Keeping it real

The Met Breuer’s “Like Life” looks at sculpture, the human body, art and meaning

  • Mary Sibande's "Rubber Soul, Monument of Aspiration" from The Met Breuer's "Like Life." Sibande's work refers to the history of apartheid, said curator Sheena Wagstaff, but also to "the history of artists from that region ascending and taking over the plinth." Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • “’Auto-Icon’ of Jeremy Bentham." Like many sculptures in the show, it challenges viewers to consider what makes up a work of art. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • "Pandora" is part of a pair "Epimetheus and Pandora," sculpted by El Greco in about 1600. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Isa Genzken's "Schauspieler (Actors)," from 2013, incorporates mannequins, clothes, shoes, fabric and paper. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Jeff Koons combines high and low while reflecting on the opulence of porcelain in his "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" from 1998. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Greer Lankton's "Rachel" from 1986. From the 1300s to today, artists have painted, sculpted and dressed the human figure to represent what life is like. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Alison Saar's "Strange Fruit," from 1995, a poignant work that shares a title with a Billie Holliday song, also about lynching. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare created "Girl Ballerina" in response to Degas's beloved "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," which is nearby at The Met Breuer. Photo: Adel Gorgy

When co-curators Luke Syson, The Met’s chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Sheena Wagstaff, the museum’s chairwoman of Modern and Contemporary Art, decided to take on the history of Western polychrome (or painted) sculpture, they also chose to take on the Western canon and the definition of art itself. It’s a bold decision that’s resulted in the astonishing, thought-provoking exhibition, “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now).” They cast their nets across 700 years of artistic practice, from 14th-century European to global contemporary, to see what artists and artisans have done and used to create the verisimilitude of life and humanity.

Unlikely associations emerged among the 120 works filling two floors of the Met Breuer. “These sculptures are placed in conversation with one another, speaking to the age-old conundrum of what realism can be and the different tactics that artists used to blur the distinction between the original and the copy, between art and life,” said Wagstaff. She described “the use of color to mimic skin ... casts taken from real bodies, dressing sculpted figures in clothing, the articulation of movable limbs, the construction of automated mannequins and ‘womankins’ and even the incorporation of human blood, hair, teeth and bones.”

The curators selected objects of high art, like a delicate small wooden “Pandora” carved by El Greco in about 1600, or the hyper-realistic life-sized “Housepainter II” by Duane Hanson that opens the show; religious works like a “Reliquary Bust of Saint Juliana,” fashioned to look like the saint whose relics it contains; and even popular attractions, like “Sleeping Beauty” from Madame Tussauds, whose mechanized chest rises and falls to suggest breathing.

“By thinking about those works we were suddenly thinking about what the canon should look like, what really constitutes a Met object in a Met show, and the boundaries between works of art that have always been embraced as masterpieces by museums,” Syson said, “and those which had been too popular, too accessible, too easy, in some ways at least ostensibly, to be taken seriously.”

Some works are so strange they have to communicate with the viewer directly, since within the history of art they are totally without precedent or kin, like the “’Auto-Icon’ of Jeremy Bentham.” The English philosopher is presented fully dressed with a frilly shirt and a straw hat to keep out the sun. Beneath it all, embedded within the wax, is Bentham’s own complete skeleton.

“Shrine of the Virgin,” a gilded figure from about 1300 that opens on hinges to reveal a figure of Jesus inside the sculpture of Mary, shares a case with contemporary artist Damien Hirst’s “Virgin Exposed,” a vividly colored cutaway view of a pregnant woman, eerie, though recalling a scientific anatomical model. Jeff Koons’s porcelain “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is placed next to a frilly, gilded Meissen work, “The Judgment of Paris.” Such juxtapositions awaken new thoughts about contemporary artists and how far back they might be reaching for inspiration, whether consciously or not.

“What I found fascinating as these objects arrived here in The Met Breuer, was they started talking to each other in ways that we anticipated but also in ways that were really unexpected,” said Syson. “That kind of messiness, glorious messiness, of life and death ... and desire, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and religion are all things that now are playing potently in a rich and, to me at least, not yet digested stew that is in our show. It’s a show that is designed to begin a conversation.”

Syson said he’s excited by the chance to bring work from his department, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, to contemporary art audiences. “One of the things that Met Breuer allows is that kind of breaking down of barriers. Although we’re very, very careful to situate each piece as the product of a time and place, the timelessness of them comes to the fore in a really remarkable way.... I’m thrilled that those juxtapositions are, I hope, allowing people to reconsider the art of the past and also to reconsider which parts, which aspects of sculptural history really matter beyond the ones we’re more used to.”

Wagstaff said, “What the Met has is unique, certainly in the city and well beyond. We have not just the collections, but also the expertise, the ability to be able to converse with research, and really get into deep conversations ... to think about work from our respective areas and come to a common interest, come to a common language.”

What does she hope viewers might take away from “Like Life?”

“I think it teaches us that every one of these sculptures is made by an artist who has a very particular relationship to the world which they are trying to express, and I hope that visitors take away some of that shared humanity with them.”

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