Memories fade. That’s the one good reason, as far as I can see, to compile an end-of-year list. It’s sometimes startling to retrace what attracted my attention over the course of a year; it is also instructive to determine where such a miscellany of shows fits in with ongoing areas of interest, and which ones, in hindsight, merited the time it took to review them.
One big question mark is a series of reviews covering Julian Schnabel’s early works, four paintings that were rotated, one at a time, at Oko in the East Village during February and March. The premise of the series was to examine “without prejudice or sideways glances” the potential Schnabel posed as a young artist, and to decide whether the work justified the hype.
While there were aspects of the first three paintings — “St. Sebastian” (1979), “The Patients and the Doctors” (1978) and “Mutant King” (1981) — that were worth a second look, the last piece on the roster, “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” (1980), exemplified Schnabel’s “adventurous sense of materials coupled with an occasionally underwhelming use of them.”
In the end, “Schnabel’s contribution to the post-minimalist effort” may have helped “reopen painting to non-art and anti-formalist elements,” but the actual objects he produced were “more suggestive and scattershot than developed and concrete.”
Other disappointments included Anselm Kiefer’s show at Gagosian, Morgenthau Plan, which featured floral paintings that ranged “from the middling to the embarrassing,” and Matthew Barney’s drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, where, despite the museum’s classy presentation and well-grounded research, the work exhibited “a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion.”
Those venues, however, were also the settings for two of the most impressive exhibitions of the year, both of which are still running. Gagosian has dedicated its Chelsea locations to recent large-scale sculpture by Richard Serra, whose monumental sets of steel slabs in “Intervals” and “7 Plates, 6 Angles” (both 2013) are exceptionally powerful.
The Morgan, in an important loan exhibition from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy, is playing host to a drawing that the British art historian, Kenneth Clark, called “one of the most beautiful, I dare say, in the world”: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Head of a Young Woman” (1480s), whose unearthly splendor, unfurling across a largely blank sheet of paper, “materializes out of nothing and dissipates before our eyes.” While you’re there, don’t miss the entrancing scenes from the life of Punchinello by Domenico Tiepolo in a show of 18th-century Venetian drawings on the first floor.
Surrealism and its legacy turned up quite often this year, most conspicuously in the René Magritte retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. However, apart from a few works whose “quiet strangeness” had a “quasi-outsider feel,” most of the paintings in the show exhibited a “Duchampian coyness and linguistic flippancy” that skirted the darkly irrational sources of surrealism.
More pointed in its visceral, surrealist charge is the contemporary Polish artist Paweł Althamer’s nude figurative sculpture, “Bruno” (1998-2012), on display in MoMA’s contemporary galleries, whose materials, which include grass and cow intestines, “transform the human body into a meditation on mortality via the digestive tract.”
The same could be said about the pigeon-sized rum-and-raspberry-filled chocolate birds served at MoMA in a Magritte-themed performance/meal concocted by artist Elaine Tin Nyo and chef Lynn Bound. Based on Magritte’s grisly “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau (Le Plaisir) (Girl Eating a Bird [Pleasure])” (1927), the confection, which was designed be eaten with one’s hands, “indulged the root of desire behind the painting’s savagery.”
Surrealism also wended its way through Llyn Foulkes’ outstanding retrospective at the New Museum, as well as Hypnotherapy, a group show at Kent Fine Art in Chelsea, which included Foulkes, paintings by David Lynch, a conceptual piece by Pablo Helguera that tracked down the last speakers of dead languages, and a disquieting photographs-with-objects tableau by John Brill.
The presence of surrealism as filtered through Chuck Jones can be felt in the work of Matt Freedman, whose solo exhibition The Devil Tricked Me at Studio 10 in Bushwick was a freewheeling, comic-melancholic rumination on bad luck. Hard times were also explored in a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum by LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose photographs of her family and her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, carry the fantastical air of Francesca Woodman as much as the clear-eyed realism of Dorothea Lange.
Dereliction and the toll of time were also evident in Robert Polidori’s elegiac photographs of Versailles at the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea; coincidentally, the Polidori show was on display at the same time that the upper echelons of the art world were converging on the opening of the Damien Hirst retrospective in Doha, Qatar, apparently ignoring the kingdom’s power structure (absolute monarchy) and human rights abuses. (For further reading on this important topic, see James Panero’s hard-hitting article in this month’s issue of The New Criterion.)
Painting, especially the thick, chunky sort, made a strong impression, in particular the London cityscapes of 87-year-old Leon Kossoff at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Chelsea and the abstractions of 28-year-old Trudy Benson at Horton on the Lower East Side.
The casualist impulse, which was the subject of the group show Dying on Stage: New Painting in New York at Garis & Hahn on the Bowery, continues to count as a factor in current painting, but it is also an influence in sculpture, from Doug Weathersby (aka Environmental Services) and Cordy Ryman (both at Dodge on the Lower East Side) to the not-so-casual Fabienne Lasserre at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Chelsea.
The trace of the hand — the hallmark of casualism — was underscored in the group painting show Let’s Get Physical at Ventana 244 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in Arlene Shechet’s colorful clay sculptures at Sikkema Jenkins in Chelsea, while impermanence was an overriding theme in Sol LeWitt’s monumental “Wall Drawing #564,” re-created at Paula Cooper, also in Chelsea, and in Migratory Marks, an exhibition of seven temporary wall works by seven artists at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, in Summit, N.J.
Also of note were the Icelandic landscape photographs of Kris Graves at Pocket Utopia, whose “traces of the built environment” are reminders that “our very existence drives untamed beauty farther from our sightlines,” and Reticulate at McKenzie Fine Art (both galleries on the Lower East Side), a group show exploring “the concept of the network — digital, biological, social, historical — across a range of sensibilities, mostly in the form of abstract painting.”
And two historical exhibitions at Sperone Westwater on the Bowery, Post-War Italian Art: Accardi, Dorazio, Fontana, Schifano and Radio Waves: New York “Nouveau Réalisme” and Rauschenberg, which focused on the irascible assemblages of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), succeeded in making the old new again. Happy New Year.