September 3 2014

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The Met Does “Icon” Some Justice


Andrew Bolton“Icon” is one of the most overused words in the fashion lexicon—in fact, it’s thrown around with such carelessness that one has to wonder if it still holds any meaning. This past Saturday, the Met attempted to restore some of the word’s significance with its all-day series TEDxMet: Icons. Through talks by choreographer Bill T. Jones, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Eric R. Kandel (who explained our often amorous relationship with art through science), and the Met’s medieval art curator Melanie Holcomb, the event—which, held in connection with the globally recognized TED organization, is the first TEDx talk ever to be hosted in a museum—aimed to both explore and challenge our understanding of icons. Curator Luke Syson explained he thought the Mona Lisa was the most iconic work of art in history—until he developed a love/hate relationship with a pair of pink, handcrafted seventeenth-century French elephant vases by Jean-Claude Duplessis. Later, Negin Farsad—a Muslim American comedian—did a thoroughly hysterical bit dubbed “I Used to Be Black: Notes From an Icon-Less American,” about her coming-of-age identity crisis and her difficulty in finding an Iranian American role model (“join me,” she pleaded, “and let’s bang out some new icons!”). And architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff explored how Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum building (which the Met is taking over when the Whitney moves downtown in 2015) could transform from a hated Bauhaus structure to a beloved landmark worth saving.

Unsurprisingly, however, this journalist was most excited about Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton’s discussion of his 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty. The show attracted 661,509 visitors during its seventy-seven-day run, but Bolton noted that neither he, nor the Met, had expected it to be such a success. “You need only look at how we handled the lines to see that,” he laughed. And while McQueen’s suicide played a somewhat macabre role, Bolton stressed that it was the “beauty and power of McQueen’s fashions” that made Savage Beauty the most popular fashion exhibition in the Met’s history.

Before his talk, which was punctuated by screens covered in images of Savage Beauty‘s installations and McQueen’s most memorable runways, came to a close, Bolton joked that he had asked those closest to McQueen—including Sarah Burton—whether the late designer would have approved of the exhibition. Apparently, everyone offered the same response. “He would have loved having his name above the museum, but would have been furious that fewer people had come to see his show than King Tut.” Before stepping off stage, Bolton added, that, after one of his last shows, McQueen remarked, “There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.” “This,” said Bolton,”was his legacy. And this is what it means to be an icon.” We have to agree that McQueen embodies the word—in its truest sense.

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Dept. of Culture