Art Catch: The Philippe de Montebello Years

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12/23/2008 3:00 PM |

Art Catch is a weekly online column by The L‘s Patricia Milder. This week, she reviews “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions” at the Met.

This show has such a boring title. Philippe…Curators…Acquisitions…Blah. But everything else about it is ridiculously exciting, surprising, and overwhelming (in a good way). Of the 84,000 works of art that the Met has acquired over the past 30 years, curators from all seventeen departments have selected a total of 300 of the most influential of the bunch. As a parting gift for longtime museum director Philipe de Montebello, the works have been installed aesthetically (and loosely chronologically by year acquired), creating an over-the-top lavish display instead of what could have been an educationally focused thematic arrangement by geography, medium or time.

The result is stunning: a 10th c B.C. jadeite Olmec mask from Mexico hangs next to Johannes Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman (1665); Robert Rauschenberg’s combine painting Winter Pool (1959) rests on the wall next to a mannequin that wears Paul Poiret’s luscious silk "Paris" Coat (1919). During my visit chills literally ran down my spine every time I turned a corner, so much so that left to my own devices (minus the pregnant friend who needed things like food and rest) I might have stayed all day. But there is certainly more art and history here than anyone can fully absorb in one visit, and more important than the details of each work are the visual comparisons resulting from their unlikely pairings. To get the most out of this show is to listen in on the cross continental, century bridging conversations weaving through these subtly multi-colored rooms.

I have to give it to the curators – they did an excellent job, and have
managed to make individually famous pieces take on completely new looks
and meanings through their relationships with the works around them.
Richard Avedon’s Marilyn Monroe, Actress, New York City (1957), a print
of which is also currently on view at Pace Wildenstein in the Richard
Avedon: Performance exhibit (through January 3rd), is something else
altogether through its placement near Untitled #313 (1956-57) by the
Malian photographer Seydou Keita.

We see pattern on pattern in Keita’s black and white composition of a
woman in traditional Mali dress and jewelry; we see a pared down Monroe
in Avedon’s shot, wearing in a dress made of sequins, the light of
performance gone from her eyes. Keita’s unnamed woman looks at the
camera straight on; Monroe is caught in a rare moment out of character,
looking down. She is just a bit more human here than she is amid the
big glossy prints of other celebrities at Pace Wildenstein. A glance
into the next room at Onesipe Aguado’s Woman Seen from the Back (1862)
changes the context of the previous two portraits completely. The ivory
Bust of Nobleman (1695) by C. Lacroix spins the images in another
direction. And so on ad infinitum.

I liked this show so much that I prepared myself, as we neared the
exit, with justifications for dropping 50 bucks on a hardcover
catalogue. Only, there was no catalogue to debate myself over buying.
For the first time ever, the catalogue for a show at the Met is fully
available online, and not at all in print. Digital reproductions of
every single work in the exhibit "create a kaleidoscope of images
similar to that which is experienced in the galleries." See? That was a
quote from the online catalogue, which I accessed for free. A strange
quote, in fact, because it makes the obviously false claim that an
online gallery can create an experience "similar" to a museum show.
Clearly, it can’t. Especially this show, which is all about looking at
familiar (by way of their fame, not everydayness) art objects placed in
new physical, spatial relationships with other familiar but altogether
dissimilar pieces.

Print catalogues may, sadly, be going the way of the newspaper, but the
memory of a gallery walk that snakes through 19th c. American cabinets,
wood and ivory stringed instruments from Germany, former Pope’s
jewelry, Picassos, Van Goghs, and Matisses (and more, and more)
provides a mental reproduction of an experience that neither
(print/online) form of documentation can touch, anyway.

The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions
Metropolitan Museum of Art, through February 1