The exhibitions that rippled through our cultural fabric over the past year, at least those occurring in and around New York, have registered the predictable number of highs and lows, though 2014 did manage to plumb one nadir unlikely to be matched for a good long time.
That would of course be the decision by the Whitney Museum of American Art to end its 48-year-long residency at its landmark Marcel Breuer building by filling it to the brim with the work of Jeff Koons, an irredeemable aesthetic debacle unrivaled in its coarseness and obeisance to the market.
But the highs in New York’s museums were exceptional. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at its encyclopedic best, mounted a trove of outstanding exhibitions, including the promised gift of eighty-one Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures from Leonard A. Lauder; 800 years of the Chinese album, a hybrid form of painting and the book; and a gem of a show focusing on four small devotional paintings by Piero della Francesca, which had never before been seen in the United States.
Among the city’s smaller museums, the Neue Galerie’s offerings stood out, with its ravishing Egon Schiele retrospective capping a year that featured exhibitions devoted to Austrian portraits, Degenerate Art, Vasily Kandinsky and poster design from the Vienna Secession. The Morgan Library & Museum, another indispensable venue for the intimate viewing of art, presented the first U.S. exhibition of the stylistically restless Barbizon painter Théodore Rousseau.
The Museum of Modern Art scored a success with its slightly flawed but otherwise riveting Robert Gober retrospective, while its newly opened survey of recent painting, The Forever Now: Painting in an Atemporal World, will likely become a source of controversy due to its foregrounding of the artworks’ affiliations with institutionally sanctioned styles.
And then there were the museum-quality historical exhibitions not shown at a museum, such as Alberto Giacometti’s drawings curated by Karen Wilkin at the New York Studio School; the resurgently influential Supports/Surfaces group, showcased at the Lower East Side gallery CANADA in conjunction with Galerie Bernard Ceysson; and the Vienna Actionists at Hauser & Wirth, curated by Hubert Klocker.
Also at Hauser & Wirth was Re-View: Onnasch Collection — a selection of postwar American and European art curated by Paul Schimmel from the collection of the German art dealer Reinhard Onnasch — a surprising and spectacularly installed show that nonetheless faltered on its acknowledged dearth of women artists.
The experienced hand made a particularly strong showing this year, with overviews and/or current work by such veteran artists as Ursula von Rydingsvard (Galerie Lelong); Hans Haacke (Paula Cooper Gallery); John Walker (Alexandre Gallery); David Lynch (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts); Jenny Holzer (Cheim & Read); Sophie Calle (Chapel of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest); Anna Maria Maiolino (Hauser & Wirth); Judith Bernstein (Gavin Brown’s Enterprise); and Susan Rothenberg (Craig F. Starr Gallery).
There were posthumous exhibitions of Joan Mitchell’s Tree Paintings and Black Drawings, respectively, at Cheim & Read and Lennon, Weinberg; and of Will Horwitt’s beguiling drawings and sculpture at Schema Projects. A sweeping retrospective of the great Austrian painter Maria Lassnig at MoMA PS1 sadly turned posthumous when the artist died near the end of its run at the age of 94.
A couple of years ago I speculated on whether artists make the best curators, and 2014 provided ample evidence in support of that thesis. Kara L. Rooney put together a surgically precise exhibition at the Rooster Gallery examining Joseph Beuys’s transition from a maker of art objects to an artistic philosopher; the iconoclastic painter Peter Saul staged a gathering of like-minded souls at Zürcher Gallery; and Brion Nuda Rosch curated a rambunctious summer show at the late, lamented DCKT Contemporary called OK Great REALLY this is ALSO RIDICULOUS.
Two exhibitions could be viewed as works of art in themselves: The Age of Small Things, organized by the painter Chuck Webster at Dodge Gallery (also late and lamented), in which, as I wrote in my review, “a parade of diminutive objects,” including antiques and folk art, were recast “into an unpredictable unfolding of processes and ideas”; and The Intuitionists at the Drawing Center, where the artists Heather Hart, Steffani Jemison, and Jina Valentine teamed up with curator Lisa Sigal to concoct a computerized selection system based on a paragraph from the 1999 novel The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.
And out in Ridgewood, Queens, Fred Valentine continued his string of sensitively chosen, beautifully installed group shows at his self-named gallery, which included an homage to the late Dennis Oppenheim and a three-person exhibition featuring the paintings of Patricia Satterlee and the sculpture of David Henderson and Jude Tallichet.
Later in the year, Tallichet made a splash with a fragmented, ghost-white cast of a full-size Hyundai sedan at her solo show at Studio 10, a Bushwick gallery that also presented the mind-twisting painting/sculpture simulacra of John Avelluto and the brazenly intimate photographs of Susan Silas.
Elsewhere, contemporary artists made compelling statements using every medium and practice at their disposal, often grappling with issues milling outside the studio door. Sam Lewitt used computer hardware and other hi-tech materials, along with such economic signifiers as debit and credit cards, to assemble his shimmering, process-oriented objects. Elaine Tin Nyo is a conceptual/performance/food artist, and in July she shared freshly baked sour cherry pies with friends and colleagues as a brake on the bustle of everyday life as well as a meditation on the passage of time.
Matt Freedman published Relatively Indolent but Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal, a mordant and harrowing artist’s book chronicling his thirty-five days of radiation therapy for cancer in his tongue and lungs. The social, political, financial and aesthetic implications of overculture, in which a small group of collectible artists function as courtiers affirming the worldview of the ruling class, was explored by William Powhida at Postmasters.
At Freight + Volume, Loren Munk presented his overstuffed, dazzlingly colored and ceaselessly inventive text-based canvases charting the complex byways of modern art history. Austin Thomas, who recently merged the Lower East Side incarnation of her storied Bushwick venue, Pocket Utopia, with the Chelsea gallery Hansel & Gretel Picture Garden, anteceded the new enterprise with a show at HGPG of her serenely disorienting, ultra-minimalist works on paper.
Paper played a major role in Laura Sharp Wilson’s layered biomorphic abstractions in acrylic and graphite on Unryu, mulberry or silk paper, and it was used as a support for many of the pieces in Lori Ellison’s copious exhibition of patterned abstractions in ink on notebook paper as well as gouache on wood (both shows were at McKenzie Fine Art on the Lower East Side).
Two other solo exhibitions, one of sculpture, the other of painting, reveled in an excess of material. Peter Buggenhout, a Belgian artist showing at Gladstone Gallery, covered a junkyard’s worth of scrap metal, wood and other found objects with vacuum cleaner dust to create what I described in the review as “massive stacks of debris [that] hang off the wall or sprawl across the floor in a state of dereliction and collapse, monumental castoffs from a world spinning out of control.”
And Russell Tyler, in his solo at DCKT, deployed vats of paint to construct blocky abstractions based on the elemental 8-bit graphics of early computer games, endowing his paintings with the sense that they are “as much about lost innocence as they are about lost technologies.”
Simultaneously forward-and-backward-looking, Tyler’s paintings form an appropriate grace note for the end of the year (and in fact, his show straddled 2013 and 2014, opening on December 14th and closing on January 26th) as well as a winter storm warning, with the thought that we will be back in 2015, but adventurous mid-level galleries like DCKT and Dodge will not.