It is a peculiar decision to place any modern exhibition directly past the iconic Greek and Roman wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The juxtaposition can easily suggest to a passerby that the modern work bears just as much significance and artistry as the work of the Greeks and Romans from centuries ago. Nevertheless, curators laid this space out near the classical art exhibition and used it to pay homage to Max Beckmann, a New York-based artist from the 20th century.
Contrary to the title of the exhibition, “Max Beckmann in New York,” more pieces were dedicated to Beckmann’s experiences in countries of his exile, rather than in New York City. The walls divided into sections that split the artwork into categories. There were multiple entrances and exits to each subdivision that demonstrated porousness and permeability; visitors had the opportunity to go in and out of various sections without disrupting the flow of the artwork. Each piece, though characteristically distinct, complemented the entire collection. Prominent categories include Frankfurt, Muses, Saint Louis and New York: End of Exile, and Self-Portraits.
Each of Beckmann’s self-portraits featured the artist accessorizing with a cigarette or a pipe. Beckmann donned a serious facial expression in each portrait, characterized by furrowed brows and a distinctive frown. The section dulled viewers who spent more time reading the description than looking at the artwork. Beckmann relied on using the same aggressive brushstrokes in each portrait, which made each work seem repetitive and superfluous. Self-Portraits was the only section that lacked cohesion with the other sections. Most of the other sections—specifically Amsterdam: Voluntary Exile, Frankfurt, Muses and Saint Louis and New York: End of Exile—primarily featured important women in his life. These women were wives and lovers of Beckmann.
Their exposed chests were painted with more dexterity than any other part with their faces either distorted or not clearly shown. The most surprising painting of these collections was that of an elderly woman, who Beckmann portrayed sitting in a chair calmly as opposed to standing or kneeling promiscuously. The accompanying museum label did not identify the woman, but indicated that she must have been important to Beckmann since he only painted people he knew well. The other women in the exhibition had a name and title attached to them—provided that they exhibited some kind of lewdness in their apparel.
These sections revealed that Beckmann clearly distinguished the women in his life into two categories: wise, old sages and lecherous, young seductresses. A piece that resonated was “Falling Man,” a work depicting a man plunging to his death from the top of a skyscraper. Beckmann painted it in 1950, but it seemed highly anachronistic because it looked like an accurate representation of the devastating events on 9/11. The painting was captioned as prophetic. The piece in itself appeared radically different from the other portraits as the man was faced away from the viewer. Normally, his portraits depict the subject looking toward the viewer.
Beckmann tends to use less vibrant colors in his artwork, unless he is trying to depict something that brings him a lot of excitement, such as the half-naked women. This painting, however, teems with blues, greens, oranges and reds. This painting may be chilling because it currently resides in the heart of New York City, or perhaps because talks of terrorist attacks have once again sprung up in daily conversation. It certainly stopped viewers in their tracks and conjured up a larger crowd than any of his other paintings.
It is difficult to discuss each individual piece of the exhibition, particularly due to the fact that the exhibition was designed to showcase connectivity. Although the artwork was grouped together and sectioned off, the various entrances made it difficult to find a starting and ending point. To rectify this, many museum goers simply meandered through the exhibition since there was no definitive walking path.
The exhibition mostly succeeded at piecing together the artwork in this regard, but the Self-Portraits section lacked the timbre that was present in the other sections. Although the Self-Portraits section was the main portion of the exhibition, viewers seemed to gravitate toward more dramatic pieces in other sections. It was easy to get past the Self-Portraits section because it did not present any allure, but getting out of the other sections was more difficult because of their high level of connectivity.