Van Gogh exhibit at the Clark dominated the Berkshires' art scene in 2015

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The year in Berkshire visual arts can be summed up in two words — Van Gogh.

The Clark's Art Institute's "Van Gogh and Nature" exhibition was a record-breaking testament to the enduring magic of that name. It, along with "Whistler's Mother" in a separate show, drew 170,000, viewers in just 90 days last summer, more than any other special exhibitions in the institute's history.

More important, it offered fresh takes on this provocative 19th century artist's career, while challenging popular myths about the dark side of his brief, driven life.

Well chosen and concisely edited by guest curator Richard Kendall, it presented a Van Gogh few of us have met — a well-educated, widely read individual conversant in three languages and immersed in the scientific issues of his day.

It traced his journey from his native Holland through France; his engagement with the Impressionists in Paris; the evolution of his color choices and a churning brushstroke technique that gave his canvases matchless vitality; and the disciplined approach he took to art despite debilitating bouts of illness now thought to have stemmed from a brain lesion and not the "madness" popularized in mass media. No one out of his mind could have achieved what Van Gogh did.

Other artists took center stage here in 2015. Pop icon Andy Warhol at the Williams College Museum of Art, West Coast visionary Jim Shaw at Mass MoCA, and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast at the Norman Rockwell Museum were among the standouts.

The year foreshadowed seismic shifts in the art landscape as well. Clark Director Michael Conforti retired in August after 21 transformative years leaving a pivotal leadership position to be filled in 2016.

Mass MoCA founder Thomas Krens stepped back into the local spotlight in 2015 after decades as a power player elsewhere on the international art scene. He came bearing proposals to bulk up the North Berkshire cultural corridor with two new museums — a private one at the North Adams airport for contemporary art and one at the city's Heritage Park for model railroads. So far we've heard ambitious presentations, but few specifics about investor commitments, financing, and the art to be shown. Will Krens pull it off? Stay tuned.

As the year ended, Williams College was also floating the idea of a new museum elsewhere in town to replace the current WCMA at Lawrence Hall. Should all these projects come to fruition, the crowds we saw for Van Gogh last summer may well become a new norm.

Back to the year's exhibitions, "Warhol by the Book" at WCMA shed light on the pioneering genius of this celebrity-obsessed artist through his book covers, illustrations and personal library. Organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in collaboration with WCMA curator Kathryne Price, the show was densely packed with more than 400 objects spread over six galleries. Those who braved its daunting pathways and detours, however, came away sensing how Warhol's grasp of the transformative power of mass communication helped shape the direction of mid-20th century art. For him, the medium truly was the message.

Jim Shaw laid out a similarly twisting path at Mass MoCA fraught with invented religions, comic book art, super heroes and dream imagery in his "Entertaining Doubts," still on view. A 10-year retrospective of recent work curated by Denise Markonish, the show looks at how American culture — particularly its Midwest and West Coast variants — concocts heroes and belief systems to deal with life's absurdities and death's inevitability. That Shaw, himself, admits to a "retarded relationship" with his own emotions and a desire to work simultaneously in "multiple realities" only adds to the challenges and rewards of navigating this visual kaleidoscope assembled by a nimble mind.

Roz Chast's genius at using humor to cope with the anxieties of modern American life came to the fore in "Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs" at the Norman Rockwell Museum. The show, curated by Stephanie Plunkett, coincided with the publication of Chast's award-winning graphic memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant," based on her own real-life experience caring for aging parents.

Her ability to give comic shape to the moods, habits, obsessions, peculiarities and states of mind that beset us all illustrates how visual art in the right hands can become effective therapy.

While Rockwell museum shows are often encyclopedic examinations of historic American illustrators, one divergence from this format still on view, deserves special mention. "Love A Vet" was organized by contemporary graphic designer Ella Rue, whose son served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She recruited a cohort of fellow illustrators, many of them veterans, to comment on the struggles vets face reentering civilian life. Their insightful, often disturbing images were reproduced on playing cards being sold to benefit a fund Rue established to aid veterans in need.

Another high mark for a modest-profile exhibition goes "Powered Narratives," a solo show at the Berkshire Museum by award-winning National Geographic and Time magazine photographer John Stanmeyer of Monterey. Through his lens, the world we occupy unfolds as a truly wondrous, awe-inspiring place.

Finally, photography, with or without cameras, claimed much of Mass MoCA's campus in 2015. With headliners Clifford Ross and Liz Deschense and six other artists selected by Deschense, the multiple exhibitions, still on view, aimed to stretch our expectation of the medium. Too often, though, especially with Ross, it seemed the novelty, technical processes and immersive digital effects were what engaged us more than the kind of soul-stirring enchantment that we found in the more traditional images of a lens man like Stanmeyer.

This is not to fault process-driven art, the best of which serves a bigger vision than simply showcasing technology. But with so much visual dazzle about us today, we may be challenged more often to hold out for that bigger vision and not to settle for special effects.

Charles Bonenti is the retired principal art writer and critic of The Berkshire Eagle.


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