It’s pretty well established by now that the museum special exhibition, often derisively labeled the “blockbuster,” has been one of the great triumphs of modern cultural life, the primary vehicle through which the lay public has received its art education. Despite this, there’s a case to be made that, for all its merits, the standard museum retrospective is a somewhat artificial, often imperfect means of taking the measure of an artist. The work is shown in isolation, sequestered in dedicated galleries, creating the effect of a lab specimen or a butterfly pinned in a display case and depriving us of a sense of the subject’s larger cultural milieu. In addition, the overall picture thus presented is often incomplete, since inevitably not every loan request can be approved.


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