It has been a wild, topsy-turvy year in the New York art world, and one full of contradictions. As galleries continued to decamp from the luxury haven of Chelsea, in search of cheaper rents and more space, new galleries, many of them top notch, opened up all over the city. The mood was uncertain, in flux. The standard and very accurate gripes about the cost of living in the city were repeated again and again, and yet remarkable art abounded, thanks in no small part to the flow of money into the business. There were reasons to be hopeful.
The defining event of the year was, for me, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise glorious and spooky final show at its longtime West Village home in June. Jannis Kounellis’s storied Untitled (12 Horses), 1969, took over the main gallery, with a dozen beautiful horses standing in the room, going about their business. During the day, Rirkrit Tiravanija offered up tacos and beer to all comers, and, at night, Sturtevant’s Warhol Empire State (1972) screened in the dark gallery. Slices of art history (and various communities of people), from near and far, past and present, elegantly shared one space. It felt like a quiet, ceremonial tribute to old legends, as well as a surreptitious planning session for strange things to come. After four days, it was over. The space was abandoned. It will become a condo.
In a city that is not always easy on artists, many young New Yorkers had stellar outings, like Kevin Beasley, who christened Casey Kaplan’s new location in the Flower District with a show that included dish-shaped wall sculptures made with clothing and resin—simultaneously slick and gritty, exuding a pieced-together, deeply personal power—and a ferocious noise session by Beasley on a wired-up piano. A few avenues over, later in the year, Camille Henrot mounted a wry, winsome New York debut—a welcome gust of warm, exotic air—at Metro Pictures, with oddball, ingenious telephones, drawings, and a zoetrope. Downtown, Emily Mae Smith showed juicy, sexy paintings at Laurel Gitlen that channel figures as disparate as William Copley and Domenico Gnoli with a slick digital sheen. Jamian Juliano-Villani ratcheted up her ambitions with great aplomb in a gallery-filling suite of paintings—an alien, album-cover odalisque, cosmic, cartoon wastelands, and a mysterious portrait—at JTT. And Zak Prekop came out swinging at Essex Street, trading his past stolid, polite abstractions for superb new works that are intricate to a borderline-psychotic degree. They display daring twists and turn, with each crisp line precisely rendered, coming at you like needle-pointed darts.
Other highlights in New York from young artists (those based here or further afield): Zurich’s Louisa Gagliardi and London’s Fay Nicolson at Tomorrow, showing, respectively, portraits cloaked in smoky digital noir and barely there paintings on fabric (Alex Ross curated); Xavier Cha’s taut one-week tour de force at 47 Canal; Aki Sasamoto’s madcap tour through Luxembourg & Dayan as part of its summer performance series; Jason Benson, with creepy John Bock-inflected constructions, at Bodega; Martine Syms, of Los Angeles, and her electric, captivating show at Bridget Donahue, whose centerpiece video, starring Diamond Antoinette Stingily, already feels like a masterpiece; Milano Chow, also of L.A., who enchanted with whisper-soft drawings of interiors at Chapter NY; Win McCarthy’s ramshackle insouciance at Off Vendome. On a related note, also worth mentioning is the arrival of Chicago’s quick-witted, hard-charging Queer Thoughts gallery in New York.
There were also heartening developments from veterans. After seven years without a New York solo show, Ruth Root made a triumphant return at Andrew Kreps with unrepentantly joyous new works, patterns dancing every which way on ultra-thin fabric and Plexiglas—the art equivalent of ultra-inventive and very satisfying cakes. Monika Baer, 51 this year, finally got her New York solo debut, at Greene Naftali, with slyly funny paintings that pair hazy white abstractions and (Helen Marten–tweaking?) depictions of liquor bottles. Mitchell Algus reopened his eponymous gallery. Ron Nagle, 76, mounted a jewelry-store-like display of his inimitable ceramics in his debut at Matthew Marks. Richard Serra had one of his best shows in recent memory, at David Zwirner. Ditto for Wolfgang Tillmans, in a moving and typically sprawling display, his first, at the blue-chip powerhouse. Gagosian—long may he reign—blessed us with John Elderfield’s masterful “In the Studio: Paintings” exhibitions. Michael Rosenfeld paired geniuses who came at classical painting from oblique, though strikingly different, angles: Bob Thompson and Louis Eilshemius. Jacqueline Humphries delivered some shimmering new club hits at Greene Naftali, and Stanley Whitney was finally afforded a retrospective, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. If only it had been two or three times larger. Also on the list of much-deserved retrospectives of just slightly off-the-radar artists: Robert Barry, in a thorough affair at Hunter Galleries, the underrated Nicholas Krushenick at the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the excellent Jim Shaw at the New Museum.
I have to mention four more welcome surprises. Bushwick’s mightily sized Clearing gallery dug up machine-like metal sculptures and delectable prints by Eduardo Paolozzi (of 1950s Independent Group fame) from the ’60s and ’70s that were total revelations to me, and I suspect, quite a few others. Marlborough Chelsea did a salon-style blow-out hang of Keith Mayerson’s bewitching paintings of Americana, gay erotica, and his life. At the Metropolitan Opera William Kentridge shared a version of Berg’s Lulu (1935) that reveled in a glamour that was sexy and brutally bone chilling. And at the Museum of Modern Art, Walid Raad presented a razor-sharp, conspiracy-tinged exposé on present-day art-world machinations that had all of the heart-racing immediacy of a blockbuster thriller.
One last note: we New Yorkers lucked out this year, with solid iterations of the two major recurring exhibitions on the calendar—the New Museum Triennial, “Surround Audience,” and MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York.” They were not perfect—I yearned for more adventure, more risk, in both cases—but they were carefully conceived, welcomed some impressive new blood into the fold, and even dug up a few remarkable older ideas. What more can one ask for?
And finally, after a great deal of painful internal debate, here are the seven shows I enjoyed most this year around the world.
- “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” at the Walker, Minneapolis
This show began at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, then traveled to the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, but I finally caught it at the Walker, where it is on view through January 24. Room after room, Whitten just keeps raising the stakes, digging deep in each series, from his small, black-and-white paintings of ghostly heads of the 1960s to his gorgeous smeared abstractions of the 1970s—that predate, and often outdo, Gerhard Richter’s similar efforts—to his later acrylic-tiled numbers. It establishes him, quite simply, as one of the major American artists of the past century. The fact that this show is not coming to New York is criminal.
- “Anicka Yi: 7,070,430K of Digital Spit” at Kunsthalle Basel
The young New York artist swung big and knocked it out of the park, succinctly bringing together ideas she has developed over the past five years with quite a few new ones. Temper-dried flowers glowed like extraterrestrial totems inside plastic bubbles, her perfumed catalogue roasted above an open flame, kombucha leather hung from metal rods like decaying pieces of skin—Eva Hesse’s materials rendered terrifyingly real. It was a career-making show. Now the sky is the limit.
- “Slip of the Tongue” at the Punta della Dogana, Venice
It was a banner year for Danh Vo—repping Denmark at the Venice Biennale—but also a tough one, with a painful (though, one has to admit, occasionally entertaining) legal back-and-forth with collector Bert Kreuk. Amid all of that, he still managed to curate this superb show at collector François Pinault’s art palace, which united works by a whole band of outsiders (both sadly excluded and self-styled), from David Hammons, Nancy Spero, and Sturtevant to Lee Lozano, David Wojnarowicz, and Martin Wong. Oh, and a creepy Picasso was there too, plus a tranche of religious works form the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Blending the middle and the margins, it was a sweeping vision of art history focused on the power that art has to record, conceal, and heal trauma, whether personal or societal.
- Yuji Agematsu at Real Fine Arts
Mayor de Blasio should give Yuji Agematsu the keys to the city. He is a New York City treasure. For years Agematsu has been venturing throughout New York, picking up bits of trash as his art, taking Duchamp’s readymade to its logical (and very humble) extreme. At RFA, he showed 365 pieces in the slim plastic wrappers from cigarette packs as a single work—a dead dragonfly with neon-colored gum, part of a plastic spoon with samples of sand, and all sorts of unidentifiable detritus. The colors were shocking, all over the place, the mood in the little bags shifting from raucous and freewheeling to funereal, silent. One message of his art is that whole worlds of beauty exist around us, out of sight and out of mind. But there is more to it than that. Presented in rows on simple metal platforms, like days on a calendar, his sculptures mark time, and stand as testaments to a life of breathtakingly close observation. He has made a heroic artwork.
- “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
This show made me want to find an apartment nearby the Bronx Museum so that I could easily visit again and again and again. It was a sublime homecoming for one of the kings of the 1980s East Village scene—a joyful and poignant retrospective of an artist New York lost too young, to AIDS, at the age of 53, in 1999. Though a few choice works were missing (like 1985’s La Vida, which Yale owns), the show presented Wong in all his majesty, from his brick-filled cityscapes masterworks to his lovely kissing firemen (he adored them) to his shuttered storefronts to his kitschy Chinatown numbers. A Julie Ault show at Daniel Buchholz through January 16 provides a nice little addendum, including two more Wong paintings, some of his notes, a photo of lost works (courtesy Danh Vo), and—yes!—a box with fireman gear that friends gave to the artist. Some wonderful news: the Bronx show is open through Valentine’s Day.
- Prada Foundation, Milan
Rem Koolhaas cannot be stopped. He cannot even be contained. In Milan, he has transformed a distillery from the 1910s into an exhilarating new venue for contemporary art, complete with unusual spaces (both amply sized and intimate), a large courtyard, and a luxurious theater. A gold-leaf-covered tower—the Haunted House, the foundation has dubbed it—holds a permanent display of Louise Bourgeois and Robert Gober. A subterranean Grotto harbored one of Thomas Demand’s photography sets. Long hallways were home to shows curated by Germano Celant and Nicholas Cullinan, rich with Arte Povera, William Copley, John Wesley, Jeff Koons, and Francis Picabia. (Not to mention a Barnett Newman in a staircase area.) Ancient and Renaissance sculptures gleamed in an airy, light-filled gallery. An airplane-hangar-scaled space played host to various art cars, including Walter De Maria’s Bel Air Trilogy (2000–11), which features three cherry 1955 Chevrolet Bel Airs. And then there was the vintage-styled Italian café, designed by Wes Anderson, overflowing with 1950s details and cakes. It is a heavenly museum, and it will grow even larger with the completion of another section next year.
- The Whitney Museum of American Art
It is a rare pleasure when pretty much everything in a huge project in the art world goes off perfectly. Renzo Piano’s new Whitney is simply majestic. The building feels like the right size—functional and welcoming, with some clever touches, like the outdoor stairs that connect the top three public floors and allow sumptuous views all over the city. (Staying open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays is more cause for praise.) The opening exhibition collection show, “America Is Hard to See,” was an absolute stunner—a wide-ranging, inclusive look at the history of American art over the past century, and the curatorial staff followed it up with another series of worthy exhibitions—a jam-packed, no-holds-barred look at Frank Stella, an eye-opening Archibald Motley retrospective, and a great little show from the guileful Jared Madere. The calendar for next year looks promising, with Laura Poitras, Stuart Davis, Carmen Herrera, David Wojnarowicz, and some venturesome-sounding group shows on tap. In short, the Whitney has made it a great time to be an art fan in New York.