It's a masterpiece, whatever that means

"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

That word has so many heavy connotations with connoisseurship and a certain attitude about art history, that one masterpiece comes after the other. There are great works, absolutely. In contemporary art, there are seminal or building-block works that changed everything. You can point to a Rauschenberg combine painting. "Monogram" is a great work in that way. You can point to Jackson Pollock's first drip paintings.

But the word masterpiece? I grew up in an intellectual climate where you would never use that word. It was sort of taboo. Not that connoisseurship is somehow put aside, but in contemporary art it's troublesome, if only because it's difficult to distinguish all the different artists who might use plaster dust sprinkled around a room.

In painting, John Curran is an interesting case. He looks at the legacy of what we think of as masterpieces and his facility with paint is pretty amazing. For other painters, it's not about virtuosity; it's about other things.

There are also contextual issues. Think of our Charles Burchfield show. He was, at one point, America's best-known artist, making masterpieces. Then he disappeared. Other artists are resuscitated or not appreciated until late in life. Then they get a show that opens everyone's eyes.

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill

Vice President of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator, Museum of Latin American Art

The Pompidou exhibition is an ambitious and interesting attempt to revise, actualize and expand the notion of the masterpiece, if only because so many wonderful works can be enjoyed in one singular occasion. This type of show is credible because of the prestige of the museum and its collection. And as such, it plays into a traditional museum role: to expand or create new canons and legitimize lesser-known artists in the collection, mostly French or other Europeans. Less explored or lesser known art from a region such as Latin America cannot have an important role in such a show because it does not belong to "the canon." From this perspective, the exhibition is as much about the museum as the art.

Jimmie Durham once wrote that Freud thought the shopkeeper in Vienna at the turn of the century could stand for the universal complexity of the mind. In the same way, exhibitions such as this continue to dwell on universal — though expanded — precepts which ultimately are exclusionary, problematic and mostly unnecessary. The concept of the masterpiece travels uncomfortably to more contemporary and experimental arenas, and it is certainly a last resort to describe and legitimize today's meaningful art production.

Stephanie Barron

Senior Curator of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The word masterpiece is bandied about way too frequently these days, but I think it is still a useful concept. For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists. It needs to touch all those bases to really be a masterpiece.

Masterpieces can be so-called by critics, curators and historians, but for the nomenclature to really stick the work of art needs wide public appeal. I think the general public has a harder time with very contemporary art and that may be partly why it takes longer for contemporary works to be considered masterpieces.

Each generation usually looks differently at works of art. Think of how revered William-Adolph Bouguereau was and then what happened to his reputation. I think of works in the Museum of Modern Art's collection that in the 1950s to '70s were among the real hits — Tchelitchew's "Hide-and-Seek" or Wyeth's "Christina's World." Today I doubt that they are among the top 10 works in the collection. Times change and so do people's tastes.

Marla C. Berns

Director, Fowler Museum at UCLA

At the Fowler, we tend to avoid using the word masterpiece. We are already dealing with the problem of using the word "art" as a category to describe a whole range of objects that are not called art by the people who make them. We also tend not to focus on uniqueness as a virtue. Most of the cultures with which we work create objects according to particular cultural prescriptions that have as much to do with their purposeful qualities — physical aspects that lend power to their efficacy in the intended context — as their aesthetic ones. Value judgments around aesthetics are too limited.

When you have a corpus of an artist's work or a catalog raisonne, you can wrap your arms around a particular body of work that can be attributed to an artist, say Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. In other cultures such as Africa, which I know best, there's no way of knowing what that corpus was. What we know is what has come out and ended up in collections or what has been documented in the field. There isn't the capacity to know what is the very best, although we can work within the known corpus and say, "These are the most compelling objects within a group and these are the reasons why." But calling something a masterpiece strips away the dynamics of changing attitudes. Our knowledge tends to be a moving target.

Paul Schimmel

Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art

I don't think the notion of masterpieces will ever go away. When you go through a retrospective of an artist's work, you go forward and backward. By the time you are finished you have narrowed it down to certain pieces or bodies of work. It's quite apparent what the masterpieces are, the things that transcend.

And it's not just paintings. When you see a video installation by Bill Viola or Ryan Trecartin, the works might seem the same, but you start looking at them and find that some are richer, more interesting, more complex, more resolved. The same words apply to photographs and works in any other medium.

It doesn't matter how old the artist is or if the works are ancient or contemporary, from the early Renaissance or Angkor Watt or Mayan culture. There are things that, as you look and learn, just stand out. In the 20th century gallery at the Norton Simon Museum, there's a real broad range or works, 50 years in one room. When you see all these things together, the Picasso just jumps off the wall.

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