Magazine article The Spectator

The Mighty Met

Magazine article The Spectator

The Mighty Met

Article excerpt

'Autumn in New York,' enquires the song, `why does it seem so inviting?' Well, apart from the various attractions promised by the lyrics - 'glittering roof-tops at sundown', `jaded roues', 'gay divorcees', and, more surprising, 'pavement cafes' - of course the fall is one of the high points of the New York exhibition year. And in the Big Apple, art shows, like everything else - skyscrapers, for example - tend to be as massive and beautiful as they come.

This fall, the jewel in the Manhattan exhibition crown is Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art (until 2 February), a stunningly selected, and installed retrospective of the painter who, as time goes on, looks more and more like the greatest of all American artists. But, as the same exhibition arrives at the Tate Gallery next March, when I shall write about it at length, I shall say no more, except, if you happen to be in New York before February, go to see it.

Simultaneously, while I was in town, there was a monumental exhibition of work by Pollock's contemporary and near equal, Mark Rothko, 20 blocks uptown at the Whitney. It closes at the end of this week (29 November), but opens in Paris at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris on 8 January (until 18 April), so again I shall not discuss it at present. In New York, however, the contest was not an equal one, the installation at the Whitney not being up architecturally, or in other ways, to MoMA.

Also, while Pollock's life and work follow a glorious parabola, burning out after a few years (after which he was visibly finished), Rothko's carried on far longer, until his suicide in 1970. Both painters illustrate Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. But, in comparison, Rothko's first act took a lot longer, and artistically, in this sort of bulk, can seem a little drawn out. It will be interesting to see how it looks in Paris. Another 15 blocks up and one across, we come to the mighty Metropolitan. The Met is not quite the biggest museum in the world. That honour currently belongs to the Grand Louvre, although the Hermitage has plans to overtake it. But the Met is certainly one of the grandest. Someone once said that through the halls of old Penn Station, `One entered the city like a god' (that was before it was torn down and replaced by something resembling a very large underground station, through which, he went on, one now creeps in `like a rat').

You enter the Met, if not like a god, then at least like a Roman emperor through the magnificent halls of Richard Morris Hunt (based, like the waiting-room at Penn Station, on the Baths of Caracalla). It carries on like that, too, with the artistic wealth of the world spread out before you in room after room. A demonstration of the might of the Met's collections is the current exhibition From Van Eyck To Breughel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 3 January), as this large and imposing show is drawn almost entirely from the museum's own holdings.

As is customary at the Met, the installation and lighting are beautiful, and on show there are a number of the finest of all early Flemish paintings. The Met's Van Eyck is not among them - Van Eyck being one of the museum's weak points, and their sole example, a diptych of the Crucifixion and Last Judgment a second-string work classified as by `Van Eyck and Assistant'. But the Merode Altarpiece by Van Eyck's contemporary Robert Campin (aka the Master of Flemalle) more than makes up for that. …

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