From cultures to civilization, Superman to the seacoast, the best museum exhibitions this year had us re-examining that which we thought we might have known by heart. It was a year of fresh faces and artists reconsidered so wholly, they might as well have been entirely new. And one museum decided to upend the whole notion of how a museum should be.
"Huma Bhabha: They Live"
No artist’s work has stayed with me this year as much as the sculpture of Karachi-born artist Huma Bhabha. Her towering figures populated the Institute of Contemporary Art like beings descended from another world and her sculpture reflecting on the ravages of war in the Middle East was wrenching. Most evocative though, was a shrouded, supplicant figure that filled an entire gallery—not only in size but also with extraordinary layers of meaning.
"Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico"
She’s Mexico’s most famous living photographer and known chiefly for one photograph of a Juchitan woman crowned in a wreath of iguanas. But as this expansive exhibition revealed, Iturbide’s prowess comes in her ability to capture, again and again, a profound sense of place and culture in her arresting black and white photography.
"Renoir: The Body, The Senses"
For a long time, Renoir has been lost to the hokum of endless wall calendars and postcards. Who knew that he was cool enough to capture the unbridled passion of Picasso? This first-ever exhibition of Renoir’s nudes revealed the painter's skill from his earliest academy days to his end-of-life push into the avant-garde.
The Re-opening of the Hood Museum of Art
When the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College re-opened this year it was about much more than a gleaming new space. Its director and curators inverted the typical museum experience. You’ll still find Renaissance art and the blockbuster artists like Picasso. But, they’re on the fringes of the museum. It’s now the often-overlooked global contemporary art that refreshingly takes center stage in the museum’s core galleries.
"J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate"
The Mystic Seaport Museum scored a major coup in landing the only North American stop for a vast collection of Turner watercolors that rarely travel and can only be exhibited once in a generation because of their sensitivity to light. It was a must-see show for Turner’s beauty and process—including how he kept one fingernail long to literally scratch suggestions of light into his work.
"Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death"
Hyman Bloom’s fascination with the cycle of life led him into gruesome territory—depicting cadavers and bodies carved wide open. But as someone who worked with the same talent and force as 20th century greats Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his work vibrates with color and luminescence. For the subject matter, Bloom has long been over-looked so kudos to the Museum of Fine Arts for having the conviction to see his body of work, well, re-Bloom.
"Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey, 1869-1880"
With a comprehensive review of Winslow Homer’s marine painting, comprised of ambitiously gathered national and international loans, the Cape Ann Museum revealed itself as the little museum that can and will do. The exhibition charted Homer’s travels up and down the eastern seaboard moving from beaches busy with bathers in New Jersey to the rugged isolation of northern New England.
"Fatimah Tuggar: Home’s Horizons"
In the photographic collages of Fatimah Tuggar, all is not initially appears. The artist creates an “alternative imaginary” in work which presents sliced up scenes of cultural collisions—all which harken back to the Nigerian artist’s abstract notions of homes. The slow-looking her work engenders is a great lesson for absorbing cultures in the world outside Tuggar’s imaginary one.
"Men of Steel, Women of Wonder"
For some 80 years Superman and Wonder Woman have been with us standing for truth, justice and the American way. But the Addison forced us to question whose truth and justice they stand for now. A diverse array of artists answered the question with cheeky, probative and reverential looks at the superheroes’ sexuality, frailty and humanity. After this show, they’ll never be seen the same.
"John Akomfrah: Purple"
A six-channel video installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s free, raw exhibition space in East Boston, "Purple" was a sweeping, epically cinematic look at our planet by way of archival and newly shot footage of wilderness, industry and civilization across the continents. At once wondrous and chilling, Purple was a monumental experience made even more unforgettable by a killer score.