Reflecting upon the variety and numbers of venues, shows and exhibitors in our region, it occurred to me that the Post-Gazette could have a "best of" category for arts institutions. However, for 2012 I'll stay with an overview of the year's exhibitions.
These 10 exhibitions enriched my year with new ideas, provoking commentary, explorations of culture, poetic beauty or a combination thereof. Some continue into the new year, and the catalogs for many of them offer a great read during holiday down time.
1 -- "Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851-1939" at Carnegie Museum of Art is as spectacular in its own way as the fairs themselves were, brimming with 200 unique objects that reflect the period's emphasis on craftsmanship and participants proclivity to shine. An outstanding symposium complemented the exhibition scholarship. (Continuing through Feb. 24; 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.)
2 -- "Factory Direct: Pittsburgh," organized by The Andy Warhol Museum and exhibited at the museum and at Guardian Self-Storage, Strip District, featured work by 14 international and local artists produced in residency at local companies. The project result was more than the sum of its parts, generating innovative work but also camaraderie and good will among the artists and between artists and employees at participating sites.
3 -- "White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes" in the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, is curator Raymund Ryan's thoughtful look at new directions museums and other cultural sites are exploring through examples in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Japan. Vibrant images of each by noted architectural photographer Iwan Baan transport the viewer. You'll be planning your next six vacations after spending some time in this engaging and very progressive presentation. (Continuing through Jan. 13; 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org).
4 -- Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After, a mid-career retrospective comprising 75 works at The Andy Warhol Museum, is an extraordinary compilation that does justice to its subject, a tall order when that's an artist as compelling, saucy and wise as this New Yorker, whose voice speaks truth and should reverberate beyond the museum walls. (Continuing through Jan. 6; 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org.)
5 -- "Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay" at the Frick Art & Historical Center takes visitors into the homes of the privileged through intricate works painted during a period when the wealthy commissioned artists to represent their houses and grounds. Mr. Gay, however, was not a mere hired hand but a socialite himself who with his heiress wife lived in high style as expatriates in France. The Frick organized this exhibition with great care, including a presentation by a knowledgeable panel that gave context to the artworks and artist. (Continuing through Jan. 6; 412-371-0600 or www.TheFrickPittsburgh.org.)
6 -- "Factory Installed" at the Mattress Factory featured evocative site-specific installations by six international artists-in-residence chosen from a competitive field of 600 by museum co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk and independent curator Katherine Talcott. It's the kind of experimental, edgy work that draws visitors from around the globe to the North Side museum, and this time all artists hit their mark.
7 -- "Modern Dialect: American Paintings From the John and Susan Horseman Collection" at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg. The 48 paintings reflected the mood of the country as it coped with a depression and war in the 1930s and '40s, showed the changing aesthetic as realism gave way to abstraction, and introduced some lesser known artists worthy of appreciation.
8 -- Exhibitions of the work of Colleen Browning (1918-2003) at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Loretto, and its three satellite galleries in Ligonier Valley, Altoona and Johnstown. SAMA has taken on the laudable task of renewing the reputation of the British-born artist who died in New York City and is best known as a magic realist. To date, that commitment has generated the exhibitions, some of which are traveling; a symposium with national speakers; and the book "Colleen Browning: The Enchantment of Realism" by Philip Eliasoph ($63.60).
9 -- "Transformation 8: Contemporary Works in Small Metals" at the Society for Contemporary Craft was an Elizabeth R. Raphael Founder's Prize exhibition, biennial shows that rotate among craft media. It was part of the society's 40th anniversary year which also included a celebratory presentation by internationally exhibited enamelist and London resident Alexandra Raphael, daughter of the society founder.
10 -- The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Six exceptional photographers spread across Pennsylvania to witness and photograph the pros and cons of gas drilling. The resultant exhibition is both art and public service, as are the project website (www.the-msdp.us) and book ($25). (Continuing through Jan. 6; 412-681-5449 or www.pittsburgharts.org.)
Also noteworthy are two exhibitions that were held at the Akron Art Museum, Ohio. "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui," the contemporary Nigerian-based artist, was organized by the museum and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum. "Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster," which originated at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was an in-depth look at the late Georgia artist's oeuvre and an argument for his position as a major 20th-century self-taught.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.