Meet the Met Breuer

By Martyna Majewska

This might be the most recognisable chair ever designed. Almost a century old, it continues to stand for innovation and good design, as well as for the Bauhaus and modernism. Even though it is known as the Wassily Chair, everyone knows it was designed by Marcel Breuer rather than Kandinsky; along with a dozen other iconic chairs and pieces of furniture. However, when we look at the building in the picture below, the name that springs to mind still seems to be Whitney. That is why I think naming what is now an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘The Met Breuer’ was a brilliant idea.

Since the Whitney Museum of American art moved to the stunning Renzo Piano-designed venue in the Meatpacking District, its old building has been under renovation to become the house of the Met’s collection of the art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The new name not only celebrates the building’s designer, but also gently erases the association of the venue with the Whitney by pointing to the very origin of the project. Though the Met Breuer has not opened yet, we can get a sneak peek into the museum’s refurbished interiors owing to the press view which took place last week. The architects Beyer Blinder Belle have introduced subtle changes that underscore the Breuerian character of the Met’s new extension. In fact, very little has changed because the architects were aware of Breuer’s straightforward approach to materials – he refused to adorn them or to conceal the signs of their aging. Instead, he celebrated their intrinsic qualities. Thus, the tiled floors and gridded concrete ceilings clearly correspond with the building’s exterior and add to the sense of simple geometry that governs the entire design. Even if some may have expected a museum as respected as the Met to perform an outrageously luxurious refurbishment, I think that Beyer Blinder Belle have made the right decision inasmuch as their work has justified the choice of the new extension’s name.

Some may argue that it is somewhat counterintuitive for an encyclopaedic museum to move some of its collection to different venues – after all, we expect them to serve us the entire history of mankind on one plate. What’s more, the Metropolitan Museum isn’t just any encyclopaedic museum, it is the quintessential encyclopaedic museum. Yet I don’t think anyone will complain. First of all, the Met Breuer is just six blocks away from the Met’s main building, and who doesn’t enjoy a stroll down Madison Avenue or a short walk across Central Park? Secondly, the Met is simply far too big for anyone to see all of its collections in one visit. An intelligent visitor (or one that’s not on a guided tour of NYC) will choose one wing, or even just a selection of exhibits, to study. Finally, it’s always good news when museums extend their exhibition spaces: we can only suspect how many amazing artworks are hidden in storage. I need to admit that in this case I’m slightly biased because the collections moved to the Met Breuer are the ones I find most fascinating. 

I’m not going to discuss the quality of the exhibition mounted at the Met’s new venue because that would entail copying the few existing reviews. However, I must say I’m baffled by the choice of exhibits for the extension’s first show ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,’ which showcases unfinished artworks from the fifteenth century to the present. The problem is that such a scope does not exactly say modern and contemporary art. I think we could expect a bolder first move from the Met Breuer. At least the other temporary exhibition on view is of Nasreen Mohamedi’s photographs, which are definitely less familiar to the Met’s visitors than the Leonardos, Freuds, and Twomblys in the ‘Unfinished’ show. The rest is to be discovered on 18th March, the day the Breuer extension opens to the public. One thing I’m dying to find out is whether the visitors will ever learn that the museum’s name is pronounced ‘Broy-er,’ or whether the name that’s meant to celebrate the great designer will actually come to exist independently of his memory.