Theater & art

The year in arts | art

Epiphanies and institutions in 2014: an expansive look

courtesy of the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Mika Rottenberg’s “Squeeze.”

The artist whose work excited me most this year was a young Israeli based in New York named Mika Rottenberg. Her claustrophobically cropped films, which screened at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University last winter, were at once ferociously logical and utterly unhinged. They were dazzlingly crafted throughout, and although I could not say with any certainty what they were “about” — desire? consumption? the economy? bingo?! — I felt as I watched them that, whatever it was, Rottenberg had nailed it.

Art, for me, is about experiences like this. They might happen in front of a faience figurine from ancient Egypt at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum, a Japanese screen at the Museum of Fine Arts, or footage of an overweight naked Icelandic man singing the same doleful song over and over again while strumming his guitar in a bath (Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” at the Institute of Contemporary Art).

Either way, these epiphanies matter more, infinitely more, than the unceasing business of keeping museum doors open, curators in jobs, and controversies stoked.

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And yet, could we have these experiences without the museums? I often like to think so. But I admit, it ain’t likely.

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For New England’s grander, more established museums, 2014 was especially momentous. The year’s second half alone saw the reopening of two museums of global stature — Harvard Art Museums and the Clark Art Institute. There were also game-changing developments at several other museums, both big and small.

Were there good shows along the way? There were. The ongoing Goya show at the region’s flagship institution, the Museum of Fine Arts, was probably the best of them (see my list for other highlights). Goya, no doubt about it, is an artist for our times, and throughout the show, amid apprehensions of his strangeness, his slipperiness, his odd admixture of gaucheness and virtuosity, there are moments when your whole body shivers involuntarily with recognition.

But there was also a sense of gathering funk at that same, centrally important museum. The MFA’s long-term director, Malcolm Rogers, announced his intention to resign early in the year, after 20 years of accomplishments, including the 2010 opening of a vast new wing for American art.

He has achieved many other things too. And yet, big problems persist. Rogers’s head of Asian art, Jane Portal, left late in the year, having been able to effect little of the critically important transformation of the MFA’s great Asian department she’d hoped to oversee. And in the meantime, the museum’s board was riven by disputes over governance, direction, and the practice of renting out its most famous paintings for long periods to high bidders.

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The MFA’s reputation, both nationally and internationally, has been besmirched by these loans for fees, which had become routine and were poorly regulated. Masterpieces by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Monet, and many others have been treated like cash cows; the works themselves have been put unnecessarily at risk; and local audiences and out-of-town visitors have been deprived of opportunities to see the very paintings they paid large admission fees to see.

Regulation and oversight of the practice was finally tightened late in the year. But at the same time 80 treasured works were committed to three venues in Japan for an entire year in 2017-18 — long after Rogers will have departed.

The Harvard Art Museums reopening in November came just four months after the reopening of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Both museums have world-famous collections (Harvard’s is not only great but vast), and both had endured long periods of semi-slumber while new buildings were erected, logistics figured out, and money raised.

The Clark’s new building, by Japan’s Tadao Ando, has proved the more controversial, as its director Michael Conforti seemed to know in advance it would be. Ando’s severe lines and concrete walls are not instantly endearing, and his signature aesthetic can seem out of sympathy with the Clark’s soft and stately setting.

But aside from the disaster of the barren new approach to the entrance via the carpark, there is much to like about the new Clark — not least Annabelle Selldorf’s subtle renovation of the permanent collection galleries, the afternoon light that comes into the downstairs cafe in the new Ando building, and (because such things make all the difference to me!) the small pots of cyclamen on the cafe tables.

Harvard Art Museums [jpg file: HAM exterior_09.19.14_Photo Nic Lehoux_605.001] The Harvard Art Museums, showing the new addition with the south Winter Garden gallery (September 19, 2014). Photo: © Nic Lehoux. -- 07Harvard 011115BOTNThings 28yearinart
Nic Lehoux
The expanded Harvard Art Museums.

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Renzo Piano’s renovations for the Harvard Art Museums took six years to complete, not counting the planning and false starts. The brief, which involved maintaining the beloved old courtyard of the Quincy Street building, and finding a way to rope together Harvard’s three pre-existing art museums — the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Sackler — was fiendishly hard.

I think he pulled it off; visiting the new museum is a treat. The scale of the galleries feels right, and the building itself is likably porous. You can drop in and out with minimum fuss, maximum pleasure, and a buoyant heart.

On a smaller but still significant scale, the privately controlled Hall Art Foundation opened a very promising new space for international contemporary art in an old dairy farm in Vermont over the summer. The opening shows, by Olafur Eliasson, George Baselitz, and others, were strong.

Other museums in the region were at earlier stages of their own phases of transformation — although none should be as costly as Harvard’s or the Clark’s. Early in the year, Danforth Art in Framingham made strides toward a wholesale relocation when it acquired the historic Jonathan Maynard Building on Vernon Street.

Sadly, its longtime director, Katherine French, who has done so much to champion the museum, its local community, and neglected New England artists, both past and present, announced plans to retire from her post on Jan. 1, 2015.

Another transformative director, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s Dennis Kois, who took up his post in 2008, left Lincoln for Milwaukee, where his and his wife’s parents still live. In May, he became president and CEO of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Energetic and well-liked, Kois resuscitated the deCordova. One of his last moves was to bring Jennifer Gross, a much-admired curator from the Yale University Art Gallery (she was earlier at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) to Lincoln.

Meanwhile, Helen Molesworth, since 2010 the chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, accepted a position as chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Molesworth, who had previously been at Harvard Art Museums, did terrific things at the ICA.

Her latest show, about Black Mountain College, will go ahead as planned, so Boston has not seen the last of her. Her replacement, Eva Respini, a curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was announced earlier this month.

Other losses were felt very deeply. Otto Piene, the German-born artist who was a key figure in the early days of the Center for Advanced Visual Strategies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died in July. Known for his large-scale inflated sculptures and kinetic light installations, Piene was in a taxi on his way to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where he was helping with preparations for the exhibition “Sky Art Event,” when he died. The show was one of three linked projects devoted to his art this year.

Piene was a founding member of Zero, a three-man collective that wanted to reinvent art from scratch. Their achievements are now the subject of a major exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York.

A disturbingly realistic sculpture of a sleepwalking man by Tony Matelli, naked but for his underpants, was provocatively installed in the middle of Wellesley College’s verdant campus in May. When some students and staff on campus objected and launched a petition, the story went global.

The college bravely kept the sculpture in place for the duration of the excellent solo show of which it formed a part. But the sculpture, like a little boy at his sister’s sleepover party, was subjected to all manner of indignities over those three months. The artist claimed not to mind, and the sleepwalker himself remained, well, oblivious (which was perhaps the whole point).

Boston College’s McMullen Museum, known for its beautiful, carefully prepared and scholarly exhibitions, announced in December that it will move from Devlin Hall, its current location on campus, to a bigger, brighter, and more flexible space in the former archbishops’ residence.

But by far the biggest news came shortly prior to this, when Governor Deval Patrick announced that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — more commonly known as Mass MoCA — had received a state grant of more than $25 million to help it make an unusual and ambitious transformation.

Taking inspiration from the success of its long-term Sol LeWitt wall drawings retrospective, Joe Thompson, Mass MoCA’s director, has cut deals with several artists and foundations — among them the performance artist Laurie Anderson, the light artist James Turrell, the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, the estate of the late sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation — to establish long-term exhibits in new spaces that will double the museum’s already vast gallery space. All of which will make Mass MoCA (which is already a tremendous place to see art), the largest museum of contemporary art in the US.

“They provide the art, on loan, and together we show it,” explained Thompson, who has been hatching this plan for many years.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.