“Made in U.S.A” Shines After Makeover

05.22.09   By Holland Cotter

When the Metropolitan Museum set up its first sculpture department in 1886, it threw in anything and everything that wasn’t framed, stitched or printed: “all the sculptures, pottery, porcelain, glassware, jewelry, engraved gems, bronzes, inscriptions, and other such objects of art, commonly termed Bric-a-Brac.”

No doubt to some eyes the museum’s newly reopened American galleries look like Bric-a-Brac City. Twenty generously appointed period rooms, 12 of them seriously spiffed up, along with the glass-enclosed Charles Engelhard Court flooded with Central Park light, hold the full range of items specified in that early Met inventory and much, much more.

And all look good, especially the court. When it made its debut in 1980, it had a sunken floor and large beds of plantings. The floor has now been raised and paved with light-colored stone and the plantings reduced to clear a wide-open space. What was once a kind of oversize conversation pit with a cafe to the side is now a full-fledged sculpture garden, with a lot more sculpture and a lot less garden. (The cafe is still there.)

This is not to say that all has changed. Familiar architecturally scaled pieces have stayed more or less where they were. The two-story limestone facade of Martin E. Thompson’s Branch Bank of the United States, built in 1822 on Wall Street, still forms a main entrance to the American galleries. The pillared loggia designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for his home, Laurelton Hall, in Oyster Bay on Long Island, continues to face the bank from across the court.

The spectacular pulpit and choir rail carved by Karl Bitter in 1900 for All Angels Church in Manhattan has migrated from the west side of the court to the east. Near it is the marble, oak and mosaic fireplace cooked up Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street. The house, which took up an entire block, is gone. The fireplace, with its two chiton-clad caryatids named “Peace” and “Love,” hasn’t budged since it was installed at the Met in 1980.

Yet another Saint-Gaudens divinity, his gilt bronze “Diana,” holds her place at the court’s very center. Lithe and poised on tiptoe, she was commissioned as a weathervane for the tower of the old Madison Square Garden. There, at the highest point on the skyline, she was the single most visible sculpture in the city and caused a public kerfuffle. There she was for the world to see, and she wasn’t wearing a stitch.

In the Engelhard Court she is the pivot-point for almost three dozen other sculptures, most from the 19th century, far more than were in the space before. And this prompts the question: Is more better? After all, American sculpture is pretty strange stuff.

The oldest pieces here date from just after 1850. Neoclassicism was the high style; moralizing sentimentality the correct emotion; piety, patriotism, airbrushed sex and melodrama, together or separate, the desired content. With this mix the ideal and the real were in constant conflict, which is the basic story of earlyish American art, and we find that story coming at us wherever we turn.

The sculptor William Wetmore Story, who moved to Rome to soak up Classical vibes, specialized in synthesizing myth and history. His “Libyan Sybil” (1860) was inspired by a Michelangelo, updated with an abolitionist message, and infused with contemporary racism. “Full-lipped, long-eyed, low-browed” is how Story describes the “African” features he was after for his brooding figure. The stereotyping wasn’t just his; it was engrained in the culture, a chronic condition.

The allegorical nude titled “California” (1858) by Story’s contemporary Hiram Powers was advertised as an all-that-glitters-is-not-gold rebuke to the excesses of the Gold Rush. Its real ambition, however, was clearly to show some flawless marble female flesh. This worked. The piece ended up being the first American sculpture to enter the Met collection.

Randolph Rogers’s “Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii” (1853-54) worked too, big time. The piece illustrates an episode from a best-selling novel, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” in which a character risks her life to lead others to safety. The combination of danger and virtue was a winner. The piece was, by some accounts, the single most popular American sculpture of the 19th century. Rogers, who fully understood the realities of marketing, replicated his docudrama-like chef-d’oeuvre more than 160 times in two different sizes and made a fortune.

The impulse to shoot for the ideal in art is least conflicted in funerary sculpture, where a certain degree of decorum is built in. Americans have always been obsessed with death, dwelling on it and denying it with equal avidity. In 17th- and 18th-century Puritan America, mortality was a hard, crass fact, aggressively spelled out in images of skulls and as-I-am-now-so-you-will-be warnings chiseled on headstones.

In the 19th century the obsession was, if anything, stronger, but the attitude changed. Denial set in, in the form of aesthetic sugarcoating. Cemeteries were transformed from grim charnel grounds to earthly Edens, where temple-tombs popped up like mushrooms, and transcendent meetings took place.

Two such encounters are frozen in stone at the Met in reliefs by Daniel Chester French. One, “The Angel of Death and the Sculptor from the Milmore Memorial,” is a marble version of a bronze commissioned by the family of the artist Martin Milmore (1844-83). In French’s relief the young sculptor is hard at work carving a sphinx — Milmore really did carve one; it was installed in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. — at the moment that death, in the guise of a veiled woman, interrupts and restrains his hand.

In the second relief, “Mourning Victory from the Melvin Memorial,” begun in 1906, the spiritual encounter is interactive rather than simply observed. An angelic female figures seems to be emerging, face forward, from a stone slab and moving out into space toward us. Here our lives are being interrupted, but benignly, by the personification of victory over death rather than by death herself.

There’s something about these spiritualizing tableaus that feels at best New Agey, at worst hopelessly hokey to our secular era. But revolutions in taste and belief don’t necessarily make this a dismissible art. Both reliefs are formal tours de force, theatrically bold and rich in naturalistic details: the carved spray of poppies that death holds is a marvel of botanical accuracy; the meeting of her hand and Milmore’s has a gentle finality worthy of Gluck.

And like other 19th-century public sculpture both works have interesting things to say about the artists who made them and the audiences they were addressing. All such was, after all, contemporary art: freshly minted for eyes as hungry for novelty, and for minds as in need of sustenance and reassurance, as our own.

For years, beginning in 1884, the Met displayed such work in a gallery called the Hall of Modern Statuary. Modern as used there wasn’t exactly Modernism, but it did identify certain kinds of new art as embodying up-to-the-minute values, aesthetic, social and political. It might even be said that American 19th-century art, with its bias toward moral commentary and its eclectic fusions of real and ideal, high and low, Old World and New, was postmodern before the fact.

Eclecticism is given free rein in the American Wing installation, organized under the curatorial aegis of Morrison H. Heckscher. It is certainly the name of the game in the period rooms, each a miniature stage set with real antiques for props.

They move from 17th-century interiors on the third floor to 1912 Frank Lloyd Wright on the first, with areas for the display of individual objects on each floor. Met habitués will notice that the sequence of the rooms has been slightly jiggered to ensure chronological flow. One new room — a Dutch colonial interior from the Daniel Peter Winne House near Albany — has been added, and several others have been repainted and relighted.

Also new, and well worth a try, are some of the best digital displays I’ve seen in any museum. With a brush of the finger on a touch screen you get information about the room’s original location, about the people who lived in it and about the history of its display at the Met, along with data about individual objects on view.

But for die-hard modernists who demand pure, no-gadgets, context-free encounters with art, the smart thing to do is head to the Engelhard Court’s wrap-around upper balcony, where portions of the museum’s collection of American silver, ceramics and jewelry are set out. This material used to be arranged by medium; now everything’s mix-and-match, primarily by era, with contemporaneous examples of silver and glass in adjoining cases.

This is a nice idea. It creates visual texture. It presents the objects more realistically, side-by-side as they would have been in a household. And it underscores the global scope of American art from its earliest days, with items made in China, England, France and New Jersey on the same shelf, and expert immigrant craftsmen working shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the Boston homeboy Paul Revere.

Ceramics devotees, and potential converts, will want to gather in the Engelhard Court’s new mezzanine balcony, floated half-way up the windows on the Central Park side. There the museum’s curator of American decorative arts, Alice Cooney Frelinghauser, has placed some 250 examples of art pottery made between the United States Centennial of 1876 and 1956, all a promised gift from the collector Robert A. Ellison Jr.

It’s a brilliant and daft array: delicate-daft in the case of the pinched and poked ceramics of George E. Orr, the Bernini of Biloxi, Miss.; cool-daft in the case of the iridescent Arts and Crafts vases of a kind you may have seen gathering dust in your grandparents’ attic; and plain old crazy-daft in the case of Tiffany & Company’s “Magnolia Vase,” its glaze-drenched surface relief of flowers, pine cones and cactuses suggesting a spreading malignancy.

Is this extreme piece of American eclecticism merely weird or really beautiful? Is it pop art or high craft or low-taste or no-taste, or what? Whatever it is, it is very right there, too preposterous to be pretentious, too busy to be self-conscious, too consumption-driven to be precious. A lot of art in the American Wing is like that and like it or not — and I do like it, sort of — it is us.

The American Wing’s new galleries remain on permanent view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/05/22/arts/20090522-american-slideshow_7.html

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