“Art of the City” is a weekly column by Andrew Russeth that runs every Tuesday.
On Sunday afternoon, a delivery man biking through Tribeca turned onto Cortlandt Alley and slammed his breaks. Hundreds of people were blocking his way, and he looked baffled. Artists Space, the stalwart New York alternative space, had just opened its new home there, and the people were on hand for a performance by Ei Arakawa—a characteristically winning, absurd one called WeWork Babies, which involved, among other actions, participants tossing lifelike baby dolls through the air. They moved out of the bicyclist’s way, and he cruised on.
Change is afoot in the Triangle Below Canal. This was the year that a critical mass of galleries—Canada, James Cohan, Andrew Kreps, and more—decamped from other longtime art districts—mainly far west Chelsea—to the neighborhood, where a handful of veteran dealers and a few young outfits began setting up shop a couple years ago. A lively art enclave in the 1970s, Tribeca has become one once again, though few artists now call the pricey area home.
Speaking of real estate, 2019 was also a year of outsized, hyper-ambitious developments on Manhattan’s cultural scene. The $25 billion luxury monstrosity that is Hudson Yards finally opened on the West Side, with Thomas Heatherwick’s menacing Vessel at its center and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s vapid Shed at its edge. Pace Gallery unveiled a $100 million-plus tower in Chelsea, and Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner are mid-construction on their own Chelsea art palaces. Collectors Peter M. Brant and J. Tomilson Hill opened private museums, the latter hosting one of the year’s best shows—a bracing arrangement of sculptures by Los Angeles conceptualist Charles Ray and Renaissance and Baroque ones, curated by Ray himself.
The biggest news for art types, of course, was the new Museum of Modern Art, which unveiled its sumptuous $450 million expansion with a heartening rehang of its collection, filled with gutsy moments and missed opportunities. With regular rotations planned, it’ll take more than a year to get a full sense of its new agenda, but it’s taken a giant step forward. (A bonus: the fried chicken at the new 6th-floor cafe, which houses rollicking new works by Kerstin Brätsch.) Now the countdown is on for the new Studio Museum in Harlem, slated for 2022.
Before delving into a year-end top 10 of favorites, a few notes from the field on some events that didn’t quite make such a short list. Highlights included Matt Copson’s fearsome laser light show at Reena Spaulings, Raúl de Nieves’s latest sculptural fantasia at Company, Ragen Moss’s sterling debut of hanging constructions at Bridget Donahue, Nolan Simon’s entrancingly weird paintings at 47 Canal, and Paul Chan’s honing of his pneumatic sculptures at Greene Naftali.
On the group show front, Randy Kennedy, formerly a New York Times arts reporter and now publishing chief at Hauser & Wirth, delivered a fascinating tour of outlaw America in the form of “Jack Black’s America” at Fortnight Institute. Essex Street (working with John Keith Russell Antiques) marshalled a toothsome pairing of Shaker furniture and contemporary art (it’s still on view: don’t miss it), and Petzel presented the heady “Strategic Vandalism: The Legacy of Asger Jorn’s Modification Paintings, which was curated by Axel Heil and Roberto Ohrt and stuffed with masterpieces of defacement, assisted readymades, and détournement.
As for the big blockbusters, they were in generally fine form: there was a New York–heavy cast of characters in the admirably of-the-moment Venice Biennale, a Whitney Biennial that ignited long-overdue conversations about cultural patronage and the lack of diversity in art criticism, and a new Performa, the biennial devoted to live work, which very strong, offering everything from a touching treatise on preteen life by Tarik Kiswanson to a New Age bacchanal by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Boychild, and Alex Gvojic.
Last but not least: two of today’s old masters were resplendent: Alex Katz’s hot streak continued in his mysterious, shadow-filled sylvan landscapes at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and Jasper Johns delivered stunning new paintings—very dark, very funny ones—at Matthew Marks.
This has been, to be sure, a long year. It began with the federal government shutdown that ended just in time to catch the majestic Bill Traylor retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It seems likely to conclude with the President’s impeachment. If you make the trip to the capital to catch the Senate trial, visit former Manhattan dealer Todd von Ammon’s space, which opened with a Vegas-casino-worthy display of bewitching neons and digital art by Tabor Robak.
But enough! To the list.
10. “Andra Ursuta: Nobodies” at Ramiken, Brooklyn
There are few artists operating at such a high level, consistently, as Andra Ursuta. Every show seems to involve a new idea, or three, that is adventurous, alluring, and smoldering with potential. This outing showcases (it’s still open!) cast-glass sculptures—hybrid, abstract self-portraits in which her body is held in place by, or consumed by, plastic bottles, bondage wear, and the like.
9. “Win McCarthy: Apartment Life” at Svetlana, New York
A box of Cheerios, some empty Poland Spring bottles, and a bottle of Heinz yellow mustard with its top flipped open were scattered about. Glass constructions sat here and there, suggesting condo towers (when vertical) or beds. A bunch of keys rested atop a blanket. Opening in the dead of winter, Win McCarthy’s display conjured a city that was threadbare and on edge. It was scatter art about being scattered—about barely holding on. One unforgettable sculpture was a glass head with a large stick of butter in its mouth.
8. “Harry Fonesca: The Art of Living” at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis
The wily, indefatigable painter Harry Fonseca (Maidu/Nisenan, Portuguese, Hawaiian, 1946–2006) was shown in peak form in this career survey organized by Matthew Ryan Smith. The best work? That’s impossible to pick amid such an energetic cast of paintings, but ranking up there has to be the artist in his trademark Coyote guise, sporting a full tuxedo while sitting at a grand piano. He is banging the keys, and flames are spewing from its body. Irresistible.
7. “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
In 2016, at the Williams College Museum of Art, Chaedria LaBouvier presented a series of programs around Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), which addresses the death of that young artist in police custody. Her expansive follow-up added works about Stewart by Keith Haring, David Hammons, and many more, illuminating an event with aching relevance. It was a show about art recording history in real time, and galvanizing action. That’s an inspiring example in a trying year. Stewart’s own abstract drawings—delicate, nuanced, and the worst word, promising—were the quiet stars.
6. “Brian Belott’s RHODASCOPE: Scribbles, Smears, and the Universal Language of Children According to Rhoda Kellogg” at San Francisco City Hall
For decades, Rhoda Kellogg (1898–1987) taught art to nursery school students in San Francisco, studying with seemingly endless curiosity how they developed as artists. In the process, she amassed more than 2 million drawings by them, a sliver of which went on view in this joyous, sprawling look at her life’s work, put together by artist Brian Belott, who’s a Kellogg devotee (and also showed his copies of students’ paintings), with Jordan Stein and Lindsey White. It would have been a thrill anywhere, but the seat of government felt perfect, rightly honoring children and their heroic teacher.
5. Hadi Fallahpisheh at Tramps, New York
A gut punch of a show, Hadi Fallahpisheh’s solo outing at Tramps delivered an exceedingly rare message: something new is afoot. The artist has been making uproarious and sometimes frightening cartoon drawings using photographic materials in his darkroom—a mouse behind bars, a man in bed (or a crib). Shown together, they conjure a topsy-turvy and troubled world that feels uncomfortably familiar.
4. “Olga Balema: brain damage” at Bridge Donahue, New York
Describing Olga Balema’s almost-invisible sculptures—elastic bands, painted and strung in idiosyncratic arrangements near the floor—one could rattle off references like Richard Tuttle’s scrappy constructions, Fred Sandback’s strings, Alan Shields’s hippie installations, and Eva Hesse’s nets, but they handily elude any easy distillation. They shock and seduce, while suggesting circuit boards or—just maybe, in a nod to the show’s title—neural networks: vast, intricate systems. It was a show to make you giddy with anticipation for the next one.
3. Gretchen Bender at Red Bull Arts New York
It’s baffling that a space funded by an energy-drink company was the institution revisiting the razor-sharp work of Pictures-era artist Gretchen Bender and not, say, a major museum or kunsthalle. But let’s just be happy they did it. The show, curated by Max Wolf, portrayed Bender, who died in 2004, as an unrivaled prophet of the all-encompassing media hellscape that was to come.
2. “She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York” at Gracie Mansion, New York
Despite trying his level best, there will be no President Bill de Blasio in the White House in 2020, but here’s hoping First Lady Chirlane McCray gets a chance to do some arts programming at the federal level very soon. She’s been pushing bold arts events at the first family’s official residence, where “She Persists,” which was organized by Jessica Bell Brown, brought together scores of works made by women in the city over the past century, from Alice Neel to Betty Parsons to Carmen Herrera. Make it an annual event!
1. Nicholas Buffon at Poets House, New York
A panegyric to New York, to more than 100 years of LGBTQ history, and to a life lived in art, Nicholas Buffon’s solo show—a miniature survey of sorts—includes wry paintings and prints of himself about town, as well as the sturdy little models of landmarks (Stonewall, B&H Dairy, Julius’) that are his trademark. Even the wall labels sing, with tidbits of city lore and the odd tourist tip. It is open through December 28. Bring a friend. Fall in love.