NEW YORK: "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)": The Met Breuer

By Beckenstein, Joyce | Sculpture, September 2018 | Go to article overview

NEW YORK: "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)": The Met Breuer


Beckenstein, Joyce, Sculpture


Daring and at times creepy, "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body" celebrated the pursuit of imitative realism in Western figurative art, the desire to replicate the living human body. Invitees to this raucous, party-like exhibition included a mechanical, brocade-gowned Sleeping Beauty from Madame Tussauds (remade in 1989) "breathing" softly in slumber on a divan, her faint perhaps induced by the sight of the muscled nude Doryphoros (a copy of Polykleitos's 440 BCE Greek warrior). Curators Luke Syson and Sheena Wagstaff brought scholarship and humor to their insightful mix of masterworks, folk art, store mannequins, robots, and mechanical toys. Their refreshing conflation of high and low, multiple materials and processes, provided a memorable exercise in trickle-down humanity with its ever-present themes of life, death, gender, identity, spirituality, and worldliness.

The show opened with Duane Hanson's life-like Housepainter II (1984), a bronze sculpture of a black construction worker clad in a paintsplotched t-shirt, holding a long paint roller, his stance mimicking that of the nearby Doryphoros. The juxtaposition introduced the exhibition's first theme, "The Presumption of White," a double-edged metaphor reflecting the misconception of ancient Greek art as devoid of color (though it was known by the time Hiram Powers chiseled his idealized female figure California [1850-55] that the ancients, in fact, polychromed their works in bright colors that eventually wore away). Deliberately sustained, this "error" maintained whiteness as the aesthetic ideal of human perfection. Charles Ray's sexually explicit white Aluminum Girl (2003) and Bharti Kher's cast plaster likeness of her aging Mother (2016) subvert this racist notion with renderings of non-idealized human types.

Seven other, overlapping themes were not as cogent as the meandering thread that followed color on its downward spiral through great, good, and tasteless art. René Magritte's Les Menottes de Cuivre (The Copper Handcuffs) (1936) revels in the standard view of color as a dumbing down, with a miniature plaster figure of Venus-part Classical ideal, part gaudy tourist souvenir-her white head topping a flesh-toned upper torso, her lower half draped in garish blue. Nearby, a magnificent Meissen porcelain centerpiece depicting The Judgment of Paris (c. 1762), designed for the upper bourgeoisie, was paired with Jeff Koons's Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), a large ceramic sculpture of the singer with a monkey. But the question of where high art ends and decorative kitsch begins slowly lost relevance: Willem Danielsz van Tetrode's terra-cotta Hercules (c. 1568-75) bulging with knobby muscles; Edgar Degas's iconic The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (c. 1880) in her cotton tutu; and Duane Hanson's frumpy Housewife (1969-70), slouched in curlers beneath a home hair dryer, make our fascination with verisimilitude in art relevant, demonstrating how it resonates with what makes us human. …

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