NOT SO LONG AGO, it seemed that new galleries would keep sprouting up forever in New York, and that existing ones would keep on expanding. Over the past 12 months, though, some have closed. Growth has slowed, sales are down, and people are nervous, especially in the wake of the disastrous U.S. presidential election. But all of that was belied by the art on view this past year. It has been a great time to be a New Yorker in love with adventurous art, whether you’re a connoisseur of early modernism or a seeker of new, untested stuff. The city continues to deliver. What follows is a synopsis of shows that stuck with me, followed by a top 10 list of my favorites.
Even as some galleries struggled, a band of upstart spaces were home to impressive shows of young art. Lomex, for instance, which opened last December on the Bowery, in a space that Eva Hesse once used as a studio, offered up scrappy group shows of young talent and toothsome solos by Valerie Keane—intricate, discomfiting, sexy sci-fi acrylic slabs, festooned with hardware, and hung from the ceiling—and Mathieu Malouf—large architectural installations, one of Trump Tower, that double as bondage chambers and triple as bathrooms.
Jessi Reaves showed her ragtag-elegant furniture-sculpture—hunks of raw foam bound into comfy chairs, fragments of wood transformed into sturdy shelves and closets, all unadorned and perfect—at Bridget Donahue, a gallery now in its second year, and SculptureCenter. Chelsea Culprit presented joyously extroverted paintings of strippers, each brimming with different formal ideas, at Queer Thoughts, which enjoyed a solid sophomore year of its own in New York (it opened in 2012 in Chicago). Queer Thoughts also showed strong, disturbing works by Diamond Stingily—long braided ponytails of synthetic hair tacked up to the wall that spiraled down to the floor like snakes. They were a prelude to Stingily’s potent show at Ramiken Crucible a few months later.
…—nothing fussy, nothing wasted—was the prevailing style for many of the most exciting gallery shows, whether Maggie Lee and her charming childhood-channeling dioramas in fish tanks at Real Fine Arts, or Theodore Sefcik and his bewitching animations in the basement of 247365, which combine the aesthetics of early computer games and early color video art, or Annie Pearlman and her sui generis paintings at White Columns, which feature shifting planes of flat color and vaguely nightmarish cityscapes—really odd, really wonderful. Nicholas Buffon showed more of his ingenious, hand-fashioned foam and paper models of buildings and urban objects at Callicoon Fine Arts. Ajay Kurian went small, as well, in peculiar new wall-hung sculptures that resembled maquettes for dystopian playgrounds at 47 Canal; one featured a Tootsie Roll bunker. An esteemed veteran of the mode, B. Wurtz, had a tight selection of his abstract sculpture—wood blocks, plastic bags, the odd sock—at 83 Pitt Street.
On the slicker end of the new-art spectrum, Josh Kline outdid himself at 47 Canal, in a show focused on the coming obsolescence of humans that included 3-D–printed instant classics: gray-uniformed people in the fetal position, wrapped in plastic. (Let’s hope the machines dispose of us so nicely.) Sam McKinniss, at Team, was also in fine form, with comically accomplished paintings—of Prince and his motorcycle from the cover of Purple Rain, Flipper twirling majestically underwater, and a Fantin-Latour still life—that are by turns melancholy and mirthful. Also inhabiting a strange new zone was Philippe Parreno, with his aquarium of floating balloons at Gladstone 64.
THE OLD WAS NEW AGAIN
Petzel took a revelatory look at the late, great Austrian painter Maria Lassnig’s years in New York, from 1968 to 1980, Matthew Marks offered a treatise on the ultra-controlled, wildly underrated Peter Cain, Galerie Lelong presented a display of Ana Mendieta’s vital films, Metro Pictures showed deep cuts by Bas Jan Ader, Craig F. Starr delivered a master class on Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s early paintings of floors and rulers, Hauser & Wirth hosted not one but two incredible Philip Guston shows (the second, of Nixon drawings, is still on view, offering psychic balm in these dark times), Questroyal organized a jam-packed assemblage of paintings by the indefinable American mystic Ralph Albert Blakelock, and Jeffrey Deitch brought the traveling retrospective of the Pictures Generation original Walter Robinson to Robinson’s hometown.
There was another great outing from the great Joan Semmel at Alexander Gray Associates, a summer Trump-piñata-filled extravaganza from Rachel Harrison at Greene Naftali, and a weird little Urs Fischer show at Gagosian 980 Madison, which featured effervescent brushstroke wallpaper and a microwave oven cooking bacon. And Gerhard Richter unveiled a new batch of abstractions—as radiant as ever—at Marian Goodman Gallery, as well as a series of quiet little drawings.
The German maestro Lukas Düwenhogger had a remarkable painting display as the final show at Artists Space’s Greene Street location, which also hosted a show by Cameron Rowland, a young gun working in the tradition of institutional critique. After a stellar run as director of Artists Space, Stefán Kalmar has decamped for the ICA London. The next director will have big shoes to fill, and a new space to find.
At White Columns, Matthew Higgs and Peter Doig spotlighted Truro, England–based Grenadian Denzil Forrester’s subtly impressionistic, highly romantic paintings of reggae clubs. At The Kitchen, Sondra Perry established herself as one to watch—her masterful “Resident Evil” exhibition examined police brutality and racial violence through the aesthetics of video games and computer failure, indicting all types of operating systems. And up at the Park Avenue Armory, Martin Creed made clever use of the old building’s rooms and corridors. (Here’s my review from back in August.)
Some killer retrospectives: El Museo del Barrio’s of the relentlessly inventive Antonio Lopez; the Studio Museum’s of Alma Thomas (it should have been much larger); the Guggenheim’s of László Moholy-Nagy (it overflowed with gems); and MoMA PS1’s of Vito Acconci‘s early performance work, which looked as discomfiting and radical as ever.
PS1 was also responsible for a searing, attractive Katharina Grosse painting installation on an abandoned house out in the Rockaways (reviewed here). Its only rival in the public realm was Big Bling, a characteristically remarkable and multivalent new work, 40 feet tall, by Martin Puryear in Madison Square Park. It’s still on view, and it reads, to my eye, as one of the defining works of the past few years, being both luxurious and barebones in different plances, airy and confining, gorgeous and a little menacing.
AND NOW, A TOP 10
10. Marie Lorenz in the Hudson River
Over the decade, Lorenz made an art project out of offering people free rides around New York City and its many islands in long wooden boats she builds. As part of the High Line Park’s “Wanderlust” exhibition, she brought her Tide and Current Taxi to the Hudson River. One sweltering August afternoon, she took a colleague and me on a tour of the area, exploring the catacomb-like space beneath the nearby piers, dodging ships on the open water, and venturing over to New Jersey. It was an act of immense generosity that afforded a wholly new view of the city. It also made me want a boat of my own.
Every visit to this space, opened by the artist Aurel Schmidt on the top floor of a ramshackle Lower East Side building, offered a new pleasure: action-packed group portraits on paper by Joseph Geagan, a madcap two-person stunner from Will Sheldon and Gobby, and febrile group shows (including a sculpture display now on the buildings precarious-looking roof). Its pace is quick, its focus laser sharp, and its openings are packed: what’s not to love?
8. Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirner
I have said it more than once, and I will say it again: Jordan Wolfson is going to kill us all. My current theory is that an A.I. artwork he makes will develop consciousness and set out on a murderous rampage. His latest high-tech robot fantasia, a Huckleberry Finn-type boy, was, thankfully, bound with chains, which tossed, dropped, and otherwise beat him over the course of nearly two months, causing the paint on his body to wear away. The violence was frightening, but it was his eyes—programmed to meet those of people in the room—that chilled viewers. The connections to the contemporary American psyche are too myriad to detail here, but Ajay Kurian has penned a superb piece on the work, which is titled Colored sculpture (2016). Give it a read.
7. “Alex da Corte: Free Roses” at Mass MoCA
A star is born. Using grids of fluorescent lights, found objects, and even scent, the Philadelphia–based artist turned the long galleries of Mass MoCA—not easy spaces to handle—into environments filled with ghosts of consumer desires, memories, and stories, long passed and uncannily familiar. It’s impossible to pick a favorite piece, but the two swan sculptures bearing lit candles and coasting in a circle in shallow water has been lodged in my head for a while now—a small kitsch miracle. The highest compliment I can think of was offered on my visit by a young boy who spent a long time looking at a sculpture that included a container resembling a large Coca-Cola can out of which had spilled glistening fake ice cubes—after a while, he looked around carefully to be sure the guards weren’t looking and then slipped one of the cubes into his pocket before quickly wandering away.
6. Ed Atkins at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
Gavin Brown inaugurated his sprawling new gallery in Harlem with a tour de force exhibition of recent videos by the wily Ed Atkins, whose computer-generated creations probe the sinister unconscious of face-mapping technology and angry young white men. On the top floor, Atkins hung three gargantuan screens in a triangle from a steel beam—one of the more formidable installation choices I’ve ever seen. On screen, a digitally produced man ripped his ruddy face off repeatedly, always revealing a new one underneath.
5. “Beverly Buchanan: Rituals and Ruins” at the Brooklyn Museum
This concise survey of Buchanan, who died last year at the age of 74, offered a nuanced picture of an artist who evolved from a brave sculptor of politically charged Post-Minimalism and earthworks to inventive little shacks, forged from splinters of wood and modeled from life. What always united her diffuse ideas was a wry intelligence for materials and an absolute devotion to the unspoken tensions and traumas manifest in the American landscape.
4. “Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art” at the Queens Museum
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s 50-year (so far!) career is a paragon of excellence, counterbalancing the macho, spectacle-driven end of 1970s performance with one grounded in a commitment to labor and endurance. She washed floors, and learned how to transport and dispose of garbage. The thorough survey at the Queens Museum, open through February 19, stretches from her early, auspicious painting through the decades of work she has done as unpaid artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. The museum’s incredible Panorama—its scale replica of New York—has never looked better than it does right now, as lights show the artist’s movements in 1979 and 1980 as she crisscrossed the city, shaking the hand of every single San Man and thanking them for “keeping New York City alive.” (Here’s my review from earlier in the year.)
3. “Open Plan” at the Whitney
The plan to clear out the cavernous fifth floor of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano-designed building—the largest column-free space in the city—could have gone very wrong, falling into gimmick or spectacle. Instead, each iteration of this five-part exhibition dazzled, from an incisive sound work by Andrea Fraser about mass incarceration to a video work by Steve McQueen on government intimidation that looks more prescient with each passing day to hulking projected photos of an earthwork by Michael Heizer finally being shown in its proper form. Even the overwrought paintings of Lucy Dodd, which can resemble bad Schnabels with an earthy vibe, had a kind of charm when displayed freestanding in the space alongside musical performance. But the pièce de résistance was the display of records, manuscripts, and ephemera by the free jazz national treasure Cecil Taylor, whose two-set show late one night in April was the most exhilarating performance I saw all year. Let’s hope the Whitney reprises the series.
2. “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” at the Museum of Modern Art
A feat of scholarship and curating, this retrospective showed the wealthy Impressionist-turned-Cubist-turned-Dadaist-turned-proto-postmodern madman in all of his glory. (Here’s my review from last month.)
1. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” at the Met Breuer
Where to begin? The man can do it all. His resplendent artworks—portraits, land- and seascapes, interiors, history scenes, comic books, to just scratch the surface—track narratives both epic and intimate, societal and personal, triumphant and tragic. This show established him as the greatest American painter of his generation. My only complaint is that it should have been twice as big, filling all four floors of the museum. Next time. The great thrill for all of us right now is that, just 61, he has many more years of painting ahead of him.