Best (and worst) of 2008: Art
L.A.'s reticence about respecting the history of art produced in Southern California seemed to turn a corner in 2008. Ambitious and provocative exhibitions at venues large and small were joined by insightful publications and a documentary, "The Cool School." A batch of coordinated shows, scheduled for 2011, at 15 area institutions to explore postwar historical developments was also announced by the Getty Foundation, which is making $2.8 million in grants for the effort, on top of the $2.7 million already awarded to museums and libraries for archival work.
The change has been building since the 1990s. Its causes are many, but the most important is that a second full generation of L.A. artists of international stature has been established. (I'm using a rough generational measure of about 25 years for a parent to produce an offspring.) Every present has a past -- even in L.A., the stereotypical City of the Future -- and the urge to know it has grown strong.
So, put cultural maturity at the top of this year's 10 best list. Some of the remaining nine also arrived underneath that sheltering umbrella, while others didn't. They're listed in no particular order.
There were miracle makeovers: A lavish, beautifully managed refurbishment of San Marino's Huntington Art Gallery opened, graced by its 18th century British and other collections, as did a beautiful, frugally managed refurbishment of the Modern art galleries at the L.A. County Museum of Art, partly as a showcase for the Lazarof Collection.
Wonderful works of ancient, Medieval, Baroque, contemporary and Oceanic and other non-Western art entered area museum collections, but two were of such importance they get their own slots. The Getty acquired a strange 1892 Paul Gauguin painting of a severed Tahitian head served up on a platter: "Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)" fuses the loss of an idyllic native world to European colonialism with the fate of John the Baptist. And LACMA gained an exquisite, previously unknown Venetian Renaissance "Madonna and Child" by Cima da Conegliano, whose work at the end of the 15th century is a hinge between the ethereal Bellini family and the robust Giorgione and Titian.
"Peter Saul," the tight retrospective of the idiosyncratic American painter at the Orange County Art Museum, celebrated his unique merger of raucous cartoons and suave color to render images of modern brutality.
L.A. artist Cathy Opie became "Catherine Opie: American Photographer" in a marvelous retrospective whose only real drawback is that it won't travel west from its originating venue, New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Speaking of photography, camera work was the medium of California's first great artist, as aptly demonstrated in the Getty Museum's "Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California." One can quibble with claims that Watkins made all the show's early daguerreotypes, but not with the fact that he grabs premier bragging rights away from Eadweard Muybridge.
Michael Asher inventively told the story of the Santa Monica Museum's 10-year exhibition history with a Piranesian maze of wall studs replicating past gallery layouts.
German artist Martin Kippenberger was hugely erratic, but the warts-and-all retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art shows why his attitudinizing was so influential, even though he died at 44.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) changed the face of Rome, and the Getty's landmark "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" showed him revivifying an ancient tradition of sculpture too.
On 2008's downside, LACMA hosted not one but two grandiloquent vanity shows -- "Selections From the Cheech Marin Collection" and "Vanity Fair Portraits: 1913-2008" -- distinguished mostly by their utter divestment of curatorial diligence.
And, worst of all, after years of brilliant programming and astounding fiscal irresponsibility, MOCA began circling the drain.
-- Christopher Knight
Top photo: Huntington Art Gallery; credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Hilary Swank (2004) in the show "Vanity Fair Portraits: 1913-2008"; credit: Norman Jean Roy