Beckmann in Paris takes "Best of Show"

The museum does a great job of staging a variety of exhibits, large and small, simultaneously. This year, the museum's Cohen Gallery featured intelligent, intimate exhibits such as Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine and My Nature: Works on Paper by Kiki Smith at the same time that big-ticket shows were featured in the special-exhibition galleries, giving viewers a reason to come back again and again.

And if anyone needs more convincing that the St. Louis Art Museum was the place to see art in 1999, three words ought to take care of it: Beckmann and Paris. More than an exhibit, it was an event. For the art world, the show allowed a reassessment of Max Beckmann's curious position in the history of modern art -- caught, as it were, between two national and artistic cultures, German and French. For St. Louis, it was another chance to re-establish the significance of Beckmann, the city's adopted son, who has figured so prominently in its own cultural history. For the St. Louis Art Museum, it was a chance to show the world the brilliance of its curator, Dr. Cornelia Homburg, as well as the breadth of the museum's own holdings of modern art by Beckmann and other important German artists. The exhibit and the catalog alike were beautifully done and received rave reviews in the local, national and international press. Beckmann and Paris was the most significant event of the year in art in St. Louis.

Of course, interesting art was to be found beyond the confines of the St. Louis Art Museum this year. Beautifully done shows were featured at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art and William Shearburn; Sue Eisler's Perforations at Shearburn last spring was a particular standout. But those galleries are so well established that it would have been surprising if they hadn't mounted several good shows this year.

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

What was more exciting in 1999 was the strength of shows at some of the city's smaller galleries and the emergence of some new, or newly refashioned, venues for exhibiting art. The Gallery at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park consistently stages solid shows; this year's exhibit of Gary Passanise's recent sculptural work was one of the most beautiful yet. And the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Gallery 210 likewise never lets viewers down. The shows of contemporary master prints and new works by Kit Keith put on this year were exciting in very different ways. It's wonderful to see that small gallery take on big challenges.

More good news: This year, the art galleries at the Sheldon Concert Hall became more accessible to viewers with the adoption of regular public hours (Tuesdays and Saturdays) and the inauguration of a lunchtime-lecture series. In addition, the Black World History Wax Museum emerged as an exciting place for art exhibits. In April, the museum held a show of civil-rights photographs by Ernest C. Withers, accompanied by a lecture on St. Louis' civil-rights movement by Norman Seay. In the future, the museum should prove an important venue for speakers and exhibits on African-American history.

Was there any bad news this year in art? Of course there was. The Midtown Arts Center appears to be blowing its chance to become a serious contender among exhibition spaces in the city, though it did mount a few nice shows, including the July-August show of photographs by Jeff Johnston and Peter Zwally. The much-anticipated Masks: Faces of Culture at the St. Louis Art Museum is bogged down by disappointing exhibition design. And lately there's been a rash of shows with "millennium" titles (Visions 2000 at the Portfolio Gallery; Millennium Madness at the Atrium Gallery; The Millennium Show: Looking Forward, Looking Back at the Center of Contemporary Arts). It doesn't make much difference, though: None of the works in the shows seems to have anything to do with the coming of the new millennium. And that's good news.

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