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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.

Robert Indiana: Beyond Love (The Whitney, until January 5)

Recently, second-tier Pop Artists have been getting their due--and have been making us wonder why they were ever "second-tier" in the first place. Exhibit A was the 2012 Tom Wesselmann retrospective, an irresistibly suave showcase that played like a Mad Men-themed amusement park. Exhibit B is this year's homage to Robert Indiana, currently on view at the Whitney Museum. Beyond Love refers to the solid red LOVE sculpture that became Indiana's signature, a crowd favorite in corporate and urban art. (There's one of these right on the corner of 55th and 6th.) The point that the Whitney makes--and makes ecstatically--is that Indiana is a much cannier and much earthier artist than LOVE indicates. With his clean-contoured, matte-colored paintings, Indiana could riff on classic art deco styles without coming off as a pedant; he could also throw around campy flesh tones and big naked Marilyn Monroes without coming off as an empty provocateur.

But Beyond Love isn't all casino colors and pinkish sex appeal. A few of my own favorite entries were Indiana's totemic wooden sculptures: vertical constructions with useless wheels, cylinders printed with repeat messages such as EAT and DIE. While the rest of Indiana's output gives off a brash 1920s-meets-1960s vibe, these weathered works seem like holdovers from the Great Depression. Indiana's grittier ventures may never rise very high in the Pop canon, yet they are reminders of how crusty and lowdown Pop was in the early days, before Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, and the rest started streamlining and sanitizing their methods. Funny how it's Indiana, supposedly the sunniest of the bunch, who makes Pop Art feel wonderfully beat-up once again.

Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis (The Frick Collection, until January 19)

Painting from the Mauritshuis at the Frick Collection is part museum show, part public service. For the past few months, New Yorkers have been lining up all the way onto 5th Avenue, waiting their turns to see Vermeer's hallowed painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has made the journey all the way from the Mauritshius Royal Picture Gallery. Queues like these are nothing new in the art world; to be honest, if it had been the Mona Lisa instead of Vermeer's Girl, the lines would be ten times longer. But forget the lines, forget the Girl with the Pearl Earring coffee mugs and tote bags, forget the "important cultural event" factor that surrounds the Frick's major winter exhibition. Viewed calmly and sensitively, Paintings from the Mauritshuis is a welcome meditation on some of the greatest artists that Western civilization has produced--a tiny, intensive show that teaches you a lot about Dutch painting without even trying.

My suggestion is to avoid the crowds (7:00 to 9:00 closing might do the trick) and get acquainted with the cadre of canvases that the Mauritshuis has sent over. Even if Dutch painting has always struck you splendid yet inscrutable blur, you should begin, this time, to discern some very different artistic personalities. For instance, Frans Hals can draw badly stilted figures (as in Portrait of Jacob Olycan and Portrait of Aletta Hanemans) but still has a grand time decking them out in fabrics, patterns, anything and everything lavish. Rembrandt is famous for his masses of light and dark, and these masses have very different effects from genre to genre; his portraits are solid, vital, and impeccably coordinated, while his biblical paintings toss together recessive, shadowy backgrounds and sickly, whitish figures. And lovely though it is, Girl with a Pearl Earring has to contend with show-stealers like Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch and Vermeer's own Officer and Laughing Girl. The last of these is Vermeer at his most radiant, at once an affectionate character study and--with its overgrown, ornate map--a quietly humanistic statement about civilization and adventure in the Dutch Golden Age. Best of all, it's in the Frick's permanent collection. After the excitement subsides, we'll still have a world-class Vermeer to keep us company.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy

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