“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs, and Video, 1961-2008:” Perhaps this is cheating a bit since the exhibition opened at the Whitney in 2009, but when I saw it again at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, I was even more enamored with Eggleston’s startling use of color photography. “Democratic Camera” was the first retrospective of Eggleston’s long career, which centers largely on the local color of his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Eggleston’s photographs are always simple and straightforward yet maintain the complexity that's the essence of figurative photography.
“Mexican Suitcase” at the International Center of Photography: “Mexican Suitcase” was a marvel of an exhibition that filled gaps of our knowledge about photojournalists Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour). The mere existence of the Mexican Suitcase is a virtual miracle. The Suitcase, which contained some 126 rolls of film, went missing in 1939 when Capa was fleeing from the invasion of Europe, and remained missing until 2007 when the ICP (founded by Capa’s brother Cornell) finally found them. The exhibition is a textured look at the Spanish Civil War and Capa, Taro and Chim’s innovative approaches to photojournalism.
Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?” in New York Review of Books: Ostensibly a review of Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Smith delves into the effects that social digitalization have on us and on the performance of culture. If you haven’t already read it, you can do so here.
“Playing with Pictures: The Art of the Victorian Photocollage” at the Art Institute of Chicago: An “art historians” exhibition, “Playing with Pictures” was a charming yet vigorously researched exhibition which proposed that collage—a form usually associated with the early twentieth-century avant-gardism of Picasso and Georges Braque—was an important part of Victorian visual culture. Born of the drawing-rooms of upper-class British women who delighted in cutting up family photographs and repurposing them into artistic albums, the practice resulted in bizarre juxtapositions and collages that would make Andre Breton envious (definitely not your mother’s idea of scrapbooking). “Playing with Pictures,” and its accompanying catalogue, was the smartest look at Victorian Britain I’ve seen in a long time.
John Brandon’s Citrus County: Brandon’s second novel was silently subversive: part a coming of age novel and part crime novel, he plays tribute while undermining expectations of both genres. His stripped-down prose and his unflinching look at the devastated inner life of his characters are so unerring that it’s hard to put Brandon’s book down.
Participatory art’s big comeback: Recessions are always boomtime for performance art. It was true in the 1970s and 80s when participatory artists pushed their way into the mainstream: Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, and Gordon Matta-Clark all pioneered works which compelled the viewer to perform with the artist. The “Great Recession” of the aughts was no different. Marina Abramović re-performed The Artist is Present. The Starns Brothers extended their assembly technique to engineer an enormous, scaffolding-like bamboo playground, Big Bamú, which seemed to grow from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden. Christian Marclay at the Whitney had visitors write musical notes (and scribbles and whatnots) for pianist to improvise from.
Emma Donoghue’s Room: Undoubtedly the creepiest novel of the year, Donoghue’s Room is told from the perspective of Jack, a young boy whose life is lived, with his mother, in a locked room. Donoghue completely immerses herself into her protagonist (five-year-old Jack) who witnesses a series of disturbing events. As with her earlier novel Slammerkin, the realism of her characters’ voices—if not their situations—makes for a startling effect.
Caravaggio: It was a big year for Caravaggio. The seventeenth century Italian painter celebrated his 400th anniversary and he was gifted with a hoard of new books—most notably one by Michael Fried—delving into everything from his aesthetics to his sexuality. The Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome organized a major exhibition of the artist and even his followers, the Caravaggesti, got in on the action. Most importantly, some Italian “researchers” possibly found Caravaggio’s missing bones, perhaps answering the long-standing mystery of how he died: sunstroke. You’re welcome.
“William Kentridge: Five Themes” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Kentridge’s work has had an indelible mark on the contemporary art scene and his expansive show at the SFMoMA reminded me how smart his work is. Kentridge’s dreamlike charcoal drawings and stop-animation film are often self-deprecating, funny and always ambivalent. His works, however, are politically engaged, silently referencing apartheid and colonialism of his native South Africa.
Reexamining Sculpture: I’ve always thought of sculpture as the unwanted, red-headed step-child of art history. But this year, two exhibitions changed my mind: the Turner Prize exhibition and the MoMA exhibit “The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today.” While neither of these exhibitions were solely about sculpture, they both explored its intersections with other artistic media. Turner Prize winner Susan Philllipsz expanded the field of sculpture with her sound art and the MoMA’s exhibition fleshed out the close relationship between photography and sculpture, particularly their reproducibility.