As New York’s museums have come to rely on mounting blockbuster exhibitions, the museum going public has grown inured to them. The Impressionists, the great modernists like Picasso and Matisse, and a few postwar New York painters will always draw a crowd, but these shows provide occasions to revisit the familiar and see widely scattered works brought together. Sometimes they are little more than tourist packages aimed at the box office. At their best, however, they reconfigure an artist’s work into a superbly illustrated visual essay. The big Mondrian exhibition two years ago was a revelation, shedding new light on how his art developed. But did we really need a big show focused on Picasso’s portraits? If Picasso is a vast continent, it has by now been thoroughly mapped and explored.
Nothing was predictable for the crowds that jammed the Bonnard retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) this summer. Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) was hardly a favorite of American collectors. He never fit easily into any narrative of modern art, yet he influenced painters as different as Fairfield Porter and Mark Rothko. His name did not even appear in some standard texts, such as H.W. Janson’s 1962 History of Art. The...
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