'Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting"
There were high expectations for the National Gallery of Art's "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting" exhibition, and they were all met. More than two decades after the gallery attracted blockbuster crowds with its 1995 Vermeer show, curators returned to the subject, with an important twist. Rather than gather together as many Vermeers as possible, they reunited 10 key works, and then placed them in the larger context of other painters at work during a critical, quarter-century period beginning about 1650. Seen side-by-side with similar works by Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu and Frans van Mieris, among others, the genre paintings of Vermeer are newly intriguing. He wasn't an inventor or creator of new forms; rather, he infused existing subject matter with a peculiar, highly personal intensity. The show has proved popular with audiences, perhaps not as crazy crowded as the Vermeer show of the Clinton years, but not always easy to get into without a wait in line. But the wait and the rewards — including the discovery of other painters no less individual and daring as Vermeer — are well worth it.
"Frank Lloyd Wright:
Unpacking the Archive"
The work of Frank Lloyd Wright, like the writings of our Founding Fathers, needs to be regularly rediscovered and reprocessed. He wasn't just extraordinarily long-lived and productive, he embodied fundamental tensions that remain with us not just in the built environment, but in our American character. The Museum of Modern Art's large and comprehensive exhibition, "Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive," was a deep dive into the archives of Wright's two studio-residences, the "Taliesin" campuses in Wisconsin and Arizona. But it was also a chance for a new generation to rediscover Wright, and the tensions embedded in his work. He was a master of urban forms who imagined America happiest as a vast, exurban suburb that kept us near to community but never far from our collective fantasy of rural hard work and rugged self-sufficiency. He was a meticulous craftsman and unrelenting perfectionist who was also a master of self-promotion and the media. The MoMA exhibition seemed endless in a good way, around every corner a new delight, sometimes a vision that is brazenly inventive, sometimes a gem of Wright's gorgeous draftsmanship.
Ellsworth Kelly's "Blue Black"
The Pulitzer Arts Foundation invited artist Glenn Ligon to curate an exhibition at the St. Louis-based institution beginning with a single work: Ellsworth Kelly's "Blue Black," a commissioned piece that hangs in a large vertical space in the Tadao Ando-designed minimalist museum space. Ligon managed to keep a tight rein on the project, also called "Blue Black," yet produced a survey of works that was as broad, eclectic and engaging as the whole of the anarchic world of contemporary art. St. Louis has been the epicenter of the Black Lives Movement, and Ligon is an artist who has confronted issues of race in his own work. So there were connections between the more than 50 works on view that touched on race and on the blues as a musical form. But the show also examined the colors themselves, in works that explored the palette or derivations from the palette seen in the deceptively simple Kelly wall sculpture. A professional curator might not have taken the associative liberties that Ligon took. But at the same time, a professional curator might not have discovered the connections that Ligon offered. It was a bracing show, full of extraordinary work, juxtaposed with both whim and passion, and delightfully free of the artsy verbiage that too many contemporary curators use to give the illusion of gravitas.
"Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends"
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has grown too large and too popular to fulfill consistently its old mission of bringing rigor to the study of contemporary and modern art. It chases the fads and the trends and always the audiences, and an afternoon spent there on a busy day can be as exhausting and dispiriting as shopping on Black Friday. But when it musters its full resources and takes on a serious subject, there's no substitute for this museum. That was on display in this year's retrospective "Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends," which was not just a retrospective on the work of the artist, who died in 2008, but a capacious history of art in New York during much of the last century. Rauschenberg not only made work that remain enormously influential, he established habits of work — collaboration, performance, and wandering promiscuously across media — that are still the habits that define most contemporary artists today. The MoMA exhibition was large and unruly, like the oeuvre of the artist, and it didn't necessarily raise his reputation above the already exalted status Rauschenberg enjoys. But it gave audiences as full and comprehensive an understanding of his work as they are likely to see in a generation, and it's likely to have kick-started a reassessment of his legacy that will continue through the next enormous Rauschenberg retrospective, whenever that comes.
Mark Bradford's "Pickett's Charge"
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden struggles to make the best of its awkward architecture, the Gordon Bunshaft-designed cylindrical building on the Mall. In recent years, the museum has worked with living artists to make work directly onto the walls of its inner ring corridor, a light-drenched space that looks out onto the museum's circular courtyard. It is congenial for sculpture, but a challenge for works that hang on the wall. But artists have risen to the occasion, using the museum's geometry to explore visual ideas of continuity, connection and evolution. Now they are showing Mark Bradford's "Pickett's Charge," a work based on a popular 19th-century panorama painting housed in a custom-built cyclorama theater in Gettysburg, Pa. Bradford uses his virtuoso skills of layering and cutting and abrading to play games with the legibility of the original painting, which sometimes emerges as pixilated dots, and sometimes is seen with relative and disconcerting clarity. The Civil War, race and the legacy of slavery are seeping out of the fissures and tears of Bradford's piece. But the surprising thing is the monumentality of the work. This commissioning project has now begun to produce work that exists not despite the strange place that inspires it, but with that space somehow embedded in its scale and meaning. If it continues, perhaps the idea of a "Hirshhorn" work will suggest a body of art intimately connected to one of this city's most challenging spaces.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the organization that invited artist Glenn Ligon to curate an exhibition beginning with a single work, Ellsworth Kelly's "Blue Black." It is the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, not the Pulitzer Center for the Arts. The article has been updated.