating each subject’s own individual attitudes and personalities. Finally, there were a couple of galleries dedicated to his travel photos, particularly those from Morocco and from Papua New Guinea’s Goroka Festival that brings traditionally dressed and costumed members of many indigenous tribes together for annual “sing-sing” competitions.
2017: Theater of Disappearance
The imaginative Roof Garden exhibit was where a Latin American sculptor created 3D models of many iconic items from the Met’s permanent collection and combined them into weird and unexpected combinations.
2017: Rei Kawakubo Art of the In-Between
This avant-garde Tokyo-based fashion designer created some of the most unlikely clothes one can imagine: They are striking and baffling, but would anyone ever wear such creations? The “In-Between” in the exhibit’s title refers to the balance she attempts to achieve between space and emptiness. To use, they achieved a balance between entertaining and bizarre.
- “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)” is fun, Cornelia Parker’s work that the Met commissioned specifically for its Roof Garden, a lovely open area that provides a panoramic view of the city’s skyline. The structure itself is a dilapidated partial construction of a representation of the Bates Mansion and barn, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and by a number of Edward Hopper paintings. The home/barn, the rooftop garden, and the surrounding Central Park trees provide a striking counterpoint to the modern Manhattan skyline.
- “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” looks at J.M.W. Turner’s series of four tumultuous whaling seascapes, along with a brief discussion of how they may have influenced Herman Melville’s representations in “Moby Dick”.
- “Manus x Machina examines the complementariness and conflicts between handmade and machine-made fashions of the 20th century and the fading distinction between haute couture and ready-to-wear, where we were especially intrigued by some of what is to us, the most over-the-top examples of haute couture. These included, among many others, the so-called Sardine Dress (due to its silver, scaly appearance) which took almost 1,500 hours to handcraft, an elaborate, long-trained wedding ensemble, and an orange gown covered with seashells and coral.
- “Design for Eternity” shows architectural models from the first millennium B.C. Americas that were created for and buried with dignitaries as symbolic embodiments of their power. These models ranged from realistic to abstract (including some designed as ceremonial vessels) and from basic, simplistic representations of individual structures to comprehensive cityscapes, complete with people and animals.