As we welcome a new year, now is the ideal time for me to reflect on some of my most memorable art experiences of 2014. It was a year in which I saw exciting exhibitions and memorable works of art, magnificent architecture, and evocative—sometimes disturbing—places. Many of the artworks I encountered felt like old friends revisited, but some were completely new to me or known only from illustrations. So here, in no particular order, are ten memorable experiences from 2014.
1. A Sublety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.
Kara Walker created this installation in an abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A defiant sphinx-like mammy is the central character in Walker’s sugar sculptures touching upon themes of racism, slavery, and exploitation.
2.China Television (CCTV) Headquarters, Beijing, China. Completed in 2008, this unique version of a skyscraper was designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The two leaning towers are connected by a perpendicular cantilever, resulting in a disorienting and otherworldly building.
3. Pavilion for Listening to the Rain. Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou, China. Created by a former Imperial Envoy during the Ming Dynasty (ca. 1530), this UNESCO world heritage site is one of China’s finest surviving classical gardens. The garden’s name is a pun, as it is far from humble. The refinement of Ming Dynasty life is fully represented by this exquisite structure, whose sole purpose was to provide a place for the aristocracy to enjoy the sound of rainfall.
4. Standing Bodhisattva, Northern Pakistan, ca. 200-500 CE.
In Buddhist philosophy, bodhisattvas are human beings on the path to enlightenment. Achieving enlightenment grants the title of Buddha, meaning “enlightened one.” This bodhisattva is one I visit in the Museé Guimet each time I’m in Paris. He’s a magnificent example of the Gandara style—a merging of Buddhist iconography with the “wet drapery” treatment typical of Classical Greece.
5. My Generation: Young Chinese Artists. Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Think of this exhibition as a crash course in Chinese contemporary art. Not only is the work enticing, but the cultural and social issues framed by the post-Mao generation are universal.
6. Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany. Neue Galerie, New York. For the Nazis, art was just another cudgel in their systematic program of anti-Semitism, genocide, and social engineering. In 1937, the Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition in Munich featured hundreds of modernist works (many by artists now viewed as early twentieth century masters) selected by the Nazis to illustrate their views of cultural decadence. The exhibition at Neue Galerie brought together works, films, and documents from this historic exhibition in an illuminating—and chilling—presentation.
7. Dachau, Germany. Initially, Adolph Hitler established Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners. Later, it would serve as the model for the efficiency with which the Nazis dealt with the extermination of the Jews and other groups. On a cold, rainy Good Friday, I walked the perimeter of the camp and saw the gas chambers where tens of thousands were murdered. I came to Dachau, like other camps I’ve visited, seeking a greater understanding of the Holocaust. While I now have an appreciation for the site itself, the larger question of “why” remains unanswered.
8.The Voyage of Life. Thomas Cole, 1842. These four paintings are an allegory of the stages of life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. Life’s path is represented by a river flowing through a landscape—sometimes lush and hopeful and at other times, dark and frightening. I discovered these paintings when I was a young man on my first visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. As with any dear friend, I visit regularly. Through the years, it’s been fascinating to track my own voyage against Cole’s masterful allegory.
9. The Harrowing of Hell. St. Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey.
I spent my Easter vacation in Istanbul (after a brief stopover in Germany) with the intent of seeing some of the masterpieces of Byzantine art and Islamic architecture. Probably dating to the late thirteenth century, the frescoes at the small church of St. Savior are among the most spectacular and best preserved Byzantine paintings. In this dramatic fresco decorating the semidome of the apse, Christ has broken through the gates of Hell and dramatically pulls Adam and Eve from their tombs.
10.Lisa Hoke: Come on Down. Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Hoke uses recycled and everyday materials to create monumental relief sculptures. Her ephemeral installation at the OKCMOA was a sea of color and texture in which she elevated the banal materials of our normal lives into a breath-taking experience.