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.
Best of 2012 in art, architecture: Miro, ‘Roads of Arabia’ and a plan to rework D.C.’s main library
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.
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.