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The Year in Art: The Best Exhibits of 2012

Writing about his obsession with art books in a wonderful little volume published this year—Phantoms on the Bookshelves—Jacques Bonnet says that “Images send you on to other images, artists to other artists, periods come one after another or echo each other, all with their cargo of art works.” And so it is when I think back on remarkable art experienced in the year just past.  One show sets me to thinking about another, and I find myself remembering the exhibitions as I turn over the pages of outstanding exhibition catalogues—words written about works of art, while never trumping the paintings and sculptures themselves, can have their own kind of power.

Among museum shows, “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, holds especially clearly in the imagination, not the least part of it being the eloquent exhibition design by architect Frank Gehry. Gehry’s quickening yet surprisingly subdued spatial effects were a dashing accompaniment to the boisterous eccentricities and outlandish color combos of Price’s ceramic sculptures; the show, long in the planning, became a memorial when Ken Price died in February at the age of 77. Another invigorating meeting of artist and setting was “Picasso Black and White,” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with the Spaniard’s audacities and austerities given a wonderfully dramatic setting in Frank Lloyd Wright’s cool, coiling rotunda. Rarely have two transcendent modernists been so perfectly matched. This union of art and architecture, only a subtext in the Price and Picasso shows, was front and center at “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” the pitch-perfect gathering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of drawings and terracotta studies that the greatest of all Baroque sculptors created as he was formulating the fountains, altarpieces, and sundry monuments that are his enduring contribution to the cityscape of Rome.

Historical exhibitions are sometimes as important for the catalogues that are produced as for the experience of the art hanging on the walls. This is surely true of both “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination: 1300-1350,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540,” at the National Gallery in Washington. We are taken beyond the boldface names museumgoers know. The result is a richer, more fully populated sense of the past. We see a Renaissance Germany in which Dürer, although of course supreme, can at moments seem matched in sheer craft and energy by the prolific Daniel Hopfer, whose mastery of the art of the etching has only recently come into focus. And if museumgoers who approach “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance” expecting to see work by Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi are not disappointed, they will also leave knowing the work of Pacino di Bonaguida, who brought a decisive lucidity and an appealing, sometimes almost naïve forthrightness to his work as an illuminator.

Leaping to modern times, there is “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde,” a magical, pocket-sized exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show, which focuses on the early years of the twentieth century, salutes the rapid embrace of African sculpture by Alfred Stieglitz and other artists, critics, and gallerists. There are some especially ravishing photographs by Charles Sheeler, of African statues casting strange, velvety shadows, and of the striking Manhattan apartment of the legendary collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg, where early American furniture, African sculpture, and works by Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp are arranged in light-filled, serenely austere spaces.

At the Museum of Modern Art, the very last days of 2012 have seen the opening of “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art.” The show is suavely installed in the museum’s sixth floor galleries, with brilliant theatrical touches, including a nearly ten-foot-tall reconstruction of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International set beneath a skylight, so that the skeletal leaning tower literally points toward the heavens. This panoramic exploration of the early days of abstract art in Europe and America is not to be missed; it’s the show people will be debating in the coming months. For all its revelatory moments, however, “Inventing Abstraction” makes abstraction’s divorce from nature appear cleaner than it ever really was. A troublesome absolutism haunts this brilliant show. There isn’t enough Brancusi. Miró is missed. The critic Lance Esplund put it most succinctly in Bloomberg, when he argued that leaving out Paul Klee “is like mounting a comprehensive show about the Italian Renaissance and leaving out Leonardo.”

Among contemporary one-person gallery shows, here are three mounted in New York that hold in the mind. “Keith Smith: Book by Book,” which closed at Bruce Silverstein in the first days of 2012, engrossed with its explosively playful feeling for the book arts, joining a photographic eroticism with a deconstruction of the nature of the book that had its own kind of erotic charge. As for “Ridley Howard: Slows,” at Leo Koenig Inc, it stands out for its dapper eccentricity, with Howard’s tightly rendered, small-scale paintings ranging from purist geometric abstractions to nearly neoclassical figures studies, all united by a spiffy, romantic precision—a younger man’s understated ardor. At Leigh Morse Fine Arts, “Lennart Anderson: Paintings” reaffirmed the subtle virtuosity of a veteran painter of figures, landscapes, and still lifes. Anderson, a figure on the New York scene since the 1950s, knows how to achieve moments of disciplined abandon, his brushwork exacting and easy, his color ranging from pastoral serenity to burning-the-midnight-oil fervor.

The art scene is international, and no museumgoer or gallerygoer can see everything. Locus Solus: Impressions of Raymond Roussel, the book produced to accompany an exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, commemorates a show I am sorry to have missed, tracing this most idiosyncratic of modern author’s expansive impact on the Surrealists in Europe and on artists and writers in the United States; the result is a nifty compendium of text and image, including works by Duchamp, De Chirico, Dalí, Ernst, as well as Roussel’s own fascinating photographs. When asked in an interview about Roussel’s influence on his own poetry, John Ashbery, who once planned to write a PhD thesis on Roussel, comments that “a great example forces one to try to do something completely different.” And so in the arts in 2012 we were always looking for the difference, but also for the echo of what had come before. Those echoes of art’s past are especially strong in a beautiful cycle of poems by Mary Maxwell—in her new book Cultural Tourism (Longnookbooks)—concerned with artists and writers whose lives intersected with the landscape and history of Cape Cod. Juxtaposing her observations of George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Edward Hopper, and Robert Motherwell with poems dedicated to Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald and others, Maxwell inhabits with easy yet never glib precision that mysterious zone where art and life meet. Her words about Hofmann resonate at the end of 2012, as they would at the end of any year in the visual arts: “…Transformation, / even death, requires patience, perseverance and acceptance of unknowable / outcomes. Nature is not bound by what we see.”

Correction: This piece originally misstated the name of the museum that held "Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective." It is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, not the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.