There are some offers an artist cannot refuse — and first among them is the annual Facade Commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now in its fourth iteration. Unless you’re someone who doesn’t mind the prospect of being forever haunted by what-ifs, you gird your loins and accept the assignment, which is to create sculpture for display in one of the most visible and challenging spots in the New York art world. That is, the four domed niches embedded in the neo-Classical facade of the Met’s main entrance on Fifth Avenue. Each niche frames a plinth and is in turn framed by a pair of robust columns two stories high. The viselike setting is spatially difficult, yet culturally rich in opportunities to comment on the treasure house — with its power, prestige, human vanity and folly — just beyond.
So you accept and hope your response to the site is commensurate with your achievement. This tends not to happen. The three artists chosen thus far — Wangechi Mutu, Carol Bove and Hew Locke — have done well enough, but it may be best to lower expectations. The Met’s facade is an oppressive windmill to tilt at. Selectees should be granted a certain amount of slack.
Now it is Nairy Baghramian’s turn. An Iranian-born artist who came to Berlin at 14 as a refugee, she is among the best sculptors of her generation, which includes artists like Bove, Huma Bhabha and Leilah Babirye. All use the past to enliven the sculptural present, erase boundaries between styles and cultures and employ new materials and techniques.