Sunday, January 3, 2016

Art Exhibitions of 2015

The end of each calendar year brings out all the art critics to write about the best art exhibitions they experienced that year. Because we live in the NYC area, with an incredibly rich cultural scene, we are fortunate that there is so much to see. Here, for instance, is the link to Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith's article on the best in the art world in 2015, which is quite comprehensive if thematic in its arrangement. Conscious of geography and its limitations to lists, I like that Hyperallergic does separate reviews for NYC and other parts of the world in their annual rankings, to create a more level playing field, it would seem. As for me, since I don't have the luxury, liberty, or time to see every exhibition in NYC, let alone in the world, I can only base my list on what I have been fortunate to see. This year I did see a lot, including a number of new museums and collections for the first time, listed at the end of this post. Below is my annual summary of what I felt were the best shows I saw this year (here is last year's post). And, for the record, I should note that I have not yet seen Picasso Sculpture at MOMA, partly because going to see an exhibition there is a total nightmare. Fortunately, it closes in about a month from now, so I still have time.

I still am surprised that no one I have encountered, read, or spoken to, ever saw what I consider to have been one of the best shows of 2015. Entitled Body and Soul: Munich Rococo from Asam to Günther, this exhibition (installation view above) brought together over 160 sculptures in polychrome wood, terracotta, silver, and stucco, as well as drawings and paintings and prints by a number of largely unknown sculptors based in Bavaria during the 1700s (hence the eponymous Asam brothers, Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam, working early in the century, to Ignaz Günther at the end). This exhibition was installed at the Kunsthalle in Munich, a space for rotating special exhibitions. The installations of many of these works was simply stunning. The exhibition was ecclesiastic in its focus (Bavaria, unlike the rest of Germany, historically remained Catholic), so one saw mostly angels and saints in the show. Normally installed in churches, cathedrals, and chapels, these works typically are part of elaborate, intricate architectural settings and interior spaces. Removing them and putting them on exhibition in this way, however, gave the viewer the opportunity to appreciate them as individualized works of art, with an emphasis on the sculptural quality of these figures, i.e. their materiality and craftsmanship, and occasionally their hyperrealistic theatricality. At the same time, removing them from their usually-ornate environments, the viewer appreciated how their contorted, exaggerated forms make them seem proto-surreal and modern. The image you see above was just one of the many rooms in which the stunning display of larger-than-life figures impressed viewers. It is unfortunate that this exhibition did not get more attention internationally. Despite the national focus, I suspect it is because it was largely religious in nature, and religion does not usually do so well with audiences today.

Two other sculpture shows that are high on my list derive from the ancient and contemporary art worlds. In Florence I saw at the Palazzo Strozzi the exhibition Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, which showcased intricate and often naturalistic works of art crafted from the period between Alexander the Great's death in 323 BCE and the foundation of the Roman Empire in 31 BCE (image left: Victorious Athlete, 300-100 BCE, bronze and copper, Getty). Drawn from collections worldwide, many of the objects were presented with interesting didactic panels that provided a broad context from how the bronze figures were made to their socio-economic and political uses. The exhibition was co-organized with The J. Paul Getty Center, and is currently still on show at present at the National Gallery in Washington, DC until March.

In contrast to this ancient survey, the exhibition of works by Doris Salcedo at the Guggenheim here in NYC was absolutely worth visiting. I was first introduced to Salcedo a few years ago when she did the infamous "crack" Shibboleth in the floor of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which had some interest but seemed to rely too much on the conceptual for my taste. This year, however, the exhibition of a selection of her work clearly revealed her focus on her heritage growing up in Colombia during turbulent years in its history. Her works address violence, racism, and misogyny, but they also fool the mind with their use of unusual materials and the juxtaposition of hard and soft media that confuses the mind. The installation view seen here shows a series of historical wooden pieces of furniture that have had concrete poured into them. Making them useless as furniture, they take on a new function as archaeological monoliths that question ideas about the domestic sphere. An installation piece that changes with each space, these incredibly heavy objects challenge one's ideas about what constitutes space itself, then, and in the spirit of sculpture-as-objects the viewer is forced to engage with them in a way that blocks your entry and exit. Their monumentality and gravitas were provocative and almost tangible. The two criticisms I had about this exhibition, however, was that it was spread out through the galleries at the Guggenheim in a way that I found disconcerting and fractured. Secondly, it was absurd of the designers not to make the wall texts and panels bilingual. In this day and age in America, curators and designers have a responsibility to create Spanish texts in addition to English texts whenever they exhibit a Latino/a artist. (Brooklyn Museum successfully did this with their Francisco Oller exhibition, but alas I was not as thrilled about that show overall.)

Shirin Neshat: Facing History was on exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, when AA and I visited there in June. Like with Salcedo, I had seen a few of Neshat's photographs and one film in the past, and was intrigued by her work, but this retrospective was amazing. I would go so far as to say it is #2 on my list of the best exhibitions I saw this year. Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat left in 1975, and her art work since then has addressed the turbulent politics of Islam and Iran's relationship with the West. She has staged historical recreations of important political events, uses multiple cameras to personify the divided worlds of men and women, and hand-manipulates exquisite black-and-white and color photographs with Persian texts, all in to draw attention to the crises we face in our ongoing political battles between Iran and the West to this day. Neshat is one of those artists whose work continues to have more relevance with each passing year as jihadists in the Near East continue to strike fear in the hearts of everyone--Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, everyone--in the world. The image you see here is a manipulated photograph from her 1993 series I Am Its Secret (Women of Allah) [Photo: Plauto © Shirin Neshat].

On my list, I would next say that #3 is Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. On display at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, this show was an absolute delight. African-American of mixed-race heritage, Motley (1891-1981) was trained academically, but was influenced by modernist trends after World War I. His portraits of blacks, whites, and mixed-race people emphasize the wide array of complexions and social standings that exist in our world. He celebrated the advancements and opportunities that jazz gave to blacks in America and Paris, and clearly loved music and dance. The painting you see here, Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929, is an exploration of the spirituality endemic in some black communities, but you also can see in the movement of their bodies that this is a dance, a paean to life-as-spirituality, and how jazz is influencing even how one can think about religion. This exhibition taught me about an American artist whose work I had little exposure to before now, and showed me beautiful paintings that made me go through the exhibition more than once to absorb all the colors, forms, compositions, and sensations. It made me appreciate yet again how incredibly fascinating the 1920s were in American art, a statement I have been making ever since I saw the incredible show Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties at Brooklyn Museum in 2011. To wrap up this section, I should add that the Whitney Museum also deservedly gets kudos for the new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District. They have done an amazing job of integrating public and private space, outdoor and indoor space, in one building, and in so doing have unexpectedly also created a charming new community in a neighborhood that culturally was on the rise but now has taken off.

To wrap up this post here are a few other honorable mentions from exhibitions I saw this year:

  • I was delighted I had the opportunity to see Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton, at The Frick (image right). This painting is one of those great pictures from posters and postcards that first inspired people to look anew at Victorian painting (even I had a poster of it!). Seeing this picture in person reminded me that Leighton is painterly and has a lush brushstroke, even though images make him seem to be a slick, linear classicist. Viewers love this painting for its sensual depiction of the young woman in her diaphanous draperies, and it does not disappoint in person. I also liked how the Frick installed the picture by two of their ladies by J. A. M. Whistler, cleverly demonstrating how the two were part of the Aesthetic Movement, which emphasized beauty in art without subject or moral meaning, but painted so differently.
  • At the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year, one of their big successes has been Kongo: Power and Majesty, which I saw not too long ago. It is indeed an excellent installation and does a good job of not only showcasing beautiful examples of African art in numerous media, but also engaging well with issues such as slavery and post-colonialism with the Portuguese trade of this area from the 1600s to the 1900s. 
  • Another great Met Museum exhibition was Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, not because it was a wonderful installation, but because everyone just loves gazing at and revelling in John Singer Sargent's bravura of a brushstroke. 
  • In contrast, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River was not necessarily a beautiful exhibition, but it was very interesting learning more about this 19th-century painter based in Missouri drawn from scientific analysis of his paintings and looking more closely at his contemporary sources. 

I will close this post by noting that I was fortunate to visit a few museums for the first time this year. These were, in no particular order: the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City; the Barnes Foundation and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia; the Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Moderna in Rome (amazing unknown 19th-century art); the Guildhall Art Gallery in London (Victorian pictures galore!); and Dia:Beacon in upstate New York (whole new appreciation for Sol LeWitt's wall murals). I also had a great research trip to Boston and visited for the first time the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the reconstituted Harvard Art Museums, and revisited for the first time in almost twenty years the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Amazing art, collections, installations, and exhibitions in these places...2015 was quite a great year.

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