1.) “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350″ at the J. Paul Getty Museum. It wasn’t just all those Giottos. (Seven!) It wasn’t just the way the show revealed Pacino di Bonaguida as a major but too-little-considered artist. It wasn’t just curator Christine Sciacca’s argument for a clear link between manuscript painting and panel painting at the beginning of the Renaissance. It was all that in one art-historical thrill ride. [Image: Pacino di Bonaguida, The Crucifixion, about 1315–20. Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell'Arte Roberto Longhi di Firenze.]
2.) “Inventing Abstraction 1919-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art” at the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA’s Leah Dickerman is not the first curator to tell a story of the dawn of abstraction, but her version is particularly compelling, full of both men and women and Russians, Americans, and artists from seemingly everywhere in between. If anything can divert the New York art world from its obsession with the art market, it’s this thought-provoking, geeky-discussions-launching show. [MAN Podcast]
3.) “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The self-taught Strauss and PMA curator Peter Barberie wowed us with an exhibition that showed Americans and communities left behind by the one-percent-oriented Bush economy. Not just a great exhibition of Strauss’s decade-long “Under I-95″ project, but an example of how a museum can engage its community around an exhibition. (Alas: In a massive unforced error, the PMA then destroyed much of that good will.) [MAN Podcast, image below-left: Strauss, Daddy Tattoo, Philadelphia, 2004.]
4.) “Matisse: In Pursuit of Pure Painting” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Henri Matisse spent the last 45 years of his career trying to prove that he was not a facile, bourgeois painter. This exhibition, organized by a curatorial team that included the Met’s Rebecca Rabinow, the Pompidou’s Cécile Debray and Dorthe Aagesen of the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, revealed how hard Matisse fought to develop ideas and paintings.
5.) Two small, intense installations: Doug Wheeler’s ‘infinity environment’ at New York’s David Zwirner gallery pulled off the impossible: It forced people to line up in the February cold for a chance to experience it, and then it delivered once they were inside. [MAN Podcast] Baltimore Museum of Art curator Kristen Hileman took a big chance by offering a commission for two permanently installed artworks to relatively unproven Sarah Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer came through in a major space-bending way. W-120301 is particularly intense, an artwork that will motivate pilgrimages for years. [MAN Podcast]
6.) Terry Winters at Matthew Marks. In keeping with centuries of tradition, Winters can be mysterious about the inspirations and sources behind his influential abstractions. (He’s the father of systems painting.) In a two-venue winter show in New York, Winters showed superb new canvases and pages from his notebook that offered insight into how Winters got there. For more on Winters’ sources, check out his appearance on The Modern Art Notes Podcast, when I tried to dig for further details. [Image: Terry Winters, Notebook 188, 2003-2011.]
7.) “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Curator Stephanie Barron created a show so beautiful that no one could understand why it hadn’t been done before. Her decision to present Price’s work in reverse chronological order was one of the best decisions of the year because it underscored that Price worked in a sculptural tradition. [MAN Podcast]
8.) Killer websites. Two websites revealed how art institutions could and should use the web: Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece made visible (at least digitally) parts of Jan Van Eyck’s masterpiece that humans literally can’t see because they’re 15 feet from the ground. Even better: It presented detailed information regarding the history of the painting in ways that made conservation and technical documentation fun and fascinating. [MAN Podcast]
The Walker Art Center launched a new website in 2012 and it’s the best website any museum has put together in years. Sure, there’s work left to do — the museum’s collection is nowhere near as accessible as it should be — but the Walker’s Paul Schmelzer found ways to make walkerart.org a daily must-visit by turning it into a news portal and by creating topical, original content. Here’s hoping the Walker’s development office is raising money so that Schmelzer and the Walker’s digital team can do even more.
9.) “A Strange Magic: Gustave Moreau’s Salome” at the Hammer Museum. So simple, so rare: The Hammer owns Moreau’s Salome Dancing Before Herod (at left). Therefore, Hammer curator Cynthia Burlingham organized a tight, wonderful show that revealed how the painting came to be. Burlingham made it look so smart and easy that it left me wondering why more museums don’t do this more often. (Answer: Probably because it wasn’t so easy.)
10.) “Richard Serra: A Drawing Retrospective” at the Menil Collection. Co-organized by SFMOMA’s Gary Garrels and the Menil’s Michelle White and Bernice Rose, the Houston presentation was a whole different experience than the disappointing 2011 installation at the Metropolitan — which Serra himself noted on The MAN Podcast.
11.) “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-62″ at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Curator Paul Schimmel’s magnificent exploration of how artists around the world responded to the unprecedented killing and destruction of World War II doesn’t just conclusively demonstrate that abstract expressionism wasn’t the only — or even dominant — post-war path for artists, it puts the new American art in a broader, global context. The last room of the exhibition, which includes the work of Americans Lee Bontecou and Salvatore Scarpitta seems to open up whole new directions American art would follow during the years of war in Korea and Vietnam.
Previously: MAN’s best books of 2012.