Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body
THE MET BREUER | MARCH 21 – JULY 22, 2018
Equal parts astonishing, creepy, and daring, Like Life is that rarest of major exhibitions: almost entirely comprised of sculpture; visually intriguing at every turn; and brimming with interesting ideas. Ultimately, it deepens a feeling of one’s own humanity by encouraging both a physical and emotional empathy with the naturalistic works in the show. Walking through the fourth and third floors of the Met Breuer, you are constantly made aware of your own bodily presence, scale, and organic fragility, and that of other visitors. This is no small feat. Brinda Kumar, Luke Syson, Sheena Wagstaff, and Elyse Nelson from the Met, and Emerson Bowyer from the Art Institute of Chicago, have compiled nearly 120 objects by over one hundred artists in the elegantly designed show, paired with a smartly written catalogue, to take on issues of likeness, ideality, identity, biology, verisimilitude, desire, faith, and animation.
Through seven sections, Like Life interrogates the human impulse to replicate bodies in an effort to better understand ourselves, and poses many questions. Since around the year 1300, what have been the goals of artists who have attempted the human form? What are the stakes in pushing realism to a convincing likeness? How can such creations be animated to entertain and interact? And how do these works betray the biases of the creators and societies from whence they arose (and the art-world snobbishness that consigned some of them to lesser status)? With its potent admixture of the familiar (Degas, Duane Hanson, Fred Wilson, Marisol) with the obscure (Juan Cháez, Goshka Macuga, Luisa Roldán), Like Life succeeds both in expanding the range of fine art and aesthetics in sculptural approaches from the realms of applied arts and the world of popular entertainments, and surveying a broad western approach to corporeal verisimilitude since the Gothic era.
The show opens with a blaze of erect white forms and ends on the floor below in a darkened sepulchral morgue with a display of seven recumbent bodies. Roman marble sculpture transformed the hard and reflective surfaces of original Greek bronzes into the softer and light absorbing surfaces that both connoted human epidermal delicacy and came to be seen in early cultural and art historical theory as redolent of a pale purity and racial privilege. No ancient sculpture is more lifelike than bronzes such as Warrior A from Riace, but starting with marble makes sense, and is used productively to develop themes of difference throughout the show. Two works from the Met lead it off: Hermes after Polykleitos (A.D. first or second century) and Domenico Poggini’s Bacchus (1554), thus consciously asserting how the museum’s permanent collection is based in Enlightenment taste. Then, such antique and Renaissance traditions are immediately questioned by the adjacent display of Charles Ray’s naturalistic and sexually explicit Aluminum Girl (2003)—painted white, posed flat-footed (not in contrapposto), and depicted with an exposed labia—and Bharti Ker’s unsparing plaster of Paris Mother (2016). The institutional and art historical self-inquiry continues throughout, with highlights that include George Segal’s Meyer Schapiro (1977), suffused in blue; Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ posthumous marble Louise Adele Gould (1895) and delicate, painted wax version (after 1894), commissioned by her distraught widower; John De Andrea’s mesmerizing and thought-provoking Self-Portrait with Sculpture (1980); Nancy Grossman’s hulking leathern Male Figure (1971); Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz’s Woman Washing with Scrutator with Parrot Affixed Also (1983); Kiki Smith’s moving and scarred Untitled a.k.a. The Sitter (1992) solitarily seeking salvation before one of Marcel Breuer’s trapezoidal windows; Juan Alonso Villabrille y Ron’s electric and emaciated half-length Saint Paul the Hermit (ca. 1715); and an Anatomical Venus from the Florentine Fontana Workshop (1780 – 85).
But in truth, all the works are of great interest, and the best juxtapositions in the show inspire unexpected reflection, such as the Danish Neoclassicist Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Lay Figure (before 1806) paired with Yayoi Kusama's Phallic Girl (1967). It all must be seen to be absorbed. Yet some of the side-by-side juxtapositions often seem to elevate less serious works by the likes of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst in a way that feels cheaply won: the contemporary works lack craft and a level of honesty, even novelty, compared to the earnest and accomplished material with which they share space. In the least convincing of the sections, “Layered Realities,” variously clothed bodies elicit productive discussions of identity, but the selections move away from emphatic naturalism and, like Elmgreen & Dragset's The Experiment (2012) or Isa Genzken's Actors (Schauspieler) (2013), are more experiential, narcissistic, or narrative. And by the penultimate gallery of the show, the redundant parade of counter-reformation perforated saints and suffering Christs has become fatiguing—Lucio Fontana’s four small but explosive crucifixions (1948 – 55) would have been enough.
Ultimately, no limited review can possibly encompass the seven-century scope of work and range of artistic media from medieval reliquaries to video art in this remarkable display. As in the organization of the show, it is better to consider it in more general terms of how it is experienced. Syson, in his paradigm-shifting catalogue essay, defends various polychrome media, from the Kienholzs’ tableaux to Madame Tussaud waxworks, and argues for more inclusion of popular entertainments in the fine-art realm. He contends that “the meanings of these works continue to rest largely in audience reaction,” an idea vividly reflected in the very layout of Like Life. It is uncommon in an exhibition absent immersive or environmental installations (such as the work of James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, or Doug Wheeler) that visitors are as aware of themselves as participatorily sharing space with figural works, as is the case here. In Like Life, one is constantly aware of other visitors, as floor-to-ceiling diaphanous white fabric is all that separates many sections of the display. These curtains afford shadowy views of adjacent works and fellow visitors—it is easy to mistake one for the other. Elevating a sculpture obviates the distinction between viewer and work and, as with Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951) on a white plinth at MoMA, clearly defines any object or construction as rarified and protected art. In Like Life, many works and their accompanying text panels are installed directly on the polished stone floor. The experience of reading these texts invites a kind of empathy: you must look down on your feet, your own body, and peripherally view the feet of nearby visitors and artworks whose pose you may find yourself mimicking. This is mildly confrontational in the sense that it demands you consider the organic qualities of the described inanimate creations. Just as Minimalist artists such as Robert Morris in the late 1960s exhibited large, shaped sculptures that inhabited galleries and sought to interact with the volumetric spaces around viewers, the Met’s decision to eliminate pedestals underneath the works allows for a collapse between art and life, as intended, of course, by many of the fabricators of these works. The experience, as with the wealth of marvels in this singularly successful exhibition, is affirmatively human.
- “Replicant” is a term that creeps into a number of essays in the catalogue. I associate it, as many may, with the Blade Runner films and the deeper questions of human fallibility in devising credible AI, as well as the resultant challenge to distinguish creation from reality.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.