SVA’s Steven Henry Madoff: Top Five Exhibitions of 2013

January 13, 2014

Steven Henry Madoff, chair of MA Curatorial Practice and a faculty member in the MFA Art Practice Department, has been curating exhibitions internationally and writing about art for nearly 30 years. Maddoff200SVA Close Up tapped Madoff for his top picks of 2013 and his list takes us around the globe—from galleries in New York City to the Venice Biennale and beyond.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Complex, evocatively moody, and enthralling, Kjartansson’s seven-screen presentation of a musical performance among several musicians on a farm in the Hudson Valley, slowly coming together in a form of durational performance (64 minutes in length), was beautiful to watch and to listen to. I had never seen anything quite like it, and it spoke to a sense of community that we associate now with the Web, which lays claim to this kind of collaborative work, but rarely produces so epiphanic a display. Visitors to the show wandered from screen to screen in the dark cavern of the gallery, watching as the various players tuned their instruments, hit their notes, and assembled a gorgeously orchestrated song. It felt enormously, dexterously accomplished while maintaining an altogether casual, even languorous air.

Irving Penn, Pace Gallery, New York
To see this relatively small sampling of Penn’s photographs nonetheless reminded me what an extraordinary artist he was, moving so gracefully along the tightwire of commercial work and private fascinations, and showing us that they were really one ruminative exercise for him, equating time and light as ruthless and thrilling co-conspirators. Everywhere in his work, there are those qualities of the tense and voluptuous, of things wrested for a moment from their inevitable expiration, either at their brilliant peak or running over into decline. One image in particular comes to mind—not one of his iconic fashion shots or peasant children, but a terrifying and luscious still life of cheese melting on a plate: lustrous, ravishing and ravished.

Yehudit Sasportas, Seven Winters, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Sasportas is a leading Israeli artist of her generation (she’s 45), not terribly well-known in the U.S., whose multidisciplinary survey at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was intricately constructed and installed with an unusual sense of something like musical precision: theme, variations, tightly modulated tempo. In videos, large-scale drawings, sculptures and photography, the recurrence of tree branches and water, like a skein of tissue and nerves, populated the rooms of this survey of more than 20 years of work, and like Penn, though entirely different, the subject was mortality. Yet while Penn’s art is immersed in the fleshliness of the world, Sasportas’s runs cool toward flesh and hot toward the mystical and metaphysical. Having had a brother kidnapped and killed during his time in the Israeli Army, all of her art, she says, addresses the subject of passage—here carried on water, as seen in an early work of an Egyptian-style barque for the purpose of bearing a child’s body to the “other side.” The singularity of her vision was seared in my mind.

Venice Biennale
This last Venice Biennale was exceptionally consistent in the level of work and the curatorial execution, but two installations stand out for me as powerfully memorable. In the space designated as the Lebanese pavilion, Letter to a Refusing Pilot by Akram Zataari told a story of rueful gratitude. In 1982 an Israeli pilot ordered to bomb a site in Southern Lebanon refused and dumped his payload into the sea. It turned out the site was a school, and Zataari as a boy might well have died in the attack. Now he picks up the thread in a film and video installation that looks back in time and offers a bittersweet narrative in epistolary form, addressing the pilot as person and historically muted political ally. A second work I much admired was the Romanian pavilion’s performance piece by Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus, An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale. This work, performed by a small group, cleverly enacted various works from the history of the Biennale. The effect was curious, theatrically engaging, and comical. Though there was something in the improvisational dancerliness of the piece that was a bit too Tino Sehgal-like (who coincidentally won this Biennale’s major prize for an artist, despite the grandiose mediocrity of his own work there), Pirici and Pelmus did something with scale that was entirely the opposite of grandiosity: they offered a critique of the monumental character of nationalistic exercises in the politics of culture and suggested how transitory all such work inevitably is.

Yang Fudong, Estranged Paradise: Works 1993-2013, Kunsthalle Zurich
This was the first European survey of this leading Chinese artist’s work, taking in films, installations and suites of photographs. Yang’s work thinks about the tensions between traditional Chinese culture and the country’s essentially capitalist reinvention, with wrenching shifts in recent years having propelled his generation into dynamic disequilibrium. Full of black-and-white pictorial delicacy and even longueurs, the intellectual scale and ambition of his film scenarios are deeper than wide, but the

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work held up in this big exhibition brilliantly, captivatingly, and

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confirmed him as an essential interpreter of China today, as well as an artist of immense visual grace.

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