Rhonda Lieberman

Rhonda Lieberman on the best of 2012

Henri Matisse, Still Life with Purro II, 1904–05, oil on canvas, 11 x 14". © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


“Matisse: In Search of True Painting” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dec. 4, 2012 – March 17, 2013); “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Feb. 28 – June 3, 2012). Any opportunity to see Matisses from out of town is a treat and this show, which emphasizes his serial treatments of various themes, including photos of his tableaux-in-progress, is a stunner. In a landscape dominated by so much “relational” art and performance, Matisse’s drawing, composition, and painting chops—and of course his color choices—hit you with the shock of the old: pure beauty. And the mastery of a lifetime of practice. Earlier this year, I very much enjoyed “The Steins Collect,” which was really nicely done, including a delightful trove of Matisses and the Cézanne Bathers, compact and solid as a tank, that he kept on his studio wall for thirty-seven years as an inspiration. It worked!

The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield). “Why am I making the biggest house in America? Because I can,” muses time-share king David Siegel, who along with shopaholic trophy-wife Jackie is building “Versailles,” a thirty-bathroom “dream house” (modeled on the Vegas version of the French joint) that will upgrade the seventeen-bathroom hovel where they currently reside. With their frantic buying and selling, the Siegels embody the unrestricted appetite of the “free market.” As un-self-aware as they are avaricious, they allow Greenfield to document their beyond nouveau-riche lifestyle from Boom into Bust. The result is a brilliant case study of the “American Dream” run amok: sans taste, sans responsibility, sans everything but greed.

After playing with the banks’ “cheap money” during the Boom, Siegel battles post-Bust bankers as they close in to foreclose on his empire: “Lenders are pushers. Got us addicted to cheap money and now we’re junkies,” he says, without a trace of irony that he’d been doing the same thing: hard-selling time-shares to “nobodies” who could hardly afford them. (“We sell the same unit fifty-two times!” he crows.) Greenfield’s point of view is documentary “neutral,” even nearly sympathetic as she lets the Siegels’ situation and their stuff speak for themselves.

Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (dir. Alex Gibney), takes a less neutral point of view. “I wanted to talk to the wealthy interests who are manipulating our political system,” said Gibney, “I hope it will make people as angry as I am.” Focusing on a Park Avenue building which houses more billionaires than anywhere in the world and the same street way uptown in the South Bronx (where food banks run out of food in an economy of unprecedented “growth”), Gibney provides a devastating portrait of the income inequality that has exploded since the 1960s. He shows how the American Dream where “anyone can make it” is actually a rigged game where the rich hold all the cards and actively work to subvert popular democracy: “As long as our political leaders depend on the rich to win elections and stay in office,” says Gibney, “they will write laws to protect the mansions… (and) all the gains of our economy will go to the very top.”

Lauren Greenfield, The Queen of Versailles, 2011, digital video, 100 minutes.

In keeping with the neo-Gilded Age some of us are currently enjoying, labor strikes made a comeback: Years of stagnant wages and hollowed out benefits have (finally) inspired high-profile work stoppages by Wal-Mart workers (on national shopping holiday Black Friday), Chicago teachers, and NYC fast-food employees. A living wage shouldn’t be a controversial concept. Perhaps more people would grok that if they weren’t mindlessly distracted by stuff like…

The Internet Cat Video Film Festival at the Walker Art Center (August 30, 2012. Yay! “The Golden Kitty award, chosen by visitors to the Walker’s Web site, went to Will Braden for his two-minute opus ‘Henri 2: Paw de Deux,’ about the existential angst of a black-and-white French puss” who had me at meow: “I wake to the same tedium.” Voila.

Cat-fanciers in general enjoyed an upgrade from the Grey Gardens association (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to the height of chic. Karl Lagerfeld came out as a Cat Lady, the doting daddy of Choupette, a pampered pussy with two maids, a private jet, a “penchant for pate,” and 24,000 (and counting) followers on Twitter. In classic Chanel fashion, she even has a knockoff Twitter account by a wannabe cat-tweeter. Daddy’s obsessive documentation of his kitty offers the added bonus of a peek at his insanely chic and white private digs, upholstered with the soft white underbellies of baby unicorns (just kidding). This touching interspecies relationship has yielded a bonanza of artifacts: Grazia’s Special Issue “Starring Choupette the Cat (and her pet, Karl Lagerfeld!)” sports a cover image of the Kaiser hugging the all-white kitty who sheds all over his black jacket with aristocratic disdain. A double-head shot of the pair in Harper’s Bazaar confronts us with Karl’s sunglass-hidden gaze, his white coif tastefully styled into cat ears as he hoists the indifferent puss over the bottom of his face where a beard would be. Purrfection.

Not to leave out the doggies, Pit Bulls & Parolees is an excellent reality show that warms my heart every week chronicling a pit bull rescue facility that hires parolees, thus giving second-chances to both dogs and humans. To see these dear animals so capable of love and healing after horrific circumstances is amazing. The parolees do ok, too. The show is a great example of “fixing the world” and how much more needs to be done.

In the most meaningless Presidential election in my memory, a cipher-fest which managed not to address the most important issues of our time—climate change, corporatocracy, endless military adventurism, looting by the “wealthy criminal class” as Teddy Roosevelt quaintly put it, the erosion of the rule of law—Roseanne Barr ran for President! They elected Ronald Reagan and Sonny Bono. But an actually smart celebrity with a social conscience? Didn’t have a chance.

Rhonda Lieberman is a contributing editor to Artforum.