The Best of 2006

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With 2006 coming to a close, it's tempting to look back at the year's most memorable encounters with art. In April, a large crowd of journalists gathered inside a plastic tent in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was raining cats and dogs but Michael Govan, the recently appointed museum director, was resolutely upbeat. Five famous paintings by Gustav Klimt, that were considered to be Austrian national treasures, were returned to Maria Altmann, a Los Angeles resident and niece of the previous owners. Over the next few months long lines of bewitched visitors formed in front of the Museum gallery to see these paintings, among them two mesmerizing portraits of Maria Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

In the following month, in May, another superb exhibition, "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines," rolled into town. The installation of this exhibition at MOCA by Museum curator Paul Schimmel was nothing short of brilliant--a theater presentation full of suspense and intrigue. If you have ever asked, "What constitutes greatness in a work of art?" these Combines gave you an answer. The energy and relevance of these works created by Rauschenberg almost a half-century ago is as strong and invigorating today as it was when he made them.

Visiting La Jolla over the summer, I marveled at the gigantic teddy bear by Tim Hawkinson recently installed on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. This 23-feet high cuddly beast is made of giant boulders, the largest weighing more than two hundred tons. I consider Hawkinson, who lives and works in Los Angeles, to be one of the best American sculptors working today and this tour de force work is the latest example of his unique brand of inspired madness.

I keep thinking with special fondness of two exhibitions that I saw in New York. First was the Brice Marden retrospective at MOMA organized by Gary Garrels, former curator at MOMA, who recently became Chief Curator at UCLA's Hammer Museum. This expertly edited and smartly installed exhibition made me fall in love with Brice Marden's art. Behind the familiar veneer of elegance and reticence of Marden's work, the exhibition revealed the intensity and passion in his art that I was not aware of before. Another must-see exhibition in New York is devoted to the legendary art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, and it overflows with masterpieces by Degas and Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, the artists, whose careers to a large extent, were shaped by his unwavering support. It was fascinating to learn about the prices Vollard paid to the artists and the profit he made in subsequent sales to his clients, the most famous collectors of the era. One canvas, a mouth-watering image of a bather by Degas, Vollard was not able to sell for more than two decades. If only I could jump into a time machine and take it off his hands...

Back to reality, if you stay put in LA through the holiday madness, here's a one-of-a-kind exhibition by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans which refuses to conform to genteel rules of art presentation. Hundreds of his very large and very small photographs are installed by the artist in clusters, climbing up and down the gallery walls at the Hammer Museum. The resulting effect is as if you had privileged access to the private thoughts and images in the artist's diary. On their own, many of Tillman's images are not that memorable, but together they comprise a powerful and poetic statement about the beauty of everyday life.

"Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings"
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
On view until January 15, 2007

"Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde"
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
On view until January 7, 2007

"Wolfgang Tillmans"
Hammer Museum
On view until January 7, 2007