Was 2022 the year the art world went back to normal? If anyone can remember what that even means, please stand up. And if the answer is “no,” isn’t that a good thing? Through the protracted — and continuing — upheavals of the pandemic, the most urgent conversation in museum circles has been about moving forward, not back, remaking the idea of normal along the way.
Those conversations — around representation, access, social justice, and equity — began long before the pandemic, but its catalytic effect can’t be denied.
If 2020 and 2021 saw hurried attempts to get with rapidly changing times, 2022 was more about stitching the urgent lessons of those years into the permanent fabric of our museums. I saw that urgency in initiatives such as the reinstallation of the permanent collections of American art at both the Peabody Essex Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where a ground-up rethink of what it meant to be “American” guided an overhaul of both institutions’ core offerings. At PEM, the display was explicit and overt, touched off by a stern warning from Elizabeth Solomon, a spokesperson for the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, on a video screen at the outset; it was a stage-setter that made clear the brutalities of colonialism would be the foundational context of the entire endeavor.
The MFA’s reinstallation of its Art of the Americas collection put “Touching Roots,” an exhibition of Black diasporic art in the Americas, at its center; orbiting around it was a loose journey through a century or more of the museum’s collecting habits, which the display openly acknowledged to be spotty. A section on Indigenous creative output in New Mexico and Arizona, a hotbed of artistic production for centuries, was self-consciously titled “a little bit of the southwest,” a tacit admission of the museum’s shortcomings. This is important: A museum ceding authority to openly say we don’t — and can’t — know everything is a notable shift that I hope continues.
The correctives keep coming: The MFA made a marquee event in its Center for Netherlandish Art of the paintings of Michaelina Wautier, an only recently discovered Flemish master overlooked for centuries because she was a woman. But 2022 was also a year of balance. The MFA finally reopened its its Greek and Roman galleries, which in January ushered in a new year of restrained hope for something like, well, normalcy.
The MFA’s collection is among the best in North America for both its depth and singular, standout objects; the project was in the works (on and off) for more than two decades. If anything could be worth such a protracted fallow stretch, this would be it: With its opening, an entire wing of the museum, shuttered since 2019, came back to life.
Across the road at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the afterglow of 2021′s astonishing presentation of Titian’s six “poesie” paintings, reunited for the first time in 400 years, vaporized with an urgent, darkly gorgeous exhibition by the South African artist Zanele Muholi. Working primarily in photography and creating lush, stylized self-portraits meant to embody the dark legacies of colonialism in their home country, Muholi was for the first time showing paintings, a recent addition to their artistic repertoire. The experience was quietly profound: Here in the same space that only weeks before had held the crowning achievement of perhaps the Renaissance master — most of them unselfconsciously tethered to sexual violence against women as a creative act — were the fledgling canvases of a nonbinary African artist strengthening their voice. I loved the show, and also what it stood for.
No exhibition around here — or maybe anywhere — was burdened with having to stand for more than the MFA’s “Philip Guston Now,” the long-delayed retrospective of the American painter who abandoned a lucrative career alongside name-brand Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock to paint grisly, cartoonish versions of American social and political strife in the 1960s and ′70s. At the core of the show was a series of paintings of feckless Ku Klux Klansmen drifting through workaday American life — at the office or on the bus, waiting in line or loitering aimlessly on street corners.
Guston’s intent, I think, was to say loud and clear that the country’s racial strife was not confined to flashpoints, but part of its DNA — a bleak reality dragged back to the surface as the murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought things once again to full boil. Amid the nationwide racial reckoning that followed, the MFA and its partners on the show, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Houston Museum of Fine Arts,, and the Tate Modern in London, flinched. The museums postponed the show four years, to a chorus of outrage; then pushed it up again to this year as its organizers hustled to refit its display to a fractious moment.
The final result was always going to be too much or not enough, depending who you ask. But the MFA made the most of an impossible situation: The show’s interpretive spaces and an available detour for those not wanting to face the KKK content didn’t impose at all on my experience of Guston’s work, as powerful and bracing as ever. “Philip Guston Now” did its job beautifully, reaffirming not only Guston’s masterful gifts as a painter, but his deep, exceptional, and complicated humanity.
Few shows will have the same set of demands put on them as Guston, but museum DNA is evolving in subtle ways, too. Harvard Art Museums reopened in the fall of 2021 after a pandemic shutdown that lasted more than a year with its “Reframe” initiative, weaving into its permanent collection touchpoints that both deepen and complicate the dominant, straight-line narratives of Western art that museums have always told. While that initiative is ongoing, it’s also a philosophical thread to be found in all of their work, most recently in “Dare to Know,” a current exhibition of Enlightenment-era prints.
The show subtly asks a larger question: Despite its leaps forward in science and technology, was the Enlightenment recognizably enlightened at all? And yet, “Dare to Know” doesn’t shy from being explicit, either: A pair of concurrently produced images of slave ships, their holds stuffed with human cargo, sit side by side, aesthetically similar but radically different in purpose: One, advocating for abolition, illustrates the abject cruelty of human beings being shipped like sacks of sugar; the other, a promotional poster, advertises the voluminous capacity, in bodies, that one company’s vessels could carry.
The pairing, frank but aside, provides a glimpse of what normal might look like as we make our way forward: a balance reset, and the will to maintain it.