Best Of visual art

2020 Best Of – Visual Art

Vija Celmins, Met Breuer

This year was a reminder not to wait to do things – tell people you care about them, start on that project, go to that exhibit. With the other three categories I’ve used on these memory exercises for the last 20ish years, there were digital workarounds that gave me a taste of what I was missing, tiding me over. Visual Art didn’t work that way for me.

I sampled, and I’m thrilled so many galleries and museums transitioned to or enhanced their existing online presence, with exciting work from David Zwirner, the Frieze fair, all manner of things in Europe. Still, I had a hard time connecting with it. It was like flipping through Artforum to me, good to know what’s going on that I can’t see, but I never felt like I experienced the pieces.

The impetus of the Available Light motto “don’t wait” came to light. When things shut down, I was glad in ways I can barely articulate that I spent the time and money on a New York trip for APAP and trips to Cleveland and Louisville (neither of which were primarily for visual art but I worked some in) all before March. At the same time, I hesitated a month for the new Wexner exhibits, and the window slammed shut when I wasn’t expecting (and they were things I desperately wanted to see). So, as usual, whenever things open again, don’t wait. Find what you’re interested in and lunge at it.

Everything is in Columbus unless otherwise noted. Photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.

  • Various Artists, Art After Stonewall (Columbus Museum of Art) – This tracing of the aftershocks of the Stonewall Riot, through early Gay Liberation and the darkest, most enveloping days of the AIDS crisis was a monumental undertaking and the finest use yet of the CMA’s new wing. For me, one of the highlights was the prominent placement of Columbus’s role in the gay art movements being documented here, including a lump-in-my-throat wall of Corbett Reynolds, his busts, and ephemera from his nightclub and his Red parties.
  • Vija Celmins, To Fix The Image in Memory (Met Breuer, NYC) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rental and repurposing of the previous Whitney Museum never quite found its footing but presented some spectacular exhibitions. Maybe my favorite was the last time I’ll ever get to visit – they announced in June the satellite building will not reopen after lockdown – this jaw-dropping retrospective of Vija Celmins. To Fix The Image in Memory took us through luminous renderings of household objects, as though lit from within, to intricate studies of the night sky. Whispered words of apocalypse and hymns to understanding, reminding me again and again of Mary Oliver’s maxim that “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
  • Expanded Museum of Modern Art (NYC)- I’m always skeptical when something I love – even when it has problems I’ve grumblingly come to live with – changes. But my heart sang when that skepticism burned off scant minutes after walking into the reconfigured MoMA. The flow between the collection crackles and sparks conversation in ways it seemed to restrict or calcify before. The various rooms assembled by artists sizzled with panopticon energy (on my visit I especially loved the Amy Sillman). I want to get back to my favorite city for at least 100 reasons but the biggest one is to luxuriate in the new MoMA some more. 
Rachel Feinstein, Jewish Museum
  • LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Last Cruze (Wexner Center for the Arts) – LaToya Ruby Frazier is a shining, fascinating example of how an artist can pay witness, how empathy and a willingness to take a community seriously, always pays off. This look at the Lordstown, Ohio, GM plant and its workers dazzled me. I was touched watching some of the workers documented here walking through the exhibit and thought about how art institutions can serve multiple functions at the same time.
  • Margaret Kilgallen, that’s where the beauty is (MOCA, Cleveland) – My last trip to another city before lockdown found Cleveland as enriching as ever – you’ll also see it on the Live Music list – and this Kilgallen retro exploded her celebration of niche scenes and an endangered love of what’s hand-crafted and unique. A wild party and a thoughtful call to introspection.
  • Rachel Feinstein, Maiden Mother Crone (Jewish Museum, NYC) – This Feinstein survey dug deep into myth, desire, and narrative in ways that repelled easy answers and snap judgments. Huge sculptures and sparkling installations, bouncing their energy off each other and absorbing what the observes walking through the Jewish Museum had to give, then throwing it back at us, reshaped and a little more alive.
Rashid Johnson, Hauser & Wirth
  • Rashid Johnson, The Hikers (Hauser & Wirth, NYC) – Hauser & Wirth rarely disappoints me – even more so with their excellent new cafe and bookshop – and when I entered on a sunny January day for the (very good) Mike Kelley pieces, I was knocked sideways by my first real exposure to Rashid Johnson. These massive tile mosaics and collages, which reminded me a little of Jack Whitten, captured a dread and anxiety in a way I found moving but also somehow uplifting. 
  • Felix Valloton, The Painter of Disquiet (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC) – Valloton struck me as a cross between Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec and it was fitting seeing this look at his work in the same room where I really got Bonnard for the first time. Rich, narrative work, unsparing in its judgment of its characters and their desires but enraptured by them at the same time. I spent most of my time at Bemelmans after walking through this writing about it and trying to make sense of how deeply it spoke to me.
  • Burt Hurley, Loose Nuts: Burt Hurley’s West End Story (Speed Museum, Louisville) – I’m an incredible sucker for genre work before the genre is supposed to have existed. Hurley’s satire of urban Louisville assumed later comic book styles we take for granted and found its own solution to those same storytelling problems in ways I’ve never seen before.
Rachel Harrison, Whitney Museum
  • Rachel Harrison, Life Hack (Whitney, NYC) – I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little of Harrison’s work when I walked into the Whitney trying to squeeze the most into this last day of the trip but these vibrant, brutal surreal pop explosions shook me and reverberated against everything else I saw that Sunday (it makes appearances on both the theatre and music lists).
  • Various Artists, Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art (Jewish Museum, NYC) – No exaggeration: I cried four or five times doing this. This kind of tracing movements through one or more focal points is a unique speciality of the Jewish museum and this look at how a collector and gallerist can be a focal point in making people sit up and care and a linchpin of a community that didn’t really exist until she stood up and made it exist was a reminder I deeply needed at the moment. And a reminder I always need.
  • Sadie Benning, Pain Thing (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Sadie Benning’s previous exhibit at the Wex is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen in 25 years of regular patronage and these tiny images, implying film at one minute and suggesting the twists of a kaleidoscope, resisting any simplisticy reduction, beguiled and baffled me. I wished I could have seen this another dozen times.
  • Various Artists, Songs in the Dark (Tanya Bonakdar, NYC) – Tanya Bonakdar is a gallery I make a point to hit every trip if something’s up and this group show reaffirmed everything I love about its stable of artists and its curatorial practice. A look at the current fraught moment and its complicating factors without – in accordance with Brecht who it references in the title – ever making the viewer despair. Work by artists I already loved like Ernesto Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Olafur Eliasson bumped up against new to me art by Hannah Starkey and Mehschach Gaba.
  • Jessica Segall, 100 Years, All New People (SPACES, Cleveland) – This look at immigration, composed of elements Segall collected at the borders, was a tomb and a monuument to human ingenuity, our ability to rise above anytthing that would hold us down or keep us still, but also an installation drenched in stillness and the terrible price these systems would exact from us.
  • Smoky Brown and Friends, The Eastside Canon (Streetlight Guild) – Streetlight Guild, under the guidance of Scott Woods, has been the most exciting single Columbus art development in the last few years. The gallery exhibits are always worthwhile but this was special. One of the great guiding lights of local art, Smoky Brown, given a museum-quality show of work that was new even to someone like me who grew up here and thought I’d seen a lot of his work. Coupled with a selection of work from his collection. A lesson in valuing what’s around you and appreciating your friends and community.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Wexner Center

Best Of visual art

Best of 2018 – Visual Art

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
-Mary Oliver

Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This has been a year of incredible highs and incredible lows, the latter all self-inflicted. Wearing myself so far down I was susceptible to a week in the hospital with pneumonia. To spraining an ankle so hard I was in a boot for two weeks. But one thing that always helps center me, that lights and maintains the fire called wanting to go on, is attention. And no cultural activity centers me more, nothing puts me in my place, nothing bows the strings in my soul like trying to focus on visual art.

And I will say this in all three posts but the best macro-gratitude exercise I undertake every year is keeping track of what I see/listen to (I need to be better about tracking what I read) and going over it at the end of the year. I took in around 75 exhibits this year and narrowing it down to 20 was hard. I am, always, very, very lucky.

Anyone else sparked by this or who bothers to read these, I appreciate you . Drop me a line, let’s talk about what we both saw or what I’m an idiot for leaving off. Everything here is in Columbus and any photo is taken by me unless stated otherwise.

Mickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess Looking Forward, 2015, Courtesy of the artist via the Wexner Center, Copyright Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1. Mickalene Thomas, I Can’t See You Without Me (Wexner Center for the Arts) – I can’t think of an artist who better epitomizes taking all of art history and synthesizing it into a voice utterly, unmistakably hers, than Mickalene Thomas. The bounty of riches presented with I Can’t See You Without Me was like tapping into a deep vein and realizing it’s full of stars: completely personal, in touch with the world (and worlds behind the world) and full of monumental, magic beauty. Everything I love in art was in this show and while I visited it five or six times, I regret not seeing it seven or eight more.

David Wojnarowicz, Whitney Museum of Art

2. David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night (Whitney Museum of Art, NYC) – Dispatches from one era when the world was on fire still shone brightly in this dazzling retrospective of one of American art’s foremost poets of ecstasy and rage.

3. Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – I still remember the first time I saw one of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, at my first Whitney Biennial. It was an eye-opening reminder of the power of repetition to unlock a world and a potent mix of serenity and discord. I came to love the permutations of her varied work over time, most prominently in a stuffed, ranging retrospective at the Whitney. but this hyper-focused touring show was a concentrated dose of the mix of sensations that first drew me in.

4. Kerry James Marshall, Works on Paper (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – An epic-scaled domestic scene in panels fragmenting it like a comic strip and also recalling large Renaissance triptychs, was surrounded by other drawings in this tight, sharp show of an artist who only gets better.

5. Various Artists, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and Weapon (New Museum, NYC) – This ferocious trip through depictions of gender ended a January New York trip on a head-spinning succession of high notes, including Ulrike Muller’s jagged abstractions, a dazzling Mickalene Thomas video collage. This summed up everything I love about the New Museum when it’s clicking, work within the last 10 years – without cheaply valorizing youth – that summed up and exploded 40 years of the institution. A good sign for the future of the Wexner Center as the curator of this spectactular exhibit is the new director to succeed Sherri Geldin as director.

6. Hilma af Klint, Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim, NYC) – This hypnotic, transfixing, spiritual show cemented another contender for an originator of abstraction and opened my eyes to a voice I knew almost nothing about. A paean to the magic of drilling down into oneself with specific instructions not to show most of her work until 20 years after her death, working on instructions from spirits she communed with through a seance group. You couldn’t write af Klint’s story in a way that seemed believable but the art was as accessible as layered and elusive.

A Color Removed, SPACES Gallery

7. Michael Rakowitz with Amber N. Ford, M. Carmen Lane, RA Washington, and Amanda King with Shooting Without Bullets Youth Photographers; A Color Removed (SPACES Gallery, Cleveland) – Rakowitz in collaboration with a variety of local artists created an assemblage of the color orange, underlining the irony of trying to blame the deaths of children on the warning color or lack thereof. And it was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen in my life. A quiet temple to absence, loss, and rage.

8. Mary Corse, A Survey in Light (Whitney Museum, NYC) – I walked into the Whitney that sweltering July day knowing I loved Wojnarowicz, steeped in him since I was a teenager. I had no such knowledge or preconceptions of Corse and her deceptively simple canvases pulled my breath right out of my body. Working with the most fundamental element not just of painting but of sight – light – she made me look at it in a different way that recalled the meditative work of so many earlier artists but was still like nothing I’d seen.

9. Eugene Delacroix, Delacroix (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC) – This presentation of one of the old masters I knew the least about was refreshing in a way art of that vintage doesn’t usually affect me. The breadth of his literary influences and the wide range of stylistic techniques were dazzling; a self-portrait casting himself as the main character in Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor led me to dub him the creator of the cosplay selfie. And it was not just the Musee de Nancy frame that led me to say, and my companions to repeat the rest of the weekend, “Delacroix is lit.”

9. Charles White, A Retrospective (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – Another artist I wasn’t as familiar with as I should have been, a 20th-century American, this selection of White’s work was the perfect thing to see upon first arriving in the city. Enormous, dazzling, powerful and rich with the contradictions and terror still reverberating through the fabric of daily life. Almost impossible to take in but refusing to let me go, demanding and not letting me off the hook.

10. Various Artists, Inherent Structure (Wexner Center for the Arts) –  The Wex hit a home run with this vibrant look at the ways contemporary artists continue to suck the marrow out of traditional concerns of abstract painting while tweaking and subverting it. One of the best-arranged exhibits I saw all year, where every corner I turned revealed something else about what I’d seen and what I was about to see without pandering to the obvious. Artists I already loved like Amy Sillman illuminated a gateway toward those I knew less (Angel Otero) and those completely new to me (Channing Hansen).

11. Carolee Scheenman, Kinetic Painting (MoMA PS1, NYC) – This expansive retrospective, going back to the ’50s, was a lesson in how not to weaken in rigor, in curiosity, in feeling. Scheenman did almost everything and did it all with blinding heat and depth that continually revealed itself. Shaming and inspiring and astonishing.

12. Marlon de Azambuja and Luisa Lambri, Brutalismo-Cleveland (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – Another piece in the fantastic Front triennial, this collection of local materials in an iteration of de Azambuja’s ongoing series investigating Brutalism paired with Lambri’s photographs in something that was unsettling and perfectly in keeping with its surroundings (not just the Breuer wing of the CMA but Cleveland itself).

Phyllida Barlow, Hauser and Wirth

12. Phyllida Barlow, Tilt (Hauser and Wirth, NYC) – There was no shortage of art I saw this year that grappled with the way we in more privileged vantage points have realized the world doesn’t sit on its axis as comfortably as we once thought. Very little did it with the same arresting punch as British artist Barlow. A queasy circus singing a melody in its own voice, a voice that haunts me weeks later and I want to hear more of. Seeing the nods to Brutalism in these pieces transported me to the de Azambuja earlier on the list and the way those two artists of different nationalities exhibiting in different cities and different seasons spoke to one another in my head was a tribute to trying to see as much art as possible.

13. Sarah Lucas, Au Naturel (New Museum, NYC) – There’s a recurring theme in what shook me this year: artists I damn sure should have known better. Sarah Lucas epitomizes this, storied career as a sculptor I mostly knew as a name, one of the Young British Artists, with Hirst and Emin. This intense, witty, beautifully vulgar retrospective was everything I want art to be – speaking not just truth to power but a specific, personal, idiosyncratic truth.

14. Junya Ishigami, Freeing Architecture (Cartier Foundation, Paris) – Most of my first trip to Paris was spent doing exactly what you’d expect – the Louvre, D’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, Shakespeare and Company, wandering boulevards, drinking wine, all spectacular. So I was surprised by how affecting I found this show of a visionary Japanese architect. Breathable open spaces that feel like the future; echoes of ’70s science fiction movies like Silent Running but also evocative of the flowing purity of a Basho line or the meditative canvases of Agnes Martin. I wanted to live here. Paris, sure, but also inside these models.

15. Cyprien Galliard, Nightlife (MOCA, Cleveland) – I’ve been a fan of Galliard’s since the Wex showed his photographs but I’ve never been as enchanted as by the swirling dive into the after-dark of this video installation. Rodin’s The Thinker shattered by a bombing (the version in Cleveland), a tree planted to celebrate Jesse Owens also in Cleveland, fireworks over the site of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where Owens, shuddering plant life around Los Angeles streets, all throbbing to a looped sample of the Alton Ellis classic Blackman’s Song, the original chorus of “I was born a loser” melting into the re-release of “I was born a winner.” I could have stayed there for hours

16. Martha Rosler, Irrespective (Jewish Museum, NYC) – Martha Rosler’s acerbic retrospective at the Jewish Museum was the kind of fresh air and reawakening to the atmosphere of terror around us I needed. Steeped in language and sharply aware of the limitations and obfuscations of every vocabulary, this was as immediate and accessible as a slap in the face but also layers upon layers.

17. Susan Phillipsz, A Single Voice (Tanya Bonakdar, NYC) – Phillipsz is the master of the subtle, disorienting environment and one of the finest artists at using sound in a gallery setting. An installation with film of a violin player playing a snatch of score from a Karl-Birgir Blomdahl opera, with 12 speakers bouncing the violin tones through the room and surrounded by canvases caked in salt and named after the Lachrimae. Defying description and intoxicating at the same time.

18. Jennifer Packer, Quality of Life (Sikkema Jenkins & Co, NYC) – Packer achieves a balance of the intimate and the explosive that’s unlike any work I’d ever seen. These breathtaking canvases all had an interiority that I found beguiling, coupled with potent colors and surprising juxtapositions that grabbed me by the collar and forced me in off the street.

19. Ernest Withers, A Buck and A Half A Piece (Brooks Museum, Memphis) – Everything at the Brooks Museum this trip reminded me why it’s a must-stop in Memphis, the Jaume Plensa work very nearly made this list. But that slice of Memphis photographic history on the main floor wouldn’t let me go. Withers was a master at documenting cultural life (like the photo of Rufus Thomas and Elvis Presley above), civil life (with arresting images of the civil rights movement like the SCLC conference) and day-to-day “ordinary” life the way we should always see them: as parts of the same fabric, not discrete plants grown in their own pots.

20. Various Artists, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life (The Tate, London) – It’s no surprise Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were massive to me from the moment I was first aware of them; so seeing this retrospective on their home turf in my first trip to London was amazing. But more than that, this retrospective accomplished the tricky feat of showing these names as the nucleus of a burgeoning movement without overly inflating or denigrating the lesser-known student works. It painted the kind of picture that normally I’d have to buy the catalog to come close to.

live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 06/24/18

Every holiday is really about the passing of time but I’m a particular sucker for days that explicitly honor time. Case in point: the Summer Solstice. As the local Community Festival drifts away from me as a demographic (there’s no bitterness there: events should change or they wither and die) there’s been a rising of other options that sing with summer’s sticky sweetness.


Megan Palmer and Band at Dick’s Den


Megan Palmer (June 21, 2018, Dick’s Den)

One of my favorite singer-songwriters, bandleaders, and artistic expats, it’s always a joy when Megan Palmer comes back to Columbus. The nights at Dick’s Den are extra special because it’s where she first bowled me and so much of this town over. The gloriously loose – on stage and in the crowd – late set we caught at that home reaffirmed that power.

Palmer still puts together a righteous, crack band whenever she’s in town, including usual suspects guitarist Brett Burleson, longtime vocal foil Jen Miller, and drummer of all trades Jimmy Castoe. That selection of players highlights the beautiful, quicksilver quality to slip between genres and times, tying everything together with her voice. Over the years, Palmer’s sharpened her lyric writing into one of the finest examples of open-hearted empathy without that understanding ever turning to weakness or a mealy-mouthed exercise in “both sides.” At the same time, her melodies grew looser and harder to define, amplifying their shimmering quicksilver qualities and leaving more space for other players.

Burleson’s fills attacked the same “problem” as Luther Perkins but approached them in a surprising, refreshing way. At one point, on one of my favorite of her older songs, “Please Don’t Come Back,” it clicked that the arrangement took Bob Wills as a starting block then opened to embrace everything Wills influenced in the idiosyncratic wing of the 20th century’s popular music including Willie Nelson and even a little Ornette Coleman. This music was washing my face in the fountain of life (or as Tom T. Hall said, the morning dew).


This Moment in Black History at Happy Dog (photo by Anne Courtney)


Cold Sweats and This Moment in Black History (Happy Dog, Cleveland, June 22, 2018)

Every few years, Cleveland gives the world one of the greatest rock and roll bands we’ve ever seen. Currently holding the crown – though I’m not discounting there could be a bunch of kids I haven’t see yet – is Bim Thomas’ crowning achievement Obnox. One of my all-time favorites also features Bim, on drums, This Moment in Black History. I hadn’t seen them in probably six or seven years and in the periodic reunion we saw at the Happy Dog to kick off our flying Cleveland weekend.

Hooky, vibrant, righteous, full of intertwining hooks and sticky grooves. The kind of late night dance floor riot most of us search for from dancefloor to bar room and back. Opening, Cold Sweats from NYC did a modern take on post-hardcore with lacerating guitar and a swinging bounce that got the crowd dancing.


Pierre Kwenders and Band at the Cleveland Museum of Art


Summer Solstice 2018 (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, June 23, 2018)

Anyone who wants to throw a museum fundraiser should look to the Cleveland Museum of Art. A and I went about five years ago and had a blast, including spontaneously running into American treasure Baby Dee. The next year it sold out at the member presale and has ever since.

This year I finally bit the bullet and got a membership and I’m pleased to report every change they’ve made since made it better. Manageable lines, reasonable (for a benefit) drink prices, and splitting the bands between (mostly) live acts on the terrace and (mostly) electronic in the atrium for a better dance floor, we were here for four hours and I loved every minute of it. There’s a special magic in ducking in from a sweaty dance floor and realizing you’re the only two people in a room full of Van Gogh and Cezanne. Or you’re in a politely humming crowd grappling with Danny Lyon’s photographs of the human and aesthetic cost of gentrification or Kerry James Marshall’s massive, encompassing woodcuts.

Moroccan electronic artist HAT (Hatim Belyamani) wove music out of film footage shot by his collective, remix ←→ culture, remixed to highlight the individual cultures they were taken from and into something spine shifting and hip-swaying. HAT made it impossible to ignore the cultural building blocks that gave birth to these pulsing club tracks and worked it into something easily graspable and that resisted being nailed down. His work echoed the Brutalismo-Cleveland exhibit upstairs by Spanish artist Marlon de Azambuja which also used locally sourced materials to comment on brutalism and society.


Yemen Blues at Cleveland Museum of Art

Yemen Blues was one of the finest dance bands I’ve ever seen. Led by Ravid Kahalani, the six piece band wove funk and salsa together with traditional North and West African melodies in a refreshing, wild party. Hello Psychaleppo came at traditional music, the ecstatic Syrian music Samer Saem Eldahr grew up with, with a similar mix of reverence for the original and delight in reinvention that kept the dancing audience in the palm of his hand. Pierre Kwenders blew my hair back, he’s one of the greatest soul singers I’ve ever seen. He and his quartet cooled it down a little and turned up the level of sexy as they closed the night with a blend of Congolese rumba and the current wave of stiletto sharp, introspective R&B




Marlon de Azambuja: Brutalismo-Cleveland


Best of 2015: Visual Art

“God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day –
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee.
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.”
-Agha Shahid Ali, “Tonight”

This year was so soaked enough in death you almost had to wring it out. There was a lot to be sick over. Personally: the other Grandfather, a dear friend Valerie, friends’ parents and lovers and best friends. And that’s all before the camera pulls back to look at the larger world – the larger world where terror hit closer to home than usual, people gunned down going to a show or the recent vandalism and suicide at the Wexner Center causing the After Picasso show to close early. That, of course, speaks to privilege because for much of the world death is never as far away as it, luckily, is for me, and my grey year doesn’t even move the needle on a larger scale.

For me, visual art has always been linked with the act of memory and the act of bearing witness. Its permanence (and in some cases, its deliberate eschewing of that permanence) gives it some of its meditative quality. My heart breaks for anyone there when the event happened in December and anyone who might have been there and, of course, the person who chose that place to end it. Even before the most recent event, the art that drew me to it, that made me want to tell somebody, that made me want to argue with it and wrestle with it, played right into the preoccupation with death I didn’t consciously realize I had this year. But more than that, it was a balm. It was fuck it, this matters. It was this is still standing. It was fight to rememberIt’s a reminder to keep trying.

As with all of my Year End summations, everything is in Columbus unless stated otherwise.

  1. Doris Salcedo, s/t (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) – On a grey, unseasonably cold day in Chicago in the middle of a great trip, this Colombian artist made me feel like someone was standing on my chest in a room full of knives. From the opening piece, Plegaria Muda, with its wooden tables the audience has to squeeze between and growths of vegetation coming out of the tables like a field of gravestones but still shot through with fragile life, on, this took my breath away. Sculptures using silk and human hair, abandoned doors concrete. It was a death mask for the world and a shrine, apocalyptic and very, very beautiful.
  2. Alberto Burri, The Trauma of Painting (Guggenheim, NYC) – This was the kind of show that left me kicking myself I didn’t know Burri’s artwork better beforehand. It gave me the same feeling as Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poetry, though his poet countryman is an earlier war, with its use of the surreal to crack open your chest and its fantasies about shipwrecks instead of the way you see you friends die. Molten plastic, welded metal leaving the seams obvious enough they look like blisters, burlap sacks as an indictment of capitalism. Everywhere I turned my mouth got dry and tears came to my eyes.
  3. Jack Whitten, Five Decades of Painting (Wexner Center for the Arts) – There’s been a lot of talk about the Wexner not having a permanent curator in a while (they still have curator-at-large Bill Horrigan) but I have to say they’ve done a great job working around those limitations this year. This Jack Whitten retrospective showed a singular voice working through, challenging, and recombining every interesting art trend of the 20th century and stripping away what didn’t apply to what he wanted to say. My favorite pieces were the portraits/tributes that combined painting and mosaic and found objects in a way that made blood hot in my veins, especially the tribute to Amiri Baraka (a flawed, complicated guiding light for me, always). Memory writ appropriately large.
  4. Elaine de Kooning, Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC) – Knowing Elaine de Kooning’s work more by reputation (and a couple examples at MoMA), this series of portraits was revelatory. Obviously, especially for being at the National Portrait Gallery, this retrospective moved in tighter and tighter circles toward the famous JFK portrait but that gleams with sunlight and the way a beautiful sunny day throws the greens and yellows of the garden you’re in all around, fracturing what you see and what you can’t quite make out. These, all of them, are full of mystery and secrets and magic that gets closer, you think, to who the people being depicted were than maybe they’d ever shown.
  5. Shirin Neshat, Facing History (Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC) – I’ve been a fan of Neshat’s work for a long time so this retrospective was like gorging myself on something almost too rich to consume. The way she grasps the macro elements of history, history’s pain and the way it disfigures people with the twinned fires of love and hate but also it’s beauty, and the way she understands people is a marvel. Gorgeous works you can get lost in, a lot to say about the way the world gets created with our creation of language (this theme also resonated with me in several things on my theatre list coming soon). This was a series of varying punches that left me staggered.
  6. Walid Raad, s/t (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – Walid Raad’s collections of photographs, videos, sculpture and fictional histories, gobsmacked me and left me babbling. It made me think a lot about the horrific situations in Lebanon over the years and how someone around my age would have processed that, and, weirdly, it made me think of the recent controversy in science fiction. This is a brilliant example of how fictionalizing and fabulism (for the latter, Raad’s “merged” sculptures from the middle east transported to the Louvre) can been tools (scalpels or daggers or stilettos or garrotes) to slice into your heart. And an example of how many stories those tools can be good for telling with emotional maturity and an eye to how big and fantastic (and sometimes fantastically horrible) the world really is.
  7. Various Artists, Sitter: Portraiture in Contemporary Photography (CCAD Contemporary Arts Space) – The CCAD space has been killing it the last few years and this year, with this (before the renovation) and the work after the renovation to create a better flow for the galleries has made it a force to be reckoned with for modern art in Columbus. This group show of 27 photographers really dug deep into what portraiture means now and was full of alive, striking, political, rich, sexy, intense work.
  8. Pablo Picasso, Picasso Sculpture (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – I’m on the record as not being the biggest Picasso fan. All credit to his craft and his influence but most of his work I just don’t love. This was an exception. Seeing this many of his sculptures together had a delirious, vertiginous effect that actually made me want to go deeper and stay longer and talk about it more. This was also, by far, the best arranged and curated exhibit I saw, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland made this arrangement of sculpture both feel excavated and timeless and flow in a way that felt intensely personal and real.
  9. Catherine Opie, Portraits and Landscapes (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Opie, long a favorite of mine (who also had work in Sitter), took a step into something almost resembling Renaissance painting with her photographs here. These rich, dark portraits of her social circle, often naked or half naked but with expressions and clean lines that summoned a deep distance encouraged me to look again and again. Just as intriguing are the blurred-almost-to-abstraction landscapes that break up the intensity of the gazes like a note of sensual dissonance. She’s not here to comment on the souls of these people and she’s not here to pass any judgment. There are no easy answers, no pat summations, in this body of her work and we’re richer having it.
  10. Charles Atlas, The Waning of Justice (CCAD Contemporary Arts Space) – Atlas is another perennial for me but this doomsday clock over gorgeous landscapes and abstract concepts leading into a room where the larger-than-life figure of Lady Bunny gave a moving, hilarious monologue across a whole wall that periodically dropped out to silence was astonishing. Concern with a disappearing world turned into an aching dance.
  11. Various, Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Brian Byrne (OSU Urban Arts Space) – In general I agree with the concerns about single-collector exhibitions. That said, my understanding was this was already donated to its final destination and I was blown away by this collection of art that wasn’t just blue-chip but was also violent, intense, irreverent and wise. The curation was really stunning with pictures about race facing off against each other, corners about death. This wasn’t easily digestible and with all the big names it didn’t make concessions to being palatable and we were all the better for it.
  12. Archibald Motley, Jazz-Age Modernist (Whitney Museum, NYC) – Motley’s fascinating mix seems to obviously point toward Thomas Hart Benton, Hopper, and Toulouse-Lautrec. What I saw most was Chagall, with an assured willingness to discard any piece of a tradition he didn’t need and use exactly what of it he wanted. But his work’s in no way derivative, it shimmers and vibrates with an electricity that’s all his own and these portraits and large scenes got better and better seeing in a large group. Any fine artist working with the black experience, especially in those days, is to be considered seriously but beyond those serious concerns this was sensual, intense work, looking at an era as it started to tip over.
  13. Anonymous, Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) – As with most good things I see, this was a suggestion of A., and it was astonishing. If you grew up a record nerd and a comic book nerd like me, this was an extra delight. Using the medium of painted record covers and show fliers, this fictional universe the artist known only as Mingering Mike created where the same songwriting credits popped up again and again and various musicians played with other groups fit together and was just off enough to have an interesting tension. Similarly to the Walid Raad, this secret history pointed toward an unknown pain with notes vaguely intimating draft dodging and the work drying up after the pardon when the artist could find a job, the characters going away when they aren’t needed anymore.
  14. Louise Fishman, s/t (Cheim and Read Gallery, NYC) – This selection of paintings was the best thing I saw in a long day wandering around Chelsea. Vibrant and full of sensuous dissonance, like a landscape run through a distortion pedal on these big canvases.
  15. Various, Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present (Wexner Center for the Arts) – This exhibit that came to the Wex after a run at Boston’s ICA opened my eyes to a whole new medium in a way that doesn’t happen much anymore. I marveled at seeing the way textile work embraces and pulls against easy connotations of domesticity and explodes into something political and angry, totemic and erotic; seeing the way it enfolds history and points toward the future. I visited this maybe a dozen times and I could have done a dozen more.