Standout Art Exhibitions of 2013
When I think back over any given year, I tend not to sort the gallery and museum shows I visited into best and worst. Instead, I try to figure out which shows expanded my knowledge, which exploded my assumptions, and which ones didn't. The list that follows omits some of the exhibitions that I liked best but that were easiest on my eyes--Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim, Magritte at MoMA--and focuses on must-see, must-discuss offerings. Here are four of the ones that stayed with me, four that managed to surprise, astound, and occasionally unnerve. What's more, they're all on view until just after the New Year.
Robert Motherwell: Early Collages (The Guggenheim, until January 5)
Hold a gun to my head and order me to name the "best show of the year," and I'll go with Motherwell and his collages. The presentation isn't perfect; while Christopher Wool gets the Guggenheim Rotunda, Motherwell's small, impressive compositions are relegated to the small, none-too-impressive Level 4 Annex. Yet get once you get up close with a collage or two, the settings are the last thing you'll be thinking about. Motherwell had professorial pretensions and political pet peeves, but his collages are never fusty or preachy. Instead, the sixty works in Early Collages add up to a master class in collage technique-mottled colors, calibrated depths, and fanciful little patches of dripping, blotting, and roughed-up lettering.
How did Motherwell pull all this off? When I first reviewed Early Collages, I speculated that detail-oriented collage methods were a perfect fit for a fastidious intellectual like Motherwell. However, this is only part of the story. Motherwell's glorious fling with collage occurred right after his dalliance with late-period Surrealism, but right before he committed to the austere, monumental painting style of classic Abstract Expressionism. Though his work stayed thoughtful until the end, there would never again be so much for him to prove. (He took up collage almost by accident, at the urging of Peggy Guggenheim, in the 1940s.) That pressure and that challenge created the transcendent works on display here--Mallarmé's Swan, View from a High Tower, The Poet. Now that I think of it, you don't need to hold a gun to my head. Best show of the year.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures (The New Museum, until January 12)
In 1984, Chris Burden dug a giant hole in the ground, filled it with wet concrete, and used a crane to drop in sixty or so I-beams of different lengths. The result was Beam Drop, a chance-driven sculpture superbly documented in black-and-white footage. Though Beam Drop would be much too large for the Bowery's New Museum, the video on display is funny, surreal, exciting, and melancholy all at once--the high point, for me, of an exhibition with plenty of phenomenal highs. Burden was the son of an engineer, and this background may help explain Tyne Bridge Kit (a 100,000-piece construction set stored in a mammoth wooden chest) and All the Submarines of the United States of America (a mesmerizing display of 625 model submarines, all hanging and subtly swinging on transparent strings). With creations like Porsche with Meteorite and The Big Wheel, Burden does the whole "gritty brown industry" feel as well as Richard Serra ever did, if not better.
Extreme Measures may also be the year's best Jekyll-and-Hyde act. Before he turned to sublimely detailed sculptures and installations, Burden tried his hand at reductive, violent performance art--staying in bed for days on end, shooting himself at point-blank range, and (in his single most iconic piece) crucifying himself on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle. These gestures were influential, humorless, and charged with noble yet dumb political messages. Once he turned to sculpture, Burden demonstrated that he could be both edgy and smart. And the politics? One of the pieces in Extreme Measures is A Tale of Two Cities, an installation that pits a legion of toy robots against squadrons of plastic soldiers. A critique of mechanized warfare, or a playful, brilliantly obsessive work of art? I can let the critique slide; the art pulls me in.