Home > Art, Family, Museums > An Afternoon at the Met

An Afternoon at the Met

[Metropolitan Museum]

We were in New York three weekends ago to visit family. The evening we arrived, I wrote about our dealings with TSA that morning in Seattle. A long series of posts followed about our time in North Carolina after the weekend, but I had nothing more to say about New York. Before I completely forget, let me say a little about our afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, three weeks ago today.

The context: following lunch with my parents, the three of us (Gail, Joel, and I) had several free hours in Manhattan before it would be time to drive over the Triborough Bridge in order to drop Joel at LaGuardia for his flight back to North Carolina. We would then drive farther out on the Island for dinner with my brother and his family. We had already decided that we would start at the Met, and had parked there in the morning in anticipation of this. Following lunch, we headed back.

A year earlier almost to the day, our same threesome had spent an afternoon at the Met, at which time we were able to get a preview of the Islamic Galleries. As I wrote at the time, it was “closed for renovation, expansion, and reinstallation, [but] we got a sneak peak of a small new room with wooden ceiling and walls being carved as we watched by Moroccan craftsmen. This will be a must-see when the space re-opens near the end of the year.”

They opened in November, under the official name New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Here’s a description from the website:

More than one thousand works from the preeminent collection of the Museum’s Department of Islamic Art—one of the most comprehensive gatherings of this material in the world—have returned to view in a completely renovated, expanded, and reinstalled suite of fifteen galleries. The organization of the galleries by geographical area emphasizes the rich diversity of the Islamic world, over a span of thirteen hundred years, by underscoring the many distinct cultures within its fold.

This was my first priority.

Despite our having agreed to go here first, we momentarily split up for reasons I won’t go into. When Gail and I emerged at a space on the second floor from which several corridors emanate, while I was trying to orient myself and find the new Islamic galleries, Gail asked a guard where the Islamic art was. He pointed way down a corridor leading westward, a corridor I know well, well enough to realize this must be wrong. But Gail said let’s go, and only as we began to walk out did I see some wording on the wall suggesting that the corridor ninety degrees to the left was the very entrance to the desired space.

Following the guard’s directions, we found our way not to the Islamic permanent collection, but to Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, an extraordinary temporary show that I hadn’t even read about. The good news: we got to see an exhibition we probably would have otherwise missed. The bad news: where the heck was Joel?

No big deal, right? I could text him our location. But that’s when I discovered that our AT&T connection was all but dead. I texted texted texted texted. I called called called. I sent email. I re-sent and re-sent. Nothing would go through. Okay, maybe I could go outside if things got desperate, get a connection, and call. But if he stayed inside while I was outside, he might fare no better with his own AT&T phone. Gail kept telling me not to worry, he’ll find us. Well, yes, if we were in the agreed-upon Islamic space, which she believed we were, since the guard told us so. The more we explored the exhibition, however, the more certain I was that we weren’t where we were supposed to be.

I can’t exactly say I panicked. I mean, he’s not a child. He can get by. But, in the worst case scenario, what if three hours later we still hadn’t connected? How would he get to LaGuardia, with his bag in the car?

I know, I should have relaxed. But I didn’t, and the unexpected gem of a show that we had fallen into was not getting its due. Speaking of which, here’s a description:

As the seventh century began, vast territories extending from Syria to Egypt and across North Africa were ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Critical to the wealth and power of the empire, these southern provinces, long influenced by Greco-Roman traditions, were home to Orthodox, Coptic, and Syriac Christians, Jewish communities, and others. Great pilgrimage centers attracted the faithful from as far away as Yemen in the east and Scandinavia in the west. Major trade routes reached eastward down the Red Sea past Jordan to India in the south, bringing silks and ivories to the imperial territories. Major cities made wealthy by commerce extended along inland trade routes north to Constantinople and along the Mediterranean coastline. Commerce carried images and ideas freely throughout the region.

In the same century, the newly established faith of Islam emerged from Mecca and Medina along the Red Sea trade route and reached westward into the empire’s southern provinces. Political and religious authority was transferred from the long established Christian Byzantine Empire to the newly established Umayyad and later Abbasid Muslim dynasties. The new powers took advantage of existing traditions of the region in developing their compelling secular and religious visual identities. This exhibition follows the artistic traditions of the southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire from the seventh century to the ninth, as they were transformed from being central to the Byzantine tradition to being a critical part of the Islamic world.

A week ago we got our new issue of the New York Review of Books, in which Peter Brown reviews the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. If only we could go back. He explains that the exhibition

embraces the last century of the pre-Islamic Middle East and the first two centuries of Islam. To our surprise, we do not find ourselves in a world swept by a mighty wind. Instead, we enter a series of quiet rooms where time seems to stand still. Like a perfect late fall day, only the occasional rustle of a falling leaf startles us into realizing that the seasons are about to change. The few clear signs that Islam had, indeed, become politically dominant in the Middle East by the end of the seventh century strike us with almost ominous intensity. For there are so few of them.

And he concludes:

The exhibition is, frankly, about those who made it. The mosaics, the silverware, the parchment volumes, the ivories, and the textiles (even the poignant little shirts of those who died young) once gave confidence and joy to those who could afford them. This is an exhibition not only about what people worshiped, but also about what they loved and what they hoped for. Landowners, administrators, and clergymen, they were not necessarily saints, heroes, or heroines. But their mute remains take us back to centuries whose final outcome they themselves could not have imagined. They form a human—and, let us hope, a humane—link between our own times and a distant, major turning point in the history of the world.

When we had gotten about halfway through the exhibition, I decided we had to get back to the “real” Islamic exhibition space in hopes of finding Joel. Dragging Gail through the remaining rooms, I headed past the 19th century European paintings toward the entry space where we had been mis-directed, only for Gail to call ahead to me to stop, for in my rush I had walked right past Joel, coming toward us. He had, of course, been in the proper galleries. Having walked through them and failed to find us, he had struck off in our direction, why I still don’t know.

Now reunited and properly oriented, we returned to the new permanent Islamic galleries that Joel had just seen. I had waited a year for this. But I needed some time to regain my equanimity. Since I wasn’t absorbing much, let me turn once more to Peter Brown, who wrote about the newly opened space and the catalog last December.

The curators of the Islamic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have faced a different and more challenging task: how to do justice to an entire galaxy of cultures touched by Islam, which spread from the Atlantic to South Asia and the borders of China, and which changed constantly over the course of a millennium. In this immense galaxy, the arts of late-medieval Iran and Mughal India, displayed in the Morgan Library, are no more than a single, incandescent cluster. The curators have displayed the changing galaxy with an intellectual determination and with a visual discretion that make their new installation a delight to the eye and their meticulous new catalog a thrill to the mind.

First of all, the galleries now bear a distinctive name. They are the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. It is a mouthful. But behind the title lie decades of careful thought on the relation between the universal and the particular across a far-flung commonwealth of cultures. The notion of Islamic art as a single, uniform system that spread with monotonous insistence across the territories ruled by Muslims is effectively dismantled. The essays of the four editing curators, Maryam Ekhtiar, Priscilla Soucek, Sheila Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar (along with the other contributors), make this point clear. The galleries have been reinstalled with the express purpose of doing justice to the distinctive flavor of each region.

It is not often that an intellectual contention is turned into a work of beauty in itself. But this is what Michael Battista and his fellow installers and designers have done with the layout and décor of the new galleries. Their work has allied itself with the discreet, almost subliminal beauty that radiates from the objects themselves. Lattice screens, made for the purpose in Egypt, transform the light from the courtyard around which the galleries are placed. Their firm horizontal lines point the visitor forward from region to region. The floor itself seems to move. Each room, dedicated to one region, is paved with a different stone—from bright Egyptian marble, patterned with great sunbursts, stars, and cartouches in the entrance hall, all the way around to the gentle sandstone of India.

Alas, I didn’t allow myself to give full appreciation to what we were seeing. Next time.

Once outside, we agreed to split up for the next couple of hours. I recommended to Gail that we head to the American Wing, since I remembered reading about some new installations recently. I hadn’t remembered what, but here’s the explanation:

The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of American art, one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world, returned to view in expanded, reconceived, and dramatic new galleries on January 16, 2012, when the Museum inaugurated the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The new installation provides visitors with a rich and captivating experience of the history of American art from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century. The suite of elegant new galleries encompasses 30,000 square feet for the display of the Museum’s superb collection.

This final phase of the American Wing renovation project is comprised of twenty-six renovated and enlarged galleries on the second floor. The new architectural design is a contemporary interpretation of nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts galleries, including coved ceilings and natural light flowing through new skylights. The redesign, which has added 3,300 square feet of gallery space, also allows for a chronological installation of the American paintings and sculpture, and improved pathways connecting to adjacent areas of the Museum.

On our way from the south end of the Met to the north, we zipped past any number of interesting works and exhibitions, stopping momentarily here or there. The entrance area to the Asian Wing. European paintings of the seventeenth century. Oh, look, there’s El Greco’s View of Toledo with some girl sitting on the floor staring intently at it.

[From Metropolitan website]

On we went, through doors leading to the balcony that overlooks the arms and armor exhibit of clothed riders, on past the historic instruments, into the big American wing central space, and through more doors into the new American wing galleries (only by chance). They are splendid. We chose well. And through the main axis, in the distance, always in view, was Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. He couldn’t be missed, patiently waiting for us to reach him, as you can see at the top.

From the paintings, we descended half a floor to a mezzanine that is wonderful in an entirely different way. It is open storage, showing object upon object from the American collection, with no explanation but with labels that allow you to go to one of the monitors spread throughout the space to look up what each object is. Like this:

And this:

Soon it was time to meet up with Joel, at the cafeteria, so he could get some food before going to the airport. We realized that once again we might fail to meet up, there being many eateries. Only one “cafeteria,” in the basement, but there was room for ambiguity. And the pity is, there was a wonderful cafe right where we were standing, at the American wing in the big open space, with an outlook onto Central Park. We tried once again to text and call him, suggesting he meet us there, but when nothing would go through, we dutifully headed to the cafeteria.

Ten minutes past our meeting time, I got anxious and began to head up the stairs to look for him. Once again, we bumped into each other. He had indeed, looked for us initially elsewhere. We all agreed that the cafeteria was dismal and went back to the American wing cafe for a snack.

When we were done, there was still some time to explore. We took Joel back through the American open storage area for a look, coming out at a small baseball card exhibition, Breaking the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball.

In October 1945 Wesley Branch Rickey (1881–1965), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jack Roosevelt Robinson (1919–1972) from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs to the Dodgers organization, thus breaking the color barrier that had existed in professional baseball since 1889. On April 15, 1947, Robinson took the field for the first time as a Brooklyn Dodger, earning the title “Rookie of the Year” in the National League at the end of the season with twelve homers, twenty-nine steals, and a .297 batting average. Shortly after Robinson’s debut, Larry Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians, who then brought over the Negro League’s star pitcher, Satchel Paige, to join Doby the following year. With these developments, baseball’s long-entrenched segregation began, slowly, to crumble; it took another twelve years for the Boston Red Sox—the last team to integrate—to hire Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, three years after Robinson retired from the game.

The selection of baseball cards illustrating some of the earliest and most illustrious players who moved from the Negro Leagues into the Majors is taken from the Jefferson R. Burdick Collection. The more than thirty thousand baseball cards collected by Burdick date from 1887 to 1959 and represent the most comprehensive collection outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Speaking of the Burdick Collection, Joel grew up with two posters from the Met on his wall, each showing an array of cards from the collection. Here are the two cards that end the exhibition, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson side by side.

It was time go to. We headed back to the south end of the museum, stopped at the museum store, headed out the back door into the garage, and off we went.

Regrets? We missed The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. And Red and Black Chinese Lacquer, 13th–16th Century. But we were content. And Joel made his flight.

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Categories: Art, Family, Museums
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