best artThe Best of 2012

It was a year dominated by politics, with all its repetitious rancor, superheated fervor and loud, dull, swaggering partisanship. Art nourished the escapees from this main event in a space apart, making the national drama look especially tawdry and silly. The political backdrop to a Joan Miro exhibition—war, fascism, military devastation— at the National Gallery made our own battles seem nothing by comparison. Cultural changes at a level deeper than policy and mere stratagem were registered in exhibitions at the Phillips Collection and the National Building Museum. And Washington institutions, including the troubled Corcoran and the flourishing District public library system, worked to define very different senses of the future. Art and architecture are about building, making, doing, and the contrast seemed particularly marked this year to the hometown industry of tearing down, slashing apart and leveling to the lowest common denominator.

1. The National Gallery’s “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape” was the local highlight of the year, a large, absorbing and emotionally dense exhibition that was first seen at the Tate Gallery in London. The show was fully synoptic, but never plodding, a survey of a magnificent career that built, ultimately, to a masterful sense of the simple gesture. The last rooms of the show, devoted to Miro’s late works, were simply stunning.

2. The Sackler Gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and among the high-profile events was the opening of the spectacular “Roads of Arabia” exhibition, an in-depth look at art and archaeology that fleshes out Saudi Arabia’s complicated history as a religious and commercial crossroads. Many of the sculptures, stele and funeral objects have a haunting, geometric cleanliness and abstraction that makes them feel like products of a mid-20th-century atelier. Egypt, Greece, Rome and a host of other cradles of civilization flowed through the land and left their mark before Islam and its strictures against representation left another kind of mark that lingers today.

3. Controversy has dogged Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection for years, through a long period of mismanagement, financial troubles and sleepy ambition. But much of the bad feeling about the Barnes evaporated in May when its new home opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the building integrates the magnificent collection into a modern setting, leaving intact the basic flow and arrangement of the galleries as they were in its old home in suburban Philly. The new museum is an architectural marvel: a thoughtful balance of preservation and innovation that serves the art, the history and the visitor equally well.


"Stag at Sharkey's” by George Bellows. (Courtesy The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection/Courtesy The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection)

4. The Phillips Collection is landlocked, though in the best ways: in a high-priced, high-traffic neighbor, and in an elegant building that flatters the scale of its collection. The best Phillips Collection exhibitions don’t overwhelm with the number of works, or the size of the art, but rather with the intensity and focus of the experience. Last February’s show, “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” gave viewers a nuanced and fascinating view into how the rise of the camera, and the spread of amateur photography, influenced French painters of the late 19th century.

5. The National Building Museum’s long-term exhibition “House and Home,” which opened in April, had been in the works since 1995. It will be with us for years, a staple of the museum’s programming, so it was good news to find it so lively, so interesting and so rich with absorbing material, including beautifully made models.

6. George Bellows is a longtime hostage of his best work, a handful of boxing paintings from the first decade of the 20th century that throb, pulse and jab with violence, energy and animation. But there was more to Bellows, much more, including a later career that obliquely grappled with more modernist currents that threatened to leave him behind. The National Gallery of Art’s George Bellows retrospective, the largest survey of his work in two decades, left one wiser, and more sympathetic to an artist who is too easy to pigeonhole.

7. Despite all its woes, and the ominous threat that its leaders may decide to abandon its landmark home and head for the burbs, the Corcoran continued to do good work, including small exhibitions such as “Manifest: Armed,” which looked at how guns, technology and communities interact; Taryn Simon’s unnerving, documentary photographic project; and the beautiful, calm-in-the-storm “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” which filled the gallery’s light-drenched galleries with lovely, light-drenched abstractions.

8. On second thought, Doug Aitken’s projection piece, “Song 1,” given a sumptuous, high-tech projection onto the cylindrical exterior wall of the Hirshhorn Museum last spring, doesn’t seem as deep as it did when it was being hyped. But on third thought, it made a lasting impression, transformed the dead space of the Mall during the height of cherry blossom season, and made the Hirshhorn a gathering space for a more diverse and youthful audience than many art museums attract. And at some level, one can’t argue with success.

9. Best idea: opening up and renovating the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The plans, announced in September, are still very basic, but the reasoning is sound. Designed by Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s, the main branch of the District’s public library hasn’t served anyone well for a long time. But its bones are good, its pedigree impeccable and its potential limitless. Two possible reconstructions were unveiled, and both would reconfigure the interior to make it more accessible to modern library users. The renovation would also keep the building in service as a library, and keep the library located right where it needs to be: in the heart of a burgeoning cultural district downtown.

10. Worst idea: moving the Corcoran, announced as a possibility in June. Financial woes and erratic leadership once again took their toll on the Corcoran when the current leadership announced that it was considering a boneheaded plan to sell the museum’s historic space and move to a new one, very likely in the suburbs. The news caused a horrible furor, and rightly so: The building, and the Corcoran’s central location in Washington, is vital to the museum and art school’s identity. At best, it started a conversation about the venerable institution’s future; at worst, it furthered the hemorrhaging of its resources and reputation.

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Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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