Over the years, the curators at the Whitney Museum used their big elevator doors the way a theater director might employ curtains: Hit the audience with a center-stage jolt — a big text piece by Joseph Kosuth, say, or a space-torquing abstraction by Terry Winters. The Whitney, of course, specialized in showcasing American art, so despite our young nation’s cultural dynamism the exhibitions sometimes lacked any sense of historical gravitas. The new tenant in Marcel Breuer’s love-or-hate-it Madison Avenue blockhouse has remedied that concern at a stroke, greeting viewers with a boffo canvas from the 1570s, Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, which Frank Stella described in his 1986 book, Working Space, as “a painting of uncontestable gruesomeness.” The modernist polymath went on to say that the image “lay[s] bare the steel heart of the sixteenth century, to show up the Italian Renaissance for what it really was — progress at a tremendous, barbarous cost, not unlike our view of the first eighty years of the twentieth century.”
That grimly familiar quality is probably why Titian’s barnburner, although roughly twice as old as the U.S.A. itself, looks fresher than many wares in Chelsea today. The composition bristles with sharply angled limbs as the flesh of the satyr, strung up by his heels for the sin of losing a musical contest to Apollo, is cut away; a froufrou dog lapping up blood personifies the primal contempt those with absolute power hold for the vanquished. In what is probably a self-portrait, King Midas, in a crown and ass’s ears, resignedly surveys the carnage. By this time Titian (c. 1488–1576) was nearing the close of a wildly successful career and may have been offering a wry comment on his lucrative portraits of popes and other formidable patrons, their behind-the-throne machinations easily as arrogant, bloody, and capricious as anything the gods could dream up.
As the Renaissance progressed, some artists sought more spontaneity in their figures, an earthy immediacy, which led to the Italian term non finito, literally “not finished.” Titian signed this work, signaling that he felt it was finished even if some of his contemporaries were skeptical. While the exhibition defines “unfinished” broadly — wall labels inform viewers “when research indicates the work was left unfinished intentionally” — it is the disdain for Renaissance polish in Titian’s scabrous paint smears that ultimately thrills the contemporary imagination.
Ever since the Met announced its takeover of Breuer’s flipped ziggurat, press releases have trumpeted the institution’s access to thousands of years’ worth of art. With this vast cultural taxonomy at hand, the curators would have done better to mash up the almost two hundred paintings and sculptures on display rather than follow a basically chronological track. For instance, instead of hanging de Kooning’s Woman, I (1950–’52) on a different floor, why not pair it with the Titian? Not for nothing did the Dutchman declare, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” with the corporeal visions of the old masters forever on his mind. Here, lashes of his brush and palette knife have scored the coagulated layers of pigment, opening wounds in the surface as literal as those implied in the Titian. Patient and then explosive, de Kooning’s strokes combine the exploratory verve of sketching with contours that, however much they warp the human form, always express its heft.
Contrarily, Luc Tuymans (born 1958) seemed determined to leach all sense of life and tragedy from the 9-11 attacks with his huge — roughly 11 by 16 feet — Untitled (Still Life) (2002). A wall label informs us that Tuymans had witnessed the events and that the work’s inclusion in the 2002 Documenta “defied expectations, rejecting the [show’s theme of] social commentary and refusing to represent what Tuymans believed was unrepresentable.” Well, a bland representation of a water pitcher divided by wan shadows — look, Ma! The twin towers! — feels less like the spectral presence of something “unrepresentable” and more like a first-draft illustration that should’ve been abandoned.
Kerry James Marshall (born 1955), on the other hand, knows how to convey a genuine sense of absence coupled with a determination to overcome loss. In 2009’s Untitled, we see a black woman sitting in front of a canvas filled with an outline of her portrait marked with paint-by-number indications. But the large painter’s palette the woman grasps is smeared with colors reminiscent of Crayola’s old-school, racially cleansed “Flesh” tones: pinks, beiges, and whites. The history of portraiture has basically been the history of white folk, but Marshall’s sitter demands to be seen in a museum even as she highlights the void in art history that left her — for millennia — unrepresented.
On a more surreal plane, the German painter Anton Raphael Meng’s 1775 portrait of a Spanish noblewoman was literally defaced at some point, leaving only palimpsests of her eyes behind an oval scrim of pigment. No one knows the purpose of the erasure or the equally weird, brown-stained negative space representing a lapdog amid the sumptuous folds of her gown.
This ping-ponging between ages makes the Breuer building — with its encroaching angles, coarse skin, and rough floors thoroughly spiffed up for this second go-round — feel less architecturally polemical. No longer the new kid on the block, the half-century-old bunker has become part of the same matrix of history it is putting on display.
At least one painting here has lived on these walls twice. In 1960 Alice Neel (1900–1984) wrote, “Now some of my subjects are beginning to die and they have an historic nostalgia: everyone somehow seems better and more important when they are dead.” Five years later she met a young man by chance and asked him to sit for a portrait. James Hunter Black Draftee does not look at the artist (or viewer), his thoughts seeming thousands of miles away. We know the painting appeared in Neel’s 1974 Whitney retrospective, but Hunter himself is lost to history, both of art and of the Vietnam War. Here his head and left hand are fleshed out in rich browns with smoke-blue highlights; fluid outlines sketch in ears, torso, and limbs. Hunter never returned for a second sitting, so Neel declared the work finished, leaving viewers half a century on to wonder if he has also joined Neel’s lost legions.
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible
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March 18–September 4