The Best Art I Saw in 2018
This year it has again been my privilege to go to no fewer than eighteen museums (getting into most of them for free on my employee badge) and see a great many amazing, provocative, and interesting works of art.
While the auction market bloats and rots, while the Salvator Mundi is missing in action, while the Smithsonians and National Gallery are shut down with the rest of the federal government due to blatant corruption and white supremacy at all levels of our politics, I am pleased to report that art—at the human level, at the base of creation and critique—marches on. May we do everything we can to make sure it continues this year, and for a thousand years to come
Fog x Flo on the Emerald Necklace
Fog x Flo is a cloud, and you’re in it, frolicking, then it rolls away across the field. I haven’t seen anything this delightful made with nature since From Here To Ear (birds playing guitars). Smart idea to have all the dances and theater events in the parks, incorporating fog, but I never quite managed to truck myself all the way to JP for any of those. Next time.
The Royal Academy Summer Show 2018
The Royal Academy summer show is relentless. It is a tsunami of art that sweeps you away with its mass and depth. After seeing 1,351 works, I did not think it was possible to look at any more art.
The good news is the RA Summer Show really gives you hope for the state of the art world. Outside the rotten capitalist auction market, today’s artists are still trucking along, making all manner of beautiful, insightful, or just plain technically interesting pieces. I was surprised and delighted by how hilarious a lot of those works were: a sculpted nose poking through a blank canvas, a life size rampant bear taxidermy made of paisley rug, a whirligig that flaps a British flag back and forth with abandon. Irony is a hard sell these days but humor is, I am pleased to report, not dead. The guest curators of this show (responsible for one room apiece) didn’t take themselves so fucking seriously, so a bright yellow wall it was.
I was surprised that I could pick a single best piece out of so much outstanding work, but it was no contest: Refuge by Cathy de Monchaux, an intricate wire fantasy forest of carousel horses. There was a Kiefer and a Kapoor there too but who even cares? Great art over great names, I say.
The Fact of Matter rings from William Forsythe’s Choreographic Objects at the ICA
I’ve long been a proponent of art with risk. If you truly want art to be interactive, you have to let the people interact with it, not proscribe every move. Damn the actuaries; let the people play on the rings!
Colored Sculpture by Jordan Wolfson at Tate Modern
My former coworker showed me a YouTube video of this supremely creepy art and I knew I had to see it in person. It’s a scuffed up, loosely jointed boy doll with big blue TV eyes that both look through your soul and at nothing in particular. I saw it in the basement galleries of the Tate Modern (basically industrial dungeons). The setup is a boxing ring “stage” where the “boy” is dragged and heaved around by four heavy chains on servos. No one is being tortured, and that doll is not actually looking at you. Keep telling yourself that.
A Thousand Crossings by Sally Mann at PEM
No snapshot nor even the meticulously produced catalog prints can do these photos justice. The depth of the printing is phenomenal, and the compositions sublime. You just want to keep looking and looking. Sally Mann’s work is proof that controversial subject matter doesn’t have to be crude to be thought-provoking. It can also be beautiful.
Rembrandt: Painter as Printmaker at Denver Art Museum
Look, there’s a reason everyone still loves the Old Masters four hundred years later, and it’s because they achieved technical perfection. Look at those fine details, even on the tiniest plates. Look at those expressions. Drawing is hard, engraving is hard, printing is hard, and all of these things are especially hard before you’ve even invented indoor plumbing. Thanks to Denver Art Museum for all the interpretation of the printmaking process, but more especially thanks for putting up an entire printmaking studio in which I spent several hours making traffic cone prints.
The Kirkland Museum
We had just left the tragically flawed Clyfford Still Museum around the corner and I was in a Mood. Mood: lifted, as soon as I saw this dense hang museum full of beautiful paintings and dec arts living together in harmony. You can see this entire museum in an hour, and still have a really broad and rich experience of many different art movements. I took so many pictures of the namesake artist’s dot paintings (I’m a sucker for circles, I know this).
The Kirkland is successful in every way the Clyfford Still fails. This is how an artist-endowed institution should be: his studio and his paintings as a foundation for a rich experience of many related works along a wide spectrum of historical context and direct influences. Not a sterile paean to a singular “genius,” full of repetitive works and hamstrung by the estate into showing absolutely nothing else by any other artist. (Seriously, I haven’t seen a more tragic estate situation since the Calder estate.)
All the Utopias Fell bus by Michael Oatman at Mass MoCA
I might have missed the bus, perched atop a metal catwalk outside the derelict industrial Boiler House. I’m glad I didn’t, because it is, as the kids say “hwild”. Is there a word for art that is deliberately made to look like it was created by a crazy person? The interior is psychedelic, extraterrestrial, hoarderiffic journey that leaves you wondering “who is this guy?”
Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsiju told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?” by Takashi Murakami at the MFA (Boston)
Takashi Murakami’s “Lineage of Eccentrics” show was overall a mix of delightful, colorful paintings and far less interesting sculptures and anime. If the entire show had just been the 70 foot red dragon at the end, that would have been enough on its own merits. Suffice to say, I love the original Soga Shohaku piece it’s based on, and I love both monumental and high contrast art so this was going to be a win no matter what preceded it.
399 Days monumental porcelain by Rachel Kneebone at the V&A
I only had a hot second at the V&A this time and I’m glad I saw this. As previously mentioned, I love monumental art, and this Kneebone managed to shine even in the Sculpture Court. The cacophony of bodies and legs is both classical and apocalyptic. There’s a definite Bosch vibe even without a lot of coherent vignettes, just the suggestion of them in the masses. Welcome to hell: fuck off, we’re full.
Anselm Kiefer everywhere (including Mass MoCA, Royal Academy, SFMoMA and the Barnes)
When I went to the Barnes the ticket lady apologized that there was a 4 hour wait for entry, but that was for the permanent collection, not the Kiefer/Rodin show I’d come to see. Honestly, I’ve seen so many damn Rodins in the last 3 years that I can already tell you at least half the pieces in any given Rodin show. But Kiefer is my man so in I went. Draconian photo policy meant I had to sneak the few I got but they were totally worth it. 9/10 will look at giant textural gothic romantic apocalypses until I die.
One Minute Sculptures by Erwin Wurm at PEM
For this piece of art you and your partner/friend/co-worker/sworn enemy stand on a platform and both put on a medium yellow sweater together. It’s an excuse to be silly, awkward, and a little intimate. Note that the artist requires the sweater to be size medium.
Osage Series - View from Saddleback Ridge by Kreg Kallenberger at the MFA
This is another work which is impossible to photograph (even the official MFA photographer only did marginally better), so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s a breathtaking piece of craft art. It’s a piece of clear crystal with a beautiful mountain scene inscribed in the back, that only appears if you look from certain angles. Pretty, but also perspective and perception-bending. The high standard of skill and innovation coming out of the craft world these days is remarkable. Nice to see museums getting off their high horse and taking note.
Human Pyramid (Menesske Pyramide) by Harald Engman
This is a rather esoteric painting at the Wolfsonian museum in Miami Beach. A David figure with a slingshot stands defiant on top of a pyramid of all the characters of Danish history. Below the waterline, a Nazi sub lurks with all the dregs of the past. I suppose it’s not unexpected to see a painting from occupied Denmark with a strong theme of “Nazis are bad, you guys” but the whole composition is such a detailed and rich allegory, in an unusual format. I don’t know much about Danish history but I wanted to find out.
All you can eat – Holiday everyday Transcontinental Flower and bird painting, NY to OR, Rainbow, by Sang-Ah Choi at Portland Art Museum
Climbing the Shadows: Invisible Ladders by Dawn DeDeaux at MassMoCA
Nebulous scotch tape sculpture by Tara Donovan at the ICA
The Shore by Luc Tymans at Tate Modern
T. C. Cannon: At the Edge of America at PEM
Untitled painting by Zao Wou-ki at Portland Art Museum
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