NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art throws open the doors to its new modern and contemporary art outpost, The Met Breuer, this month with an exhibition that places the works in the historical context of its rich encyclopedic collection.
The new space, a short walk from the Met’s Fifth Avenue headquarters, is housed in the Marcel Breuer-designed building that was the longtime home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, before it moved downtown last year. The restored Bauhaus-style building on Madison Avenue opens to the public on March 18, giving the Met 29,000-square-feet of space for displaying and expanding its 12,000-work collection of 20th and 21st century art.
The inaugural exhibition, “‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,’ is a perfect example of what they can do that other museums are unlikely and certainly cannot do to the depth that the Met can,” said Bruce Altshuler, professor of museum studies at New York University.
The show, which occupies two floors, explores the question of when is a work of art complete. Works deemed unfinished by the artist or for other reasons are shown within a broader historical perspective — juxtaposing modern works with historic pieces, including those by Titian, Rembrandt and Turner. Among the highlights is a Gustav Klimt posthumous portrait of a woman that was interrupted when Klimt himself died. The unfinished strokes, color palette and line outlines offer a captivating window into his creative process.
The museum is “playing to its strong suit, which is a unique positioning, to create that kind of exhibition,” Altshuler said.
At a crowded press preview Tuesday, Sheena Wagstaff, head of the Met’s department of modern and contemporary art, said the Met’s approach to modern art is somewhat different from its contemporary art peers.
“We can tell stories that reach far beyond the 1900 boundary back to any point within the huge span of five millenniums of art represented by the Met,” she said.
“At the Met Breuer, we hope history and art will have a natural companionship.” she added.
New York City is already rich in cultural institutions with stellar contemporary and modern art holdings including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney. But it’s not a question about competing with them, Altshuler said. It’s about creating distinct exhibitions and programing.
There are “enough ideas and exhibitions out there to accommodate all the museums,” he said.
The Met-Breuer is leasing the Madison Avenue building for at least eight years while the Met redesigns the Southwest Wing that includes the modern and contemporary galleries — a project led by award-winning British architect David Chipperfield.
“A core strand of the program will be major thematic exhibitions,” drawn both from the Met’s own collection and borrowed works, said Wagstaff, who was chief curator at the Tate Modern, London, before coming to the Met.
She said in an email that the museum will work to bolster the collection with acquisitions “that respond to the Met’s global perspective and broader collection,” and to build on its strength in areas including works by African-American artists. In 2014, it received 57 works from the African-American art-preservation group the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. More recently, it received a major gift of cubist paintings from cosmetics mogul Leonard Lauder.
The opening program also includes the first U.S. retrospective of works by the Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi, and performances and sound installations by artist-in-residence Vijay Iyer.
In July, the Met-Breuer will present early and rarely seen photographs by Diane Arbus. The season lineup also includes a mid-career retrospective of the Chicago-based, Alabama-born figurative painter Kerry James Marshall, whose work explores issues of race and history; and newly commissioned architectural photographs documenting four public Breuer buildings.
Marshall, who attended the press preview and has one work in “Unfinished,” said: “I can finally say that I’ve been in an exhibition with Leonardo da Vinci.”