Concrete Future

Lobby of the Met Breuer. Photo Peter Aaron.


“Unfinished,” one of the inaugural exhibitions at the Met Breuer, resonates profoundly with the architect’s vision for the building.

For nearly a decade and counting, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has sustained a well-publicized initiative to bolster its presence in modern and contemporary art. In addition to recruiting a posse of high-profile curators, headed by Sheena Wagstaff, Met director Thomas Campbell signed an eight-year lease on the former Whitney Museum of American Art building on Madison Avenue, designed by Marcel Breuer. He also engaged David Chipperfield, the London-based architect, to reconfigure and expand the modern and contemporary galleries at its Fifth Avenue home.

Art-world watchers had tried to divine what direction the country’s most august art institution would take in pursuit of the enterprise, with probing interviews, inside sources, and crystal balls. Would the Met try to compete with the Museum of Modern Art’s extraordinary—though Western-centric—holdings in modern and contemporary European and American art? Impossible. Would the Met continue its practice of cautiously dipping a well-manicured toe here and there into contemporary art’s turbulent but gold-laced waters, exhibiting and collecting mainly blue-chip artists? Given the museum’s legacy and a board of trustees traditionally loaded with Social Register names, how could it not? Would there be surprises, good or bad?

In March, we finally received some real indications of what is to come. The newly refurbished venue, now renamed the Met Breuer, opened with two inaugural exhibitions—a large one of “unfinished” art dating from the Renaissance to the present, and a smaller retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi, an Indian artist who died in 1990. On view through September 4, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” is, to say the least, ambitious. The show’s 197 works convincingly advertise the Met’s range, its unparalleled capacity to weave the story of modern and contemporary practices into art’s longer history. And in the context of Breuer’s muscular building, with its granite-clad, cantilevered facade and exposed concrete interiors, the works on display couldn’t look fresher. Emerging from the elevator on the third floor to confront Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas (ca. 1575) or on the fourth to see Picasso’s The Charnel House (1944–45) elicits an aesthetic response something like astonishment or awe. Unlike most museum displays, in which the impact of great works is buffered by the lesser ones interspersed among them, the “Unfinished” exhibition makes one feel like a spectator at a grand procession of immortals. Extraordinary works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, J.M.W. Turner, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden, Jasper Johns, Lucian Freud . . . are all here.

The curatorial team’s interpretation of the term “unfinished” is plastic enough to have left many observers perplexed. Pieces that an artist abandoned for any or no discernable reason are unfinished. So are works that have been signed, sealed, and delivered, but that in one way or another embrace what Renaissance writers called the non finito, where the work’s execution deliberately highlights artistic technique and materiality instead of subsuming them in a holistic resolution. And so are contemporary pieces saturated in the ethos of ephemerality and process, such as Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961). Putting together the “Unfinished” exhibition’s putative conservatism with its putative incoherence, many of the early critics found the opening salvo of the Met’s vaunted initiative to be at once dispiritingly predictable and surprisingly ill-conceived. 

But a shift of perspective reveals a vastly more promising scenario. Indeed, a scintillatingly brilliant one. To grasp it, we must start by taking several steps backward, to consider “Unfinished” in light of its architectural setting.

When Campbell decided to lease Breuer’s justly beloved building and spend approximately $2.5 million refurbishing it, and when he committed to the approximately $600 million expansion of the modern and contemporary galleries on Fifth Avenue, he tethered his modern and contemporary initiative to the biggest kind of commitment an arts institution can make: putting its money where the architecture is. Campbell himself, moreover, has made architecture part of this story. In contrast to Glenn Lowry’s blithe demolition of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum to make way for MoMA’s ever-expanding imperial ambitions, Campbell’s first act as steward of the Breuer building was to instruct Beyer Blinder Belle, an architecture firm specializing in preservation, to treat the Madison Avenue building as a treasured object, as if it were part of the Met’s permanent collection.

The Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned Breuer to design its then-new home on the Upper East Side in 1963. Breuer had both studied and taught furniture and interior design at the Bauhaus before emigrating to the United States in 1937. As an architect, he was largely self-taught. His highly sculptural civic and cultural buildings are all marked by attention to detail, infatuation with materials, and commitment to craftsmanship—qualities that are more typical of designers of furniture or interiors. 

By the mid-1950s, when Breuer began landing larger-scale commissions such as the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, he settled upon reinforced concrete as his primary material. In that spirit, the building he designed for the Whitney features poured concrete for most of its basic structure and interior finishes, with precast square coffers for dropped ceilings that give a hint of the exposed ductwork and services above. 

Concrete was more than an aesthetic choice: it was a position. In early postwar American architecture, any practitioner who was building large projects and wished to be considered progressive had the choice of steel or reinforced concrete, materials symbolically associated with modernization and modernism. Architects tended to gravitate toward one or the other. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—another émigré, Bauhausler, and precisionist extraordinaire—chose steel, as did many of his acolytes and successors. But by the mid-1950s, steel came to be linked not only with the lightweight aesthetic of glass-clad skyscrapers and their open plans, but also with a skein of dubious cultural and sociological associations: the banal conformism of corporate commerce, the stultifying iterations of mass production.

Concrete is different: it weighs a lot, as does steel, but unlike steel, it looks heavy. It conveys a sense of history—the ancient Romans used it! Composed of lime, sand, clay, and aggregate, concrete clearly originates in nature. One influential critic, Peter Collins, dubbed it “the stone of our time.” 1 Breuer liked its “close to earth” qualities. 2 With characteristic floridity, Le Corbusier maintained that concrete was “the architecture of truth.” 3 Both steel and reinforced concrete facilitate large-span, lofty spaces, but only concrete can do this in an aesthetic that expresses mass and density. With it one can create the kind of monumentality that people conventionally associate with and want in civic structures.

Concrete has other advantages. It can be sculpted into almost anything; precast, its components can be manufactured in a controlled setting and fit together on-site like pieces in a Lego set. And while steel edifices [pq]Everywhere, the old Whitney building projects a sculpted monumentality while evoking a textured, material-bound, craftsmanlike sensibility.[/pq]need a full complement of other materials—fireproof coating for their structural elements, plate glass, wall board, and acoustic tiles for ceilings and wall surfaces—nothing stops an architect from making a concrete building’s structural core, exterior elevations, and interior wall surfaces all of a piece. Concrete is monolithic. 

For these and other reasons, the architects of the 1950s and 1960s who preferred concrete to steel—Breuer, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and Paul Rudolph—lauded its associations with both nature and culture and championed its authenticity, or what they called its honesty. Breuer’s earliest thoughts on the design of the Whitney, scribbled on the back of a note he received from Kahn, reveal that from the start he envisioned it as a building with “identity and weight” that would “transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity [a synonym for authenticity] and profundity of art.” 4 Although he clad the Whitney’s exterior facades in dark gray granite—a concession, no doubt, to the conservatism of its neighborhood—the rest of the building he lovingly crafted, inside and out, in exposed concrete. There are obsidian-laced concrete walls, bush-hammered by hand into rough, tactile surfaces and punctuated with passages of less variegated smoothness, as in the parapet edges and the black granite information desk. There are other natural materials, all exposed: black terrazzo, waxed flagstone, oiled bronze. Traces of the wooden formwork’s prominent grain remain visible on the walls of the poured concrete staircase, setting off the polished black terrazzo of the stairs as it catches the light shining in from the adjacent floor-to-ceiling windows.

Everywhere, the old Whitney building projects a sculpted monumentality while evoking a textured, material-bound, craftsmanlike sensibility, which Beyer Blinder Belle’s refurbishment beautifully highlights. The hands of the workers who constructed this building are everywhere. Breuer’s office instructed the builders to misalign the corners of the formwork’s joints, emphasizing the serendipity inherent in poured concrete construction. Similarly, workers intentionally laid the bluestone pavers so that they did not quite meet edge to edge, weaving a gray patchwork quilt in pinkish-brown, green, and slate-blue tones; the result is that each paver maintains its distinct mineral identity while contributing to the vibrancy of the whole composition.

Under Campbell and Wagstaff’s direction, Beyer Blinder Belle “burnished” rather than restored Breuer’s design, overseeing a restrained cleaning that stripped away the dulling, yellowish soot that had all but obliterated these carefully articulated differences in materials and surfaces. Eye-smarting, color-mismatched modifications to both the concrete walls and the flagstone pavers were replaced. The result is that the Met Breuer seems both virtually unchanged and yet completely different. Now the building pulses, sensuously, with natural materials and rich textures. Concrete is laid bare and the marks of the process of the building’s construction bespeak the presence of the building’s makers. The stubborn building shines with unapologetic grittiness. It overflows with authenticity. 

And here’s the point. The aesthetic driving the architecture resonates so profoundly with the works in “Unfinished” that we might go so far as to say that a proper understanding of Breuer’s building reveals a commonality between it and the art, a commonality that not only unifies the exhibition but deepens it. Both refer viewers to the process of creation, whether in art or architecture. Taken together, the refurbished Breuer building and the “Unfinished” exhibition suggest that the Met’s curatorial team has forged a powerful, coherent, and intelligent dual project, one that just may reveal something of its vision for how the museum will go about its venture into contemporary art.

The Met’s curatorial team defined the notion of unfinished in two ways. The first and most obvious pertains to works that the artist abandoned because he died, suffered a crisis, became distracted, or because the piece was just not working, or the portrait subject or model failed to return. The second, more complex form of unfinished art is when the artist deliberately seeks a non finito aesthetic, whether or not he declares the work in question to be complete. The virtues of non finito were contemplated even in ancient art, by Pliny the Elder, who wrote that such works have the virtue of revealing both the artist’s thoughts in flagrante and his technique. Contemporary works that deliberately emphasize the process of their making constitute a subset of this second definition. In Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (2009), a dark-skinned woman turns away from a paint-by-numbers self-portrait to face the viewer, and the titular elements of Robert Smithson’s Mirrors and Shelly Sand (1969–70) seem on the verge of collapse.

There’s an energy, a vitality, and a profound sense of human connection that come from both the unfinished and the non finito: we feel as though we are standing behind the shoulder of an artist, witness to the birth of a creation. The show’s many extraordinary portraits and self-portraits, especially those by George Romney, Freud, and Marlene Dumas, convey thrilling immediacy. So does Piet Mondrian’s never-painted, tape-and-pencil marked New York City 2 (1941), and Honoré Daumier’s two stunning versions of Man on a Rope (ca. 1858–60). Just as the Met Breuer’s misaligned corners and unevenly laid bluestone pavers leave us thinking of the workers who made this building, these “unfinished” paintings exude humanity. They engage us body and mind because they reveal the traces of the hands and thoughts that made them.

Whether in architecture or in art, an “unfinished” piece lays bare the substances that comprise a composition, presenting them in their obdurate materiality. In the Met Breuer, concrete is never anything other than concrete, granite always just stone. Similarly, in many of the works in “Unfinished,” parts of compositions contribute to the whole while also remaining independent passages: the heavy black line on the left side of St. John’s drapery in El Greco’s The Vision of St. John (ca. 1609–14); the visible, feathery brushstrokes in the upper right quadrant of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas; the gloppy, oozing oil of de Kooning’s Woman, I (1950–52); the cloudy wax in Bruce Nauman’s Andrew Head/Andrew Head Reversed, Nose to Nose (1990). As in the architecture, so in the art: such lightly worked surfaces convey a sense of visible texture that invites the viewer to touch or imagine touching. 

Was the felicitous affinity of aesthetic sensibilities between the Met Breuer and “Unfinished” haphazard or intended? In an interview, Wagstaff said the idea for the “Unfinished” exhibition was proposed by Nicholas Cullinan, who was part of the curatorial team until he departed early in 2015 to assume the directorship of the National Portrait Gallery in London. While working earlier at Tate Modern (with Wagstaff), Cullinan organized an exhibition of Cy Twombly’s paintings, and Twombly mentioned liking the idea of works that look unfinished. But surely Cullinan had brought with him to the job an intellectual and aesthetic fascination with an as-found, unpolished aesthetic, having written his doctoral dissertation on Arte Povera.

Cullinan and Wagstaff share also a deep appreciation for architecture that goes beyond pro forma: one of Cullinan’s contributions during his short Met stint was the acquisition of dozens of glass pieces designed by Italian architect Carlo Scarpa, an exquisite craftsman and innovator in many materials, including concrete. Wagstaff expressed a profound appreciation for Breuer’s design, confessing that early in her career, architecture became “a path not taken.” “Unfinished” seemed an inspired choice to open the Met Breuer for all sorts of reasons, including the Met’s renewed and evolving project of telling the never-ending story of art. None of these reasons for organizing an exhibition of unfinished art necessarily had much to do with the former Whitney building or Breuer’s aesthetic. But architecture can penetrate the mind and soul in mysterious and nearly always nonconscious ways. 

The “Unfinished” exhibition emphasizes art that, if nothing else, authentically represents the vision of the artist and engages viewers on a gut level by exposing the often wrenching act of art-making as a deeply personal, and occasionally even spiritual, act of human industry. As has been bemoaned ad nauseam, the world of contemporary art is becoming ever more perverted by grotesque commercialism. In this context, the Met’s “Unfinished” might auger very good news indeed. Perhaps we’ll be able to count on the museum to identify and preserve the wheat, discarding the acres upon acres of chaff that the art world pushes in our faces every day. If it does, the Met—for all its oversights and its failings—will do for contemporary art what it has done for art history, and we all will be the better for its industry.