Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body at the Met Breuer in NYC

Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body at the Met Breuer in NYC

If in New York City before July 22nd, you won’t want to miss this exhibition. Reviewers describe “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body” as bizarre and amazing.  It is both. The 127 pieces are divided into several themes.  Each includes both old and new art, primarily various forms of sculpture.  Some are famous works:  Degas’ “The Little 14-year Old Dancer” and Duane Hanson’s hyper-realistic working-class housewife sitting under her hair dryer with cigarette and cup of coffee.  

 The first theme, “The Presumption of Life, ” reminds us that for centuries white sculpture prevailed. Painted figurative sculpture was found only in carnivals and religious processions.  This attitude continued for centuries because, while Greek and Roman statues were originally polychromed, when discovered later, their colors were gone. After that, white was de rigueur. Here the ancient statues are combined with Charles Ray’s “Aluminum Girl” (2003), a white life-size nude machined from metal.  

 Such a huge exhibition encourages me to focus only on what is closest to our New England Wax  hearts: art utilizing wax.

Mask of Anna Pavlova,1924_by Malvina Cornell Hoffman, wax, tinted

One unusual death mask, “Mask of Anna Pavlova,” was made by a stage designer for an elaborate birthday celebration for the dancer.  A stage designer created a screen, modeled on a Russian icon, and left space for the mask.  When a curtain opened showing the screen, Pavlova placed her own face in the space instead. 

Proxies, ca 1910, by Pierre Imans, painted wax


In the 1910s Pierre Imans began creating wax mannequins.  Unlike the faceless dolls in shop windows around Europe, Imans’ mannequins even had wigs of human hair.  Exquisitely created, they were viewed by many as high art instead of commerci



Ex-voto breasts from a church in Bari, Italy, 1890-1910

From ancient times people placed cast wax body parts such as “Ex-voto Breasts” in churches as offerings of gratitude for health or a desire for divine intercession when ailing.  Though some considered them pagan, the practice continued in Italy until the early 1900s.

Untitled, Robert Gober, 1990 

Robert Gober’s “Untitled,” began as a bag of plaster.  The fleshiness of wax, hair on the chest, and breasts with pigmented nipples look real.  Especially at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “Untitled” alluded to the body’s frailty and its becoming more object-like.


Now, Maurizio Cattelan, 2004, wax, clothes, hair + wood

A hyper-realistic JFK in a coffin felt spooky.  Here, you are up close to a world-famous person in a very human, but undignified, state. This work is shown around the world and keeps alive the debate about what really happened to JFK.

Old Woman in Bed, Ron Mueck, 2000-2002, mixed media, 10″x 37″x21″

Ron Mueck’s “Old Woman in Bed” utilizes contemporary media: silicone rubber, polyesterresin, polyurethane foam, and polyester.  In the exhibition’s final piece, the tiny size of the woman and her isolation on a large base reminds us: our fragility increases as we age, and we are all alone at life’s end.  

 While these new materials convey skin, nothing beats the translucency of wax in seeming so real you want to touch it.  I am awed by the skill, particularly of the 1800s artists, in blending colors so subtlety.  Anyone who works with encaustic knows how very difficult that is.  You will enjoy this mind-blowing exhibition.