Who would have thought a pair of birds made of construction debris could cause such a stir. But that's what Chinese artist Xu Bing's "Phoenix Project" at Mass MoCA created on the Berkshire art scene this year.
Who would have thought a Norman Rockwell painting would ever -- ever -- fetch $46 million at auction. But that's what his "Saying Grace" brought at Sotheby's in New York this month.
The year 2013 in visual art has been one of revelations.
Who would have thought an artist could mine a single source for inspiration for over four decades, as Tom Phillips did in "Life's Work" at Mass MoCA. Or that plain old paper could be folded, cut and reworked into unimaginable shapes, forms and applications, as the Berkshire Museum illustrated last summer in "PaperWorks."
Even the family-values Norman Rockwell clan made tabloid fare in 2013 as biographer Deborah Solomon hinted in her new "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" that its patriarch might -- just might -- have had homosexual leanings.
What was the art world coming to?
The year also saw the opening of a big new 15-year installation at Mass MoCA devoted to contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer and a stab at revising American art history in "Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles" at the Williams College Museum of Art.
In another first in recent memory, this on the minus side, the Clark Art Institute all but closed for much of the year as it nears completion next July of a $170 million reconstruction.
Xu Bing's "Phoenix Project" had all sorts of backstories in Chinese myth and socio-economics, but to most viewers his mammoth multiple ton birds constructed of scrap metal and suspended from a gallery ceiling were a testament to the transformative power of art, a power to make the humble look majestic, the mundane eloquent. In Xu Bing's hands, scrap metal, cables and engine parts took flight. They are moving on to New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine to reappear starting Feb. 1.
Back in the mid 20th century, when Abstract Expressionism reigned and drip painter Jackson Pollock was king, Norman Rockwell, with his realistic figures and middlebrow sentimentality, was a joke to the art establishment. But history has a way of coming full circle and just as Minimalism and Conceptual Art nudged aside abstractionists like Pollock, so did Post Modernism with its inclination to appropriate from the past, resurrect the respectability of figurative painting. That made room for throwbacks like Rockwell, whose technical gifts as a painter and keen observations on American life had been, it is now thought, under appreciated.
Whether that historical rewrite drove the still-unknown auction bidder to ante up $46 million for "Saying Grace," or some other quirk of the mercurial art marketplace was at play is a mystery yet to be resolved.
Historical revision was definitely a factor in recognizing the black Los Angeles artists of the 1960s-80s featured at the Williams College Museum of Art in "Now Dig This," artists neglected because of who they were rather than what they did. That they accomplished so much in finding their own voices and defining their times against such entrenched racism, made white America's neglect of their achievements all the more damning.
Anselm Kiefer, the focus of a huge new seasonal installation at Mass MoCA, is a star in the contemporary art firmament. His gritty, enigmatic paintings and sculptures, many inscribed by his own hand with verse, are compelling on a gut level, but can be frustrating to untangle intellectually. The MoCA installation gives viewers an immersion in his mature work, while a companion exhibition at WCMA -- which closed this month-- provided insights into his early development, insights invaluable in understanding the man.
It can be hoped some elements of the WCMA show will be built into future Kiefer programming at Mass MoCA.
Beyond these major art events, I found revelations in a handful of artists I've followed for years -- and some who were new to me.
Jarvis Rockwell, Norman's eldest son, now in his 80s, has been on the Berkshire scene for years, most notably for his "Maya" pyramids of toy action figures based on Southeast Asian temple statuary. Mass MoCA cemented his significance as a contemporary artist by exhibiting a "Maya" piece in 2001-02. But his retrospective exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum this year gave full rein to his output -- accomplished portraits, fantasy drawings, narrative tableaux under Plexiglas, wall-size collages of ephemeral objects in metaphysical narratives. It was a welcome excursion into a nimble, playful mind.
Obsessive art is among my peculiar tastes -- the more involved and repetitive the better. Show me an artwork that seems humanly impossible and I am riveted.
So it was with Tom Phillips' "The Humument," part of the "Life's Work" exhibition at Mass MoCA. Phillips, 76, has been working on a series of book-format variations of an 1892 Victorian novel, "The Human Document," for 40 years. He has reproduced the 367-page original in multiple editions and had 1,000 pages on view at Mass MoCA, each with portions of original text artistically blocked out to reveal a new line of narrative.
Phillips told me he had to discipline himself to work only at night otherwise he would never stop. Now that is obsession!
Paper is ever present in our lives and in our garbage. It is also an essential to making art. In a 110th anniversary tribute to its founder Zenas Crane of the Dalton papermaking family, the Berkshire Museum pushed paper artistry to its limits with "PaperWorks: The Art and Science of an Extraordinary Material." Among the many fresh and extraordinary applications, I was especially taken with Chinese artist Li Hongbo's life-size flexible human figure dissolving and coalescing in thousands of meticulously glued sheets of paper.
Finally, Sheffield artist Warner Friedman has been a figure on the Berkshire art scene for decades with his precisely painted landscapes -- industrial and pastoral -- often framed by illusionary architecture -- railings, doorways, windows -- and often on shaped canvases.
Most of what I've seen in the past has been modest in size, but in the Berkshire Museum's "Exquisite Illusion," still on view, Friedman exhibited large works that visually exploded the gallery space giving the viewer expansive trompe l'oeil glimpses of placid waterways, gentle fields and hills.
From an artist whose work I thought I'd known, the illusionary play of space was a breath of fresh air.