Sculpting Life at The Met Breuer

“In my head, this show started as a kind of orthodox plod through the history of polychrome sculpture,” said Luke Syson, co-curator of Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now) at The Met Breuer. “But as the conversations began and challenged us to think harder about what we were trying to do, it became clear that that wasn’t an adequate way of thinking about the show at all.”

The seeds of that conversation between Syson, chairman of The Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Sheena Wagstaff, who chairs the Modern and Contemporary Art department, were planted long ago. Over the years, Wagstaff, who studied Renaissance art and architecture, has presented many exhibitions that combined historic art with modern works. “It’s a realm that I’ve never lost the taste for,” she said. And it precisely lines up with The Met Breuer’s goal of engaging art of the past with the works of today.

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In Like Life, Syson and Wagstaff are presenting visual conversations between artists as diverse as Donatello and Damien Hirst and thinking not just about what life is, but what art is as well. The two Brit transplants have mixed classical marble sculptures with dolls, effigies, reliquaries and even figures from Madame Tussauds wax museum to explore how, through high art and low art, commercial and religious works, museum pieces and tourist attractions, from the 1300s through today, people have sought to replicate life. They’ve selected painted (or polychrome) sculpted works that are mechanized to seem to breathe, move and even speak, and others that incorporate clothing, human hair, teeth, blood and bones in striving for verisimilitude.

One highlight is “Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham.” The life-sized figure of the English philosopher sits in a chair enclosed in a glass case. “When he died in the 1830s, they made a wax work portrait of him that, inside the body, is his own skeleton,” Syson explained. “I had known the figure of Jeremy Bentham as a student in London and found it the weirdest object that I had ever seen. I never thought that I would be able to combine it in an exhibition with works by Canova and Donatello.”

“Ultimately what we’re trying to ask is what the relationship is between art and our mortality, which doesn’t necessarily mean death, but it does mean this moment that we’re in, this moment of transition which is life,” Wagstaff said. “Our show, like life, asks more questions than it perhaps answers, but we value that because it keeps art alive.”

The result is a show that’s like no other. It’s brave and brilliant, inspired and revelatory. And like life it is sprawling, crowded, diverse, titillating, though-provoking, emotional, funny, challenging, at times shocking and at others heart breaking, but overall exhilarating. “It’s about our own messy human existences,” Syson added.

The exhibition fills The Met Breuer’s third and fourth floors, presenting some 120 sculptures that cover 700 years from medieval Europe to the global contemporary scene. It includes pieces that are unsettlingly realistic, like Duane Hanson’s “Housepainter II,” which opens the show. Adjacent to it, a group of white marble standing male nudes representing ideal human forms seem less heroic, more antiquated. Around the corner, a diminutive, Barbie doll-sized wooden figure of Pandora carved by El Greco in about 1600 stands next to a riff on the “Venus de Milo” by Surrealist René Magritte that offers echoes but says something vastly different.

Some discussions between works were intentionally introduced by artists. As the elevator doors open on the third floor, Degas’ beloved ballerina in a tutu holds her interminable pose next to her physical twin but conceptual opposite, Yinka Shonibare’s 2007 “Girl Ballerina.” Like Degas’ dancer Shonibare’s figure is dressed, but she’s wearing West African-inspired printed fabric and holding a pistol behind her back. Shonibare brings questions of colonialism, power and revolution to the dialogue. Throughout the show, race, gender, sexuality, mortality, politics, religion and other aspects of the human experience are placed on pedestals or carved in stone. Some of the fiercest and most challenging statements are made by women artists like Kiki Smith, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois, Mary Sibande, Greer Lankton and others who reclaim, through their art, the way in which the female body is presented.

Certain works placed side-by-side bear uncanny resemblances, though they were created centuries apart. An elaborate, frilly Meissen porcelain “The Judgment of Paris,” from about 1762, sits next to Jeff Koons’ 1988 gilded porcelain portrait of a pop star and his pet chimp, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles.” Looking at them together casts a bit of a traditional shadow over Koons’ always controversial works.

“One of the things that one can ask going around this show is the degree to which the artists working today are aware of the traditions that they seem to respond to,” Syson said. “Koons is deeply imbued in the history of art, I think he’s absolutely aware of the power of Meissen porcelain and he’s aware too, of its aristocratic splendor and its subsequent kitchiness…he combines that high and low and that sense of the modern deity with that long tradition of making images of Christ…There’s almost like an underground tremor that links these pieces.

“One of the things that Met Breuer allows is that kind of breaking down of barriers…to demonstrate to people that they don’t have to know the history of art inside out, all they need to do is respond. And that’s true whether something was made in the 14th century or made a month ago.”

Whether viewing classical forms on pedestals in the opening section titled “The Presumption of White,” or one of the peculiar anatomical objects or “Strange Fruit,” a searingly painful 1995 depiction of a lynching by Alison Saar, it’s impossible to leave Like Life unmoved.

Wagstaff said she hopes “that visitors to this exhibition will respond first of all with their hearts and their bodies and then understand the seriousness of our venture. What we’re proposing here is to think about the canon and think about an expansion of that canon…There are many ways to view the world and that’s what this exhibition teaches us.”