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Adam at the Met

The museum miraculously puts a broken god back together again

Jeremy Sigler
February 02, 2015
Tullio Lombardo (Italian, ca. 1455-1532): Adam (detail), Ca. 1490-95, Marble. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1936)
Tullio Lombardo (Italian, ca. 1455-1532): Adam (detail), Ca. 1490-95, Marble. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1936)

At the Met stands a life-size marble statue of the biblical figure Adam carved by the Italian artist Tullio Lombardo (1455–1532). Adam stands with a serene gaze and relaxed body language, his weight transferred elegantly across his torso and hips. Lombardo appropriated the pose from classical antiquity in order to meet the requirements of the pope who hired him to somehow create a human being beautiful enough to be considered a god incarnate.

Lombardo accomplished this higher-order task with a most subtle compositional effect and with some pretty fancy chiseling. He abraded or irritated the surface of the marble and then polished it until a sublime magical light—literally and allegorically—began to overtake the mass, radiating from inside and reflecting off the outside. Finally the brittle stone is re-perceived (and re-conceived) as flexible matter—matter with the properties of skin, cartilage, musculature, bones—plus an ethereal effervescence.

a: to bubble, hiss, and foam as gas escapes
b: to show liveliness or exhilaration

The stone thus transforms from hardness to softness right before our eyes. This “coming-to-life”—breath—is the remarkable illusion of elasticity, malleability, and vulnerability. It is art that truly possesses artfulness. On display in the Met, Adam doesn’t command our respect and attention as much as grab onto our sympathy and transfer our own physical and mental vulnerabilities.

The story of Adam is primarily about the vulnerability of sexuality—losing one’s self-control, losing the muscle and rigidity of the mind—the strength, that is, to deny ones own carnal calling. There is irony to this fragility. Because Adam’s flesh while soft is also hard: He is more hard body than Buddha. He is a man who is capable of standing on his own two feet, governed by the inanimate marble that makes him rigid by the laws of physics. The hardness of stone pretends to be the softness of skin pretending to have the rigid armature of the ingenious human skeleton. The entire spectacle—mentally, physically, and metaphysically— speaks of the defiance of gravity.


Did Adam desire to stand frozen in marble forever? Well, it turns out, maybe not. Which could be why, in 2002 a museum worker strolled in to work one morning and discovered Adam face down in little tiny pieces all over the floor, his head a good 20 feet from his shoulders. After throwing the biggest collective Charlie Brown shit-fit in museum history and sealing off the area in yellow caution tape, the folks over at the Met came together, formed a huddle, and decided to execute the most scientifically advanced conservation job ever to be undertaken in the history of the museum.

Now, 13 years later, just as Mr. Silverstein’s “Freedom Tower” assumes its position in the Manhattan skyline, Adam stands erect again exactly as he was before his fall—maybe even stronger on a new pedestal and in a new room in the Met’s new permanent gallery for Venetian and northern Italian sculpture. Up on two feet again, Adam is back at his full-time gig resisting gravity.

It’s such a success story, in fact, that it’s hard to tell which of the following phenomena is the greater feat: 1) the original artistic creation by an artist tapping away bits of marble until the exact semblance of a human being remains; 2) the actual creation of humanity, God’s artwork so to speak, from his electrically charged primordial ether; or 3) the technological forensic masterpiece accomplished by the Met combing through dust and rubble and fitting hundreds of three-dimensional pieces of marble back into place—just as one does (or is expected to do) after an airplane crash.

For now, I would say that all three of these feats are on equal footing, that all three are debatably factual. And while Adam is now compromised in certain ways, he is just as advantaged. Now, due to this fabled event, we are given a new impetus to gear up our eyes and brains and look with an even higher frequency. In other words: fresh eyes. Now it seems healthy not obsolete or redundant to ask a question like, “Who is this Adam guy?” Or, “What does it mean to represent a god as a pubescent man challenged by a mere apple?” Or even more noire-ishly, to question: “Who or what made the thing fall?”

This detective has to admit that his first thought was Marcel Duchamp. Today, Duchamp’s Large Glass, which he once appropriately referred to as “definitively unfinished,” came to dominate an entire wing of in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But before it came to rest in this dignified location, the glass artwork was accidentally shattered. Duchamp bit the bullet and laboriously put it back together, overtly incorporating the new pictorial element into the work’s mysterious, layered evidences. To this day, the most compelling and magical component of the work is its giant splintered web of broken glass that interacts with the other pictorial devices. Duchamp considered the work to have been completed by the elegant artistic hand of chance.

Duchamp’s appreciation for chance was not exhibited in this work alone. It was a deep fascination. Around the same time (1913) he created a work called 3 Standard Stoppages. In it he shared his role as “artist” with another partner in crime, gravity. He let a meter of string fall onto canvas and glued the string down in the exact curve it assumed when it fell. He repeated this experiment three times, with three strings. Duchamp then made three “rulers” based on the three curves. Now, with the three wooden “stoppages” patterned from three swerving strings, he arrived at his own “pataphysical” totally logical system of measurement and tools to measure.

Another Duchamp also comes to mind, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, a work that had been compared to an explosion in a shingle factory. Clearly history wasn’t ready for an artist who was prepared to exhibit the secret power of chance right out in the open in order to escort convention and aesthetics down from its authoritative anatomy. In my mind, this “descending of the nude” down an escalator and through the new mechanical world—is an allegory that changed art forever.

By the mid-1960s the American Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre took this idea even further, giving a simple brick a radical place to take a load off, right on the gallery floor. Andre’s humble firebricks later became an expanded palette of the Periodic Table of Elements including gold, silver, iron, aluminum, etc. When he made works using metal plates, placed in grids across the floor, he also invited any viewer to walk onto this plateau and to thus enter in to the liminal bounds of the artwork. So, even more radically, with this gesture, Andre invited man’s (Adam’s) body, with all its organic stuff, to become a material component of his sculpture. So, as we see, the work’s physical reality is not just visible elements (like humans and steel), but invisible elements as well (like gravitational forces and energized fields). Andre (whose show at Dia Beacon closes March 9) may have defied the history of sculpture going back to antiquity, but at the same time he may have been the first modernist to refrain from the defiance of gravity.

Andre went on to further articulate this concept that same year (1966) in yet another giant step for artist-kind called Spill. In this new paradigm he emptied out a small bag of uniformly square chips onto the ground and just walked away, leaving this “event/place” to be swept up by the gallery janitor. Andre allowed us to perceive as had Duchamp an art that for the first time in history didn’t resist gravity or chance.


Today it is hard to look at the trajectory of Adam without an even more radical framework created by the totally forgotten mad-scientist of the modern era, who pioneered electromagnetic energy, Nicola Tesla.

Tesla sought to explain gravity in a new way after inventing alternating current and pioneered the transmission of electricity based on the study of (longitudinal) lightning bolts. His Dynamic Theory of Gravity is rumored to have been so grand and grandiose as to necessitate being suppressed by the U.S. government and made classified in order to protect humanity from “humanicide.”

Tesla envisaged his ether as invisible as the ghost that leaves footprints in the snow. He recognized that all perceptible matter is thrown into infinitesimal excited whirls of velocity and transmutations and that when the force subsides, this motion stops, and perceivable matter can completely vanish, reverting back to a primary ether. Did you hear that? He said “vanish.”

Tesla died in his eighties while trying to harness the cosmic rays that he believed were dancing through everything. Little did he know his serious theory to beam continental defense shields into the atmosphere (designed to bring an end to war), would get turned into science-fictional ideas of evil-minded weirdos set on zapping things into oblivion while giggling uncontrollably.

Today comments made in 1908 by Tesla about the potential to use electrical waves seem farcical at best, even though most of his ideas were proven to be real (and real threats) in his lifetime.

“It is perfectly practical to transmit electrical energy without wires and produce destructive effects at a distance.”—Tesla

Ever since Tesla went away (via death), rogue scientists started doing experiments in their own labs making claims of levitating bowling balls and recording experiments that are generally thought to be camera tricks. Meanwhile the deep-down Tesla devotees (just like the Wilhelm Reich devotees) speak with great conviction about using electricity to de-tox the blood and cure cancer.

And with this, I am tugged along despite my better judgment into the world of home-grown Sept. 11 fact-finding and explanation. In 2013, a bona fide maverick in the field of mechanical engineering, Dr. Judy Wood, published a tome of mind-boggling observations from Sept. 11. She determined exactly what brought down the WTC complex by more closely observing documentation of the pile of ruble known as Ground Zero as well as tapes of the pyro-aerial event that day. Go online if you want to see the doctor standing before a small audience in some town hall somewhere repeatedly asking this marvelous, frankly hilarious question: “Where did the buildings go?” Dr. Wood observed that after the three towers allegedly collapsed the remaining mass of steel, aluminum, concrete, and glass—not to mention office furniture, file cabinets, and toilets—did not in any way match the mass of the buildings. And this was because most of the mass of the buildings simply “dustified” on the way down to the ground the same way Alka Seltzer dissolves in water on the way to the bottom of the glass. Dr. Wood speculates that this “dustification” process is an advanced top-secret military weapon that had its debut on Sept. 11, with astonishing effects that had never been seen prior by anyone, other than Tesla.


So, with all of this gravity and possible antigravity having its effect on monuments across the planet, why should we be shocked by what happened at the Met back in 2002? When a life-size marble sculpture by the Venetian Renaissance master fell off its pedestal in the middle of the night, when its plywood pedestal buckled, Philippe de Montebello, then the Met’s director, called it “about the worst thing that could happen” to a museum. I would agree.

Over the last decade, an A-team of three conservators and consulting scientists, engineers, and curators, all worked together to turn negative into a positive. The Met studied exactly how Lombardo had captured the curly hair, the ethereal gaze, the intertwined serpent and grapevine and tree trunk that entered the museum’s collection in 1936. They used laser-mapping technology to create a three-dimensional replica of the sculpture, in order to rehearse putting it back together before actually doing the real thing. Fiberglass pins—best for weight bearing—were placed in each ankle and in Adam’s left knee, and together the parts slid. Then came the really strong glue.

The restoration expresses a new attitude of openness. Why not share such innovative work with the public, rather than keep it a secret? Why not appeal to our insatiable appetites for vaguely eroticized come-back stories—why not capitalize on our rubbernecking despite the stigma and the obvious loss of 1490 authenticity? In order to hype the process and turn it into a riveting scene, the Met even released a documentary film that streamed off their website. I watched it, fully engrossed, unaware that my tongue was hanging out. Compare this to Italy’s Uffizi Gallery in Florence whose conservators were recently working in a glassed-in lab so visitors would have a front row seat to the action. Or to Frederick Wiseman’s recent film National Gallery that shows highly skilled restoration work being done on a Rembrandt.

Against the odds, Adam has survived: The fragments have been meticulously joined, the breaks in the stone cosmetically disguised. In a way, the sculpture was made again but this time in reverse—this time, the dust of marble was transformed back into a block of marble, minus every particle that to Lombardo’s eye didn’t resemble Adam.

And this new Adam stands for exactly what he has always stood for. Which is what? God. The Bible states that humanity was created in the image of God, but clearly we are not all created in the physical image of God, because Judaism steadfastly maintains that God is incorporeal and has no physical appearance. Jews believe that it is their nature that is God-like—their intellect. Jewish people resemble, well let’s just say, a nerdy god. So, while standing tall at the Met, Adam may be beautiful, but it certainly isn’t a sculpture that has much use to Jews.

If anything the Jewish imagination of God would be more inclined to feel God’s presence in the scene of the fallen and fragmented scatter. In Genesis there is a recurring symbolism of the bond between Adam and the earth. Adam’s curse results in his grounding. Adam, in this sense, returns to where he comes from—from “dust” back to dust. Thus, I am inclined when assessing the catastrophic events at the Met’s ground zero, to accept Adam’s fall as a very compelling story, like Humpty Dumpty, of entropy. After Adam (and Humpty’s) fall, and subsequent shattering—the inability to be put back together again by all the king’s horses and all the king’s men is, after all, the point of the story.

So, why couldn’t Adam, the sculpture at the Met have been re-conceived, re-imagined, re-exhibited as a scattered floor piece like a Carl Andre spill or a box of broken marble? There would be less vertical chiseled stone to mirror our vanity, but it would have given us an Adam truly worth seeing and worth contemplating.


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Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, My Vibe, was published by Spoonbill Books.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.