Museum Exhibitions ’18

Over May and June of this year I’ve had occasion to visit a half-dozen special exhibitions, from the spectacular to the routine to the overstuffed. Far and away the best, and perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, was “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty,” designed by Robert Wilson. Each gallery was theatrically lit, with a different color scheme – white, red, yellow, black among them – and often sound effects. Missing were any labels identifying and describing the works. You looked at them only as art, and you focused on them as you rarely would in a normal museum setting. It undoubtedly helped that I was familiar with most of the art; the exhibition allowed – nay, made – me look at these pieces more closely and in a new way.
The other extreme, in terms of design, was “David Bowie Is,” which arrived at the Brooklyn Museum at the end of a five-year international tour (and, incidentally, after its subject’s demise). It was stuffed with everything: clothes he’d worn, videos he’d made, drawings he’d done, interviews, reviews, photographs, album covers, and as you waded through the crowd Bowie’s music played on your headphones. It was impossible to look at everything, and one left overwhelmed, if not exhausted. I certainly knew more about Bowie than I did going in, but I couldn’t help but think how much more I would have appreciated a focused look at his career, rather than the encyclopedia.
Also at Brooklyn was an exhibition called “Blue,” which collected objects from all of the museum’s collections that happened to use the color blue. It was fun to see some of the pieces, but there wasn’t much learning to be had; nothing in the show shed any light on anything else. I felt the same about the Met Breuer’s “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body.” Any piece of sculpture representing the human body was eligible for inclusion, but there didn’t seem to be any point to the show. Most of the pieces weren’t terribly good, from an art point of view; it was more a cabinet of curiosities on a very large scale.
Grant Wood at the Whitney did what an artist retrospective is supposed to do: it brought together his major works and allowed you to see how his art developed (or didn’t). I was underwhelmed, largely because I felt I had seen this all before at a previous Whitney retrospective; nor was there much variety. Wood is an interesting artist, but after a half-dozen or so of his famous paintings there isn’t much you care to spend time on.
By comparison, the Kode in Bergen, Norway’s retrospective of J.C. Dahl, “The Power of Nature,” made me familiar with an artist I had only vaguely known. It had important works from every period of his career, covering every subject, and even though he painted landscapes almost exclusively, there was enough variety to make each gallery different from the last. Painting largely in the same years, Dahl was comparable to Thomas Cole role in America by making the Norwegian countryside an accepted subject of art. He was also, like Cole, a bit saccharin and soft in style, but his best works are memorable.
The most powerful and memorable single-artist exhibition was Chaim Soutine at the Jewish Museum. Except notably at the Barnes Foundation, Soutine is routinely a one-off in most museums, so it was a revelation to see handfuls of his butcher-ready livestock together. It allowed the viewer to look past the bizarre subject matter and concentrate on the layered paint and expressive energy of his works. Rather than grotesque, they emerged as beautiful.
Unusually, there was nothing at the Met that captured my attention. I had already seen two of the exhibitions in Los Angeles: Painters of Mexico at LACMA and Pre-Columbian Gold at the Getty. I had come across a third exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum’s Radical Women Artists of Latin America, at the Hammer – all of which shows LA’s growing importance as an art center.
Two other museum experiences made me realize how much I now appreciate displays where the works have room to breathe, even at the expense of leaving much out. MOMA devoted several galleries to a selection of gifts they’d received from Agnes Gund. There was no desire, or need, to be comprehensive: the selection scratched the surface of her generosity. Each room was a surprise – lesser known artists were hung alongside superstars – and there was time and room to focus on every piece.
That, too, was the general philosophy of the Modern Museum in Stockholm. Every piece was given its due, and you felt that a curator had fun hanging relatively obscure artists, often women, alongside the Picassos and Giacomettis. This did not disguise the firepower of a breathtaking large Matisse cutout or Rauschenberg’s Monogram or a room of Duchamp. The other extreme was the Far Eastern Museum in Stockholm, next door. It tried to show everything, including a whole gallery of books – spine only! Exhausting.
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek had topped my list of things to see in Copenhagen, and its 19th-century French collection was eminently worthwhile. Meanwhile, its 19th-century Nordic collection was housed in the original building, sans climate control or much editing. Combined with the National Gallery of Denmark we got a good feeling for Christen Kobke and Thomas Fearnley, in particular, with fine examples from Hammershoi and Westerberg.
The National Gallery in Oslo was mostly memorable for its Munch room, probably the world’s preeminent display of that artist’s work, although the Kode in Bergen had as large a number, but more insignificant. Not every work by Munch is great, as was shown by the Met Breuer exhibition of a year ago. Finally I should mention the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, a Renzo Piano-designed showcase of an idiosyncratic contemporary collection, featuring large spaces for major installations, none as large or as powerful as Anselm Kiefer’s “High Priestess” bookcase.
When one sees so much in such a short time (and I’m skipping Danh Vo at the Guggenheim, which coincidentally was about to open in Copenhagen, and Gabriele Munter at the Louisana in Denmark) one begins to wonder if he is just checking things off, rather than appreciating the art. But then moments of clarity arrive: being absorbed by the Matisse cutout, finding Scandinavian perfection in two Christen Kobkes, “discovering” Mary Corse at Dia Beacon, seeing old China friends in a new light at Mia, and one finds the capacity to be thrilled is still there.

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