The annual Facade Commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, currently in its fourth iteration, is an opportunity that few artists can resist. It’s an offer that ranks high among the offers artists cannot refuse. Unless you’re someone who doesn’t shy away from the perpetual haunting of ‘what-ifs,’ you muster your courage and embrace this unique assignment. The task at hand is to create a sculpture for display in one of the most prominent and challenging spots in the New York art world—the four domed niches adorning the neo-Classical facade of the Met’s main entrance on Fifth Avenue. Each niche frames a plinth and is further enclosed by a pair of imposing columns that stretch two stories high. This viselike setting presents spatial challenges but is culturally rich, offering ample opportunities to comment on the treasure house it guards—a repository of power, prestige, human vanity, and folly.
So, artists accept this daunting task and hope that their artistic response to the site will be commensurate with their own artistic achievements. However, history has shown that this is easier said than done. The three artists who have been chosen for this commission so far—Wangechi Mutu, Carol Bove, and Hew Locke—have certainly made their mark, but it’s wise not to set overly high expectations. The Met’s facade is like an imposing windmill to tilt at, and those selected for this endeavor should be given a degree of leniency and understanding.
Now, it’s Nairy Baghramian’s turn to take on this monumental challenge. Nairy, originally from Iran and a refugee who arrived in Berlin at the age of 14, belongs to a generation of artists that includes luminaries such as Carol Bove, Huma Bhabha, and Leilah Babirye. They all share a common passion for using the past to breathe life into the present through sculpture, erasing boundaries between different artistic styles and cultures, and experimenting with new materials and techniques.
Nairy Baghramian’s artistic journey, shaped by her unique background and creative vision, promises to add another layer of depth to this prestigious commission. Her work, influenced by her personal history and the evolving artistic landscape, is poised to leave a lasting impression on the iconic facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offering viewers a fresh perspective on the intersection of tradition and contemporary art.
Nairy Baghramian, an artist with a strong presence in European art circles but somewhat less recognized in the United States, has been a trailblazer in expanding the horizons of sculpture. Her exceptional talent has earned her numerous accolades, including the prestigious 2022 Nasher Prize, which recognized her ability to shed light on the poignant, contradictory, and often humor-infused aspects of both the artistic process and everyday life. (This award coincided with her extensive exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.) Baghramian is an artist who grants herself an unusually broad creative latitude.
Her artistic focus lies in the realm of quietly eccentric abstract forms, often crafted from unconventional materials such as epoxy resin, rubber, and aluminum. These sculptures are finished with nuanced matte colors. Her pieces effortlessly merge organic and geometric elements while drawing inspiration from architecture, design, the human body, and the legacy of sculptors from Jean Arp to Eva Hesse to Matthew Barney. Her work possesses a unique blend of restraint, wit, and at its pinnacle, an unexpected emotional depth, almost a sense of sentience. Some of her sculptures even seem to possess a life force of their own.
However, the sculptures currently gracing the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art signal a departure, perhaps a transitional phase, in Baghramian’s artistic journey. They deviate from the absorbing tranquility seen in her earlier works; instead, they exude boldness and dynamism, as if they are in perpetual motion. These sculptures burst forth in a vibrant array of colors, some of the most vivid ever to adorn this iconic facade.
Baghramian’s latest creations consist of two or more sizable irregular forms cast in aluminum, derived from sculpted Styrofoam with various textures. These forms are then coated in striking reds, blues, a rich lavender, and an assortment of greens. Some of these shapes resemble rocks, while others evoke remnants of crumbling ruins. In a few pieces, sinuous cords or ribbons in hues of orange, pink, or yellow either weave through or suspend above the aluminum structures. These rock-like components rest on or lean against gridded white aluminum, creating an optical effect that can evoke associations with Sol LeWitt sculptures, oversized garden trellises, or elaborate storage pallets.
Attempting to fully grasp the essence of these sculptures can be a challenge. While moving around the grand porch of the Met, viewers can perceive different aspects of the artworks, but this fragmented experience does not necessarily clarify their overall meaning. Some pieces are daringly cantilevered over the edges of their niches, lending the entire ensemble an impression of transience and precariousness, like impending avalanches waiting to descend.
Nairy Baghramian’s undertaking was developed in collaboration with Akili Tommasino, an associate curator. To her credit, Baghramian eschews the predictable theme-and-variation approach, ensuring that each piece in this commission, bearing the overarching title “Scratching the Back,” is distinct. The individual work titles reference the colors of the ribbons, and as one moves from left to right, the arrangements become increasingly intricate, hinting at different narratives.
The first piece, situated on the left, is the simplest and most serene. It features two wedges in light and dark blue, each resting on separate pallets at different heights. The lower wedge leans gently on the upper one in a tender gesture, marking the artist’s shift toward bolder, shinier colors. The chiseled surfaces are softened by thick, undulating paint that resembles glaze.
The next sculpture showcases two tall vertical elements, reminiscent of column fragments, in pale green and lavender. They lean on either side of the white grid, as if separated by a fence through which an orange ribbon playfully darts. Each vertical element is accompanied by a shorter one, suggesting a parent-child dynamic. The scene carries echoes of a world filled with refugees, yet the implication of paired figures engaged in a charged encounter, coupled with the delicate color palette, also evokes comparisons to the Renaissance master Pontormo’s “Visitation,” which was exhibited at the Morgan in 2018.
The third piece, located to the right of the entrance doors, is particularly rich in symbolism. It begins with a large boulder in deep sky blue, accompanied by a curl of lavender ribbon. The boulder leans to the right, seemingly overpowering a thin slab of green, while a substantial wedge of bright red stands tall behind them, alluding to an undercurrent of violence.
The final niche harbors its own suggestions of chaos, with a yellow ribbon gracefully undulating across a composition resembling three stone chunks, reminiscent of dilapidated buildings. This amalgamation extends beyond the niche’s boundary, as though it awaits the next surge of movement.
In Baghramian’s compositions, with forms propped or juxtaposed against one another, there is a subtle conveyance of the unease and apprehension that permeate our contemporary world. The artist ingeniously juxtaposes this instability against the perceived permanence of the Met and its values, quite literally embodied in its stone facade. Baghramian’s stones, in contrast, seem poised on the cusp of returning to nature. Their ultimate lesson may be reminiscent of biblical wisdom—stone to stone, dust to dust—an allegory for the transient nature of all things, including institutions.
The Facade Commission: Nairy Baghramian, Scratching the Back
Through May 28, 2024, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org.