NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body” ends with a room that looks like a scene from some dystopian science-fiction film: A portly old man wearing nothing but a shirt lies inert on a reclining lawn chair; a beautiful young woman is recumbent on an elegant purple cushion with her chest and stomach cut open; and John F. Kennedy is reposing in a coffin, wearing a suit and no shoes. The earth, it seems, has been randomly sampled and laid out on beds and biers and strange pedestals in a state of uncanny suspended animation.
This weird, morgue-like space of visual non sequiturs demonstrates both the power and the problems of the larger show. It begins as a focused examination of how color has been marginalized in Western sculpture of the human form, and then becomes a wild catalogue of everything that isn’t a classicized, white-marble statue of Apollo or Venus. On view are painted wooden figures made for religious veneration, lifelike depictions of the body used in funeral practices, wax figures created for popular entertainment, anatomical models, dolls, mannequins and hyper-realistic sculpture from the past half-century.
This is the second of the large, thematic, cross-disciplinary survey shows the Met has launched at its expansion space in the old Marcel Breuer-designed brutalist galleries on Madison Avenue that were once home to the Whitney Museum. Like the 2016 “Unfinished,” which looked at work that was intentionally or unintentionally left somehow incomplete, “Like Life” is ambitious, sprawling and often fascinating.
These kinds of thematic shows are often launched by institutions looking to leverage maximum audience engagement with sometimes limited artistic resources. But the Met has no limits to its resources, so it can give a peculiar, luxury-model twist to an exhibition type that is decidedly populist in format and argument. And so a Donatello shares space with the “auto icon” of Jeremy Bentham, a cloth-and-wax figure that contains the actual bones of the great early 19th-century philosopher, and several of Lucio Fontana’s glazed terra-cotta crosses from the middle of the 20th century are found next to the terrifyingly anguished and bleeding 15th-century Nellingen crucifix from Germany. If the objects were slightly less magnificent or bizarre or rare, one might think a bit more about the juxtapositions.
There are, however, serious but well-trod ideas driving the show. The premise is a staple of art history: Since the Renaissance, we have privileged sculpture derived from the supposed classical tradition of white marble representations of perfect human bodies, and marginalized sculpture that was painted or colored to look more “lifelike” than the art of Ancient Greece and Rome. This prejudice for the whiteness of marble, which was bound up with racist ideas about human beauty and civilization, was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of ancient statues, which were often painted to look more lifelike and resplendent. That colorizing wore off over the years, or was removed after ancient works were rediscovered.
“The fact that this new dawn of modernity was based on an illusion — the presumed whiteness of ancient sculpture — is as shocking a revelation as the tendentious definition of what constitutes a civilization,” writes Sheena Wagstaff, who co-curated the show with Luke Syson. The goal is to recoup the color that was bleached out of the canonical museum representation of Western art, and bring into the canon a host of artistic and cultural traditions that were more populist, provincial and often riotous than the supposedly serene white forms of perfection celebrated for so long.
That “shocking revelation” has, of course, been relatively common knowledge since the late 18th century, even though resistance to coloring statues remained vigorous well into the 20th century. In 1862, the English sculptor John Gibson exhibited his “tinted Venus,” which used a bit of warm color on the skin, some blue for the eyes and red for the lips — and thus managed to scandalize his Victorian audience, which felt she looked like a tramp. Two exceptional busts of women, by the French artist Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, were part of an anthropological project to capture the beauty of other races and ethnicities with more chromatic materials, including bronze and gilding and stone that was deeply veined with color. Cordier’s work wasn’t successful, but it was an example of what might be called partial “resistance” to the category of whiteness. So the exhibition has to manage a difficult balance: The prejudice against the use of color was never absolute, and the marginalization never entire.
And was it, after all, whiteness that was the problem? The first room of the show takes advantage of the naturally lighted fourth-floor galleries to juxtapose classical and Renaissance statuary with more contemporary ventures into “whiteness,” including Charles Ray’s 2003 “Aluminum Girl,” a naked female figure made of aluminum painted white. The preternatural, industrial whiteness of Ray’s work makes one wonder exactly how white the old “white” classical statues actually were. In fact, when one looks at stone statues what strikes one more than their whiteness is their texture, which is full of small imperfections in a way that Ray’s girl is not.
Whiteness certainly was associated with purity, and other ideas that played into deeply racist attitudes and forms of exclusion. But some historic arguments for the visual power of undecorated, monochrome statues had a legitimate aesthetic component, too. Just as we still make arguments today about the power of abstraction to transcend particulars and liberate the viewer in relation to the object, similar claims were made centuries ago for the power of “white” statues to speak without distraction, encumbrance or the specificity of meaning that color adds. Monochromatically “black” statues have much the same “abstract” power as white ones, so the problem is racism — the freighting of aesthetic ideas with cultural, religious, racial and political implications — not the particular color in question.
The curators extend their argument about whiteness and race to exclusion based on class and the division between high and low art or entertainment. Ideas proliferate as the exhibition expands to cover the use of fabric and material to clothe statues, the Pygmalion theme of making work so real and erotically attractive that it threatens the boundary between art and life, and the religious and erotic use of surrogate forms such as life-size dolls and mannequins. With each new divigation comes another lesson from Art History 101: the power of the male gaze, the arbitrariness of aesthetic categories, the suspicion of popular or folk art forms that threaten established hierarchies.
Ultimately, the best moments are the ones that are so bizarre and remote from the main theme that one can forget that the show is spinning a bit out of control. A Sevres “breast bowl” made in the 1780s has a nipple at its base and was believed to be modeled after the breast of Marie Antoinette; its use involved intimate contact with a form associated with the positive societal benefits of breast feeding. The “Anatomical Venus” in the last room — the eviscerated young woman on a cushion — is an 18th-century wax-and-wood form that mixed the study of anatomy with a disturbing amount of symbolic physical and sexual violation. A mid-19th-century male sculpture in a white robe and turban sits in a chair and stares blankly at the world. It was a portrait commissioned by a Calcutta-based merchant for his trading partners in Boston, but it is hard to imagine that this spooky doppelganger was received in the spirit it was sent.
There is a larger statement overarching these magnificent digressions, and it is essentially a confessional. Here are all the ways the modern museum has gone wrong, all the things that were excluded. But this is also an exhibition that gives pleasure by inviting us to gawk a bit at the bizarre and the uncanny. When it is over, at least some of the old categories of what is in and what is out will reassert themselves, and much of this material will go back to where it came from, because it is conceptually, materially, intellectually and aesthetically remote from the strengths and capacities of a major art museum. One senses just a bit of double-dealing in this larger confessional: Look at these things that were once considered freakish, and now enjoy the freak show.
Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now) is on view through July 22 at The Met Breuer, in New York. For information, visit metmuseum.org .