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Best of the decade: Art

FREAKISH AND FABULOUS: "Balloon Dog (Orange)" by Jeff Koons.
FREAKISH AND FABULOUS: "Balloon Dog (Orange)" by Jeff Koons. (Jeff Koons/museum Of Contemporary Art, Chicago)

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By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, December 27, 2009

This fall, almost all the works on view at the National Gallery of Art came from its permanent collection. That puts the institution on the leading edge of one of the decade's most beneficial trends: Museums have slowly been heading away from mega-shows and back toward the mega-art they already own and used to focus on. In the days when the Louvre and Prado did no more than put their art on view, they were hardly broken institutions. With that in mind, some of the world's greatest museums are ever so slowly retraining their visitors to replace the question "What's on?" with "What should I look at?"

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The National Gallery's fall season still grouped its holdings into shows, of sorts. With luck and time, it may not even have to do that.

The best

1. Dada, at the National Gallery of Art in 2006. Art lovers knew that the Dada movement of absurdist art, which flourished around the time of World War I, was one of the most influential ever. This show proved it deserved to be so.

2. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2002. Painting has become the iconic medium, but this exhibition showed that it had major competition even in its heyday.

3. Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, in 2002. When I first saw this mega-survey of politically tinged contemporary art, I had my doubts. They were misplaced: Time has shown that it foresaw some of the most compelling trends of the decade.

4. Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey, at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in 2005. I've always questioned whether beauty's a coherent idea. The stunning silks in this show ignored my reservations.

5. Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965, at the National Gallery in 2007. As good as a solo show can get. This seminal American artist was represented by his best art, from his best period, brilliantly arranged.

6. Gerard ter Borch, at the National Gallery of Art in 2004. It's heresy to say it, but I'm not sure about Vermeer. This exhibition gave me another master of the Dutch Golden Age to hitch my wagon to.

7. Gordon Matta-Clark: "You Are the Measure," at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2007. One of those 1960s artists known for a reputation as a genius rather than for works that might prove it. This exhibition showed the work and proved the genius.

8. Directions: Tacita Dean, at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in 2001. Dean, a Brit who works in Berlin, makes non-narrative films where almost nothing goes on -- as little as in a portrait by Titian, a still-life by Chardin, a landscape by Constable.

9. Jeff Koons, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2008. Yes, Koons is a freak, and his work is freakish. It's freakery of such a high order that it counts as some of the best art of our times.

10. Correggio, in Parma, Italy, in 2008. Correggio is possibly the least recognized of the official geniuses of 16th-century art. Seeing a huge spread of his art in the place where most of it got made was an all-time great pleasure.

The worst

Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited -- The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2003. The idea of making life-size, painted-bronze sculptures based on scenes from impressionist paintings was possibly the worst any artist has come up with for years. Decades. Centuries?


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