1.) Vasily Kandinsky at the Guggenheim. The show of the year — and arguably the best exhibition of abstract painting in the decade. Give the curatorial team credit: They presented Kandinsky from the moment of his breakthrough forward and wasted little wallspace (or visitor energy) on Kandinsky’s first decade as a derivative painter-borrower. [Image: Kandinsky, Landscape with Rain, 1913.]
2.) Anne Truitt at the Hirshhorn. This exhibition revealed Truitt to be one of America’s best post-war colorists and one of art’s most important minimalists.
3.) Joan Miro, 1927-37, at MoMA. On one hand, curator Anne Umland told a mighty selective story of her chosen decades, a story that omits major series of Miro’s paintings. On the other hand, what she showed revealed some of the richness of Miro’s too-oft-neglected oeuvre, and did so with verve and drama.
4.) Two super books: Master of Shadows: The Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens and The Photographs of Homer Page. While the decline of art journalism and the increasing inwardness of art criticism (such as art criticism remains) has garnered the most discussion in the art world and among journalists, the number of serious books about art seems to have fallen dramatically too. Good histories such as this Rubens book should be appreciated all the more. Kudos to the Nelson-Atkins, Yale and curator Keith Davis for digging into photography’s history instead of launching another show/book of a Famous Name.
5.) MOCA’s two-museum collection installation. See MAN later this month.
6.) Bruce Nauman, Days and Giorni at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. See MAN later this month.
7.) Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese at the MFA Boston and Cezanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Critics have tittered that museums are done doing shows with the ambition of these juggernauts. I think that’s overstated – good projects will continue to get done. Besides, these two shows were great not because they were ambitious but because they were done well.
8.) Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCA. (Opened at the end of 2008.) Institutional commitment(s) defined.
9.) The George Grosz ‘inaugural gallery’ at the Hirshhorn. A reminder that art can be a timely bucket of cold water.
10.) This one happened in the waning weeks of 2008, but it took me a while to appreciate it, to put it in an appropriate context. And by ‘a while’ I mean: A year of strikingly strange behavior from the types of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the New Museum, the National Gallery of Art, SFMOMA and others:
On a quiet midweek afternoon in late November 2008, I was wandering through the Cincinnati Art Museum. There was unusual degree of activity afoot. Something was about to happen in the museum’s main hall. Whatever it was seemed fairly significant and official: Seemingly everyone was wearing suits with ties that looked like American flags or nice red-white-and-blue dresses that looked like they’d been purchased for the still-mystifying patriotic occasion. People were alternately congratulatory and nervous. Obsessed with seeing the entire museum before it closed a couple hours hence, I initially paid the hubbub little notice and made a beeline for the paintings galleries.
Eventually I overheard someone explain the cause of the hullabaloo: Scores of immigrants would be taking the oath of citizenship in a ceremony held in the center of the museum. Having never seen something like this before, I pulled myself away from a notable Courbet to watch the brief ceremony. After brief remarks from various Official Figures, scores of middle-aged folks stood, raised their right hands and took the oath of citizenship.
When two people get married, two people are the focus of the scene and the people around them serve as extras. This was different. Dozens of people took the oath together, creating dozens of focal points, dozens of points of poignancy. They weren’t just expressing joy, they were clearly full of pride – and most of them were sharing that with multiple generations of their red-white-and-blue clad families. The museum guard who stood to the left of me as we watched from the museum’s second floor cried. (OK, I did too.)
Art museums try lots of things to get people in the doors: They launch allegedly populist exhibitions of dubious merit. They host after-hours, mating-dance parties. The put sports cars just inside their front doors and pretend that’s meaningful. (Ahem, Cincinnati.) They think that they need to put up a multi-story sculpture of a train by a semi-famous artist so that people will think that the museum is a community landmark, a place of importance.
On a chilly weekday in February, the Cincinnati Art Museum trumped all that by doing what an art museum should do: Present itself as the center of its community, as a gathering place for a special experience, as a place where the largesse and generosity of several previous generations of a community are on view and available to welcome that community’s most recent generation. The art museum made itself available, and as a result the visitors and new citizens made themselves available to the art. I’d bet $100 that everyone who took their oath of citizenship at the Cincy museum that day will not just go back to the museum, but that they will value the place for the rest of their lives. So will their kids. Sometimes the best things museums do are the simplest – and they don’t cost $25 million.