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On walls and behind scenes, women moved art world

Brookline-based artist Janet Echelman tells how her massive sculpture over the Greenway came to be. Produced by Scott LaPierre and Alex Lancial / Globe Staff
Brookline-based artist Janet Echelman tells how her massive sculpture over the Greenway came to be. Produced by Scott LaPierre and Alex Lancial / Globe Staff

This was a banner year for great artists and curators who just happened to be women. Over the summer, the most beautiful and audacious piece of public art in Boston in living memory was suspended over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. The piece, titled "As If It Were Already Here," was by Janet Echelman, an artist based in Brookline.

Echelman has a worldwide following. She deserves all the attention she is getting. Her stretched and undulating giant sculptures are as entrancing to engineers as to aesthetes. They're also fascinating from conceptual and poetic points of view.

Joan Jonas, too, has an international reputation. A pioneer in performance and video art, she represented the US at the Venice Biennale this year. Her subtle, ambitious installation of film, drawing, and sculpture, commissioned and carried out by the List Visual Arts Center at MIT (where Jonas is a professor emerita), deserved the many warm reviews it garnered from the international press.

In the meantime, a boldly feminized view of American art's progress from the 1960s to today was presented by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University: "Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler" was one of the year's best shows. Organized by Katy Siegel, it sought to establish Frankenthaler's stained and pastel-colored paintings as the font of a rich and understudied lineage.


The argument convinced, up to a point. But what was best about the show was simply the inclusion of so many brilliant and vibrant works. Some of them — such as those by Carroll Dunham and Sam Gilliam — were by men. The majority, including pieces by Kathy Butterly, Laura Owens, Lynda Benglis, Grace Hartigan, and Carrie Moyer, were not.

Barbara Lee at the Venice Biennale.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The public display of art by women was given a huge boost toward the end of the year when Barbara Lee, a philanthropist who pushes for greater representation by women in politics, announced a gift to the ICA of 20 works by leading women artists, worth approximately $42 million.


The gift included works by Eva Hesse, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, Marisol Escobar, and Kara Walker. It came one year after another gift by Lee to the ICA — 45 works, worth approximately $10 million, by 27 women artists.

The year's two most compelling shows, "Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer" and "Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957," were both organized by female curators. Helen Molesworth, who organized the Black Mountain show with assistant curator Ruth Erickson, has since left Boston. We should hope that Ronni Baer, the curator behind "Class Distinctions," does not.

Susan Talbott of the Wadsworth Atheneum and Anne Hawley, of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, were among an alarming number of museum directors who finished their terms in 2015. Malcolm Rogers of the MFA, Michael Conforti of the Clark Art Institute, and Thomas Lentz of the Harvard Art Museums were the others.

Joan Jonas at the Venice Biennale.Moira Ricci

These are, it hardly needs pointing out, five of the most important museums in New England. Each departing director leaves behind a complex legacy: in many ways positive, but in some cases controversial. Among them, they were at the helm for a combined 87 years. In the past decade alone, they raised and spent about $1 billion on new buildings or renovations.

2015 was an especially good year for screen-based works, with Jonas and video artist Mika Rottenberg shining brightly at the Venice Biennale; Shahzia Sikander presenting brilliant and ambitious new work both at the Tufts University Art Gallery and in New York; and the Japanese collective teamLab impressing audiences with an interactive video installation at the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery in Harvard's Radcliffe Yard.


Besides the exhibitions I've noted in the adjoining list, the local shows that lodged most strongly in my mind were "American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood" at the Peabody Essex Museum; Alfred Maurer and "Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol Lewitt," both at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover; "Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s" at the Colby College Museum of Art; "John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred" at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art; Arlene Shechet at the ICA; and Rosa Barba at MIT's List Visual Arts Center.

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