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Here are the best art shows Boston missed in 2020

A view of Carlos Garaicoa's "Partitura," canceled at Peabody Essex last spring.
A view of Carlos Garaicoa's "Partitura," canceled at Peabody Essex last spring.Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum (Custom credit)

‘Tis the season for year-end best-ofs, but in this year like no other, what about the never-was? There are almost too many to count — the canceled and postponed, the cut-short and half-made. Some, mercifully, were flexible enough to be mothballed, held over or refitted for a socially-distanced world, including two of the Museum of Fine Arts’ big offerings for its sesquicentennial, exhibitions on Jean-Michel Basquiat and Claude Monet. But at least they did open, and stayed open for months, until the city’s recent COVID mandates ordered them closed earlier this month. (Fingers crossed for a January reprieve.) Plenty of shows weren’t that lucky. Here, a prominent handful cut short or kicked forward from the year that almost wasn’t.

Crispus in July, lauren woods


A rendering for lauren woods's "Crispus in July."
A rendering for lauren woods's "Crispus in July."COURTESY LAUREN WOODS

On a snowy evening in March 1770, an angry mob gathered outside the old Massachusetts State House to harass the British troops gathered there to guard it. Tensions were rising between the colonists and their rulers, the first whiff of revolution in the air. As the crowd tightened around them, the troops grew more anxious. A stone launched from somewhere in the mob struck a soldier, prompting him to fire. His shot killed Crispus Attucks, a former slave, the first of many to die that night. And so began the Boston Massacre, precursor to the American Revolution.

For the 250th anniversary of that night, Revolutionary Spaces, the organization that runs historical programming for the site and the small museum inside, had commissioned a powerful, public, interactive installation, with red carpet ringing the state house and the curl and sway of a glittering black flag suspended above. Strains of blues and jazz would have filled the air. And an array of performances — slam poetry and dance, curated from the city’s Black community — would have brought the old building new life. It was all to be part of artist lauren woods’s “Crispus in July” — a nod to his often-co-opted tale, rarely told accurately — a public art project made to bring Attucks out of the shadows and into the spotlight of the American Revolutionary story. Now+There, the public art agency that sponsored the project, is hoping to revive it in 2022. It just won’t have the nice round marker of a 250th anniversary to help occasion it.


Status: Scheduled for March, it was shut down before opening. Postponed until 2022.

Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits

Lucian Freud's "Reflection With Two Children (Self‑portrait)" from 1965.
Lucian Freud's "Reflection With Two Children (Self‑portrait)" from 1965.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I’ve never been a fan of Freud’s, the dismal theatricality of his fleshy figures always a bit lacking in nuance for my tastes. (His still-lifes are another story; please consider this a public request.) But I was as deflated as anyone to see the MFA’s presentation of the renowned British painter shut down just 12 days into its run last March. Museums like the Gardner and the ICA were able to mothball their spring exhibitions to reopen in the summer. But the MFA’s Freud was packed up and shipped off, its works long since promised back to their owners. For me, it was the tomb slamming shut; “The Self Portraits” was the last exhibition I would see, anywhere, for four months. Had I known, I might have lingered longer and savored more, trying to understand my disconnect with the artist, and the special gift it is to stand in front of any works, like them or not, with space to contemplate even your own disdain.


Status: Opened March 1. Closed March 13. Originally scheduled through May 25.

Firelei Báez

A rendering of Firelei Báez's installation for the ICA Watershed.
A rendering of Firelei Báez's installation for the ICA Watershed.Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York

In only its third year, the Institute of Contemporary Art’s glorious Watershed across the harbor in East Boston was shut tight by the pandemic, torpedoing its growing ambitions, at least for a time. The first two Watershed installments were both wonders: Diana Thater in 2018, John Akomfrah in 2019. But both artists populated the big industrial space with large-scale video work — absorbingly so, but logistically a little easier to manage than the massive sculptural installation Firelei Báez had planned, built to evoke the ruins of the Haitian royal palace of Sans-Souci.

While we missed the work — for now — we also missed something more. The distance across the water from the ICA to the Watershed can be navigated by sea shuttle in 20 minutes or so, but the real chasm — between the sleek, generically gentrified nowhere of the Seaport’s glass box village and the rich layers of immigrant, working-class East Boston — is harder to bridge. The Watershed helped do that, bit by bit, with programs that recognized East Boston itself — something so needed in this moment. Báez now plans to reprise her project in 2021.

Status: Scheduled for May 24 to Sept. 2, it never opened. Postponed to summer 2021

Cy Twombly: Making Past Present

An untitled work by Cy Twombly.
An untitled work by Cy Twombly.Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Custom credit)

This one hurts. Cy Twombly was remarkable, original, and ignored for much of his career for his delicate, semi-scriptlike mark-making when burly Abstract Expressionism or Colorfield abstraction were all the rage. I adore him. And I hate to think it’ll be 2023 — 2023! — before this show, an MFA original, finally comes to fruition. In this pandemic year of missing most everything, we’ve been trained to look for silver linings wherever possible. So here’s mine: The book, which I got a few months back, is gorgeous.


Status: Originally scheduled to open in July. Postponed to early 2023.

Painting Edo

"Race at Uji River" by Soga Shohaku, created around 1764.
"Race at Uji River" by Soga Shohaku, created around 1764.John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg/Courtesy Harvard Art Museums

Harvard Art Museums’ largest-ever exhibition illuminated, over 120 works spanning 200 years, the trajectory of the period in which insular Japan, under the warrior government of the shoguns, began to open itself to the outside world. I saw the show when it opened in mid-February, all but drowning in the volume of detail and mastery. A little more than three weeks later, it was closed. Unlike many of its peers, Harvard Art Museums never reopened, adhering to the school’s strict COVID policies. The show has been extended through July 18, 2021 — at least on paper — a full year longer than its initial run. But there’s still no sense of when the museums might reopen, leaving the specter of a full year’s closure — or longer — very much a possibility.

Status: Opened Feb. 14. Closed March 13. Originally planned through July 26, 2020. Extended through July 18, 2021.

Carlos Garaicoa: Partitura

In a year of shows cut short, it just might be a record: Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa’s immersive film and music installation at the Peabody Essex Museum ran for only four days before COVID shutdowns closed it for good. (It beat the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s Gerhardt Richter survey, a career-topper for one of the world’s most-renowned artists, which lasted only a week and was gone by the museum’s summer reopening.) When Peabody Essex reopened in July, Garaicoa’s symphony of the street — the piece virtually combined gifted buskers from Madrid and Bilbao — was gone, moved on to its next engagement.


Status: Opened March 8. Closed March 13. Not rescheduled.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.