As usual, the National Gallery of Art is the giant of the upcoming art season in Washington. Of the top dozen shows on view in the city this winter and spring, about half are at the National Gallery. It is hosting substantial exhibitions of images by Andre Kertesz, the pioneering modernist photographer; Los Angeles painter Ed Ruscha, whose drawings will be the focus of his D.C. show; portraitist Gilbert Stuart, painter of George Washington and other early American worthies; and New York photographer Irving Penn. If none of these exhibitions is exactly a daring proposition -- compared with Ter Borch and Dan Flavin this past fall, or the landmark show of radical dada art that's in the works -- all should safely deliver a dose of engaging art.
The National Gallery's most highly touted show this spring is "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre." Because his posters and prints are relatively easy to come by, and are a sure-fire sell to the public, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec seems to get more regular outings than his modest achievements as an artist might warrant. And Toulouse-Lautrec shows often invoke the worst, most tired cliches about the splendors of belle époque Paris and Montmartre, complete with talk of sparkling gaslight, reeling absinthe addicts and -- oo la la! -- high-kicking cancan girls. Here's hoping the National Gallery can make its Toulouse-Lautrec show say something new and worthwhile, and live up to the high intellectual standards the gallery sets.
The season begins with similarly safe subjects at several of Washington's other major art venues. The Hirshhorn gives us a major survey of the elegant, modern sculpture of American artist Isamu Noguchi. At the Phillips Collection, we get a substantial look at the attractively elongated figures of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, who died young after 15 years spent in the Paris of Picasso and Co.
For artistic surprises in February, we'll have to head to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where curator Chris Gilbert is taking a look at how artists have used slides and slide shows in their work over the past few decades. (With the recent announcement that Kodak has stopped manufacturing almost all its slide projectors, it won't be long before this once-radical medium looks as quaintly old-fashioned as fresco and mosaic.)
In March, lovers of contemporary art will be counting on the hot picks of the Corcoran Biennial to usher in the spring. Connoisseurs of Near Eastern art should already be fired up in anticipation of an important exhibition at the Sackler Gallery called "In the Realm of Princes: The Arts of the Book in Fifteenth-Century Iran and Central Asia."
The local show that may be one of the most interesting comes toward the very end of June. On the 23rd, the Hirshhorn opens "Visual Music," in which chief curator Kerry Brougher examines an out-of-the way trend that had modern artists exploring the ties between abstraction, color and music. The show will include pictures and sculptures, of course, but also every kind of strange device to appeal to several of our senses all at once.
Out in the wider world, the pickings are equally impressive.
June is time once again for the Venice Biennale's giant survey of contemporary art, which rumor says is better organized this year than usual. Ruscha, whose drawings are coming to the National Gallery, will be filling the American pavilion.
In March, the Louvre presents a huge show of Romanesque art -- the first comprehensive survey of French culture in the earlier Middle Ages.
And London has an absurd supply of great art throughout the season: Major exhibitions dedicated to the culture of the Turks, to modernist sculptor Anthony Caro and to German conceptual-art guru Joseph Beuys have just got underway; the largest-ever show of African contemporary art opens next week, followed later in the month by a crucial survey of the fiery late paintings of Caravaggio; and then in May there are important shows dedicated to Joshua Reynolds, painter of celebrities in 18th-century England, and to colorfulness in art over the past 50 years or so.
Closer to home, New York gives London some serious competition. A full survey of the mad-scientist constructions of L.A. artist Tim Hawkinson opens soon at the Whitney. (The Hirshhorn gave him a focus show not too long ago.) In March, a touring retrospective of the photographs of Diane Arbus, the great social observer, stops at the Metropolitan, while P.S. 1 art center presents "Greater New York," the latest survey of current creativity in Manhattan and nearby boroughs and suburbs. April's highlight is a huge Max Ernst show at the Met, while June belongs to the Museum of Modern Art: First, the museum puts up more than 500 pictures by great American photographer Lee Friedlander, then later in the month it opens "Pioneering Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro," the first big painting show to fill MoMA's new building.
Finally, two oddities have caught my eye. I can only imagine the gorgeous modernist forms that will be on view in "Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars From the Ralph Lauren Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in March. And if in April I happened to find a Lufthansa voucher in my sock drawer, I'd head straight to Hamburg. A new photography museum there is being launched with an ultra-rare survey of the work of Martin Munkacsi -- the pioneering photojournalist who first injected action into commercial photography in the 1930 and '40s and still gets little credit for it.