It’s hard to say if the art world has done an adequate job of responding to world events lately. 2013 has been marked by a crisis in Mali, a new pope, a marathon bombing, and a giant meteor landing in western Russia, and unless you count this series of dashboard photographs taken by drivers in Chelyabinsk, very few painters, video makers, sculptors, or performance artists have tried to reckon with any of this. It’s enough to make you wonder if the world’s most powerful artists and art institutions aren’t also the most solipsistic. For better or for worse, a lot of the year’s most anticipated exhibitions have been disconnected not only from current events but from history.
This, of course, is the harshest way to look at it. People want to know what’s going on around them, but there are times when a 30-minute cable news show or a quick read through the Huffington Post can seem pushy and numbingly shrill — or at least enough to make you yearn for a medium like art, which usually isn’t. Here are the five most memorable attempts at that kind of outsider’s commentary — successful and otherwise — from the year so far.
James Turrell at the Guggenheim
Aprofile of Turrell in The New York Times Magazine ran under the apt title “The Mesmerizer.” If you live in New York and you haven’t seen this show yet, for heaven’s sake, get your act together. The wait for a Turrell tribute in this town was long enough (his last retrospective was in 1980), and far too many people who don’t live in the Southwest and have a baseline admiration for light art haven’t yet seen his oeuvre in person. Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead, Detroit
[Image via Hour Detroit]
Longtime admirers of Kelley’s haunting, sorrowful works in sculpture and installation were still mourning the artist’s tragic suicide when curators at the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art erected this replica-on-wheels of his childhood home, in May. In addition to providing a reverent tribute to the hometown artist, the mobile home also provided a space for some creative curating and museum education, with the ground floor functioning as a venue for events and public displays.
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective at the Whitney
It’s not surprising that so few people know about The Rose, Jay Defeo’s immense painting-turned-sculpture that took eight years to make and weighs 2,300 pounds. The work is very delicate and very vulnerable to the elements, making it uncommonly hard to move and insure. Most people who came the Whitney show were there because they had only seen The Rose in photographs. It was also worth seeing the other central works that made the work of this Beat-era artist so distinctive.
Yoko Ono: Half-a-Wind at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark
It’s not easy task to pull together the breadth of Yoko Ono’s work and the depth of the environment she lived in — when performance, installation, and Conceptualism were just taking seed — but by most accounts, this exhibition has managed to pull it off. Highlights include the iconic performance work Blue Room Event and the giant site-specific works Morning Beams and Riverbed, both of which were recreated for the show in the Louisiana MoMA’s rotunda.
Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors at Luhring Augustine, New York
This unfathomably sweet, almost childishly romantic work in installation was created when artist Ragnar Kjartansson brought a group of musician friends to contribute to a broken-down-and-stitched-together work of relational assemblage, with a resulting work that had immediate appeal without being shallow. And just in case you’re curious, the show’s title was, indeed, borrowed from the 1981 album of the same name by ABBA.
Jeff Koons: Gazing Ball at David Zwirner Gallery, New York
For a new show by an artist who almost seems to try to make work for a short-attention-span audience relying on instant gratification, the anticipation around this show was hard to explain. The again, Jeff Koons is Jeff Koons, and critics pretty much had to go. When they arrived, they were greeted with shiny, repetition-oriented work that confirmed most of their doubts and suspicions.
“I’ve so come to associate Koons with mindless rich-guy spectacle that these new ‘Gazing Ball’ works come off as unexpectedly daring,” Ben Davis wrote in ArtInfo. “As a viewer, you enter ‘Gazing Ball’ and you are amused. Then you walk around these sculptures and you slowly realize that, after the initial intrigue, no further thoughts appear in your brain.”
Blues for Smoke at The Whitney, New York
Sometimes a curated museum show nobly seeks to draw thematic lines between works of art that seem to have nothing to do each other. In the case of Blues for Smoke, that meant pulling together works that dealt with loss, oppression, or the creative response to tragedy, but arranged with no discernible core, the result was a well-meaning mess. This was in spite of a few strong video works that were worth watching, including Wu Tsang’s Mishima in Mexico, and — why not — a monitor that played a 60-hour running loop of HBO’s The Wire, even if no one was supposed to actually sit through it.
Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum, New York
[Image via MetMuseum.org]
Though eagerly touted as a tribute to the subversive fashion that accompanied the musical movement and helped define the style of the 1970s and ’80s, the end result, including a disjointed series of rarified T-shirts and S&M leggings (not to mention a replica the bathroom at CBGB) was almost universally panned as missing the point of what punk really meant.
“Punk was never about the threads,” wrote The Economist. “The clothes, the hair, the makeup, the sewn-on patches and the badges conveyed a message about who you were and what you stood for. For those who were not interested in punk’s message, the clothes served as a warning. But punk was always more than a fashion statement… To look at punk viewed only through the attire, rather than the beliefs, is to make a cultural error.”
Tilda Swinton at MoMA, New York
[Image via Vulture]
It was obvious from the get-go that this show wasn’t about a person doing a silent performance in the museum’s atrium. It was about a movie star doing a silent performance in the museum’s atrium. Such a non-exhibition, driven by exhibitionism, brought to mind critics’ worst anxieties about what could happen if MoMA were allowed to continue to tout star-gawking as art, a pattern New York‘s Jerry Saltz traced to the long lines of the Marina Abramovic retrospective. “I’m a sourpuss, so I think this is just a hokey artsy strategy to disguise the fact that the place doesn’t have enough room to show its tremendous collection,” he wrote. “The event also has inner content: MoMA is narcissistically puffing its celebrity feathers, playing at being avant-garde.”
Random International: Rain Room at MoMA, New York
For a show that attracted a viewership willing to wait in line for eight hours, you’d hope that Random International’s high-concept immersive installation would have an intellectual bite to match its hype. There was a complaint — recalling feelings about the Carsten Höller exhibition Experience at The New Museum in 2011 — that the show had all the charms of a tourist attraction and none of the deeper payoff that you would hope for from a leading museum of contemporary art. Yes, the show had the advantage of stimulating revenue, but only, it seemed, by imitating a Six Flags.