Much great art, many fine shows, but no blocks busted

Geoffrey Farmer’s “Boneyard,” part of a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Jean Vong, Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York
Geoffrey Farmer’s “Boneyard,” part of a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Some praise. A plea. Some nitpicking. That’s about what you’d expect from an art critic’s year-end roundup, right?

Here’s one way to look at it: In New England’s museums, it was . . . a year — neither good nor bad. No single show caught fire in ways that had the whole region talking. No massive new museum building opened (although the opening of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine, was notable). There were no eyebrow scorching controversies.

Yet I saw so much great art and many excellent shows in 2016. Many were solo shows by living artists. The febrile, hallucinatory installations and video works by Alex da Corte at Mass MoCA stand out in my mind. Rosalyn Drexler’s ominous, pulp-inspired paintings at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis were another highlight. Eric Aho’s paintings of plunge pools cut out of ice at the Hood at Dartmouth College were fresh, bold, subtle, and urgent. And I was stimulated both by Tala Madani and Edgar Arceneaux at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center.


I loved Walid Raad’s initially charming, then disorienting, ultimately disturbing performance piece at the Institute of Contemporary Art. At the same venue, the exhibit by Canada’s Geoffrey Farmer was, to my mind, the most engaging solo show of the year.

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There were first-rate group shows, too. Portland Museum of Art mounted a superb display of four pioneering modernist women painters: Georgia O’Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer, Helen Torr, and Marguerite Zorach. And I won’t soon forget the brain-bending alloys of poetry and science in works by Julianne Swartz, Rachel Sussman, and Dario Robleto – among many others – in “Explode Every Day,” Denise Markonish’s thematic show at Mass MoCA.

Asia in Amsterdam,” a show at the Peabody Essex Museum about global trade in the 17th century, was the most ambitious historical exhibit of the year. “Beyond Words,” a three-venue show bringing together medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts from Boston area collections, wasn’t far behind. Both were remarkable and immensely rewarding undertakings.

One of the year’s longest-running and most talked about shows was “Everywhen,” the survey of Australian indigenous art at Harvard Art Museums. Aside from being beautiful and conceptually fascinating, it was provocative. Should such art, most of it made in the past four decades, be relegated to some kind of anthropological category? Or should it be seen as an evolving contemporary expression responding to the market and to shifting realities?

Among the many publications about art I acquired or received, the most important were “Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life” (Princton University Press), a long-awaited, provocative study of these two key painters by Harvard art historian Joseph Leo Koerner; Rachel Corbett’s “You Must Change Your life: the Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin” (W.W. Norton); “Vision and Justice,” an issue of Aperture magazine devoted to photographic representation of African-Americans, edited by Harvard University’s Sarah Lewis; and several exhibition catalogs I know I’ll return to again and again: “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art; John Ravenal’s “Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Inspiration and Transformation,” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Katy Siegel’s “Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She is?,” at the Rose, and Patrick Noon and Christopher Riopelle’s “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.


Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s still (relatively) new director, had a PR coup early in the year when the museum acquired Frida Kahlo’s exquisite early painting “Dos Mujeres.” He went on to oversee the transformation of a number of galleries, including one devoted to paintings by Claude Monet, one to Chinese Song Dynasty art, another to sculpture. The top floor of the Art of the Americas wing was transformed by a series of cogent new displays. And plans for a new conservation center were announced toward the end of the year.

The museum was enlivened by a wonderful Lawren Harris show, organized by Steve Martin; an at times ravishing William Merritt Chase retrospective; and “Megacities Asia,” which was smartly conceived, logistically challenging, and a deserved hit.

This past fall, the MFA also staged four all-night parties. These were hugely popular. Aside from offering an opportunity to see rarely viewed parts of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour masterpiece, “The Clock,” the parties attracted a younger crowd with dancing, music, food trucks, and art making. If only from a survival-of-the-species standpoint, such events strike me as vital: There is no better place to fall in love than at a great art museum.

Here comes the plea: When I look at the Museum of Fine Arts, I see a need to make greater sense of its Egyptian displays; I see a need to bring home and put on view its Islamic displays, the best parts of which have been on tour for an absurdly long time; and I see a general need to show more provocative, less “safe” art — art that is neither complacently tasteful nor wanly academic.

But I see no more urgent business than the wholesale revamp of the museum’s stupendous Asian collections. It’s obvious. About three-quarters of the world’s population is Asian. Our economic and political future is tied up with Asia. So was this city’s past – which is why the MFA is sitting on one of the world’s finest and most famous collections of Asian art.


I have seen what they have, and believe me, its glories are not adequately reflected in the current displays. Not even close. An expansion and reinstallation — along the lines of what New York’s Metropolitan Museum did in 2011 with its Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia galleries — is in order. Anything less would be papering over an obligation that is too important to put off.

Harvard Art Museums, which has the region’s second biggest collection, needs to get more ambitious with its exhibitions. Right now, their shows feel bitsy, tentative, half-baked. They could be so much more.

In fact, here’s a second, general plea to all our bigger museums: How about a blockbuster or two? I miss those days.

I’m all for thoughtful shows “drawn from the collection.” But I also like to see what a curator with dazzling scholarly chops, a charming smile, big-time corporate sponsorship, and a massive government indemnity can pull off. I’m talking big, sexy loans from the Louvre, the Met, the Prado, the Hermitage, the Kunsthistorische. I’m talking high-level diplomatic negotiations and visiting royalty. I’m talking lines around the block.

In 2015, “Class Distinctions” at the MFA triggered a visit by Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands. That’s what I’m talking about! So please, a little . . . perhaps one more . . . just a tiny . . . blockbuster?!

Sebastian Smee can be reached at