In its 25th-anniversary year, Newport Harbor Art Museum's smashing retrospective of the color-block and color-plank sculpture of Los Angeles-based John McCracken (a joint effort with P.S. 1 in New York) and "John Graham: Artist and Avatar," a show of work by one of America's oddest serious painters (organized by the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), top the list.
-- At the Fine Arts Gallery, UC Irvine, an especially strong exhibit roster included haunting photographs by Francesca Woodman (organized by Wellesley and Hunter colleges), glimpses of the adventurous corporate collection of the Capital Group, Los Angeles, and a look at the idiosyncratic paintings and "altered" clothing of the county's own Nick Vaughn.
-- A Dutch treat of work by 17th-Century artists of the Low Countries from the collection of National Gallery of Ireland put the Bowers Museum on the agenda of those in search of Old Masters paintings.
... and the bravest: Laguna Art Museum's "Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s" (organized by Independent Curators Inc.) introduced a flurry of harsh and unmentionable scenes, domestic and otherwise, to galleries where the images are usually no more thought-provoking than a cloudy sky in a Laguna Beach Impressionist landscape.
Applause for a few of the women-behind-the-scenes who help make the county's art scene happen: Dextra Frankel, director of the University Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, who transforms the gallery space in ingenious ways to suit every exhibit--on a shoestring budget.
-- Education curator Ellen Breitman at Newport Harbor Art Museum, who finds ways of explaining the trickiest forms of contemporary art to busloads of the puzzled, the skeptical and the very young.
-- Melinda Wortz, director of UCI's Fine Arts Gallery, who thinks big and has the contacts to match: She snagged a promise from Italian mega-art collector Giuseppi Panza di Buomo to lend works to a potential museum devoted to art dealing with perception.
Upward (Maybe) and Onward with Public Art: After years of strewing work by masters of the John Wayne Airport School of Realism and marginal abstract sculptors hither and thither in the best "plop art" fashion, the county's city councils still seem fearful of excellence in public art.
-- The best news this year came from the Newport Beach City Council, which appointed a panel of art professionals to help ensure the success of a competition for a project tailored to the appearance, ecology and daily use of Inspiration Point in Corona del Mar.
Most Baffling Exhibition Catalogue: Well-illustrated with piquant examples of pre-Columbian pottery, Bowers Museum chief curator Armand Labbe's catalogue, "Colombia Before Columbus" from the exhibit of the same name--is dry, dry, dry and all but incomprehensible to the layperson. The museum has yet to solve the problem of how to turn specialist publications in anthropology into readable guides for interested viewers.