Once home to the Whitney Museum of American Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the imposing, bunkerlike building on Madison Avenue has been leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and rechristened as The Met Breuer.
The space is dedicated to highlighting modern and contemporary artistic movements, along with their art-historical influences. It opened to the public Friday.
The old Whitney was never quite a hidden gem, so the building’s repurposing from a place to look at American Art to a place to look at Art From All Over is sure to draw scrutiny and perhaps, outsized enthusiasm.
And, about the museum’s name ... Marcel Breuer, the building’s architect and now its namesake (can you imagine the “Guggenheim Frank Lloyd Wright?”), was the youngest-ever furniture master at the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany. When the Nazis came to power, he moved briefly to the U.K., relocated to Cambridge, Mass., and then started his own, independent architectural practice in New York.
A recent sneak peek before the public opening revealed some of the highlights and building updates.
Careful preservation and updates
The building was restored by preservation architects Beyer Blinder Belle, who went to great lengths to maintain the patina of age that had settled over the building in recent years. Some welcome updates: Each of the lobby’s lights was replaced with an LED, and there’s a new central ticket desk.
The lobby seems to have received the most attention from the preservation architects, which makes sense, given that it’s the most-traveled space in the building.
Infrequent visitors to the building might not notice anything glaringly new. The coffered concrete ceilings remain and the lovely blues tone floors remain unchanged. A 1969-70 work by sculptor Robert Smithson takes advantage of one of the building’s few (albeit dramatic) windows.
Close inspection shows the lengths to which the architects went to update the space, from the cleaned granite stairs to the restored concrete walls.
Some nice touches remain: Detail in a staircase railing makes it clear to visitors that they are entering a 50- year-old building.
The Met Breuer has opened with two exhibitions: a retrospective of 130 works of art by contemporary Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) and a group show, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” which features 500 years of artworks left incomplete by their makers.
This is the first retrospective of Mohamedi’s work in the United States, “an important part of the Met’s initiative to explore and present the global scope of modern and contemporary art,” The Met Breuer website says. On display until June 5.
The “Unfinished” exhibition “addresses a subject critical to artistic practice: the question of when a work of art is finished,” the museum’s website says. It includes works left unfinished by artists, “which often give insight into the process of their creation, but also those that partake of a non finito — intentionally unfinished — aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended.” On display until Sept. 4.
The building’s programming will be overseen by Sheena Wagstaff, chair of the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
It’s notable that the building’s inaugural retrospective features a non-white woman. Under Wagstaff’s direction, it would appear that the museum will finally give some long-overlooked artists their due.
The Met Breuer
- 945 Madison Ave., New York
- 212-731-1675, www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-breuer
- $12-$25; free for children under 12. (Ticket includes admission to The Met Breuer, The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters.)