The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000-January 4, 2001

[Art Reviews]

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Dutch treats

Art - the year in review

by Christopher Millis, Jeffrey Gantz, William Corbett, and Randi Hopkins

Van GoghSeeing "Van Gogh: Face to Face" would be the art highlight of just about any city's year, but the Museum of Fine Arts also threw in "Van Gogh to Mondrian: Dutch Works on Paper." This kaleidoscopic gem, everything from drawings and watercolors to posters and photographs, was no Van Gogh afterthought -- more like an exquisite small Vermeer in the shadow of a large Rembrandt. "Face to Face" was overhyped, and the catalogue-show interface (different titles?) left something to be desired, but it delivered on most of the big-name portraits. And "Dutch Works on Paper" introduced many of us to Symbolists Jan Theodoor Toorop and Johan Thorn Prikker.

Getting potted. No, you don't have to be smashed to appreciate the enterprise of the Pucker Gallery in bringing ceramic art to Boston -- and selling it. Following last year's exquisite Brother Thomas show the Pucker in 2000 brought us "The Ceramic Art of Onda" and "Tatsuzo Shimaoka: The Beauty of Use -- New Work." Not to mention showstoppers in painting ("The Game Continues -- Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak" and "In a Different Light: Genesis in the Art of Samuel Bak"), watercolor (Mallory Lake's "Italy Light and Shadow"), and soapstone ("Inuit Art: Form and Fantasy"). Apart from setting the standard for Newbury Street, the Pucker has on its upper floors Boston's best mini-museum, one delight after another, and all different.

Beyond the Pucker. Despite their disheartening eminence, the galleries of Newbury Street provide a gratifying antidote to the curator-driven, media-hyped group extravaganzas that claim so much attention these days in the visual arts. Up in late May, for example, were Ann Christensen's kinky "Passionate Landscape" at MPG; the symbolic, essentially abstract complexity of Philip Sirois and Howard Johnson at the Howard Yezerski; the group show "Elements" at the Mercury Gallery; and Robert Ferrandini's lush, feathery landscapes at Gallery Naga.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film - film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock 1 - local rock 2 - nonfiction - queer - pop - protest - theater - tv

Bearing witness. If "Witness & Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust," at the DeCordova Museum, brought us the letdown of piddling aspirations that succeed, it still had Gabrielle Rossmer's solemn group of five-foot-high bodiless open tunics and Seth Kramer's 15-minute untitled video in which he decides to count six million grains of rice (by the film's end, nearly a year later, he's made it only to one million). Closer to home, the ambitious, renegade, heartfelt "Distinguishing/Distinguished Jewish," at the Levanthal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton, had six artists exploring with wit and openness what it means to be Jewish. And at the MFA, "Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?" introduced us to the short-lived (she died at Auschwitz, just 26) German artist whose richly toned, expressionistic, autobiographic gouaches read like 400 pages from a book. You could think of her as a spiritual companion to her countrymen Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht; like theirs, her subtleties are brazen and her passions incendiary.

Photo finish. The camera was once again in focus this year at the Portland Museum ("In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West"), the MFA ("Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism"; "View from Above: The Photographs of Bradford Washburn"), the Photographic Resource Center ("Representing the Intangible"), the Howard Yezerski Gallery (Duane Michals and John Coplans), the Sackler Museum ("Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times"), and the DeCordova Museum ("Photography in Boston 1955-1985").

Guston Infinite riches in a little room. Two concurrent shows, "Philip Guston: A New Alphabet" at Harvard's Fogg Museum and "Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt: Art and Ambition in Leiden" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, reminded us that you don't need to bring in a blockbuster to make a big splash. The Fogg's compact and beautifully put together exhibition focused on Guston's bold late (post-1970) work. The centerpiece was a set of 27 paintings, the alphabet of the title, where the images central to late Guston appear in so many combinations that they join together like syllables, developing into the words of a powerfully expressive vocabulary. "Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt," yet another jewel in the Gardner's small-show crown, spotlit his final years in Leiden, between 1629 and 1631, when Rembrandt the young painter created Rembrandt the great artist, largely in the way he learned to ask the Big Questions and only hint at the Answers.

Move over, Monet. It wasn't all high tea at Boston's big arts institutions. The MFA made its bow to pop culture (and its bid for a younger audience) with "Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar," which strolled through four centuries of guitar design, from a 1590 ivory-and-tropical-wood 10-string beauty to Pat Metheny's 42-string "Pikasso" model. The audio tour let you hear what many of these instruments sound like; a video reel let you see some of the great practitioners at work, from Les Paul & Mary Ford to Bonnie Raitt and Kurt Cobain. Not to be outdone, the Institute of Contemporary Art answered with "Customized: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Low Riders and American Car Culture," a funny, sexy, thoughtful show built around the history and the varied manifestations of car culture in America, from the 1940s to the present. From bright licking flames and scantily clad pin-up girls to skulls, monsters, and Jesus, the hot-rod iconography was all here, those urgent, highly stylized caricatures of life, love, luck, speed, and death.

Think about it. The sprawling and ambitious "Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin," at MIT's List Visual Arts Center, attempted a three-decade survey of international conceptual art, from the 1950s to the 1980s. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Lee Mingwei's installation The Living Room evoked Mrs. Gardner's entertaining spirit while throwing a 21st-century light on the art of social exchange. At the Mills Gallery, "Making Ends Meet" had each of six artists creating a semi-autonomous sculpture or installation that would relate to the works on either side of it. And at the Somerville Museum, "Build" posed intriguing questions about how we construct and inhabit our environment.

Standing out in a crowd. Maybe it wasn't intended as a high-profile piece of public art, but the Widener Crane at Harvard filled the bill anyway. This 189-foot structure was built in Germany and brought to America last year to work on the $41 million Widener Library renovation project. With its 230-foot long boom it transformed the space over Harvard Square, challenging everything around it -- and on weekends, when the brake was off, it became the world's largest weathervane. Despite its size, it was a friendly presence in the village-like atmosphere of the Square. It'll be missed.

Real horses. Last year horses galloped through the MFA's "Susan Rothenberg: Painting from the Nineties" show; this year they charged across the river and into Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum, where they lit up "Franz Marc: Horses." We saw this German Expressionist artist (who died in World War I, just 36) rejecting the naturalism of his time in favor of a symbolic use of color, filling his canvases with large areas of pure reds, yellows, blues, and greens in order to explore the spiritual power of color and express his feelings about the deep soulfulness of animals in nature. His curvaceous horses are luxuriously seductive, yet demure, with downturned eyes or sidelong glances. Marc felt that animals were both more beautiful and more spiritual than men -- a sobering reflection for the new millennium.


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