The Best Art I Saw in 2019
2019 was another nadir year in western civilization, but I am again pleased to announce that art and artists keep trucking along. Alas, I was not at Art Basel, and so I did not see Maurizio Cattelan’s Duct Tape Banana, the viral art and tax shelter that most epitomizes 2019. Nor did I have the opportunity to release my bowels in his golden toilet, forthwith stolen from Blenheim Palace. I also probably should have gone to the Tate Modern and seen Olafur Eliasson but the thing is, there is only so much time in a day.
This year I broke what I’m sure is a personal record, and visited 28 museums in 3 countries. From old favorites like the Rijks and the National Gallery (both US and UK) to new adventures like the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach*, here is the best art I saw in 2019.
Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetery, London
On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think […]
Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. […]
And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers -- from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America -- and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy. His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.
- Frederick Engels, 1883
Floating to the Surface by Kayla Swift and The Fallen by Drake Buffington at MOPA, San Diego
Both of these photographers are just 17 years old but they nailed it. I could look at these photos for hours. Swift’s for being a surreal, floating fantasy, Buffington’s for being a laser cutting of Modern Life: 2019.
The Birmingham Project by Dawoud Bey at the National Gallery
To commemorate the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, Bey photographs diptychs of a girl the age of the children who died, and a woman the age that child would be if she’d grown up. The concept and the context behind the camera elevate these portraits and make them incredibly meaningful. It’s really rare to be able to do that without contrivance and pretention.
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing
Where the Questions Live by Wes Sam-Bruce at Peabody Essex Museum
Janey has outdone herself again, with another exhibition where I didn’t really understand what the art was going to be until I saw it. It’s a delightful, detailed art playland fort installation, with a lovely black box video, a moon room, tunnels to crawl in and out, and fun for the whole family. We need more art you can touch all over.
Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death at MFA Boston
This show snuck in just under the wire, but when I saw it on December 28 it was obvious it had to be in my best art list, in part because I overheard a woman say “It’s disturbing. Let’s see something else,” and when’s the last time you heard that at a painting show?
Finis Gloria Mundi by Juan de Valdés Leal at the Rijksmuseum
Speaking of disturbing paintings, this apparently lives with its pair (Ictu Oculi, a painting of a skeleton with a treasure horde), at Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. I personally would not like to see extremely baroque paintings of death at a hospital, but in Velázquez, Rembrandt it was a real attention-grabber, even among so many other old masters. The decaying corpse of the pope is extremely metal, and the composition makes this a compelling visual of a trite moral. You cannot, in fact, take it with you.
Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor at Smithsonian American Art Museum
Bill Traylor was what sometimes is called an Outsider Artist. He was born a slave and died a pauper, lived on the streets, and died having sold a grand total of one painting. The capital A Art World is not equipped to do justice to what Traylor was putting into this world but SAAM did its level best.
Do I need formal museum trappings to make Traylor’s bright yellow, flat and misshapen chickens fun to look at? I hope not. He didn’t ask anyone’s permission or validation: he just made a lot of art that he wanted to make, and that’s beautiful.
Sidebar to all those private collectors who put “No Photography” restrictions on the Traylor works you own so that no one might accidentally enjoy a copy of one of his works unauthorized, considering especially they are works for which you paid more money than the artist ever had in his lifetime: Fuck you.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennial General Assembly by James Hampton at Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ok this is an insane thing to spend thousands of hours of your life doing: putting foil on found objects and making a roomful of sculptures loosely based on scripture. But at least dude had something to show for it, whereas I’ve spent at least that much time reading goddamn Twitter. And now his work is on display at SAAM. Well done, James.
Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico at MFA Boston
Gorgeous pictures of everyday Mexicans, gorgeous pictures of Frida Kahlo’s rooms after she died. Every scene made me desperate to know more. I don’t often remember photo shows but this is one name I’ll retain for sure.
Misbehaving Bodies participation art at the Wellcome Collection
The Jo Spence/Oreet Ashery exhibit itself was a bit of a mess in that way that (love it or hate it) experimental art often is. Instead, I want to talk about the public participatory art that was happening when I saw the show on a random Saturday in November. Visitors are invited to write/draw/color on cutouts shaped like body parts, on a prompt from the show’s title, then hang them en masse. It was powerful, intimate, and an overwhelming body (intended) of work all at once, and this is in a country with universal healthcare. Indeed, the body problem is universal.
This year Wellcome emerged as a vanguard of the future of museum interpretation. Everything they put on those walls—objects and text—was done with such care and attention to making an inclusive and rich experience that treats their audiences as equals, not subjects. Let us all look to their example in the shows we make from here on out.
Bugz + Drugs by Pae White at the ICA Boston
I dug the maximalist show in general, but these tapestries were especially gorgeous. They’re algorithm-generated, but you’d never be able to tell.
Kū at Peabody Essex Museum
Kū has been sleeping since I’ve been at PEM. Like many of our best and coolest objects, I’d seen photos of him over and over, but now I can see the real thing in our new building galleries. Everyone come on up to Salem and bask in His glory on the second floor balcony.
Lavaughan Jenkins at ICA Boston
Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia at Freer Sackler
Resound: Ancient Bells of China at Freer Sackler (great interactives for a really dry subject)
Banana Bloc band at PDX anti-fascist action
Paola Pivi: Art with a View at Bass Museum (feather boa bears)
* The World Erotic Art Museum had some very high level art in it, for sure, but really the art was the entire existence of this unaccredited museum, with a visibly leaking ceiling in a room with many prints, tapestries nailed to the wall, a glade plug-in exuding eau de suburbs, and an unlocked fire extinguisher hanging mere feet from a bawdy Rembrandt print. It was absolutely wild
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