You can have your Prado, your National Gallery, your Hermitage. New York’s magnificent Metropolitan Museum of Art is not only the finest encyclopedic museum of art in the United States. It is arguably the finest institution of its kind in the world. Unlike the Louvre, it is comfortable and easy to use. You can get to all the work without having to navigate hot spots of tourists or trudge forever to get to things. Plus you never feel like you’re in someone’s former palace.
The Met is a city of art with more than 2,000,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of world culture spread out over 2,000,000 square feet. This museum isn’t about any particular collection or single masterpieces. The Met is a masterpiece unto itself. It is a museum of museums, an institution of extraordinary depth in numerous areas. This means superlative collections not only of musical instruments, armor, decorative art, prints, drawings, and period rooms, but African, Asian, Oceanic, Greek, Islamic, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance art, all the way to the late 20th century, when things get iffy.
In addition to over 36,000 objects in the Egyptian collection -- the largest collection of Egyptian art outside Cairo -- there’s an entire intact Egyptian shrine from 15 B.C., the Temple of Dendur, which should be called the "Temple of Dinner" because of all of the social fetes conducted here. Even the Met’s many restaurants and cafes are great. And you can’t beat the admission price: Pay what you like as long as you pay something. The Met makes you a perpetual student. Go there and you’ll see something different every time. Or just visit the same piece every time and see why the Met is so bottomless. The Met is a visit to the entire world as well as the self.
1. Krater (mixing bowl) with prothesis (laying out of the dead), Greek, Attic, ca. 750-735 B.C.
One of the best things about the Met is that you see art as soon as you enter the building. Medieval is straight ahead. Egyptian on the right. Go left and you’re instantly immersed in ancient Greece and Rome. One of the first objects you’ll see here is a stunning large ceramic urn adorned with a spectacular array of stick figures. A combination of cave painting, pictograms, Egyptian hieroglyphics, silhouettes from Mars and Zap commix, this is a scene worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. In the middle of it all there’s a dead man on a funeral prior. His wife and child mourn nearby. Later they seem to jump up there with him. There’s also a procession of little female figures, each with two teeny protruding nipples. Below these oh-la-la beauties are chariots and soldiers carrying hourglass shaped spears. This is narrative art at its finest, maybe the beginning of movies.
2. Ethiopian Illuminated Gospel, late 14th-early 15th century.
This illuminated bible is open to a full page illumination (one of 24) of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. The image shows a Mesopotamian-like Jesus atop a donkey. He is surrounded by the 12 apostles. Each sports a brilliant yellow halo. All hover around him on a rich green ground and look at us with wild Picasso-like eyes, pulling us in on some spiritual-religious tractor beam. The space in this painting is flat, inventive, fragmented, Byzantine, visionary and captivating all at once. The geometry, composition and intense color give this illumination enormous ornamental and formal power.
3. Jean Antoine Watteau, Mezzetin, 1718-1720.
This powdery, powerful little picture of a man sitting alone in a park, on a bench, with his head cocked, and his legs crossed, strumming a guitar, singing to someone out of the picture has the pathos, dignity, lyricism, vulnerability, delicacy and humanity of Mozart’s music. Also the aching beauty. You see this lone character from Italian commedia dell’arte in a harlequin-like costume and you’re deeply in touch with something profoundly Shakespearean and the way that all the world is a stage. Watteau not only suggests that all songs are love songs but shows us the birth of our own modern sensibility of doubt, loneliness and love.
4. Papua New Guinea, Headdress Effigy (Hareiga), New Britain, Chachet Baining people, late 19th-early 20th century.
This 15-foot-long object is so powerful I sometimes imagine it has to be strapped down to prevent it from levitating through the roof of the museum into outer space and creating a force field all its own around the earth. This enormous puppet-headdress made by the Chachea Baining people of New Britain, Papua New Guinea, looks like a tree trunk with a massive swollen head. In addition to a well-formed vulva, tiny ears, stumpy legs and crooked arms, this figure sports tattooed eyes, eyebrows and a gapping mouth. She seems to hover and preside over this hall of the Met like an extraterrestrial empress emitting waves of visual, psychic and erotic power.
5. Marshall Islands Navigational Chart (Rebbilib), late 19th-early 20th century.
This grid made of coconut midrib, sticks and fiber by the sailors of the Marshall Islands looks like something Mondrian, Richard Tuttle, Joaquin Torres Garcia or Paul Klee might have made. It is not an abstract work of formalist art. It is a tool, a map and navigational chart that records wave activity, underwater currents, ocean swells and the best ways to guide a vessel safely to shore from sea. Whatever you see it as, imagine if our maps to the moon were constructed as lyrically and physically as this.
6. Pablo Picasso, The Dreamer, 1932.
The Met owns more than a dozen works by Picasso. The Dreamer gives us Picasso, then 51, the cubist and the formalist but also the sexually obsessed and love-struck swain. In this lush image rendered in creamy pinks and ravishing lavender we see what cubism may be about on a primal level: The urge to see vulva, buttocks, mouth, eyes, anus and belly button all at the same time. This is a dreamy, steamy post-coital picture of Picasso’s 25-year-old mistress, Marie Therese Walter, asleep. Her cheeks are flush, her blond hair tossed onto a blood-red pillow. If this were a photograph, a certain former New York City mayor and current presidential candidate might throw one of his infamous conniption fits over immoral art.
7. Florine Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Art, 1942-44.
This batty, beautiful candy-colored picture shows the grand staircase of the Met supported by pillars that say "American Art." On the left is the Museum of Modern Art. Its former Director Alfred Barr relaxes in front of two Picasso paintings. Figures from Matisse and Rousseau dash by and a little angel of modern art dances at his feet. In addition to a self-portrait of the artist as a young sexy goddess (Stettheimer painted the image when she was in her 70s), are figures from the early American avant garde, including painter Pavel Tchelitchev, art critic Henry McBride, photographer George Platt Lyons, artist Charles Demuth, art dealer Julien Levy and Alfred Stieglitz draped in a cape. This is as much a totem pole and a birthday cake as it is a great painting.
8. Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Faith, ca. 1671-74.
The Met has five paintings by Vermeer. The weakest, if there is such a thing as a weak Vermeer, is Allegory of Faith. This painting is a bit of a mess and in many ways doesn’t work at all (even great geniuses have bad jags). Yet this clamorous painting vividly illustrates something that’s easy to overlook in Vermeer’s work: Everything in the picture is set up. Theatricality, artifice and the rupture with reality are the real content of this painting. The woman may be meant to symbolize the church but she’s obviously a model; she’s posed in an overly dramatic, even hokey way with her hand clutching her bosom and her foot resting on a globe of the world. All the objects in the picture serve as props. There’s no attempt to suggest that this is a real scene. Vermeer literally pulls back the curtains at the left of the picture and drapes them over a studio chair. This extraordinarily constructed image can be seen as a predecessor for numerous set-up photographers, including Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.
9. Female Figure, Cycladic, Neolithic, ca. 4500-4000 B.C.
This is the oldest figurative sculpture on exhibit at the Met. And it’s a powerhouse. This 8-inch marble carved with emery and pumice is an elegant headless female figure with her arms clasped beneath her cubistic, triangular breasts. She has enormously exaggerated buttocks. Her thighs are like thickly padded plates. Linda Nochlin famously asked, "Why have there been no great women artists?" I think that there were numerous great women artists and that many of the exceptional Neolithic female fertility figures we have were, in fact, made by and for women. After all, women had the means, the motive and the skill. These objects may have been meant to insure pregnancy, aid in safe child birth and assist in the ability to breast feed. This object is more proof that the first great artists may have been women.
10. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565.
The yellowest painting in art history -- and one of the most compelling. The Harvesters is a picture Karl Marx and Coco Channel could love. Until Brueghel, peasants were often depicted as either idyllic types or brutish oafs. They were unreal and in that sense inhuman. The Harvesters is the first realistic depiction of workers’ strengths, shortcomings, daily habits and the division of labor. Start with the snoozing harvester and his undone codpiece in the foreground. Follow him to lumpy men and women gathering wheat in the middle-distance, then to a wagon transporting product through towns to the distant sea-coast and its spires, to ships laden with goods sailing to foreign ports. You’re not just seeing a gorgeous golden picture but an entire section of society at work.
11. Andy Warhol, Mao, 1973.
This giant painting is a combination of Buddha, sphinx, passport photo, propaganda poster and the image of a totalitarian dictator and mass murderer. Mao’s towering face looks down on us with piercing blue eyes. As usual Warhol balances subject-matter with the wildly inventive way he makes paintings. Note the high-keyed contrasting Day-Glo color, which belongs to Warhol alone and is now so ubiquitous you can forget who invented it. Consider how the silk-screening is inconsistent and off. These visual glitches and smudges were invented and embraced by Warhol. As with much of his work, Warhol turns you into the same kind of raw receptive nerve that he was. You crawl inside his uncomfortable skin but also experience his wonder at the world.
12. The Assembly of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Shansi province, ca. second quarter of 14th century.
Another big Buddha. At 24 feet high and nearly 50 feet long, this is the largest painting in the Met. It’s also one of the more mystical, commanding and mesmerizing. A 14th-century fresco painted with water-based and mineral pigments on clay mixed with mud-and-straw, this gigantic picture once adorned a temple in northern China. It has the presence of a shimmering light and a tapestry. In a very all-over, linear, decorative, serene style it depicts the Buddha of medicine sitting on a lotus throne in the center of "his pure land" -- a region he himself generates. He is surrounded by bodhisattvas and guardians. The Buddha’s top knot and huge earlobes connote enlightenment. This painting is as big as a boat and seems to sail directly through your optic nerve into your cerebral cortex.
13. Giovanni Tiepolo, Allegory of the Planets and Continents, 1751-53.
For 20 years I listened to artists rhapsodize about Tiepolo’s painterly chops. Yet, try as I might, I never got Tiepolo. Then by accident a couple of Decembers ago I was suddenly floored by how radically empty this little painting’s center is, how everything is flying out to and around the edges, and a vortex of swirling space forms in the middle. The whole world within this picture seems disengaged from anything earthly. Except beauty and paint. Tiepolo’s space is so charged and his subject-matter so fuzzy that this painting reads as essentially abstract or a kind of Rothko. It’s a dizzying, ebullient experience.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org