For New York's museumgoers, this is a season to remember. I do not know of another time when so many extraordinary shows competed for attention. "Georges Seurat: The Drawings" at the Museum of Modern Art, "Tapestry in the Baroque" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and "Gabriel de Saint-Aubin" at the Frick Collection are all unforgettable experiences. And there may be another half-dozen events that are not far behind. These include a number at the Metropolitan--exhibitions of nineteenth-century English photographs from paper negatives, African reliquary figures, Dutch Old Master paintings, and several panels from Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, completed in 1452--as well as van Gogh's letters at the Morgan Library and Museum. The range is astonishing, from Seurat's drawings, which celebrate the power of the private imagination in a modern society, to the maximalism of the Baroque tapestries, which plunge us deep into the pomp of a courtly culture.
A bounty such as this can make you fall in love with museums all over again--with their broadness of perspective, their scrupulous seriousness, their advocacy for the pleasures of the eye and the mind. And right now the Metropolitan is the most exciting museum in the world, at once august and experimental, offering the public a range of challenging hypotheses about the art of the distant past and the recent past, theories of value and importance to be put to the test of experience, which is the only test that finally counts. A museum without a clear standard of excellence is not a museum where I will feel at home--but conservative critics who see the museum as dedicated to immutable values, to a fixed canon, are overlooking the degree to which even connoisseurship is a speculative activity. Within the dynamics of the museum, temporary exhibitions have an inherently experimental role, especially in relation to the permanent collection, for they complicate and deepen perceptions, and shake up familiar ways of seeing and thinking. The Met's current array of exhibitions cannot be said to reflect any single standard of taste, although each show in its own way sharpens the sense of taste. And the vast temporary display of the museum's entire holding in Dutch painting of the Golden Age, mounted to celebrate the publication of the first complete catalogue of those collections, is a brilliant exercise in self-criticism, a way of rethinking the museum's riches by putting everything on display at once and seeing what we now may see.
Every great museum is an impure institution: a repository for valuable objects, a pleasure palace, a center for scholarship, a tastemaker, a focus of national or regional pride, a magnet for tourism and urban development. Like all cultural institutions, museums grapple with the question of relevance, a concept that people of taste have come in recent years to regard with well-grounded suspicion. Relevance can be the enemy of experience, for the relevance of art is all too often reduced to an op-ed comment on the issues of the day. For the people who run our museums, relevance should be not a reaction but an assertion. Museums make things relevant--they precipitate relevance. That is precisely what happens at "Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor," and at the Modern's show of drawings by Seurat. It is especially encouraging to know that mid-career curators have organized these shows. Thomas P. Campbell, who is responsible for "Tapestry in the Baroque," and Jodi Hauptman, who put together the Seurat exhibit, are rising stars in the museum world, and their magnificent work bodes well for the future.
There is no doubt in my mind that these historical exhibitions are infinitely more urgent, more of our moment, than the anemic Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim or the rabble-rousing Kara Walker marathon at the Whitney, both of which strain so hard to be up-to-the-minute. A show that is up-to-the- minute has a built-in obsolescence; it is ready to be relegated to the dustbin of history even before you have left the room. Great contemporary museum shows require some way of negotiating the timely and the timeless, and this will inevitably elude museums whose boards of trustees are more or less controlled by people who only want to confirm the value of the stuff they have been buying for their own collections. Consider the sculpture of Martin Puryear, the subject of a retrospective currently at MoMA: his exquisitely crafted wooden objects and weathered wagon wheels and eco-friendly woven surfaces have little or no freestanding power, but they are textbook exercises in the haute boho taste that the younger generation of art patrons favors for their Tribeca lofts and Hamptons summer places.
In a society where everybody wants every cultural development to be reliably predictable, something to be broken down into pie charts and poll results, the fact that the autumn of 2007 might turn out to be the autumn of "Tapestry in the Baroque" will cause deep unease among the number crunchers. Such a development is inexplicable, at least by their lights. The best curators have a sixth sense for what will resonate at a particular time; they cannot tell you why they know it, but they know it. You have to hope that the museum administrators with whom they work value their instincts. The observation universally made about Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan, is that he respects his curators--he listens to them, something that is rarer than one might imagine. And de Montebello and his curators have together nurtured one of the most remarkable museumgoing audiences on earth. It is an audience that has two vitally related parts: a hometown crowd that is avid and critical and closely follows everything the museum does, and a wider audience, the audience of more casual visitors, many of whom are tourists. The regular audience, responding immediately and intensely, has a lot to do with creating the excitement that you can feel nearly everywhere at the Metropolitan these days. A museum needs this core constituency; it is a sounding board for the curators. And the core constituency's attentiveness can be infectious, pushing even the most casual visitor to engage more deeply.
Thomas Campbell, the curator who mounted "Tapestry in the Baroque" and its precursor, "Tapestry in the Renaissance," in 2002, is a formidable scholar and a great showman. Scholars and museum-goers have always known that tapestries were as deeply prized during the Renaissance as they had been during the Middle Ages; but I think most of us suspected, despite everything we had heard or read, that by the beginning of the sixteenth century the energy in European art had pretty much gone out of the weaver's art. We were convinced that painting had become the main event, even though we knew that artists of Raphael's stature had devoted an enormous amount of energy to tapestry. What Campbell accomplished in the vast galleries of "Tapestry in the Renaissance" was nothing less than a realignment of our understanding of Western art. Certain tapestry designers, especially Bernaert van Orley, emerged as titanic figures in sixteenth-century art. Van Orley's series of hunt tapestries, twenty feet wide, are somewhere near the summit of the Renaissance. Campbell's exhibition also pushed museum-goers to appreciate the centrality of the tapestry workers themselves, the men who actually maneuvered the threads on the looms and who turn out to be among the essential form-makers of their age. "Tapestry in the Renaissance" was a sensation--not a prepackaged blockbuster but a real sensation, a word-of-mouth sensation.
With "Tapestry in the Baroque," Campbell picks up the story right where he left off. The immense tapestried extravaganzas, ten or twenty feet wide, are once again the heart of the show. This time, though, Campbell has included more supporting material, especially oil sketches for tapestry designs and prints that illustrate how some of these works were originally displayed. One of the fascinations here is in seeing how the designs of artists such as Simon Vouet and Charles Le Brun, whom we may be inclined to regard as predictable and even bombastic, take on a freshness, a boldness, an unexpected magic when filtered through the hands of the tapestry workers.
Even when the tapestry workers are realizing the designs of the most inventive masters of the Baroque, especially Rubens, they add their own layers of complexity. A high point of the show arrives early, with The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, woven in Paris in the 1620s after a design by Rubens, one of a cycle of designs devoted to the life of Constantine. Here the massive Michelangelesque figures and horses tumbling off the bridge are enclosed in a stark architectural geometry, a striking play of trapezoids, curves, and angles. In the hands of the Parisian weavers, this composition, which Rubens would have surely given a painterly atmosphere, takes on a planar clarity that emphasizes the power of the image as pure design. The threaded surface of a tapestry has a blunt physicality that can undercut or at least complicate the Baroque passion for depth, transforming even the most elaborate narratives into abstractions of a kind.
Perhaps it is not exactly an accident that these tapestry shows have appeared as New York City is entering its new Gilded Age. Sooner or later, some fast-forward art critic is going to argue that the wraparound extravagance of the tapestries, with their spectacular subjects and piled-up plotlines, finds an echo in the multimedia escapades favored by some of the darlings of the zeitgeist. I am thinking of Damien Hirst's Noah's Ark of animal carcasses, which is currently on display at Lever House, and of Keith Tyson, whose show earlier this season at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea featured a huge space packed with a funhouse panoply of sculptures and mechanized thingamajigs executed in a Wal-Mart-to-Best-Buy range of styles by what I expect was a workshop full of assistants. Gigantism is an art world obsession these days, but the gigantism of the Baroque tapestries is a felt gigantism, and that makes all the difference.
"Tapestry in the Baroque" provides a tantalizing answer to the large question of whether creative expression can be simultaneously individual and communal. It is a question that has shadowed the modern enterprise in the arts. From William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in the nineteenth century to the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany, there have been calls to revive the community of craftsmen that many believe flourished in the Middle Ages. But the fitful success of these avant-garde experiments has generally led to the conclusion that the artist as individual, an idea that crystallized in the Renaissance, could not be reconciled with more communal ways of creating works of art. The astonishment of the Renaissance and Baroque tapestry shows is that the presence of the weavers as well as the designer is felt in every aspect of the work. The very texture of these densely packed compositions becomes a metaphor of social coherence: a joining of the singularity of the designer and the multiplicity of the weavers in a dynamic balance of power. The megalomania that runs through the Baroque tapestry is humanized by the artisanal nature of the work.
Spellbinding exhibitions are generally fueled by the avidity of a particular curator, which turns out to be infectious. The pity is that bigger institutions often feel they cannot run the risk of trusting in the passions of their curators, so that what we get are more and more shows that pose less and less risk. The museums are clogged with an endless cycle of Impressionist shows, Picasso shows, Degas shows, which are supposedly guaranteed to attract the crowds that keep the big museums afloat. Meanwhile a lot of smaller museums, even established and seemingly solidly endowed ones, have come to accept the standard business belief that you must grow in order to remain strong. The Morgan Library and Museum, which has now resolutely rejected its old reputation as one of New York's most widely known secret treasures, is struggling to sustain some of its true spirit in spite of the weird mini-megamall atmosphere that now dominates the place. The exhibition of van Gogh's letters at the Morgan, "Painted with Words," is a smart, beautifully contained piece of work. Presented in a single room, it brings museum-goers close to the artist's remarkable letters, minglings of image and text, with the skeletal wit of the incisive, almost diagrammatic drawings lending the pages of prose an unexpected compositional power. We see van Gogh in all his lonely glory, packing words and images onto sheets of paper for Emile Bernard, a far-off friend.
Van Gogh's name, of course, is the marketing hook that could get the Morgan's show past the number crunchers. There's no mystery there. The really interesting question is how some museums still manage to do the unexpected thing. How is it, for example, that the Frick Collection has had the audacity to devote its major fall show to an eighteenth-century French artist of whom 99 percent of the museumgoing public has never heard. Colin Bailey, the chief curator at the Frick, has worked with Pierre Rosenberg and the Louvre on this dream-perfect exhibition devoted to Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, who lived his whole life in Paris and died there in 1780, when he was fifty-five. Saint-Aubin did remarkable work as a watercolorist and an etcher and less remarkable work as an oil painter, but it is in his drawings that he discovered a region of feeling entirely his own. His line has the quicksilver quality of glittering, mesmerizing conversation.
In Saint-Aubin's drawings, the rococo spirit--with its elegant figures, its informal poses, its quotidian scenes--takes on some of the depth of a fever dream or a stream-of-consciousness story without losing any of its bright conviviality. Saint-Aubin's Paris is a toy theater or a dreamscape, at first glance easy and genial, but with a surprisingly strong undertow. A contemporary location will take on an uneasy, looming monumentality, as if Piranesi had become a poet of the everyday. Or an allegorical figure will pop up in the midst of what at first appears to be some humdrum scene, an angelic presence in the modern city. Some of Saint-Aubin's sheets have a collage-like quality, with figures and objects arrayed helter-skelter, beguilingly layered and juxtaposed. He is a rapturous storyteller who brings to his glimpses of the people and sites and goings-on of his day an element of fantasy. His Paris is a world in flux and he responds to it accordingly, at one moment with an emblematic flourish that looks back to the Baroque, at the next with a naturalistic bluntness that plunges us swiftly forward into the world of Manet and the Impressionists.
The contemporary museumgoer is a pluralist, and thinks nothing of moving in a single day from Saint-Aubin's little drawings to Baroque tapestries to the show of Seurat's drawings at the Modern. In Seurat's street scenes we may see echoes of Saint-Aubin, a shared sense of the artist as a man for whom the city becomes a dream. And anybody who goes from "Tapestry in the Baroque" to the Seurat drawings may sense a quality of the tapestried or the woven in Seurat's paintings, a number of which are included in the drawing show--a sense of the large impression as composed of many tiny strands of color that are like colored threads. There is in Seurat a resistance to the freewheeling possibilities of the artist's hand, an interest in the value of regularization or impersonality that, while not exactly analogous to the pressure that tapestry imposes on Rubens's painterliness, nonetheless echoes the tension between impersonality and personality that is an aspect of Baroque textiles. And similar qualities are to be found in Seurat's drawings, where the pinpoints of darkness, created by the way the textured paper grabs the Conte crayon, form a surface at once warm and cool, with elements that while joined together nevertheless retain their singularity.
You could say that in Seurat's art the public realm of the tapestry collapses into itself, its resplendence now an altogether private matter. There is a sense of solitude in all Seurat's work, even in the spectacle of La Grande Jatte with its monumental yet isolated figures. And in his drawings there is a double isolation: here the private man is doing his most private work. This is the third major Seurat show in some fifteen years, following the retrospective at the Metropolitan in 1991 and "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. I think this is the most remarkable of all these shows, the one that will be remembered most keenly. The compressed drama of Seurat's drawings, especially in the last four or five years of his life, can make them feel like the essence of his art, which is at once a luxuriant expression of the power of art-for-art's-sake and an exacting exploration of the social dynamics of the late nineteenth-century city. Everything about this show--its relatively circumscribed size, the arrangement of the drawings on somber gray walls, the beautifully focused catalogue--exudes a concentrated power. The show is pitched exactly right to bring out the genius of this artist who found the adamantine logic of ephemeral experience.
The catalogue, which includes essays by Richard Shiff, Jodi Hauptman, Hubert Damisch, and Richard Thomson, helps to push a museumgoer deep into the extraordinary process by which Seurat made his drawings. This is an art of indirection, with forms not built out of lines or shadings, but somehow summoned up from the meandering path of the Conte crayon, which in the earlier and middle-period drawings often turns and twists and curls in ways that have no apparent relation to the emerging form. Seurat found entirely unprecedented ways to resolve the nineteenth century's abiding conflict between the classical and the romantic. He managed to evoke the absoluteness of classical contour without any contours at all, as if classical drawing, with its defining edges, had been dissolved in the approximate atmospheres of romanticism and still, mysteriously, retained its lucidity.
In Seurat's drawings, you feel his affinity with that period in late nineteenth-century culture when naturalism and symbolism and formalism were melding. Seurat's singular figures, the rag pickers and laborers and ladies and gentlemen whom he encountered in central Paris or on its scrappy outskirts, become all at once the occasions for journalistic observations, near-abstract inventions, and symbolist essays on the subject of loneliness or transcendence or the uncanny. There are drawings here that come as close as anything I know to defining those moments--which usually occur as dusk is overtaking a great city--when our senses are particularly raw and alive, and the sights along the streets are charged with a nerve-shattering drama.
There is not a stale or dull moment in this exhibition. Even in the first room, where much of what we are seeing amounts to student work, the angularity of the figures begins to suggest the artist's powers of transformation. And as the exhibition progresses, Seurat achieves a mingling of richness and austerity that can simultaneously soothe us and put us on edge. It is difficult to imagine a wall more beautiful than the one here that holds a group of the late cafe-concert drawings, studies of singers performing on a small stage, surrounded by an attentive audience. Although many of these drawings bear the names of famous Parisian venues, they were apparently done in the studio, and are often not exact or even close renderings of particular places. As Seurat studies the performer in performance, a subject already beloved by Manet and especially Degas, he finds himself questioning his own performance as an artist, precipitating what amounts to a crisis in naturalistic representation. Roger Fry once observed that "the syntax of actual life has been broken up and replaced by Seurat's own peculiar syntax with all its strange, remote and unforeseen implications."
Seurat is the first modern artist to explore the mysterious power of the mechanized or geometricized figure--a power that would later suffuse works by Leger, Picasso, Gris, Klee, and many others. Seurat recognized the poignant humanity of such figures, who are at once less than human and more than human, their regularization both a limitation and a possibility. The result, in the cafe-concert drawings, is a ritualization of urban experience, with the heads and bodies of the audience seen close up, magnified, and the performer a light, almost ghostlike marionette on a bright little stage. The closer you look at these drawings, the stranger they become, with the heads like hard-boiled eggs and the arms of the singers like ribbons floating in the air. The drawings have the tenderness of great comedy, a wit in some ways reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, who like Seurat were responding to the traditions of the popular theater, with its love of hyperbole and absurdity.
The Seurat drawing show is a riveting presentation of the old modern verities, something that our premier museum devoted to modern art does all too rarely nowadays. Glenn Lowry's catalogue foreword, in which he reviews the central place of Seurat in the early history of the museum, encourages one to hope that he has begun to see how far the museum has wandered from its original mandate. Some will say that the show reflects an upsurge in interest in drawing among younger artists; the Modern had already reported on that in "Drawing Now: Eight Propositions," in 2002. But I think the real power of this exhibition has to do with its appearance at a time when drawing, like nearly all the artisanal aspects of the artist's life, has become a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. "Georges Seurat: The Drawings" demonstrates--gorgeously, poignantly--the extent to which, for an artist, drawing is quite simply the crux of the matter.
While the Seurat show suggests a reaffirmation of some of the Modern's old strengths, the Metropolitan has this fall come as close as any museum ever has to the dream of the universal museum, where many diverse forms of art, arts of different times and places, are brought together with the expectation that we can understand these works separately, but also in relation to one another. Can anybody be said to appreciate so many wonders under one roof? The answer, I think, is yes. The essential symmetry of the human form is the great theme of "Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary," and it is an idea that we can see echoed in many other parts of the museum. The vigor of the volumes and the elegance of the surfaces in these astonishing carvings registers as an extraordinary clarification of human feeling, as if structure had become an expression of pure emotion. To go from this show to the exhibition of several panels from Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, or to the nineteenth-century English photographs, or to a show of Abstract Expressionist paintings, is to assume that older art and art of various traditions can somehow form a unity, while more recent art can be submitted to standards of scholarship and connoisseurship often originally developed to analyze older art. The African reliquaries can underscore the very different kinds of risks involved in Ghiberti's enterprise, where we appreciate all the challenges involved in suggesting light and air and movement through the solidity of bronze.
If the museum is an experiment, the value of the experiment depends on the soundness of the hypotheses that are being tested and the honesty with which the evidence is interpreted. The predictable blockbuster show, the Impressionist show that mimics the success of the last Impressionist show, is an unnecessary experiment, a test of a hypothesis to which we already know the answer. The trouble with most of the major museum exhibitions of contemporary art, a very different problem, is that the people involved are proceeding without any hypothesis whatever beyond the astonishingly coarse assumption that anything that the market brings to the fore must be important. The most egregious example of this practice, at least right now, is surely the Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, but the Kara Walker show at the Whitney Museum of American Art is nearly as dismaying.
Richard Prince is an artist only a hedge-fund manager could love, and hedge-fund managers have made him a very wealthy man. What does his work consist of? Ads from glossy magazines, re-photographed and exhibited at something over their original size; a series of oil paintings of nurses, done in a style derived from the learn-to-draw courses that used to be advertised on matchbooks; some sculptures that mimic the shapes of automobile hoods. Prince's nullifyingly bland observations on consumer culture are currently occupying the entire rotunda of the Guggenheim, and I have never seen a show of this size in which there was nothing that was capable of holding my attention, not for a moment. The work is so calculatingly dissociated that you can go through the whole building and scarcely realize that anything is on display. Nihilism has never before been this boring. At least people who went to the Matthew Barney retrospective at the Guggenheim a few years back were entertained: it was a crazy circus, though not crazy enough. Prince's ultra-hip work, with its microwaved ironies, may look disarming when displayed in one of those new all-glass condo apartments that are popping up all over Manhattan and being grabbed by the collectors. But in a museum full of earnest tourists, Prince's ironies evaporate.
Does anybody really care why this vacuous show is called "Spiritual America"? It has been many years since the Guggenheim undertook anything that could be regarded as serious exploration and experimentation, and the Prince show is nothing but a capitulation to market forces, to the desire of upscale collectors to see the work on which they have been wasting their money exhibited in a name museum. As for the museumgoing public, I think somebody should set up a table outside the museum where people leaving the Prince show can join a class-action suit, suing the museum for the loss of their time and the return of the price of admission. (And while we are at it, how about suing Barbara Gladstone and Larry Gagosian, two blue-chip dealers who are among the major sponsors of "Richard Prince: Spiritual America"?)
If Richard Prince is an imposter, Kara Walker is a con artist. And the con is a fairly easy one, because the audience that she hustles is just waiting to be hustled. I imagine there are very few visitors to the Whitney who would not agree with Walker that slavery and racism are among the ugliest aspects of our history. But what people are responding to in Walker is not so much her views as her particular brand of in-your-face retro-kitsch theater. This artist tosses together some ye-olde-looking silhouettes and some primitive home movies and some dumb-ass cartooning, and the result is a stomach-churning creepiness that a lot of people seem to confuse with visual power. There isn't a cliche about the sexual power of African Americans that Walker does not adore, and while she claims to be analyzing the cliches, I think she is just using them to pummel the visitors to the Whitney, many of whom appear to accept her punishment as artistic revelation.
This is an old story, the story of the middle-class audience that goes to the museum to be castigated and improved and goosed all at the same time. With Walker we have a new version of a very old practice: the soft-core porn packaging of supposedly lofty sentiments. Contemporary museumgoers respond to Walker's work in much the way that nineteenth-century museumgoers admired Hiram Power's sexy statue The Greek Slave and early twentieth-century audiences admired hunky renditions of noble workers, socialist or fascist. People aren't there for Walker's art; they are there to feel bad and therefore virtuous. They are soaking up man's inhumanity to man, but with a hip presentation that can make liberalism itself feel a little naughty. The show is called "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love." And the cover of the catalog is emblazoned with a text that begins as follows: "Dear you hypocritical fucking Twerp." After Walker has run you through her radical-chic rat maze, is it any wonder that you leave the show feeling liberated?
That the Whitney Museum of American Art has succumbed to the pressures of the art market is itself an old story. The truth is that from time to time every museum succumbs. Yet this fall in New York, when so much of the news is good, the key question may not be how to avoid the mistakes of the past but how to build on the successes of the present. At the Metropolitan, where Philippe de Montebello's long stewardship is surely much closer to its end than to its beginning, we are seeing a museum in its prime, and the question is not how the museum needs to change but how it can continue its long string of successes. One of the unacknowledged triumphs of the de Montebello years has been the emergence of a world-class collection of twentieth-century art. There were significant curators involved there in the past, such as Robert Beverly Hale, who collected some fine work by living artists in the 1950s. But it was William Lieberman, the curator who got his start at the Museum of Modern Art, who really built the Met's collection, transforming it into the extraordinary mother lode of School of Paris painting that many New York artists now regard as at least as vital a resource as the Modern.
In his later years Lieberman came to be regarded by many as a comic figure, a bloated ghost who was still stuck in some 1940s Park Avenue cocktail party of the mind. And yet it is Lieberman who has had the last laugh, for under his watch the Met negotiated an amazing number of major gifts, including the Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman collection, which is currently on display at the museum and contains Attic, perhaps the crowning achievement of de Kooning's career. Lieberman's contemporary art purchases could be tepid in a conservative way, which is no better than being tepid in a trendy way. Like Alfred Barr at the Modern, who was Lieberman's mentor, Lieberman was accused of backing away from the most radical conclusions to be drawn from the work of Matisse and Mondrian. But Lieberman, who brought both a Balthus and a Kitaj retrospective to the Metropolitan, was a radical in his own way, and I am convinced that those retrospectives will be remembered in this city long after the current crop of acceptable mid-career events, the Prince and Walker and Puryear shows, have become an embarrassment to the critics who are falling all over each other in their haste to praise.
Lieberman's retirement in 2004, the year before he died, must have left de Montebello in a quandary. Many people must have wanted him to bring in some high-profile modern and contemporary art curator to take the helm. What he did instead might be counted by many as an ingeniously conservative choice: he made Gary Tinterow, the museum's chief curator of nineteenth-century art, the czar of a new department, a department that would stretch all the way from the nineteenth century to the present. Tinterow, a decent and intelligent man, surely wants to approach the art of the present with the same seriousness with which he approaches the art of the past. He may imagine that he is developing hypotheses about the contemporary art world, but the truth is that the art world is rapidly winding him around its little finger. Does anybody really imagine that his decision in recent years to invite Neo Rauch and Kara Walker to mount small shows at the Metropolitan reflects anything but an obeisance to market trends? (With Walker he can boast that he beat the Whitney at its own game, a dubious honor.) And now, by overseeing the loan of Damien Hirst's shark from Steven Cohen, the hedge-fund billionaire who is said to have the deepest pockets of any art collector on earth, Tinterow is edging the Metropolitan into the position of the Guggenheim, as part of the support system for Sotheby's and Christie's and a half-dozen major galleries. What Cohen expects from Tinterow is that he will give Hirst art-historical credentials, and Tinterow has certainly gotten down to work. He has turned Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living into a masterpiece for the ages. In the room where the shark in its tank is now installed, Tinterow has hung paintings by Francis Bacon and Winslow Homer, a copy of John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark, and a highfalutin text titled "On the Sublime," in which Edmund Burke is quoted and Hirst is generally welcomed into the Great Tradition.
In the context of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2007, when we are presented with some of the greatest experiences that any museum has ever offered, Damien Hirst's cynical shark can look like a minor thing. But Tinterow is now spoken of in certain circles as the successor to de Montebello, and cultural catastrophes often begin quietly. After all, the people who now regard Thomas Krens as the demonic figure who destroyed the Guggenheim, and who have recently begun to doubt the ability of Glenn Lowry to guide the Museum of Modern Art, were once eager to talk about the benefits of new blood and to argue that institutional memory could overcome any administrative missteps. That Cohen has been allowed to present Hirst's shark at the Metropolitan is a very dangerous thing, because the art world that Hirst and Cohen represent, with its market-driven circus atmosphere, is a threat not only to the best that contemporary artists have to offer, but also to the intensities of feeling that are nowadays celebrated in nearly every gallery of this same amazing museum.
It is easy to slough off Hirst's shark right now, tucked away as it is in a distant corner of the museum, because when you are at the Metropolitan you are still living in a golden age. You have Baroque tapestries, African reliquaries, nineteenth-century British photographs, Dutch Old Master paintings, Ghiberti's Doors of Paradise, de Kooning's Attic, and countless other marvels. Who could ask for more? But New York's museumgoing public, which has already witnessed the Guggenheim's collapse and the Modern's loss of direction, has every right to be alarmed by early danger signs at the Metropolitan. This season to remember could easily turn into the season of our discontent.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.
By Jed Perl