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7 museum moments that stick

Sculpture, photography, Renaissance masterworks, even an installation of corn — here are the art experiences from 2021 that I’m still thinking about

A nighttime view of the "Ledelle Moe: When" at Mass MoCA.Kaelan Burkett/Courtesy Mass MoCA

Let’s start with a caveat: “Best ofs,” even at the best of times, are a dubious enterprise. And these are not the best of times. This year, with its unforgiving lurches between hope and despair, “best” is an imperfect term for a complicated time. So, here are seven shows I saw that stuck, and that come back unbidden with something new to teach. That’s not best. But maybe it’s something better.

1. LEDELLE MOE: WHEN Moe’s great big exhibition in Mass MoCA’s great big building five — an indoor, football-field-size gallery with four-story-high ceilings and walls of windows on two sides — had opened way, way back in late 2019, in the Time Before. I’d walked through it a dozen times that first pandemic year, always struck by the almost visceral sense of loss it conveyed; the show, called “When,” felt unstuck in time, a stroll amid ruins, its giant, stony idols strewn through the massive space as though by the hand of an angry god. I’d often thought of writing about it, but for whatever reason — hurried, distracted, or with real-world disasters so close and constant, maybe just afraid — I didn’t. Then Jan. 6 happened. I watched, like everyone, as armed rioters overran the Capitol. Then I wiped away my plans for the week and sat down and wrote about “When.” It was an important lesson about how the most powerful art makes space for what we bring to it. On that day, the idea of ruins, and how easily things can turn to dust, felt unnervingly present. It still does.


2. THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: DUTCH AND FLEMISH GALLERIES In a year of mounting anxieties around equity and representation, the presentation of historical art finally had a reckoning of its own. It started in the spring, when the Museum of Fine Arts hosted a symposium on the relationship the trans-Atlantic slave trade had with the Northern Renaissance in the Netherlandish countries (short answer: It paid for a lot of it). It was a preemptive gesture, setting the table for the opening of its pandemic-delayed Center for Netherlandish Art last month: The works displayed, many of them masterpieces, had a much fuller story to tell about the relationships between art, power, and the colonial engine that drove them.

Inside the Gardner's "Titian: Women, Myth and Power" (from left): "Diana and Actaeon"; "Diana and Callista"; "Perseus and Andromeda"; "The Rape of Europa."Julia Featheringill

3. TITIAN: WOMEN, MYTH AND POWER The Gardner opened this landmark of a show, reuniting the old master’s crowning series of six paintings for the first time in centuries. But like the MFA, the Gardner talked openly about fundamental traumas hiding in plain sight. The museum’s prize possession is Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” an allegory for the creation of civilization, born of a god’s propensity for sexual violence — a disquietingly common theme in a lot of western culture’s origin myths. (Titian’s other paintings here are a buffet of bare female flesh, with another implied rape across the room.) Anyway. The paintings were installed in a gallery barely large enough to hold them, making for an intimate display. But each of the six was paired with an audio program by an artist or scholar calling out the ugliness at the heart of such stirring achievement. It built a two-track experience that might serve as a good model for such efforts: Beautiful, yes; but can we talk?


Benny Andrews’s "Wounded Sgt. (Wounded Sergeant)" (1970) and Dana Chandler Jr.’s "Fred Hampton’s Door 2" (1974) on view in "New Light: Encounters and Connections" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

4. NEW LIGHT: ENCOUNTERS AND CONNECTIONS The Museum of Fine Arts opened this exhibition in the summer with the idea of showing new contemporary acquisitions alongside works already in the collection. With dozens of works unrelated but for having been recently acquired, it was inevitably unwieldy. Then, the seas parted in the form of Dana Chandler’s “Fred Hampton’s Door 2,” a red-trimmed green door splintered with bullet holes, spotlit and glowing like a holy relic. It practically is: The piece unlocked a long-ago chapter of the museum’s history, and the city’s along with it. Chandler had been a towering advocate for Black art in Boston starting in the 1960s. In 1970, he rallied enough support both locally and nationally to prompt the decidedly non-radical museum into a radical gesture of racial equity: In May of that year, the MFA, grudgingly, staged “Afro-American Artists: Boston and New York,” the largest display of contemporary Black American artists the country had seen. It was a hit, but when the show closed, it was almost as though it had never been. “Fred Hampton’s Door 2″ closes the circle: When MFA curator Liz Munsell saw the piece on tour as part of “Soul of Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” in 2018, she began the process of acquiring it. Its installation in “New Light” was a sight to behold: a museum acknowledging its own history, and an icon of a local community finally welcomed home.


Artist Elizabeth James-Perry posed for a portrait amid her work titled "Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA" on the museum's front lawn. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

5. RAVEN RESHAPES BOSTON: A NATIVE CORN GARDEN AT THE MFA Cyrus Dallin’s “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” a sculpture of a Native American man of no particular affiliation on a horse with his arms thrown open to the heavens, has stood on the MFA’s front lawn for more than a century. More recently, the piece has been a lightning rod for the collective anxieties of a progressive-minded city split between condemning a stereotype and honoring the good intentions of the artist who created it. Treading the fine line in between was Elizabeth James-Perry, a Wampanoag artist and member of the Aquinnah tribe, whose corn garden sprouted all around the bronze statue this summer. It helped soften the statue’s hard edges and spark a new conversation around it, declaring the Native American community to be present and thriving.


Installation view of Jeffrey Gibson's "INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE" at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Julia Featheringill; courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson

6. JEFFREY GIBSON: INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE Jeffrey Gibson’s solo show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum this fall wasn’t what I was expecting. Gibson’s burgeoning career is rooted in his use of forms and motifs from his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage to make ornate sculptural figures that embodied his experience as a Native American man dealing with the generational trauma of colonial oppression. His figures were bright and materially seductive, but also ominous, broken, threatening; their contradictory duality was part of what made them so powerful. At the deCordova, I found video works strung together and a small selection of new collage pieces using fragments of his collection of Native American-related ephemera. Beyond them lay the main event: Three huge, spare monuments, light as air and made of colorful synthetic fringe; they hovered and glowed like chimera in a dark gallery space all on their own. They were like nothing he’d ever done. I thought they were the most powerful works of his career. Made expressly for this show, they’re also a credit to an institution that could have traded on Gibson’s growing renown, but instead made space for him to experiment and grow.


Deana Lawson, "Black Gold ('Earth turns to gold, in the hands of the wise,' Rumi)", 2021. © Deana Lawson/Courtesy the artist; Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

7. DEANA LAWSON I struggled to write about Deana Lawson’s frank photos of Black life because retreating to all the typical critical refuges — citing art history, and the particular lineage of conceptual photography — felt like a dodge for what was really happening. Here was I, a white middle-class Canadian, for goodness sake, looking at profoundly, uncomfortably intimate images of a world I could not know. I could easily muddy up what often felt like my own gawkish voyeurism, positioning Lawson on a continuum of contemporary fictive photography (which I did). But the show is important because it cuts through all of that. When I saw that many of Lawson’s recent works are framed with mirrors, it came clear that her work is also very much about the viewer being hyper-aware of their own role. That’s true of any art — it is, to no small extent, the thing itself and what we bring to it — but that was never more apparent or powerful than here. Lawson broke the so-called fourth wall, which framed the experience for me. Her message was clear: There is no passive looking, and who you are informs what you see.

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.