Across America in 2018, art institutions were asking themselves tough questions as they worked to be — and to be perceived as — more relevant and representative. But artists and curators weren’t the only ones reminding us how much art leaks into our lives. Every day, at every level, comedians, the Carters, Hollywood stars, filmmakers and podcasters were getting in on the action, too.
“Civilizations” — a nine-part history of world art on PBS — was far from perfect, but this answer to Kenneth Clark’s legendary 1969 BBC series was the most ambitious attempt yet to tell the story of art on a global scale. And “At Eternity’s Gate,” with Willem Dafoe playing Vincent van Gogh in a film by Julian Schnabel, leaped into the front rank of great artist biopics.
Meanwhile, van Gogh, Picasso and the injustices inherent in art history played crucial roles in “Nanette,” the brilliant Netflix comedy special by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, a surprise sensation over the summer.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z reigned briefly over the Louvre with their savvy, eye-popping video for “Apesh-t.” Artist Arthur Jafa, meanwhile, leaned on the music of Kanye West to provide the most electrifying gallery experience of the year, in the form of “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death,” which I saw at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
“Last Seen,” a joint production of WBUR and the Boston Globe, was the best art podcast: a riveting 11-part investigation into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist and the ongoing efforts to retrieve the stolen art.
There were two huge events in the art market — one of them no more than a stunt, really, but a salutary reminder, if any were needed, of how preposterous the commodification of art has become: A Banksy work achieved a record for the artist at auction, and then proceeded to shred itself after the auctioneer’s hammer came down. Meanwhile, a painting by another British artist, David Hockney, became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold for more than $90 million.
Perhaps the strangest announcement of the year was the news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was swapping directors with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. When Max Hollein was chosen to take over from Thomas Campbell at the Met, just two years after Hollein had arrived in San Francisco, no one guessed that he would be replaced there by Campbell. But, voilà! That’s exactly what happened.
The year’s best shows? Art is vast, it’s Gorgon-headed. So let’s take it (more or less) chronologically.
The best show of ancient art was the Getty Center’s “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World,” a sustained look at the impact Egypt had on the classical world. The two most resplendent loan shows — my jaw is still on the floor — were “Peacock and the Desert: the Royal Arts of Jodhpur,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The most important 19th-century show was the traveling Berthe Morisot retrospective. Such a great show! But then, so were “Delacroix,” at the Met, and “Cézanne Portraits” and “Corot: Women,” at the National Gallery of Art.
How often does an exhibition force us to rewrite art history? “Hilma af Klint,” at the Guggenheim, and “Posing Modernity: the Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” at the Wallach Art Gallery, both did just that. Fabulous, both of them.
For all the many brilliant, politically minded contemporary solo shows I saw, I couldn’t say any has stayed with me more than the survey of abstract, apolitical paintings by Charline von Heyl at the Hirshhorn. In photography, meanwhile, two exhibitions stood out: “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings,” a traveling tribute to a great artist; and “The Train: RFK’s Last Journey,” a poignant look at photographic responses to the traumatic assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The most original, dazzling and macabre show of the year was “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body,” at the Met Breuer. Also novel — and considerably more festive — was “No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man,” at the Renwick Gallery.
“I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100,” at the Columbus Museum of Art, was one of two great surveys of a particular period in American art. “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art,” at the De Young, was the other.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Textile Museum both introduced D.C. audiences to ikats from Central Asia — a visual extravaganza. And what a great year it was for sculpture.
Impossible to choose, really, between the fantasy architectural models of Bodys Isek Kingelez, at the Museum of Modern Art, and the traveling show of Jack Whitten’s hitherto unknown sculptures (“Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017”).
But, for me, the show of the year was the installation of Ruth Asawa’s gorgeous hanging sculptures at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis.