Saturday, December 13, 2014

Art Exhibitions of 2014

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a few hours so I could finally see a number of exhibitions they have on at present. I confess I felt rather nostalgic walking through the galleries, remembering fondly my 7 years of having worked there, reinforced by lunch with my curatorial friend JD and coffee with my former library colleagues and friends CD & SP. The current exhibitions are all excellent. The Renaissance tapestry show of the work of Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst will blow your mind when you turn the corner and see all the gorgeous tapestries installed down a long corridor. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire is luxurious and fascinating for what could be a morbid topic. The room-installation of Thomas Hart Benton's 1930-31 mural America Today is amazing--you can almost hear jazz playing as the characters sway from one American scene to another. But the greatest part of my day was the exhibition on the Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo's Adam, seen here, fully restored. In 2002 the pedestal for the sculpture collapsed and, horrifyingly, the ca.1490-95 sculpture shattered. After 12 painstaking years of intensive study, and utilizing new technologies, the object conservators were able to restore this life-sized statue to near-perfect condition. The sculpture is an exquisite piece, clearly an influence on Michelangelo's David, and important as an early idealized male nude sculpture in Renaissance art. The videos on the website and in the gallery amaze you to see how they successfully conserved and restored the sculpture.

This year the best exhibitions for me were all on sculpture. In addition to the Adam just mentioned, the Met put on two excellent sculpture exhibitions. One was on the works of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), who reinvigorated French sculpture during the Second Empire with a Baroque-style energy that excited and scandalized people of the day. Running earlier in the year at the Met was another sculpture exhibition, The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925, an excellent show that aesthetically changed one's mind about works you once might have considered to be little more than living room kitsch. At Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery, a great sculpture show was put on about Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973), about which I blogged here. Finally, at the Yale Center for British Art, the long-awaited Victorian sculpture exhibition there brought together about 130 works that changed one's mindset about what defines sculpture and how it can be made. The show also demonstrated the power of the curatorial eye with a fine selection of finely-crafted statues, reliefs, and decorative objects in an array of media. The first work one encountered in the exhibition, as seen in my photo here, exemplifies the surprises of the show. This is a Minton ceramic elephant measuring 84 inches in height, part of a pair, that was first exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. I have a review of this exhibition being published in the spring, so I will share more when it comes out, but for now, here is what I wrote about this gorgeous majolica elephant: "The elephant reveals a high degree of craftsmanship that demonstrates the successful union of man and industry, but it also has a deeper meaning. Displayed as part of a cultural parade, its empty howdah decorated in Mughal textile designs and awaiting a royal occupant, the tamed elephant represents the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown: India and all its riches. This work in the foyer thus foreshadowed others in the galleries of Sculpture Victorious: masterpieces of human and industrial design, and socio-political symbols of the British Empire."

If I had to choose my favorite exhibition of the year, however, it would be, without a doubt, Kara Walker's sugar-sculpture installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: A Subtlety: or, the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Walker is one of my favorite contemporary artists, and in this work she went beyond anything she had done before. Commissioned by Creative Time as a temporary installation, before the building was scheduled to be demolished, Walker designed a massive, sugar-coated, sphinx-like creature with the body and facial features of an "Aunt Jemima" type, to remind visitors of the intricate ties between the West's love of sugar and its intertwined history of slavery. The work was powerful and had lines of people waiting to get in. A group of friends of mine all went together to see it in June, and we were mesmerized. There are numerous images online that people took, so I'm only sharing here one I took to show the scale of the sculpture in the warehouse and the diminutive nature of the people around it. As time passed, the sugar gradually changed color, and the surrounding molasses "little black Sambo" boys melted and fell apart. After you were in the warehouse a while, the smell of the sugar and molasses became so sickeningly sweet you had to leave and get fresh air. This was all part of the artist's intent, to create a temporal, multi-sensory sculptural environment. When the show closed, most of the sculpture was destroyed (what had not disintegrated on its own already), although there is at present at Sikkema Jenkins an after-show that exhibits her sketches and designs, and an arm Walker kept as her own personal souvenir. This sculptural installation was truly a tour de force of artistic achievement, for the artist and the audience.

Aside from sculpture exhibitions, one major art exhibition highlight for me was Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Asia Society. This historical monastery and its Buddhist treasures was constructed in the 12th century but destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution. The installation included discovered and recovered treasures alongside historical photos, but the most amazing part of this exhibition was having the opportunity to witness the monks make a sand mandala. This was an ongoing event for 5 days with 5 monks. You would expect it to be solemn, quiet, and peaceful. On the contrary, the monks were very engaging with visitors, including taking photos with them. They often laughed too, but then quickly would return to their back-breaking, eye-straining work of constructing this mandala. The most amazing moments were when they would help one another, knowing that one had more expertise than another, and they could share in the responsibility of building this sand mandala together. Their humanity made this a very spiritual experience. You can watch a great time-lapse video of them making the sand mandala here.

Other exhibitions from this year worth noting included:
** Pre-Raphaelite Legacy at the Met Museum, a small but groundbreaking show for them to finally acknowledge the accomplishments of these Victorian artists;
** Beauty's Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at The New-York Historical Society, about which I blogged here;
** At the Guggenheim Museum, the fantastic multi-media exhibition on Futurism, Italy's modernist art movement, and the riveting photographs of African-American feminist artist Carrie Mae Weems;
** Florine Stettheimer at the Lenbachhaus in Munich (although I guess technically I have only seen it "in process" and will have to wait until early January to see the final, full exhibition!);
** And my dear friend and colleague Meera Thompson at Atlantic Gallery.

I would be remiss if I forget to mention my own two small, curated exhibitions--15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy and Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise--both of which I thought were rather well done...if I may say so myself.

UPDATE (12/14/14): One of the blockbuster exhibitions of the year, that previously had opened in London and is now on here in NYC is Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Everyone I know who has seen it loves the show, and it has been on my "must see" list, but I dread going to MOMA because of the crowds so I wasn't sure what to expect. Fortunately, AA and I decided to make the trek there today and it actually wasn't as bad of a crowd as I anticipated. The exhibition is very good, demonstrating well how Matisse used paper cut-outs and collage as a form of painting unto itself. It is a smart show about materiality, color, composition, and artistic technique. We also had a chance to pop into the Robert Gober exhibition. He is one of those contemporary artists I typically don't appreciate much, but this retrospective helped change my mind a bit with his theme-and-variation sculptural objects and large-scale installation spaces. It was all rather tongue-in-cheek and clever, I must say, so I do have a better appreciation for Gober now.

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