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Five art experiences that resonated in 2023

The Globe’s art critic singles out the experiences that still resonate as the year ends.

Helen Banach (left) and Will Sylvester of the Hank Willis Thomas Studio visited “The Embrace” on Boston Common.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In a culture with an unquenchable urge to trend-hunt and categorize, the calendar might be the most arbitrary measure of all. So, Im taking a pass on writing a year-end best-of list. Instead, let’s call it things that stick. What follows are five experiences still smouldering away in the back of my mind — good, best, neither — months after I first saw them.

Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” 2019 is a lush, five-channel video that portrays the oratory gifts of Frederick Douglass.© Isaac Julien. (Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. The Douglas Tracy Smith and Dorothy Potter Smith Fund, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn.)

LESSONS OF THE HOUR, Wadsworth Atheneum

The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the most photographed person of his era, and not by coincidence. Douglass, a proto-scholar of image theory, knew that the rapid rise of photography in postbellum America could be a powerful tool to contend with American racism, and that if white Americans were to be moved to hold their Black counterparts as equal, they would first need to see them as such. “Lessons of the Hour” began that story by dramatic and affecting means: Isaac Julien’s stirring “Lessons of the Hour,” 2019, a lush, five-channel video portrayed the intensity and drama of Douglass’s oratory gifts, and his hunger for equality. Then, it moved from tell to show, with scores of 19th-century photo portraits of Black Americans, decked out in their best finery, who had taken Douglass’s exhortations to heart. In the constant deluge of imagery, both moving and still, that we live in today, Douglass appears eerily prescient. He urged Black Americans to take active authorship of how they were perceived — an agency that’s now a second-to-second strategy of a large chunk of the planet (under 40, at least) through the frame of social media, a self-curation machine he could never have conceived. The strategy he imagined in the service of high virtue — what else to call the quest for equality? — has been coopted by every manner of vice. There’s a metaphor here I don’t care to explore more deeply; it’s Wednesday night, I just watched 5 minutes of the Republican debate, and that’s as depressed as I want to get. More than anything, I wish Douglass were here — not to see how badly we’ve gone wrong, but to help us find a way out.

Storage jar (detail), 1857. Dave (later recorded as David Drake), American, ca. 1801–1870s. Stony Bluff Manufactory (ca. 1848-67), Old Edgefield District, South Carolina. Collection of Greenville County Museum of Art.Eileen Travell/© Metropolitan Museum of Art/Collection of Greenville County Museum of Art



David Drake, or Dave the Potter, has become a posthumous art star in recent years for the masterful works he made — outsize ceramic food storage jars that none could match — and the story they embody. Born into enslavement, Drake worked at one of the ceramic factories in antebellum Old Edgefield, South Carolina, where jars were mass-produced and exported all over the South for household use. Drake, who could read and write despite its prohibition among enslaved people, emblazoned his works with aphoristic verse – unique transmissions of the enslaved experience that traveled along with the workaday objects he inscribed. As documents, the jars are remarkable primary-source accounts of a life lived in bondage; as art, they embody the spirit and soul of a man whose cruel circumstances couldn’t snuff his creativity and longing for human connection. “Hear Me Now” stays with me in its clear-eyed intent to craft lineage across generations broken by bondage, and to make that shattered story whole. Alongside Drake, and the countless anonymous makers in the exhibition, were renowned contemporary artists Simone Leigh and Theaster Gates, for whom ceramics, a medium forced on generations of Black makers for profit they would never share, is their chosen medium — one with the imprint of Black American cultural DNA. In many ways, their work is an extension of Drake’s — reclaiming a material and process from the depravity of enslavement, and wholly owning it for themselves.


A work by Henry Darger from the 2004 movie "In the Realms of the Unreal," directed by Jessica Yu.



This show bothered me, but in the best way. Folk art, a catch-all of misfit otherness — things that make art museums uncomfortable — has been the subject of much reconsideration in recent years, making any show that dares to use the term as fascinating as it is haphazard. “American Perspectives” put those dynamics in high relief, a key art world debate unfolding in real time. It lumped artists like Henry Darger, the Chicago hospital custodian who crafted his epic pictorial saga of the Vivian Girls, heroes of an imagined child slave rebellion, alongside 19th-century handpainted pharmacy signs and carousel horses. Let’s be clear: The product of a deeply examined inner life is not equivalent to workaday craft, however masterful the latter. Herein lies the evolving debate: Darger, who died in 1973, is now collected by the Museum of Modern Art, among other tier-one institutions. So what was he — and others like him — doing in this show?American Perspectives” put folk art’s work-in-progress definition right in front of our eyes.


Installation view, "Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village," Colby College Museum of Art. Works shown, left to right: Ernest Blumenschein, "Untitled (Mountain Wood Gatherers)," c. 1926; Virgil Ortiz, "Omtua," 2023; Tony Abeyta, "Citadel," 2021.Stephen Davis Phillips


I remain awestruck by this exhibition, not only for the specific conversations it provokes, but for the museum’s willingness to interrogate itself, and to find its own answers lacking. In a field where “landmark” gets tossed around too easily, this is the real deal. Colby had for years in its vaults a collection of paintings by Taos Society of Artists, a group of white painters from the urban east who, in the early part of the 20th century, relocated to New Mexico to cash in on the growing fad for western Native American images. Their pictures were accomplished, but tilt towards uncomfortable clichés of Indigenous people as a primitive, dying race. The past century has affirmed the opposite: Pueblo and Diné communities in the region have both preserved their artistic traditions and produced increasingly vital contemporary art. Artists like Virgil Ortiz and Michael Namingha are among many here to confront the mythmaking of white artists, a century ago, and speak for themselves. Colby could have left the TSA paintings gathering dust in storage. It did the opposite, and invited Indigenous curators to help it reconfigure a clear-eyed re-telling of its own history in the context of the future the museum intends to build. Note: The show continues until July 28.

THE EMBRACE, Hank Willis Thomas


I walked alongside “The Embrace,” by now the city’s most prominent public work of art, from its beginnings; the day it was chosen from a field of five to memorialize Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. in 2019, I wrote that it was jarring, in the best possible way. We’re used to memorials that ache with overwrought sincerity — figures with hands to hearts, stoic gazes fixed on a faraway horizon. The Embrace’s confounding tangle of arms and hands – an extraction of a moment between the couple when Martin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964— rejects all convention. Instead, it emanates the complexity of mystery and, yes, confrontation. It invites viewers into their own contemplation, rather than spoon-feeding them what to think and feel. Looking back to when it arrived on Boston Common in January, you could have guessed some reactions would shade towards ridicule (a bit by Leslie Jones on The Daily Show, suggesting an intimate act, might have been the apex). And social media, which by its nature divorces an object from its scale, material, and context, reduces real experience to a snippet-sized meme. But for those of us who have been there – who have walked into those arms, who have navigated that knot of emotion, a relic of a tragic, complex time – know the experience itself is irreducible. Being with it, literally, is the only way to understand it, which to me makes all the sense in the world. “The Embrace,” in all its glory, is only and forever for Boston, as it should be.

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