Nairy Baghramian Is Scratching Down the Walls

Taking over the empty niches along the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fifth Avenue facade are the Iranian-born sculptor’s meticulous mishmash of abstract shapes, a timely probing of what museums obscure behind their constructed images.

Nairy Baghramian. Photography by Bruce Schwarz/courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Iranian-born artist Nairy Baghramian strolled the galleries with associate curator Akili Tommasino. Baghramian was focused on what the museum wasn’t showing—in this case, the backsides of classical sculpture. Many such works, she said, have rougher posteriors because they were intended for niches and only viewed from the front. “No care, no love, no detail,” she told the New York Times. “It’s a painful abstraction.”

So when the museum selected Baghramian for its annual Facade Commission, in which an artist creates sculptures to temporarily animate the empty niches along its Fifth Avenue exterior, she sought to cheekily subvert the polished image institutions present to the world. (Designed by Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1902, the facade has four niches that were intended to house freestanding sculptures but laid empty until the program launched in 2019.) From her Berlin studio, she fabricated sculptures made of cast aluminum polychrome forms that evoke flotsam snagged on steel lattice yet appear frozen in time, teetering on the verge of tumbling down from the niches.

She calls her series “Scratching the Back”—a distortion of the idiom “scratching the surface” that elucidates the messier details museums obscure in favor of the fragments they choose to highlight. Not only do her works confront ideals of what should take up space in a world-class museum, but they arrive at a time when such institutions are grappling with the troubling provenance of their collections. The Met is no exception—a damning report recently laid bare the dodgy details about how its ancient relics have ties to known smugglers, prompting them to publish a blog post detailing their acquisition process.

Photography by Bruce Schwarz/courtesy the artist, Kurimanzutto, and Marian Goodman Gallery
“Scratching the Back: Drift (Tortillon Orange)” (2023) by Nairy Baghramiam. Photography by Bruce Schwarz/courtesy the artist, Kurimanzutto, and Marian Goodman Gallery
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