PRINT December 1999

Peter Plagens

The big bosses at Artforum asked for an annotated list of the ten best art thingies of the ’90s, and that’s exactly what they’re gonna get. No Greil Marcus/Ron Rosenbaum–style envelope-pushing to slip in a remaindered CD by Animal Logic or the best chopped liver on the Upper West Side. Oh all right, a little fudging here and there to wedge in a few extra items, but otherwise, straight down the pike.

1. “Johannes Vermeer” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Maritshuis, The Hague, 1995–96) The sweetest words my editors at Newsweek ever said to me were, “You know, after all that pandemonium over the Vermeer show in Washington, it’d be good to have a story on how the Dutch feel about it when it comes back to Holland.” So I got to see the show a second time, in The Hague. Yes, as I wrote at the time, there were a couple of (comparative) dogs in the show; but just seeing The Lacemaker, ca. 1669–70, and View of Delft, ca. 1660–61, in the same exhibition was a millennial experience.

2. Eddie Izzard
Yep, I’m violating my most deeply held principle: Up with art-object art, and . . . fuck showbiz! But the thirty-seven-year-old English comic is a genius, if not an outright god. I’ve seen the video of his “Dressed to Kill” concert eight times, and my rapture at his gag lines (“Cake or death? Cake, please,” or “Scale it back a bit, you’re British”) has actually been superseded by enchantment with his mere filler (“Um . . . and yes, that’s all true”). Only a Frans Hals lace collar makes me as dizzy with delight. Izzard’s comedy is so intelligent, gracefully structured, and kindhearted that his trademark gender bending (“executive transvestite”) is just a cherry on the cake.

3. “Stanley Spencer” (Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1997–98) Here, I cop to an epiphany born of inexcusable ignorance. I’d never even heard of Sir Stanley until I was a grizzled thirty-five. Then, in 1976, on a visit to Brighton, England, while killing time and trying to avoid traipsing through the Royal Pavilion with the rest of the tourists, I happened on a little art museum featuring a Spencer show. My jaw dropped, my received history of modernism reeled. Twenty years later, another sip from the well. I don’t care what other critics say about Spencer—that he was a ditsy megalomaniac, that he couldn’t settle on a style, that he held idiotic religious convictions, that he’s just an English taste and the subject of a corny play (Stanley, by Pam Gems). Spencer’s one of the great doers of modern art, whose talent could do justice to everything from the faintest blue vein on a female breast to a panorama of wartime shipbuilders.

4. “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932” (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1992) Although the sumptuous Matisse retrospective was simultaneously packing them in at MOMA, this visually thrilling blockbuster was the most important show in New York that year. However gourmand its appetite for revolutionary artifacts, “Utopia” did bring Tatlin’s glider thrusting into Wright’s breathtaking space––and the sight of that alone was worth the ticket price.

5. Ron Mueck Yeah, everybody and his brother went gaga over Dead Dad, 1996–97, in the “Sensation” show’s original London run. And they should have. Mueck’s little tour de force du trompe l’oeil was far more moving than anything Duane Hanson or John D’Andrea ever dreamed up, plus it wasn’t, like, just cast from some real person, actual size. It’s only about three feet long. But Mueck—a veteran of Jim Henson’s shop—outdid himself in his 1998 solo at Anthony d’Offay in London, where he debuted Mask, 1997, the larger-than-life self-portrait face that was added to the Brooklyn version of “Sensation.” But my favorite is Ghost, 1998, a pubescent girl in a tank suit, so uncomfortable with her own adolescently morphing body, she feels as conspicuous as if she were seven feet tall. Which she is. Mueck is wittier—and deeper—than the rest of the YBAs combined.

6. “Magdalena Abakanowicz” (P.S. 1, New York, 1993) Raw, powerful, elegant—all those blurb adjectives. The best sculpture show of the decade and (because hardly any sculptors make sculpture anymore) one of the only real ones.

7. The Philadelphia Museum of Art The 1995 Brancusi followed by the 1996 Cézanne retrospective (co-organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay and Tate Gallery, respectively) was the best one-two punch in ’90s museumdom. And two more chances for a pilgrimage to Duchamp’s last work (that peephole thing), the van der Weyden deposition diptych, and the tiny van Eyck St. Francis. If only I could stomach cheese steaks and the Phillies.

8. “Fever” (Exit Art, New York, 1993) The first big crazy-kids-from-Williamsburg show in which good-natured bumptiousness overcame finger-pointing about the evils of socially constructed whatever.

9. “Eva Hesse: A Retrospective” (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1992) A wonderful young artist whose life was cut short. This show reminded you that, while Hesse lived, she was amazing, but it also made you melancholy for all the work she’d never make.

10. “Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Paintings” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994) The Australian is one of the most underrated painters of the century; nobody else that quirky is that lyrical, and nobody that lyrical ever had the nerve to be that quirky.

Footnote: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin, 1971–1995) I was wrong about it. I thought it was a tired, overblown shtick rehearsed one too many times, and insensitive to the cultural and political circumstances of the environment. The Germans, however, were profoundly moved by the way it looked and what it meant, and I should have been, too.