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Blogs/ Collection Insights/ Take a Fresh Look at The Met Collection with these 12 Episodes of The Artist Project

Take a Fresh Look at The Met Collection with these 12 Episodes of The Artist Project

The artist Kehinde Wiley walks through a gallery of portraits by Sargent

The artist Kehinde Wiley walks through a gallery of portraits by John Singer Sargent.

Five years ago, The Met invited 120 contemporary artists from around the world to choose artworks that inspire them from the Museum's collection. The Artist Project features videos of these artists digging deep into several millennia of art to pull out threads that resonate with them today. Such a wide range of contributors and selections weaves a rich tapestry; the artists are at turns poignant, hilarious, and melancholic, but always insightful.

All six seasons of The Artist Project are free to watch online, and each episode runs about four minutes. The complete series was also published as a book in 2016. Watch the full series or check out twelve of our favorite episodes below.

Mickalene Thomas on Seydou Keïta

In this episode, painter Mickalene Thomas looks at the portraits of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, whose works are renowned as intimate records of life in West Africa. Thomas, whose work analyzes Black femininity and power, finds that Keïta's photographs seamlessly blend what he sees with how his subjects see themselves. "He's using a photo studio, but also working within a language that he's from, culturally using what's around him," she says. "You don't have a photojournalist coming and telling your story to the world, you're claiming that space yourself."

Roz Chast on Italian Renaissance Painting

Long known for her iconic New Yorker cartoons, Roz Chast turns her attention to Italian Renaissance painting. "I love this era because it's before everything got so perfect," she says. "I like the flatness, I like the sort of made-up backgrounds, the attempts at architecture that don’t always work out." In this episode, Chast shares her winsomely absurd interpretations of these classic works: a golden UFO hovers over a village scene, a pink house looms over a reverential crowd.

Hiroshi Sugimoto on Bamboo in the Four Seasons

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a photographer famous for his ethereal black-and-white images of theaters, seascapes, and buildings. "Photography seems to stop time, but in my case I capture long-time exposures, showing the passage of time," he says. Here, Sugimoto looks at a Japanese screen depicting bamboo growing throughout the year—a fifteenth-century example of an artist who captures a sense of passing time.

Zarina Hashmi on Arabic Calligraphy

Zarina's series of woodcuts Home Is a Foreign Place (1996) lent its name to an exhibition at The Met Breuer about migrancy and home. Here, Zarina, who was born in India but moved frequently throughout her life, discusses how her identity relates to Arabic calligraphy. "I've lived outside of India almost fifty years, but I have kept up with my language because there is a cultural connection," she says. "Once you are separated from language, it's a great loss." It's a poignant meditation on language and identity by the artist, who passed away in April 2020.

Jeffrey Gibson on Slit Gongs

Indigenous artist Jeffrey Gibson visits the Vanuatu slit gongs every time he comes to The Met. For a long time, though, he knew very little about them. Although he understood that they weren't originally made as "art"—and that viewing them in a museum changed their function—he couldn't help but admire their extraordinary sculptural qualities and their sense of mystery. Gibson's meditation is a vivid reminder of the secret lives of artworks and how context shapes perception.

Nina Katchadourian on Early Netherlandish Portraiture

The interdisciplinary artist Nina Katchadourian contemplates early Netherlandish painting, with a particular focus on a pair of portraits by Hans Memling. Although Katchadourian says that she's never made a painting per se, her oblique observations are full of insight: she notices subtle displays of virtuosity—fine stubble on a chin, beads of light on a pearl necklace. "They feel so specific," she says, "like faces that you could see once you walk outside."

Nan Goldin on Julia Margaret Cameron

Photographer Nan Goldin admits that she'd never liked the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, a nineteenth-century British artist known for her soft-focus portraiture. Then she saw her work at The Met and discovered a kindred spirit. "I was given a hard time by male photographers for years," Goldin reflects, "both for my lack of technical ability and my subject matter." Cameron's early photographs were often riddled with technical errors—but she embraced them, inviting a new way to think about the medium.

Kehinde Wiley on John Singer Sargent

The painter Kehinde Wiley is best known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama. Prior to that 2018 painting, Wiley painted less famous subjects. "Generally I enjoy painting the powerless much more than the powerful," he says in this episode. While John Singer Sargent is perhaps the preeminent society portraitist in American art, Wiley finds threads connecting their practices. "My work and Sargent's intersect with some of the problematics surrounding class. … I'm a young Black man trying to deal with the ways in which colonialism and empire are all in these pictures."

Catherine Opie on Louis XIV's Bedroom

When photographer Catherine Opie was nine years old, she read E. L. Konigsburg's classic children's book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which two young siblings run away from home and stay at The Met. "Being this kid in the Midwest," Opie recalls, "what caught me was the idea that there was this place of imagination that you could explore." As she takes a closer look at Louis XIV's bedroom, Opie muses on the secrets embedded in domestic spaces, like how the objects we collect reflect our values.

William Wegman on Walker Evans's Postcard Collection

William Wegman is known for his witty portraits of his pet Weimaraner dogs, his comical conceptual films, and his appearances on Sesame Street. Less known are his paintings. In this episode, Wegman digs through Walker Evans's collection of postcards. Like Evans, Wegman collects vernacular photographs, which Wegman often layers into paintings. "I don't really think of [postcards] as works of art," he says. "Something will catch my eye and I'll spend more time than I ever expected I would, in the same way that I would in a museum."

Sarah Sze on the Tomb of Perneb

Sarah Sze's art often leaves you feeling disoriented or unfamiliar with the space around you. That's by design. "I'm always thinking about how an inanimate object can be alive, somehow." In this episode, Sze walks through the ancient Egyptian Tomb of Perneb (ca. 2381–2323 B.C.) and contemplates how the space disorients her and creates a sense of life. "A lot of people come in and they leave quite quickly," she says. "It's not just the claustrophobia, it's the intensity of that experience. You feel something alive there."

Vik Muniz on The Henry R. Luce Center

Not many people know about The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, a sprawling visible-storage display on the mezzanine of the American Wing. In fact, the artist Vik Muniz only discovered it by chance; at first, he thought it was a contemporary art exhibit—row after row of paintings, pottery, grandfather clocks, furniture, doorknobs, frames, and more. "The connections between one object and another are very loose," he says. "You have to look without prejudice. It leaves it up to you to make your own narrative."

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