The consistently high caliber of museums in and around Washington is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes my research in compiling a list of the 10 best exhibitions a lot more fun than what, say, my colleague on the movie page had to go through to find the 10 best films of the year (after all, nothing I saw in any museum could have been as bad as "Baby Geniuses"). On the other hand, that same high quality is precisely what makes the final selection so hard. Of necessity I have to weed out a ton of great shows.
That having been said, here is a list of the coolest exhibits I saw this year, starting with two you can still visit: one that'll be up through the summer and one that won't last much beyond the new year.
We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens. Robots greet you at the door of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. Upstairs, one wall is lined with a parade of extraterrestrial bunnies; another carries a visual diary of alien abduction. Thousands of psychically bent spoons cover a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood. Dubious though you may be, this show doesn't insist on a belief in anything but the power of creativity. Through Sept. 3, 2001.
Brassai: The Eye of Paris. Black-and-white photos of the nighttime Parisian demimonde of the 1930s and '40s that make smoking, staying up all night and hanging out in whorehouses seem like a good idea. Through Jan. 16 at the National Gallery of Art.
Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings and Prints. Okay, so Marden's squiggly canvases, prints and drawings at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at first looked like pictures made with Silly String. After a while, though, you started to see things -- not so much figures as the echoes of figures, the ghosts and memories of something dancing in the mind.
Microbes: Invisible Invaders ... Amazing Allies. Corporate sponsor Pfizer's name was too much in evidence at this educational exhibition on germs, viruses and cooties at the International Gallery of the S. Dillon Ripley Center, but it did have a hologram, a fake wall of rotting corpses, a working foosball table illustrating the body's defenses against disease and the opportunity to swat at incoming microbes with a virtual reality ping-pong paddle. What more could a kid -- or a grown-up germophobe -- want?
Art-O-Matic. The multi-artist, grass-roots art show at the former site of Washington's Manhattan Laundry was the best and bravest thing to happen to the city's creative community in a long, long time. A lot of the uncurated show was mediocre, but just as much proved a tonic to the traditional despair over D.C.'s reputation as a cultural backwater.
An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital, Selections From the Hallmark Photographic Collection. In the past year or so, half the museums in town seem to have mounted photographic surveys, but this one at the Phillips Collection, drawn from the art collection of Hallmark Corp., was the most handsome, intelligent, inclusive and ambitious.
Juliao Sarmento: Fundamental Accuracy. It was a small show in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's Directions Gallery -- just a handful of what looked like drawings of headless and sometimes handless women, along with similar sculptures -- but the Portuguese artist's oblique, poetic and disturbing images still haunt my dreams.
Cataloguing Memory. At the nonprofit L.I.P.A. Gallery, the suite of drawings, prints and paintings by Bosnian-born Tanja Softic (illustrating medical instruments, body parts and plant specimens in shades of rust, lichen and what the artist calls "infinite black") were steeped in a sense of pain and hope unsurprising from someone who has lived through war.
John Singer Sargent. Was it the glint of light he captured at the end of a subject's nose, the moist, sometimes red-rimmed eyes or the tilt of the head and the telling gesture that made John Singer Sargent simply the best portrait painter of his day? The proof was in room after room of this wide-ranging retrospective at the National Gallery of Art.
Hot Glass, Flat Glass and Neon: William Morris, Therman Statom, Stephen Antonakos. Last but not least, contemporary studio glass artist William Morris's dramatically lit "Cache" installation at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, suggesting at once tusks, an animal carcass and a shipwreck, as well his wall of bizarre pseudo-archaeological finds, were part of a show far too gorgeous and moving to ignore just because it was out of town.