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Business News/ Weekend / The best art of 2023: Reframing the familiar
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The best art of 2023: Reframing the familiar

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Many of the year’s best exhibitions offered a new look at eminent artists, including Van Gogh, Canova, Manet and Degas

Philip Guston's ‘Painting, Smoking, Eating’, 1973 (The estate of Philip Guston)Premium
Philip Guston's ‘Painting, Smoking, Eating’, 1973 (The estate of Philip Guston)

As if to compensate for the deprivations of the peak Covid-19 years, 2023 offered a wealth of notable exhibitions, beginning with last spring’s Vermeer extravaganza at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This side of the Atlantic, there was the superb installation of the once-controversial “Philip Guston Now" at the National Gallery, Washington, following the equally good version, at the end of 2022, at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

We encountered Guston as inventor of ambiguous, off-kilter narratives, as eloquent abstract painter and as sensuous manipulator of paint. We noted recurring lightbulbs, rope, masks, strange hats and cigarettes, savored dramatic brushmarks and strove to cope with pitiless self-portraits, fierce parodic Klansmen and dystopian, rubble-strewn environments. Both beautiful and disturbing, Guston’s work seemed to distill all the upheavals of the 20th century.

‘The Garden of Beaumarchais’ (1788), by Francois-Joseph Belanger (Bibliotheque Nationale De France)
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‘The Garden of Beaumarchais’ (1788), by Francois-Joseph Belanger (Bibliotheque Nationale De France)

A very different kind of exhibition from the Guston monograph, “Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings From the Bibliothèque nationale de France," at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., offered a multiplicity of stellar works on paper, many never shown before.

We explored works in various mediums, some carefully finished, some casually sketched, by the celebrated, the little known and the anonymous, all providing testimony to the importance of drawing in the 18th century and the many ways it functioned in an age before mechanical reproduction. Drawing was fundamental to the training of artists and the education of upper-class children. Architects, craftsmen and garden designers presented proposals with detailed drawings.

Significant events provoked drawn images, which were turned into prints circulated in the period’s expanding roster of publications. And more. “Promenades on Paper" was both sumptuous and illuminating.

“Canova: Sketching in Clay," seen first at the National Gallery of Art, then at the Art Institute of Chicago (where it remains on view through March 18, 2024), revealed the working methods of the celebrated late 18th- and early 19th-century sculptor of chilly Neo-Classical marbles. Those suave figures began as nervous clay bozzetti (sketches) reflecting the intensity with which Canova stabbed with his tools and pressed on lumps of clay.

These small studies were translated into larger, elegant plasters, then further enlarged in marble. Some bozzetti appeared to test possibilities at high speed, as if Canova’s ideas outraced his hand; others were more finished. While the delicacy of the refined bozzetti was admirable, it was the roughest little sculptures—never intended for public view—that were most compelling. But we’ll never look at Canova the same way again.

‘Juan de Pareja’ (1650), by Diego Velázquez (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art)
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‘Juan de Pareja’ (1650), by Diego Velázquez (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

“Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was an absorbing, informative history lesson that contextualized the Met’s great Velázquez portrait of his enslaved assistant and introduced us to Pareja as an artist in his own right, after he was freed. We learned about the social structure of 17th-century Spain and about Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s pioneering research into Pareja’s career.

A group of Velázquez’s portraits from the period, surrounding the work that generated the exhibition, documented the two painters’ 1650 sojourn in Rome—when the Met’s portrait was painted. The exhibition culminated with some of Pareja’s most ambitious paintings, several from the Prado. Did he come close to Velázquez? Well, no. But the exhibition was fascinating and the haunting, vivid portrait of Pareja gained new resonance.

“Van Gogh’s Cypresses," also at the Met, explored—remarkably enough—a new aspect of this widely exhibited artist: his fascination with the vertical evergreens that punctuate the south of France. Familiar and unfamiliar works alerted us to Van Gogh’s varied responses to the dark, pyramidal trees, now pushed into the distance, now dominating the picture.

The context allowed us to see the endlessly reproduced “Starry Night" (1889) freshly, shifting our focus from the eponymous swirls in the sky to the looming shaggy cypresses, foreground left, their ribbony strokes unlike the brushmarks of any of the other cypress images. Who knew we could still be surprised by Van Gogh?

‘Wheat Field With Cypresses’ (June 1889), by Vincent van Gogh )The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
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‘Wheat Field With Cypresses’ (June 1889), by Vincent van Gogh )The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The retrospective “Henry Taylor: B Side" at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through Jan. 28, 2024) showcases this brilliant black artist’s meditations on friends and family, plus early drawings, constructions, enigmatic painted objects and an installation about the Black Panthers. In a sense, “The Love of Cousin Tip" (2017), a tribute to a horse-breeder relation, says it all: a man and his family on a porch, with a cat and, in the background, a horse; the wife embraces two of the children protectively.

It’s a tender scene, but something in the man’s expression makes us feel like intruders. Almost every painting in “B Side" yields complex, often unsettling readings over time, subtexts on race relations and civil unrest, that disrupt and enrich what initially seem to be straightforward images. That and the lush paint keep us engaged by Mr. Taylor’s work.

Henry Taylor’s ‘i'm yours’, 2015 (Whitney Museum of American Art)
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Henry Taylor’s ‘i'm yours’, 2015 (Whitney Museum of American Art)

For sheer impact, it’s a draw between “Manet/Degas" at the Met (through Jan. 7, 2024) and “Bonnard’s Worlds" at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (through Jan. 28, 2024). The former makes us privy to Manet’s and Degas’s individual aspirations, their friendship and implicit rivalry. We see them tackling similar themes, while moving in different directions, each demonstrating an acute awareness of what the other was doing. We follow, as well, the social connections between Manet and Degas.

What makes the exhibition unforgettable are the dazzling works by both artists, a list that includes Manet’s notorious “Olympia," “The Balcony" with its foaming white dresses and blue green railings, and his portrait of Émile Zola with its implacable black jacket, along with Degas’s uncanny portrait of the Bellelli family, his weird image of a fallen jockey beneath galloping horses, and scenes of the New Orleans cotton exchange. Seeing these works in close proximity and provocative relationships is a museum-goer’s and a curator’s dream.

‘Dining Room in the Country’ (1913), by Pierre Bonnard (Artists Rights Society, New York)
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‘Dining Room in the Country’ (1913), by Pierre Bonnard (Artists Rights Society, New York)

“Bonnard’s Worlds" focuses on the artist’s responses to his surroundings. We move from early paintings of the family summer house and garden to interiors and views out the window, ending with the intimacies of bedroom and bath, including three glorious very late paintings of Bonnard’s wife reclining in the tub.

Bonnard’s astonishing gifts as a colorist and his radical experimentation with structure and space are demonstrated by both acclaimed and rarely seen works. We leave feeling that this opulent, exhilarating exhibition has given us privileged insight into the artist’s life and his thinking.

Karen Wilkin is an independent critic and curator.

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