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It's a masterpiece, whatever that means

The inaugural exhibition at the new Centre Pompidou-Metz revives a long-standing debate about what, if anything, deserves the lofty label.

September 02, 2010|By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Metz, France and Los Angeles — "Chefs-d'Oeuvre?"

The question — "Masterpieces?" — posed by the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz is a matter of many opinions.

Four months after the quirky museum with a swooping white fiberglass and Teflon roof, designed by Shigeru Ban of Japan and Jean de Gastines of France, opened its doors in this little-known town 175 miles east of Paris, visitors continue to ask if the strikingly modern building near the majestic old train station resembles a Chinese straw hat, a hut for the Smurfs or a manta ray in flight.

The masterpieces query is a weightier matter and it comes with lots of historical baggage. Composed of about 800 works, the sprawling show is a think piece about the ever-changing meaning of a term coined in the Middle Ages to judge the work of craftsmen in the European guild system but often dismissed as quaintly irrelevant these days.

"I have no definitive definition of a masterpiece," Laurent Le Bon, director of the Metz museum and curator of the exhibition, states in a publication accompanying the show, "but, in my view, it is a work that permits diverse interpretations, indeed contradictions."

Critical reactions to the show include proclamations that it's the most impressive assembly of 20th century art in all of Europe and accusations that it's so confusing and anti-hierarchical as to be meaningless. In art historical circles, the exhibition has revived a debate about the concept of masterpieces. Interviews with curators indicate that there's hardly a consensus on the subject, with some saying it's a valuable way of measuring quality and others pointing out the flaws of any such system.

The Pompidou Center, a Parisian cultural powerhouse that houses the French National Museum of Modern Art, built the satellite in Metz to share its 60,000-piece collection with a city of about 200,000 people. But visitors expecting the Pompidou's greatest hits are in for a surprise. What they get is an eclectic array of paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, installations, architectural models, furniture and printed material.

An introductory section on the ground floor tracks the evolution of masterpieces "from Middle Ages to revolutionary genius" in works lent by various institutions. But the bulk of the show ending Oct. 25, which continues on three upper floors, is drawn from the Pompidou's 20th century and 21st century holdings. The final display, "Masterpieces ad infinatum," grapples with notions of uniqueness in an age of endless reproductions.

As the exhibition unfolds, major works by such stalwarts as Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman share gallery space with examples by relatively little known European figures and a few sculptures from Africa, Asia and Oceana. The works on view rarely conform to conventional ideas about masterpieces as paragons of beauty or tours de force of skill and they aren't necessarily the best examples of the artists' output.

But pieces such as Bourgeois' enormous installation "Precious Liquids" sum up essential themes — in her case, conflict between the artist and her father and bodily liquids that symbolize pleasure and pain. Other works mark zeitgeist moments that have influenced ideas about what a masterpiece might be.

Marcel Duchamp, who famously said that a masterpiece is created by the viewer, not the artist, is represented by his first "readymade," a bicycle wheel mounted on a wood stool in 1913. Georgio De Chirico's 1914 painting "Premonitory Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire" is a Surrealist tribute to a leading avant-garde poet and critic, portrayed as a classical statue wearing sunglasses.

Alain Jacquet's 1964 painting "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" is part of his "Camouflages" series based on widely distributed reproductions of masterpieces from bygone times. His version of Edouard Manet's celebrated Impressionist work recasts the luncheon on the grass as a poolside picnic obscured by a silk-screen pattern.

The most recently made pieces have yet to pass the test of time. A stunningly detailed photograph of commercial goods packed into a 99 Cents Only Store is a seminal image by Andreas Gursky. But it was made in 1999 by a German artist whose reputation and work continue to grow.

Experts' views

Once upon a time, a masterpiece was a creation that met rigid standards of artistry and craftsmanship. These days, the term usually refers to the best work of an artist's career or an example of outstanding creativity or skill, but there's little agreement on the meaning and relevance of the term, particularly in modern and contemporary art.

Consider what a few Southern California authorities have to say in interviews and e-mail exchanges:

Douglas Fogle

Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, Hammer Museum

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