Top Museum Shows of 2010
Museum-goers had much to be grateful for in 2010. In New York City, the twins Mike and Doug Starn's "Big Bambu: You can't, You Don't, and You Won't Stop" on the Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a blockbuster installation consisting of 5,000 interlocking bamboo poles lashed together with nylon rope. Think of it as an enormous spider's web of bamboo scaffolding, an example of audience-participation art. Thousands of museum-goers walked through its wavy internal foot paths, which on a windy day were not all that stable. This site specific installation which grew during the spring and summer to an immense structure, 50- feet high, 50-feet wide, and 100-feet long, was a first for New York. The public, the critics, and especially children loved it. The reward for the non-acrophobic willing to walk to the highest point: stunning views of the city, especially at sunset.
The other much less heralded but very rewarding Met installation is a Roman mosaic from Lod, Israel. Dating from about A.D. 300, it was once thought to be part of a reception room or an audience hall where visitors were entertained. Mosaics were pricey but rich Romans favored them as they could last a lifetime and required little maintenance. The Lod mosaic depicts wild, exotic animals, birds, and fish, a not too peaceable kingdom, but an impressive one for a rich Roman family, On loan until April 3, 2011, the mosaic is in the sunny Greek and Roman Galleries where it's a challenge to think of it once buried for some 1700 years beneath an Israeli highway. The mosaic was painstakingly lifted from its original site, placed on huge wooden rollers, and transported to a Jerusalem lab. Over a two year period, it was meticulously cleaned, preserved, and prepared for the trip to the Met. On the museum's site ( www.metmuseum.org) check out a four-minute video which documents the initial discovery and amazing story of how the mosaic, which measures about 50 by 27 feet, was transported.
"Bronzino, Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici" at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence is a magnificent exhibition. Some 60 paintings, one more dazzling than the next, are on view through January 21 if Florence is on your schedule. Bronzino(1503-1572) became court painter to various Medici dukes and grand dukes of Florence at 36 and was revered throughout his life. He was a lucky guy whose work never went out of fashion during his lifetime. Bronzino made his mark as a court artist. His sleek portraits display a frosty demeanor, a kind of snobby aristocratic composure but also a clarity of form, color, and composition. He is well known for an extreme naturalism as you can see in the painting of Lucrezia di Gismondo Pucci, an elegant court beauty seated in a dark niche wearing a dynamite satin red dress. Her high social status is conveyed by her jewels -- gold belt studded with semi-precious stones, a string of pearls around her neck with a ruby pendant, and a long gold necklace.
Bronzino's "Holy Family with St. Anne and St. John" also has remarkable details -- the folds of the Virgin's drapery, her beautiful long neck, the frown lines on St. John's face, the fresh, luminous colors, and above all, the solid, life-like figures. Bronzino, widely considered one of the greatest artists in the history of Italian painting, was the son of a butcher, yet with his immense talent he was able to convey the elegance of the Medici court and also create religious paintings imbued with religious piety. (www.palazzostrozzi.org)
"Picasso Looks at Degas" was a fabulous show at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. on view last June through September. It brought together some 100 paintings and etchings of Degas (1834-1917) and Picasso (1881-1973) and demonstrated the range of reactions Picasso had to the work of Degas. When he moved to Paris in 1904, Picasso lived just streets away from Degas, but it's unlikely the two ever met. Despite their differences in age and backgrounds, they were both what the curators called "museum revolutionaries." By selecting various themes that intrigued both artists, the show explored Picasso's lifelong fascination with Degas. Picasso's response to Degas was evident in paintings of women in various poses bathing, brushing their hair, and ballet dancers among other subjects. Picasso once said "good artists copy, great artists steal." No stealing here, just a reverence and an homage to the older master. In one of the last galleries, Picasso's etchings depicting life in Parisian brothels was juxtaposed with Degas's 1870s monotypes based on the same theme. In one Picasso etching, Degas is portrayed as an elderly client visiting a brothel. (www.clarkart.edu)
A visit to the Rubin Museum on 150 West 17th Street in New York City is always a revelation. You can still see its fascinating exhibition, "Embodying the Holy, Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism," which is on view through March 7, 2011. Placing Eastern Orthodox icons and Tibetan Buddhist thangkas (paintings on cloth) side by side reveals some surprising similarities in imagery. The show explores the two traditions' notions of compassion, good versus evil, and heaven and hell. What's most surprising is how two different religious traditions used similar visual language and symbols to express their fundamental concepts. Who would have thought that life stories of the Buddha and episodes from the saints would have so much in common? Whether Orthodox icons or Buddhist paintings, the unknown artists who created these works were masters of their craft. (www.rmanyc.org)