The Met Breuer
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 paint-splotched 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.
The desire for immortality plays a key part in that fascination. A Reliquary Bust of Saint Juliana (c. 1376) encases the saint’s remains in a gilded and painted copper imaginary portrait. Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich’s “Auto-Icon” of Jeremy Bentham (1832), a fully dressed, seated wax sculpture, holds the English philosopher’s skeleton—an eerie mummification-as-burial that’s still not quite as grim as Marc Quinn’s Self (1991), a cast-in-blood self-portrait preserved in a refrigerated case. None of these exercises in preservation, however, springs as urgently to life as Donatello’s polychrome bust of the Florentine politician Niccolò da Uzzano (1430s), whose delicate features are offset by heavy eyebrows and an intelligent gaze.
Western religious art conveyed the promise of eternal life through realistic polychrome figures of martyrs and saints, such as the flayed-skinned Christ at the Column (1697), whose graphic expressionism was meant to mesmerize the faithful. Placed in proximity to Reza Aramesh’s figure of a Palestinian youth stripped down to his underpants at an Israeli checkpoint (2017), such works underscored the ongoing tragedy of persecution. Other works updating human conflict—in terms of identity, gender, and sexuality—included Yayoi Kusama’s Phallic Girl (1967), a mannequin covered with tufted phallic-like forms; Elmgreen & Dragset’s The Experiment (2012), a life-like figure of a young boy clad in underwear and high heels gazing into a mirror; and Robert Gober’s Untitled (1990), a fleshy sack set on the floor which reveals half of its chest as hairy male, half as smooth-breasted female.
Few exhibitions have had the same capacity to arouse one’s inner voyeur. From Charles Ray’s Male Mannequin (1990), a generic mannequin fitted with the artist’s cast genitalia, to Greer Lankton’s emaciated Rachel (1986) and Maurizio Cattelan’s Now (2004), an effigy of John F. Kennedy in a coffin, many of the featured works exemplify the human obsession with the weird, the grotesque, and the “other.” But the ogler’s eye ventured yet deeper, to penetrate beneath the skin. Viewed from the right side, Damien Hirst’s apparently fully fleshed Virgin (exposed) (2005) peels back the skin to expose a skull, breast lobules, and a belly bearing an umbilical cord-wrapped fetus. This divided rendering recalls 18th-century wax cadavers—anatomical Venuses—which conflated scientific inquiry with the public craving for executions, followed by post-mortem readings of the deceased criminal’s viscera for signs of evil. An example from the Fontana Workshop features a reclining nude, her smooth flesh forming a startling contrast to a splayed torso spilling oozy and sinewy innards.
Viewing viewers viewing was almost as much fun as the exhibition itself. Registering shock, surprise, amusement, and intrigue, visitors affirmed the Met’s achievement—presenting a timeless subject in a way that offered something intelligent for everyone.