Harald Szeemann, the legendary curator who died in 2005, once remarked that art in the second half of the 20th century was a history of exhibitions, not artworks. It might have =been a self-serving thing to say if his own career hadn't made it so pleasurably true. He created shows that were more than chronological marches—they were, as he saw them, "temporary worlds," based on propositions and ideas, existing in time, and then over forever.
The first time I really got a sense of this was in 1995, when I caught the exhibition of Willem de Kooning's late paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There were 35 of them in all, large and swooping and graceful with loops and bands of color on shining white backgrounds—but they were also restless documents from a time when de Kooning was succumbing to Alzheimer's. The point was not to stand and admire, it was to walk and consider: How does an arm work when a mind falters? How do we quantify and compare abstract imagery?
Every museum with a decent modern collection has one or two de Koonings on the walls year-round, but these works, I felt acutely aware, would probably never come together again this way. The special exhibition is a time-based work of art, and it has even acquired its own meta-category, with museums not only churning out new themed shows but also re-creating themed shows of the past.
In the last 10 years of looking at art in the Northwest—and I've missed my share, since I've been doing it full-time only four—there are shows I regret weren't up forever. If these were all together as the permanent display at a single museum, I'd never stop visiting.
1. Rodney Graham: A Little Thought, 2005, Vancouver Art Gallery.
Why: Humor either so brainy it's uptight or so bodily it's dumb—nothing in the crappy middle zone. And a strange sentimentality, with visions of men biking through parks and flour snowing down on ancient typewriters.
2. Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, 2009, Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Why: Unparalleled pleasure. These Indian paintings were crawling with color and dizzying in their sudden shifts in perspective. You looked at them through a magnifying glass, every inch a secret just for you.
3. My Voice Would Reach You and The Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Meiro Koizumi, 2009, Lee Center for the Arts and Open Satellite.
Why: Unparalleled pain, plus humor. Stark, simple reflections of a world googly-eyed about multiculturalism and hypnotized by reality TV. These videos are intuitive, they inflict suffering, and they make no attempt to nurse it.
4. Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492–1819, 2004–05, Seattle Art Museum.
Why: Because rulers didn't know enough to be embarrassed back then. Even though this show had the Spanish government's blessing, SAM's Chiyo Ishikawa managed to expose the tension between arrogance and "Enlightenment." And then there was Goya.
5. Maryhill Double, by Lead Pencil Studio, 2006, on a patch of land across the Columbia River from the Maryhill Museum of Art
Why: Sam Hill's crushed dreams. You climbed up into the rapaciously windy sky on scaffolding, you looked across the gorge, and you considered making something huge.
6. Insubstantial Pageant Faded, 2007, Western Bridge, Seattle.
Why: Poetry. Air and light made tangible, so you can run your hands across them, in the back room. Lenny Bruce, 1961, Carnegie Hall, a Porsche, and a snowstorm. The late breaths, on a mirror, of an old man. Sawdust and photographs, all that are left of the carving of a dying man's head. The heart swells just thinking about it.
7. WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, 2008–09, Vancouver Art Gallery.
Why: We are everywhere.
8. Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective, 2001, Henry Art Gallery.
Why: The color of that bee pollen under that skylight; the embrace of that beeswax tomb.
9. Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949–78, 2009, Seattle Art Museum.
Why: To learn, to teach. Painting only gains by surviving the infamous attack. The remains are bloody beautiful. And make no mistake: This was a painting show. Every student of art, casual or not, should get to see what this show brought together.