“Everything I do is based on tailoring,” reads a bit of redundant wall text at Savage Beauty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of the late Alexander McQueen (through July 31). It’s among the first quotes visitors see, but given the immediate appeal of wearing the works on display it’s entirely unnecessary.
This is true of majority of the show, which despite a series of curatorial missteps, never dampens the voice of the artist. Typifying one grating, but ultimately innocuous slip, the exhibition is divided into too many sections titled “Romantic” something or other: Romantic Mind, Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Gothic, you get the picture. Presumably, this decision is a reference to another McQueen line: “People find my things sometimes aggressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality.” This is true, to the extent that McQueen’s clothes are characterized by excitement and love, but they are not for idealists. The narratives informing McQueen’s designs—England’s colonization of Scotland, for example—are far too tumultuous for that.
Despite this depth, the curation privileges simpler narratives of romance and glamor, presumably for mass appeal. Even the video with curator Andrew Bolton on the museum’s website disappoints; it’s backed by a Project Runway-esque musical score. This aesthetic extends into the show itself: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (2002-3), a black cape worn atop a pair of black pants, with an eye mask and hat, has its fabric blown theatrically by a fan and is set to overwrought music. Meanwhile, the artist’s quotations are so frequent and context-free they become meaningless. It would have been better to hire some models and provide a little more scholarship.
It’s likely that the show suffered from its short turnaround time—it launches exactly one year after McQueen’s tragic suicide—but ultimately the clothing makes its own statement. Room upon room offers enough texture and pattern variation to make painters (and ex-painters, like me) cream themselves. There’s the coat of duck feathers painted gold, with a crinoline-shaped white skirt made of silk, a bodice made of woven black leather and resin vulture skulls titled “Elect Dissect” (1997), and “Sarabande” (2007), a dress made almost entirely of silken flowers and bound ribbon that runs up the model’s leg. Most artists would kill to be so versatile with their medium.
McQueen was not unaware of the fine-art world, and some of his most successful works bring out familiar references. A fitted vest titled “It’s A Jungle Out There” (1997-98) features a crucifix from Hieronymus Bosch on its back, as if its wearers are carrying the weight of Jesus’ death (or are members of an awesome gang). In, “No. 13” (1999), McQueen straps a white dress made of muslin (the fanciest of canvas material) on a model who then stands on a rotating platform while paint splatters over the dress. It beats Damien Hirst’s best spin painting 100 times over, despite sharing a rather cheesy premise. The painting’s surface is literally strapped to the body, highlighting an eroticism within the act of making that Hirst’s work never achieves.
Like any good artist, McQueen’s greatest strength was his unique vision, which seemed largely derived from a complete lack of inhibition when it came to imagining the female body however he saw fit. This resulted in a consuming fixation with clothing that would elongate the neck, but also a complicated relationship with representation. The S&M accessories and murderously constricting shoes have opened the designer up to criticism that his clothing is misogynistic. Though there’s some truth to these complaints, I’m not bothered by it. Whatever the politics, there’s nothing more empowering than the feeling of confidence that comes from wearing incredible clothing. Certainly, there’s no shortage of that in this show.
(Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)