Looking at the 20th century

PERHAPS the first thing the new 20th-century wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York does for a visitor is to suggest how far many of these 20th-century artists have come toward becoming ``old masters.'' Their canvases have provided the received images of Euramerican civilization of the past several decades, our ways of looking at our world. We have learned to see cityscapes in terms of post-Impressionistic jumbles of light and color, where earlier centuries saw them in terms of seamless brushwork and architectural detail worthy of a draftsman's apprentice. Still lifes in earlier eras did not dissolve into brilliant oranges and greens and lavenders as they have done in our own century. And anyone who has a mental image of what Gertrude Stein looked like probably owes it to the Picasso portrait of her, now at the Met.

And perhaps the second thing the new wing, named for Met benefactor Lila Acheson Wallace, does is to indicate just how far art has traveled in this century. The Stein portrait can be seen in a tradition that includes Titian and Rembrandt. But what is to be made of a work like Robert Rauschenberg's ``1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece''? This work, billed as the artist's ``continuing visual autobiography,'' fills an entire gallery. In scale alone, it shows that the distance from Titian and Rembrandt to Picasso is shorter than from Picasso to Rauschenberg.

Artists like Rauschenberg, however, force us to see their work as art - as solutions to problems of composition, form, color, texture - in a way that earlier art does not. Is the appeal of a landscape by the 17th-century artist Claude Lorrain, for instance, purely in its artistic quality? Or do we like it because we would like to picnic there?

The very different ``landscapes'' of artists like Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and others, amply represented in the Met's new wing, provide less room for picnicking but much food for thought.

For provoking such reflections, the Wallace wing is a welcome addition.

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