by Dilpreet BhullarMay 18, 2020
The Met facade is iconic as well as very familiar. Many people would recognise it from the background of various films, notably Gossip Girl. But few would have noticed that the four niches that frame the exterior archways along the Fifth Avenue facade are vacant. Completed in 1902 and designed by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt, the niches were meant to contain sculptural details but were never realised. As a response, almost 119 years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) has commenced The Facade Commission, one of the new series of contemporary commissions at the historic building. Artists are invited to create new works of art in dialogue with the architecture of the Met. Inaugurated in September 2019, with sculptures created by Wangechi Mutu, the second commission invited artist Carol Bove. Her installation, The séances aren’t helping, was delayed by a year and will now be on view throughout the fall of 2021. These commissions also seem to stand as an active statement about “landmarks”, especially for a city known for its street view and skyline.
It is important to understand the significance of the Beaux-Arts façade itself. The style gets its name from the Parisian school, École des Beaux-Arts, where particular aspects and principles of French neoclassicism were taught. It rose to prominence particularly in the 19th century. One of the reasons this particular style had a strong influence on the architecture of the United States can be attributed to the fact that many prominent American architects studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. This includes Richard Morris Hunt himself, and Louis Sullivan. Hunt’s work is particularly notable during this period. In addition to designing the entrance façade and Great Hall of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is also credited with designing the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The façade commissions are a response not only to the MET as it stands on Fifth Avenue today, but as a means of completing an urban vision of a cityscape of the past.
Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A Lauder Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art, probably summarised it most effectively, saying in an official statement, “The Met’s Beaux-Art architecture is 119-years-old but—like the niches that were left empty—the museum itself is an ongoing, unfinished project, always changing. Old certainties wither in this new era: Bove’s sculptures speak directly to this, upending tradition but upholding the power of culture to question. They are dynamic provocateurs”. It is odd to think of museums as unfinished, yet as one reflects on it, it is true. New acquisitions, collection maintenance and archival presentations keep the museum in a continuous state of partial completion. The Façade Commission does the same thing for the structure. While the artist’s sculptures are installed, the façade is complete. This is accompanied by the knowledge that it is temporary, and will soon be incomplete again. As a building designated as a National Historic Landmark (1986), the temporal nature of its completeness is a very interesting urban engagement.
Bove addresses this temporality in her own way. Starting her artist statement with an observation of the ambition of the architect's undertaking stating, “In a grand undertaking, an architect’s ambition might spur them to take on more than what can be accomplished under their own direction, transmitting optimism and exuberant trust to younger generations, along with their unfinished projects. Such is the case at The Met. Careful inspection of the building yields a number of surprising unfinished details”. She continues to describe her own intervention as a response to the Beaux-Arts façade, as one that deliberately inserts modernism. The four sculptures made of sandblasted, and contorted stainless-steel tubes and five-foot-wide reflective aluminium disks, confront the neoclassical façade building with the passage of time. Her intention is made very clear in her statement which asserts, “The four sculptures sit impolitely in the niches, a little too close to the building’s front. Too big for the pedestals themselves, they claim the face of the building for a frame”.
Carol Bove’s The séances aren’t helping is on display at The Met Fifth Avenue from March 1, 2021 – November 2021.