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Jason Farago: Art for our moment
An installation view of sculptor El Anatsui’s abstract “In the World but Don’t Know the World” (2019) at the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich, March 25, 2019. Culture, like climate, demands assessment at global scale — and if art has any objective in the Anthropocene, it’s to dissolve our ecocidal self-absorption and find our reflections in the lives of those unlike us. Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times.



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Greta Thunberg’s denunciations, Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential run, Getty wildfires, Greenlandic buyout offers: This year, at last, the immensity of the climate crisis fully broke into public consciousness. Culture, like climate, demands assessment at global scale — and if art has any objective in the Anthropocene, it’s to dissolve our ecocidal self-absorption and find our reflections in the lives of those unlike us.

1. ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’
Their names are Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte — and these friends from Kaunas, Lithuania, the immensely deserving winners of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale, created an unforgettable performance whose even temper cloaked an ecological sucker punch. In “Sun & Sea (Marina),” an opera staged continuously on an artificial beach, bathers sang blithely of package holidays and disposable water bottles, and faintly sensed that the seasons are coming unstuck. In November, Venice’s worst flooding in half a century shuttered the Biennale and inundated Saint Mark’s Basilica, just as the populist-led regional government rejected a raft of climate measures. But some of the Lithuanian pavilion’s sand has been recycled, to bulk up an island disintegrating into the lagoon.

2. Okwui Enwezor
Some deaths feel like the end of an era — but the example of Okwui Enwezor, the most significant curator of the last 30 years, will govern for decades over the global art world he helped forge. In exhibitions like the ravishing “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale,” which opened at the Haus der Kunst in Munich just before his death in March, the Nigerian modeled a broader artistic discourse nourished by politics, economics and current events, and affirmed that African artists are the equals of anyone. Now it seems self-evident that an exhibit with new art only from the U.S. and Europe is provincial. That is because of Okwui, who in art and in life made cosmopolitanism an ethical duty.

3. MoMA Turns South
Among the inaugural offerings at the larger, nimbler, hardly perfect, much improved Museum of Modern Art, the most important is “Sur Moderno”: a stupefying showcase of more than 200 midcentury abstract works from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. These gifts from the collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros make essential viewing on their own; when they later get integrated into MoMA’s refreshed collection displays, they will reshape a museum approaching fluency in Spanish and Portuguese.

4. ‘Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey’
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exquisite exhibition of these architectural images of the 1840s — including the first photos taken of Athens, Cairo and Jerusalem — was one of the finest shows of early photography I’ve ever seen. Its intertwined themes of technology, colonialism and wanderlust still resound in the time of Google Street View.

5. New Old Masters ...
Three museums reclaimed undersung heroes of European art of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Brussels’ Center for Fine Arts, known as Bozar, brought out the paintings, prints and tapestries of the all-media monster Bernard van Orley; the Palazzo Reale in Milan revived Antonello da Messina, the Sicilian savant; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington went to bat for Verrocchio, the artistic paterfamilias of Medici Florence. Add to these a new show of the Renaissance women Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and old canvases are looking mighty fresh.

6. ... and One Reborn
The Musée du Louvre’s “Leonardo da Vinci” took a decade to organize, with loans uncertain until opening day. But curators Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank pulled off a benchmark achievement in cobwebs-clearing, which sloughed off celebrity and conspiracy and returned Leonardo to us as a genuine artist. The very archetype of a scholarly blockbuster.

7. ‘Matthew Barney: Redoubt’
Barney’s return to his birth state of Idaho inspired his greatest film since the “Cremaster” cycle, infused with a new agility thanks to intrepid dancer and choreographer Eleanor Bauer. His freer gaze on American exceptionalism and environmental degradation was also channeled into electroplated etchings and ambitious multimetal sculptures, now at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

8. Lee Ufan
In Beacon, New York, the Dia Art Foundation has been undertaking a quiet but considerable broadening of its collection — and made its most profound new addition this summer, with an impeccable new display by Lee Ufan, Korea’s most significant sculptor. In the company of Lee’s delicate contrapuntal arrangements of sand, rope and boulders, Dia’s American and German all-stars suddenly seemed a bit ponderous.

9. Christodoulos Panayiotou
If you think institutional critique is a joyless enterprise, two heart-stopping shows by this Cypriot artist reveal the romance in mining the museum. At the Camden Arts Center in London, Panayiotou took the doors off their hinges and replaced window panes with pink glass to equate two sundered islands: his own Mediterranean homeland and Brexit-divided Britain. And at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, he evoked the wreckage of time through the most subdued gestures, like a Rodin installed backward and a carpet exhumed from the museum’s trash.

10. The Paris Fire Brigade
History tumbles toward oblivion, yet still heroes rush in. The blaze that engulfed Notre-Dame on April 15 came much closer than first acknowledged to annihilating the 850-year-old cathedral. It stands, roofless but intact, thanks to the 600 lionhearted firefighters and engineers who risked their lives for the world’s cultural patrimony. The motto of Europe’s largest fire department befits our ecological era: “Sauver ou périr,” save or perish.

© 2019 The New York Times Company










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December 9, 2019

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