The 10 Best Museum Exhibitions of 2013

10. [Tie] ‘Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A show about trade, slavery and colonialism told through decadent textiles. The wars were bloody, the use of raw material and sheer craft stunning. Embroideries about colonial brutality, cotton Toile prints depicting Hawaiian massacres of pirates, and garments and wall hangings that embody literally tens of thousands of hours of labor. A sumptuous prehistory to global capitalism: People treated humans as objects and gave objects the status of people.

10. [Tie] ‘Caribbean: Crossroads of the World’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, Queens Museum of Art
Did you miss the first major survey of Caribbean art? This was really a 2012 show, but with only six days in 2013, the sprawling, lush, three-museum show still resonates as a greatest hit. From historical to contemporary works, this curatorially maximalist show counted nearly 400 artists on its checklist.

9. Trisha Baga: Plymouth Rock 2’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art
Experimental video installation as a story of American origins, Plymouth Rock was a great debut of a young artist. A lot of moving parts—video, sound, sculpture, glow-in-the-dark paint—were all put to impressive use to create an idiom that felt both new and natural the minute you saw it. Just what a museum show by a new young artist should be.

8. Julia Margaret Cameron at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Magical photographs of family, friends and “blurry celebrities” by the proto-feminist Victorian grand-dame of portraiture. Pomona’s bangs, Julia Jackson’s even stare, and Alfred Lord Tenneyson as the Dirty Monk were some of the highlights, but more than anything Cameron’s middle-aged intrepidness as she moved into a daunting new art of chemicals and glass plates shone through.

7. ‘Anything Can Substitute Art: Maciunas in SoHo’ at the Cooper Union
Something of a sleeper, this exhibition not only put on view a bonanza of rare works by Maciunas, it also highlighted his political involvement in creating utopian artist lofts in SoHo. A sad, timely show especially as Maciunas, an immigrant, was educated for free at Cooper Union and the show went on view right around the time the school announced it would start charging students tuition. Maciunas’ dreams of the rights of the working class and artists to property and education seem even more distant today than they did in the 1960s and 70s.

6. ‘Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos’ at the New Museum
This wunderkammer is still my favorite show the new New Museum has ever put on. The art looked more taxonomically assembled than installed, as if the artist had created categories and her art was composed of living things. The whole show was of a piece, from the grey-green walls to the way Ms. Trockel spiked her own work with historical selections borrowed from botanical illustrations and outsider art. Despite being a survey of 30 years of work, the art in the show felt fresh, as though created yesterday, the artist a little aloof from the process of being pinned down by the apparatus of a museum survey. A feat.

5. Jay DeFeo at the Whitney Museum
The centerpiece of this moving survey of the Beat-generation painter was the museum’s restoration of The Rose, a gigantic, architecturally unstable oil painting that had been hidden behind a wall for decades. The show wasn’t just about one woman’s art practice, but about what we owe to lost cultural objects and untold stories.

4. ‘Photography and the American Civil War’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photography and death are bedfellows, and never more so than in this haunting, brutal show about photography’s role in the American Civil War. From incendiary newspaper images depicting the injustices of slavery to anonymous, luminous hand-colored tintypes of soldiers enlisting, to vast wet collodion glass plate images of battlefields granting excruciating detail to the decomposing dead, the newly-invented medium told the story of the devastating war. Curator Jeff Rosenheim gave us the definitive story of the American loss of innocence.

3. Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1
A superlative survey—one man’s perversions, kinks and artistic capacity stuffed into every nook and cranny of an old public school building in Queens. It’s the show to see, and the right place to see it. Don’t miss the claustrophobia-inducing sculpture Rose Hobart II, which asks you to crawl through a tight tunnel to catch a voyeuristic glimpse of the movie Porky’s. The late Kelley’s birdhouses, and his early experiments in performance, might have been edited out in a less sprawling show, but it is just such eccentricities that make this exhibition a portrait of an artist as compelling and memorable as The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, in its own late-20th century way.

2. ‘Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
From iconic canvases to a stage for dance designed by contemporary artist Philippe Parreno, to slide-out plexiglas drawers used to showcase rare works by Duchamp, this show used exquisite displays to intertwine the intellectual and social relationships among this group of artists. The commissioned marquee and exhibition design by Mr. Parreno were the icing on the cake.

1. ‘Matisse: In Search of True Painting’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Art historians have long paired slides to achieve maximum image legibility through comparison. Curator Rebecca Rabinow fashioned 49 of Matisse’s most puzzling, vividly-colored paintings into a moving story told through pairs and trios that showed painting—and thinking—in process. Matisse’s restlessness and drive to innovate has never been as clear as in this exhibition full of sudden shifts and breakthroughs. This curatorial method yielded magic results—painting styles altered radically around the same subjects, as did colors. By the end, when photography captured stages of paintings in progress, the show became about something else—stopping time, letting go of creation, and fighting technology while embracing it. A knockout.

Honorable Mention: ‘Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A profound exhibition about an ostensibly superficial subject, this show brought together chic dresses, colorful hats, magazines advertising gloves and corsets, and the paintings that clocked the inflation and deflation of women’s bustles with factured precision to provide a terrific introduction to the birth of commodity culture. Mallarmé’s fashion magazines (which he wrote under a female pseudonym), Monet’s garden scenes and Berthe Morisot’s brushy fans and gowns were highlights of a show that was as carefully researched as it was sartorially striking.

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