Beckmann in Paris takes "Best of Show"

This year has been an odd one in the visual arts. It seems that at this frenzied 11th hour of the millennium, artists and art institutions have behaved contrary to expectations: Instead of bold technical experimentation, bawdy body art (Karen Finley is finally -- fortunately -- passé) or cheap provocation, the year has witnessed a resurgence of art that is decidedly introspective, intellectual and quiet in nature. The Venice Biennale was heavy on video art, but by now that medium is hardly radical -- it rubs shoulders in the canon of high art with oil painting and sculpture. The biggest art controversy of the year isn't really about art at all: Damien Hirst's segmented cows and the elephant-dung Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum of Art make a convenient soapbox for New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but the brouhaha should have little or no effect on how and why art is made and shown in the future.

The hyper-multiculturalism of the 1980s appears to have waned: The 1999-2000 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh features a solid, if rather tame, selection of mainly American and Western European artists. And the Whitney Museum's American Century, Part I, which was meant to revise the standard narrative of American art and culture, is nothing more than a gentle recasting of the story. A few artists who were formerly footnotes stepped up to "main gallery" status, but aside from that, the Whitney show is simply a straight-faced survey of American art of the century, with none of the fin de siècle nervousness one might expect, nor any grand statement about the future of art in this country.

In short, a lot went on in the art world in 1999, and much of it was tame and introspective. But the year in art might best be remembered for what didn't happen: The art world managed for the most part to avoid the millennium hype that has infected almost every other aspect of our culture. This has been a good thing. There is nothing more irritating than mock-serious assessments of the "best" and "worst" of this millennium, and there is nothing more pompous than some of the grandiose predictions about the future of our culture in the next millennium.

Max Beckmann, "Self-Portrait in Tails," 1937
Max Beckmann, "Self-Portrait in Tails," 1937

This year, the national and international art scenes carried on with business as usual, and the same can be said for St. Louis, much to the city's credit. The year saw the best (and even some of the worst) the region can offer in the field of visual arts. One of the great strengths of St. Louis' art scene is its intimacy. Once again this year, viewers were invited into the galleries of working artists, thanks to the open-studio tour through downtown's Loft District, as well as EAST Art 99, the tour of artists' spaces in Edwardsville and Alton, Ill. There's really no better way to see art than in this kind of setting, where the artists are available and the stuffy, sterile atmosphere of a "real" exhibit is absent. There is something to be said about living in a relatively small region, where that intimacy with the arts can be maintained.

That said, there is nothing second-rate about the quality of art seen in the St. Louis region this year. St. Louis galleries and museums use the close-knit character of the art community to great advantage. Last summer's Innovations in Textile Arts III, 1999's edition of the biennial textile fair, was a smashing success because of the participation of so many different arts organizations. The fair coordinated events and shows at places all over the city, from the Central West End to the City Museum, from the St. Louis Art Museum to the Portfolio Gallery, from the University City Library Gallery to the Forum for Contemporary Art. It was a chance to see and learn about the widely varied medium of fiber arts, but it also gave St. Louisans a chance to see a successful example of cooperative effort in the arts.

The St. Louis Art Museum's contribution to Innovations in Textile Arts III was Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles, an incredible exhibit that implicitly redefines what art is at the end of this millennium and what it may increasingly become in the next. The textiles in Structure and Surface reveal what can be done when artistic imagination is combined with scientific ingenuity. The textiles are beautiful and useful alike. They represent a vision of what the world might look like if the usual distinctions between art and industry, between art and function -- indeed, between art and everyday life -- were finally done away with. Yes, it's utopian. That's what makes it good.

Granted, the St. Louis Art Museum is the largest visual-arts organization in the city, and it certainly doesn't need more press than it already gets. But the fact is that in 1999 the museum also put on the best shows in the city. Period. Right away, in January, Currents 76: Gabriel Orozco opened -- a wonderful way to start the year. Orozco is quite simply one of the most talented artists currently working, and this small show of his recent photographs was tremendous. The museum's Currents series practically never misses a note, managing to feature such excellent established artists as Orozco and Diana Thater along with lesser-known but emerging figures like sculptor Jiro Okura.

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