The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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Exhibits worth a second look

by Jeffrey Gantz and Christopher Millis

1. Much ado in a little room. With this little gem, the Isabella Stewart Gardner proved that a blockbuster show doesn't have to extend through multiple zip codes. "Botticelli's Witness: Changing Styles in a Changing Florence" served up just 10 Botticellis (six tempera and/or oil paintings, four engravings) -- all of them owned by the Gardner, the MFA, or Harvard, proving that Boston has almost as many Botticellis as the rest of the US put together. The wall texts provided insights into Botticelli's Florence; the small catalogue (reasonably priced at $15) offered glowing reproductions and thought-provoking essays. This was the best one-room show of the year -- in Boston and probably anywhere in the world.

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DaVinci 2. God made lefthanders so he could find a good man in a hurry. The Museum of Science's "Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist" was billed as the largest Leonardo show ever. No, the museum didn't snag actual Leonardo canvases (there are hardly 15 attested paintings in existence) -- it gave us high-tech reproductions or originals attributed to Leonardo's workshop. So in place of the real Mona Lisa -- which doesn't leave the Louvre, and which in any case you'd have to view through plate glass, behind many rows of tourists -- there was the Göteborg Mona Lisa, circa 1800, clearly a copy and yet you could stand inches from it and see things even the original wouldn't reveal. From a 10-minute video to a stage re-creation of Leonardo's studio to endless interactive stations to the CD-ROM presentations, this was the ultimate Renaissance show.

3. Wind from the East. The landscapes of the Museum of Fine Arts' "Tales from the Land of Dragons: 1000 Years of Chinese Painting" delivered a millennial promise of repose, with some of the most delicate, hallucinatory, and absorbing images of Chinese painting from between the third and the 14th centuries to be seen anywhere in the world. And a companion show saw Roy Lichtenstein reinvent himself, no mean accomplishment for a 74-year-old painter. His "Landscapes in the Chinese Style" -- oversized renderings of traditional and ancient Chinese landscapes complete with all of his signature devices (the dot-matrix shadings that created entire mountain ranges, the colors that could belong only to a post-nuclear age, the thick, black comic-book borders) -- insisted that we step back, literally first, then figuratively, and recognize our small, harmonious place in the surrounding majesty.

4. Pucker up. The Pucker Gallery offered three artists to lighten the heart and gladden the soul. The 25 works in Venetian artist Pietro Spica's first solo show in the US looked like the Peabody's glass flowers after an inferno. For all their stained-glass luminosity, for all that his frames suggested a postmodern Chagall, dreamy and beatified, there was a brooding, knotted spirit that informed these compositions. Mark Davis's elegant, freestanding, desktop-sized mobiles of sterling silver or gold leaf or painted metal go through storytelling motions; one group offered magical galaxies, with planets and moons and comets in perpetual interaction -- the universe as God's playpen. And Gunnar Norrman's small, evanescent pencil drawings and engravings of trees and gardens, shorelines and buildings (usually those of Malmö, Sweden, where he lives), conveyed a sense of timeless tranquility.

5. So where's his MacArthur genius grant? As one of the seers of Cubism, Pablo Picasso was to the visual arts what Stravinsky and Schoenberg were to music and Joyce was to fiction. The Museum of Fine Arts described its "Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906" as "the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist's formative years ever undertaken." In fact it was a comprehensive record of Picasso in search of Picasso, before he became PICASSO. The Blue Period made a much more impressive statement than the Rose Period -- perhaps because Les saltimbanques was absent, perhaps because Picasso's Rose Period wasn't quite the equal of the Blue. In any case, "The Early Years" didn't do much more than show us most of Picasso's early work. Anybody have a problem with that?

6. Face to face. The Photographic Resource Center's "Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia's Killing Fields" was a shocker on the order of reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. The images of 50 or so children and women, men and boys and girls, were taken by one of the photographers for the Khmer Rouge, a record of people who were about to be transported to a field outside of Phnom Penh to dig their own graves before being butchered. The show confronted us with the last, knowing, revealing faces of souls on the brink of departure. For all their desperation, the expressions were open, revealing, unguarded. And devastating.

7. Lafayette . . . go home. The Worcester Art Museum's "American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise" delivered a visual record of America growing up -- it was like a picture album of our youth, when we were indeed full of hope, of promise. This small (48 works in all) show, which also celebrated the WAM's 100th birthday, demonstrated that while Boston collectors were gobbling up French Impressionist canvases, Worcesterites, being more provincial, gravitated toward the American variety. But don't assume Worcester came off second best. "Paintings of Promise" proved that the finest of F.W. Benson and Childe Hassam can stand frame to frame with their French cousins.

Red Handed Man 8. Moving experience. Pat Keck's exhibit of renegade sculptures at the Genovese/Sullivan Gallery was one of those shows your kids who become art-history majors will read about. Her meticulous wooden marionettes range in size from a few inches to 15 feet, and she mechanically manipulates their limbs and their environments so that each piece suggests a different circus act of the mind. To see them once was to remember them forever.

9. Sit on it. Furniture as art? Three Newbury Street spaces -- Gallery Naga, MacKeen Gallery, and the Society of Arts and Crafts -- made believers of us. Items like Jere Osgood's austere desk (it looked like a cross between a cathedral and an athlete), John Dunnigan's plain Shaker hymn of a "Cabinet for William Morris," and David Ebner's six-foot coat rack in the shape of a scallion even tempted us to take out a bank loan.

10. Makes the whole world kin. Is art just oil and canvas? Or can we make room for those whose mátier is the drafting table? The Art Institute of Boston's "Edward Sorel: A Drawing Retrospective" and his new book, Unauthorized Portraits, made an unimpeachable case for caricaturists. Whether it's his "First Encounters" series (Jean Renoir and Erich von Stroheim, Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams, Colette and Truman Capote, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler), his "Footnotes to History" (Joe DiMaggio watching Marilyn shoot the subway-grate scene of The Seven Year Itch), his "Movie Classics" (Casablanca was a special classic), or, in the Tina Brown era, those innumerable pointed New Yorker covers, Sorel's cartoons are oddly generous and fair, and not in the phony Dan Rather-esque way of pretending balance. Call him our era's O. Henry -- his is the dangerous art of telling the truth.