If you went to a museum over the summer and saw the joy and relief on people’s faces (I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the day it reopened and will never forget it), you will understand how much this second round of closures hurts. But it hurts even more for America’s tens of thousands of museum employees, so many of whom have lost jobs or gotten by on reduced wages, among other challenges.
Compounding the grief and confusion caused by the pandemic was the racial reckoning set in motion by protests after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Artists responded boldly, mobilizing grief into protest and a passion for justice. Many of their best efforts spilled out of museums into the streets and online.
There was much to feel hopeful about in the art world response. Care, compassion, humility, decency, imagination, openheartedness — I saw all of that. I also saw a tendency to fall into the kind of thinking that I believe art exists to save us from: sloganeering, ideological absolutism, internecine fighting, bullying and binary thinking.
Kudos to the folks at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts who, overcoming extraordinary obstacles, somehow managed to open a new wing, the Kinder Building for contemporary and modern art, on a revamped campus in November. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, meanwhile, both bravely marked the saddest of sesquicentenaries.
One of the year’s most dismal developments came in October, when the directors of the National Gallery of Art, the MFA Boston, Tate Modern and the MFA Houston caved in to (mostly) imaginary pressure and postponed a major Philip Guston show that I, and art lovers all over, had been eagerly anticipating. I like it when great institutions change with the times. I don’t like it when they panic and, in the process, abandon their mission.
In October, the Baltimore Museum of Art tried to sell three paintings that director Christopher Bedford hoped would raise $65 million to spend mostly on diversity and equity initiatives. At first glance, the move seemed like a logical extension of the summer’s protests, which had brought demands for museums to accelerate diversity efforts and better care for staff. Here was a proposal to do just that. But it turned out that people thought treating your art collection as an asset to be monetized was the wrong way to go about things. The sale was halted in the nick of time.
Through all of this, museums staged some incredible exhibitions. Many were cut short, in some cases just days after opening, but they deserve to be remembered. Years of work, lifetimes of expertise and incredible feats of teamwork and logistics go into organizing great art exhibitions. Here were some — though by no means all — of the shows that stood out.
1. Jacob Lawrence, ‘The American Struggle’
Just . . . wow. Seeing this exhibition, which opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (it will come to the Phillips Collection in D.C. next year), was like hearing a long-dormant engine suddenly ignite and start revving. In 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, one of America’s great 20th-century artists emerged from a depression to tackle the story of America’s founding. He did it in a series of more than two dozen panels, all of them utterly original, surprising, oblique and full of insight. This was the first time they have been shown in a museum.
2. ‘Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures’
“How do you tell others about what you think is worth telling?” asked Dorothea Lange in old age. She, of course, had answered the question already: She did it with a camera. Lange traveled all over America with the assignment to “see what was really there.” She created some of the most indelible images of the 20th century. The joy of this show, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was not just that it revealed how much more there was to Lange than her two or three inescapably iconic photographs. It grew from the realization that the fellow-feeling she brought to such a pitch of intensity in her Depression-era images remained consistent throughout her career.
3. Arthur Jafa’s ‘Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death’
In June, for 48 hours, 13 museums did a remarkable thing. As Black Lives Matter protests were still roiling the world, they banded together and streamed from their websites one of the defining video works of our time: Arthur Jafa’s “Love is the Message, the Message is Death.” Jafa’s 7½ -minute montage — set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” and by turns ecstatic and traumatic — had not previously been accessible online. Making it available to the public at large, with Jafa’s permission, felt like a genuine public service.
4. ‘Degas at the Opera’
The best Degas exhibition I have ever seen was this show at the National Gallery of Art. That it was filled with some of the greatest images of the 19th century was part of it. But by profoundly complicating our idea of Degas — demonstrating the massive role fiction, fantasy and high feeling played in the sensibility of this supposedly dispassionate “realist” — the curators lifted the experience into something sublime.
5. ‘Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art’
This was a fresh, ambitious examination of all the ways in which artists of the so-called Mexican Renaissance — especially the muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros — influenced the course of modern American art. Everyone who knows either Mexican or American modernism knows the story in outline. This show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York added nuance and shading, making a fascinating historical episode seem more remarkable and unlikely than ever.
2020 didn’t feel to me like a year when minimalism would have much to contribute. But this retrospective devoted to Donald Judd — a trenchant art critic as well as a maker of pristine, industrial-looking three-dimensional objects — left a deep impression. If attention is a form of prayer, as Simone Weil wrote, spending time with Judd’s secretly sensuous work, beautifully presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, felt akin to muttering an ongoing incantation.
7. ‘Gerhard Richter: Painting After All’
This Richter show was intended both as a swan song for New York’s Met Breuer — the Metropolitan Museum’s short-lived, uptown outpost for modern and contemporary art — and an American apotheosis for Richter, the 88-year-old German artist revered by artists all over the world. It closed March 12, eight days after it opened. But you can buy the catalogue.
8. ‘El Greco: Ambition and Defiance’
El Greco probably had more influence on the 20th century’s most expressive artists than any other Old Master. But this show, which came to the Art Institute of Chicago from Paris, presented the Cretan artist on his own terms — as a spellbinding amalgam of Byzantium, Venice, Florence and Spain; a magical colorist; and a powerhouse producer of emotionally charged pictures.
9. ‘Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde — From Signac to Matisse and Beyond’
Félix Fénéon was an art critic, not an artist. So how did this show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York end up with some of the most beautiful and arresting pictures of any exhibition in 2020? Because Fénéon knew great art when he saw it. He forged relations with the likes of Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Henri Matisse. He was also an anarchist, an editor, a collector and a dealer. This show revealed his many attributes even as it left his mystery intact. You came away with the feeling that you had stepped in and out of a mesmerizing fin de siècle novel.
10. ‘John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal’ and ‘Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent’
We all know Sargent could draw, just as we all know he could paint. These two exhibitions brought out both aspects of his virtuosity — and then something more — by focusing on his relationships with his subjects. “Boston’s Apollo,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, focused on Sargent’s extended relationship with a Black model, Thomas McKeller. Meanwhile, “Portraits in Charcoal,” at the National Portrait Gallery, presented the results of more fleeting encounters with the great and the good. Both were ravishing.