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Best of 2015: Our Top 20 NYC Art Shows

(photo by Jillian Steinhauer)
(photo by Jillian Steinhauer)

Occasionally, we are forced to venture beyond Brooklyn to see art. The most impressive exhibitions we saw in New York City’s other boroughs this year included the inaugural extravaganza at the new Whitney Museum, a tripartite retrospective of an activist group’s visual output, marionettes, vintage Mexican pulp novel covers, and much more.

#1 – America Is Hard to See at the Whitney Museum

Works by Mark di Suvero, and Lee Krasner in 'America Is Hard to See' at the Whitney Museum (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Works by Mark di Suvero and Lee Krasner in ‘America Is Hard to See’ at the Whitney Museum (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

May 1–September 27

The new Whitney Museum opened to great fanfare and it was worth the wait. Now housed in an expertly designed space calibrated to the 21st century, the institution — which is positioned at the southern end of the city’s popular High Line Park — is poised to take on a new, more prominent role in the city’s cultural scene.

The building’s inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, was also excellent, as curators chose to challenge long-held orthodoxies to avoid the erasures and bigotry of linear history and they brought in a more complicated art history rarely taught in college survey classes. This exhibition help reaffirm the role of the Whitney, which, unlike the Museum of Modern Art, has long taken a more complete view of American art that doesn’t get seduced by the lazy narratives of tormented white male geniuses and art market-focused notions of value. —Hrag Vartanian

#2 – Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Installation view of 'Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing' at the Studio Museum in Harlem (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

March 26–June 28

Trenton Doyle Hancock once said, “For me, drawing is the foundation,” and this stunning, jam-packed exhibition bore that out. Beginning with the comics he created as an undergraduate and moving through more than two decades of increasingly experimental work, the show demonstrated Hancock’s singular artistic vision, his deftness as a draughtsman, and his uncanny ability to balance humor and darkness — the latter coming to light especially in a wall of self-portraits, which often show Hancock as a bulging, bulbous figure, in one case running on a treadmill that reads “FAT.” Much has been written on the relationship between visual art and comics, as well as the practitioners who bridge the two fields, but much more remains to be said about Hancock: his ability to use the fundamentals of comics to create artworks whose meanings are far murkier and unbounded is a true feat. —Jillian Steinhauer

#3 – Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld at the New Museum

Sarah Charlesworth, Doubleworld, from the “Doubleworld” series, 1995. Cibachrome print with mahogany frame, 51 x 41 in (129.5 x 104.1 cm). Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone Gallery, New York)
Sarah Charlesworth, Doubleworld, from the ‘Doubleworld’ series, 1995 (courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone Gallery, New York)

June 24–September 20

Gathered here in her first posthumous survey, Sarah Charlesworth’s series from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s seemed to have aged better than contemporaneous works by her better-known Pictures Generation cohorts (Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, etc.). Her images of seemingly innocuous objects and familiar figures isolated against monochromatic backdrops or spliced into enigmatic juxtapositions evince an incredibly nuanced and prescient understanding of how photos and other mass-produced media have become a lexicon that humans in the 21st century are often better at reading, understanding, and manipulating than the written word. This challenging and razor-sharp show made me a more discerning reader of visual culture — I can’t wait for MoMA or the Whitney to put on a Charlesworth retrospective. —Benjamin Sutton

#4 – Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play at Artists Space

Tom of Finland, "Untitled" (1987) (photo by Benjamn Sutton/Hyperallergic)
Tom of Finland, “Untitled” (1987) (photo by Benjamn Sutton/Hyperallergic)

June 13–September 13

It’s hard to believe it took this long for a US institution to mount a full-on Tom of Finland retrospective, but Artists Space really did it right, laying out his works and narrative series in a chronological sequence. The exhibition showcased the full breadth of his erotic iconography, from the early scenes of innuendo and seduction to the countless one-off visual puns and leather-wearing studs that followed, and the sequences of increasingly improbable orgies in parks, prison cells, and elsewhere. The show also offered a thorough account of Tom of Finland’s evolving technical prowess, juxtaposing the high-contrast ink lines of his earliest drawings with the perfect gradiations of smooth flesh in his later works, while confirming that yes, his figures’ penises did in fact grow steadily bigger as he got older. —BS

#5 – Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by Thomas Griesel, courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)
Installation view of ‘Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980’ at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by Thomas Griesel, courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)

March 29–July 19

In this mammoth exhibition that covered Latin American architecture from 1955 to the early ‘80s, visitors learned how 11 countries strived to shape modern identities as new political regimes were set in place. From meticulous models of university campuses to photographs documenting the construction of entire new cities like Brasília, to handwritten primary documents (a number translated for the first time), the exhibition gathered and synthesized an impressive wealth of material to outline these nations’ utopian ideas. Latin American in Construction, conceived as a sequel to the 1955 exhibition Latin American Architecture since 1945, echoed the sentiment of the time that design could be a form of social change, and while the national fantasies dissolved, much of that overlooked architecture still stands to this day. —Elisa Wouk Almino

#6 – ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York at the Bronx Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and Loisaida Inc.

Two of the Young Lords’ Party flags draped above a map of New York City.
Installation view of ‘¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York’ at the Bronx Museum of Art (photo by Vic Vaiana/Hyperallergic)

July 2–December 12

Who gets to be militant, and under what circumstances? The ambitious triple exhibition, ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York, sprawled across the Bronx Museum, El Museo, and Loisaida Inc., and presented a mixed bag of primary materials and artistic reimaginings of the group’s original history. Because they were charismatic and cocky, dressed in purple berets and leather jackets, it is nearly impossible to avoid romanticizing their fraught and short history. At its best, the exhibition shattered the line between performance and activism — for example, to protest sanitary conditions, the Young Lords blockaded a street in East Harlem with uncollected garbage. Beat that, social practice. —Ryan Wong

#7 – Françoise Grossen at Blum & Poe

Installation view with Françoise Grossen's "Euphrosyne" (1991, left), "Thalia (all natural)" (1991, center), and "Sisyphe" (1974, right)
Installation view with Françoise Grossen’s “Euphrosyne” (1991, left), “Thalia (all natural)” (1991, center), and “Sisyphe” (1974, right) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

June 4–August 14

Yes, the overlooked female artist is a trope we rely on too much these days, but sometimes it’s also the truth. I found it hard to believe that the tauntingly small exhibition of work by Françoise Grossen that I saw this summer was the first one in the US she’d ever had. Grossen appeared on the scene alongside the post-minimalist artists of the 1960s and ‘70s whose names we do know (e.g. Eva Hesse, Sheila Hicks), but her work — at least what was on view at Blue & Poe, pieces from 1967–91 — is distinctive in its attention to texture and illusion. Grossen played seductively with the properties of her materials, and her abstract rope sculptures, most of them hanging from the ceiling, seem to be engaged in a special dance, constantly referencing known quantities (animal carcasses, genitalia), but forever eluding identification. —JS

#8 – One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North at the Museum of Modern Art

Jacob Lawrence, "The Migration Series" (1940–41), panel 60 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Jacob Lawrence, “The Migration Series” (1940–41), panel 60 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

April 3–September 7

Jacob Lawrence was one of the first artists I fell in love with; sometime in my coming of age, I bought a wall calendar of his work, and when the year was over, took out the pages and hung them on my wall (they’re still there). So, it was a joy to see all 60 paintings in his Migration Series in person in one room. The show’s surrounding galleries did a terrific job contextualizing Lawrence’s series among other artworks, photographs, videos, and music of the time, but what was most profound was standing among the dozens of small, powerful panels and recognizing the ways in which they resonate so intensely with our present moment. As we confront episode after episode that seems to devalue black and migrant lives, I return, as ever, to Lawrence. —JS

#9 – Martin Wong: Human Instamatic at the Bronx Museum

Martin Wong, "Penitentiary Fox" (1988) (photo by Ysabelle Cheung/Hyperallergic)
Martin Wong, “Penitentiary Fox” (1988) (photo by Ysabelle Cheung/Hyperallergic)

November 4, 2015–February 14, 2016

This fantastic retrospective of a vastly underrated painter is beautifully presented and demonstrates the richness and variety of Martin Wong’s visual vocabulary. Featuring lesser-known bodies of work including the Chinatown paintings and a beguiling series of succulents and cacti that the artist painted shortly before his death, Human Instamatic smashes Wong’s ghettoization as a 1980s East Village artist. Along with essays by Dan Cameron, Julie Ault, and Hyperallergic’s very own John Yau, the show’s excellent catalogue includes a candid and touching interview between Wong and Human Instamatic co-curator Yasmin Ramírez. Best of all, the exhibition is on view well into 2016, so you’ve still got time to see it (again). —Tiernan Morgan

#10 – Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm at the Drawing Center

Cinderella II
Natalie Frank, “Cinderella II” (2011–14) (courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; ACME, Los Angeles)

April 10–June 28

Natalie Frank didn’t shy away from the grisly details of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales in her solo show at the Drawing Center. She went for the jugular, showing the Prince mounting Sleeping Beauty before she woke up, Snow White convulsing in pain from the queen’s poisoned apple, and the wolf’s hairy balls as he prepared to rape Little Red Riding Hood. Disney edited out these vulgarities but Frank doesn’t whitewash trauma because she gets how retelling unvarnished stories can inspire healing. Frank doesn’t whitewash color either. Her drawings shine with bright, lavish colors that hook viewers into discovering the pain these heroines endure and overcome. —Daniel Larkin

#11 – Gego: Autobiography of a Line at Dominique Lévy

Installation view of Gego’s “Chorros” in ‘Autobiography of a Line’ at Dominique Lévy (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Gego’s “Chorros” in ‘Autobiography of a Line’ at Dominique Lévy (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

September 10–October 24

Many will recognize Gego’s name and work, situating it within the Abstract Geometry, Op, and Kinetic art movements in Venezuela and South America at large. But it’s rare that we’re able to mingle among so many of her drawings, collages, and sculptures at once, as was the case in this exhibition that framed Gego’s delicate and imperfect hand-manipulated work as particular to her. With videos screening interviews about the artist and a catalogue including previously unpublished archival material, Autobiography of a Line offered viewers an insightful framework through which to view the art, which isn’t always the case at gallery shows. But still, it was the seamless manner with which her works hung on and off the walls — inviting us to snake in and around forms and mimic the weave of Gego’s hand — that taught us her process. —EWA

#12 – Jeffrey Gibson at Marc Straus

Installation view of 'Jeffrey Gibson' at Marc Straus
Installation view of ‘Jeffrey Gibson’ at Marc Straus (courtesy the artist and Marc Straus)

October 25–December 13

Jeffrey Gibson’s explorations of where “Native” and contemporary art meet have been gaining in traction and maturity over the past few years. His solo show at Marc Straus presented a strong body and balance of work, featuring flashier beaded punching bags and canvases alongside powerful acrylic and graphite abstractions on rawhide. Most compelling were the two sculptural figures made from a mash-up of parts: punctured ceramic pots for heads, tree branches for limbs, and bodies hidden underneath blankets densely covered in beads (including some arranged to form text), tassels, ribbons, and jingle cones. The riotous clash of materials seemed to directly confront the question of what is “natural,” while the creatures’ bent postures and haunting faces made them look like wizened guardians of unspoken secrets. —JS

#13 – Alt-Weekly Comics at the Society of Illustrators

Cover by Matt Groening for 'The Rocket' (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
Cover by Matt Groening for ‘The Rocket’ (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

March 4–May 2

These days comics are more respectable than they’ve been in decades, so it’s good to be reminded of their down-and-dirty roots. This historical survey of comics made for US alternative weekly newspapers — the first of its kind — was a total hidden gem of a show; it appeared unassuming but featured a staggering amount of original art, including eye-opening examples of work by now-famous names (David Lynch made comics?!). From the quiet cynicism of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell to the unnerving hilarity of Shannon  Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man, and from the existential absurdity of Carol Lay’s Story Minute to the funny empathy of Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, this show made a convincing case for the coherence, importance, and continued relevance of the alt­weekly comics generation. It also made me nostalgic for a time when alternative news outlets were thriving, and welcomed (and paid for) weirdness. —JS

#14 – Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades at MoMA PS1

Some of the marionettes in Wael Shawky's 'Crusader Cabaret' at MoMA PS1 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Marionettes in Wael Shawky’s ‘Cabaret Crusades’ at MoMA PS1 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

January 31–September 7

The large installation of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades lasted for months and it allowed visitors to get to know the complicated stories of one of the first international attempts at colonization. You’d be mistaken to think this was simply a history lesson though. Sure, there are heroes and villains, but the marionettes themselves — which were thankfully also on display — help you see the fictions of nationhood and faith that too often lead to violence. Shawky has engaged in an epic project that delves into historical events to offer a very contemporary storytelling that does more to shatter the stereotypes than validate any notions of victor and conquered. —HV

#15 – Picasso Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art

Pablo Picasso, “Goat Skull with Bottle” (1951) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
Pablo Picasso, “Goat Skull with Bottle” (1951) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

September 14, 2015–February 7, 2016

A solid survey of the three-dimensional work of the most famous artist of the 20th century, this retrospective focused on Picasso the form builder to suggest that he was experimenting with the materialiality of the world around him as much as he was faceting and breaking apart the picture plane. Full of bulls and women (yeah, he’s still a misogynist), I have been hearing from many artists who found the show quite an eye-opener — it is rare to see so many Picasso sculptures shown like this. I can’t wait to see what this exhibition inspires in the studios around New York. —HV

#16 – Kongo: Power and Majesty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the large "nkisi" sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum's 'Kongo: Power and Majesty' (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
One of the large “nkisi” sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum’s ‘Kongo: Power and Majesty’ (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

September 18, 2015–January 3, 2016

This large exhibition offers an extensive look at a Central African understanding of power and its relationship to European colonization. The real showstopper is the room of large “nkisi” sculptures, which are the best known symbols of Central African power.

Today, most of these objects are dispersed in colonial collections in Europe and the US, but they have come together here to tell the story of European (mostly Portuguese) contact with one tradition of African art that began with mutual admiration and respect and ended with the violence of colonialism. —HV

#17 – Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art

Two marble prophets by Donatello from 1406–10, sculpted for the bell tower of Florence Cathedral (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)
Two marble prophets by Donatello from 1406–10, sculpted for the bell tower of Florence Cathedral (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)

February 20–June 14

The Museum of Biblical Art’s last exhibition before permanently closing in June was undoubtedly its best. For a few months, New Yorkers had the chance to view early Renaissance sculptures up close in a way that was never possible even for people in Italy, who may have gazed at them perched on the Florence Cathedral. In the small Upper West Side museum, which was lined with ethereal billowy white fabric, the tormented expressiveness of figures like Donatello’s “Prophet” (1435–36) and “Abraham and Isaac” (1421) was compelling and surprisingly human. This was likely the only time these sculptures would cross the Atlantic, and Manhattan was their only stop, making the exhibition all the more extraordinary. —Allison Meier

#18 – Ron Nagle: Five O’Clock Shadow at Matthew Marks Gallery

Ron Nagle, "Handsome Drifter" (2015) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
Ron Nagle, “Handsome Drifter” (2015) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

September 11–October 24

Ron Nagle’s sculptures look like precious stones from another planet or high-concept confectionary concocted by France’s top pastry chefs. They certainly look nothing like what they actually are — intricate and gorgeously glazed objects made of ceramic, polyurethane, and resin.

This show at Matthew Marks brought together 35 sculptures from the last 24 years. Many were installed in glowing, recessed cubes set into the gallery walls, which maximized their otherworldly sheen, while Nagle’s playful titles (“Scrunchabunch,” “Urinetrouble,” “Lamb Shank Redemption,” etc.) alleviated some of the show’s preciousness. —BS

# 19 – Empty House Casa Vazia at Luhring Augustine

Hélio Oiticica, “Relevo Espacial 6” (1959, constructed 1991) (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)
Hélio Oiticica, “Relevo Espacial 6” (1959, constructed 1991) (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

June 26–August 28

This creatively conceived and beautifully mounted exhibition combined the works of Neo-Concretist artists of the 1960s with those of contemporary Brazilian artists. Works mingled in no particular chronological order, with wooden sculptures by Fernanda Gomes standing by one of Lygia Clark’s “Bichos” at the entrance. Conversing through playful, amorphous, and sensory forms, it was surprising and interesting to see contemporary artists carrying forth an aesthetic and conceptual language that appears distinctly Brazilian, especially in a time when national (and artistic) identity is increasingly fluid and difficult to define. —EWA

# 20 – Pulp Drunk at Ricco Maresca Gallery

Unknown artist, “Untitled” (Gorilla attacking man as horrified woman watches) (1960–75) (courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery)
Unknown artist, “Untitled” (Gorilla attacking man as horrified woman watches) (1960–75) (courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery)

January 23–March 7

Filling every bit of wall space at Ricco Maresca Gallery, the original artworks created for the covers of Mexican pulp novels in the 1960s and ’70s — and brought together in this delightful show — amply achieved their humble goal: they made you want to read the book. What kind of story, for instance, could possibly set up the ridiculous scene in which a skeleton dressed in tattered purple clothes surprises a man in a golden onesie while a giant head of a woman floats in the sky overhead? And what fiendish plot did the invisible man foil in Carnival Diabolico, whose cover shows him creeping up on a police officer who is dancing with a woman in a yellow rabbit costume while confetti, balloons, and giant candies fall around them? The images’ popping colors and iconography of recognizable character types, familiar monsters, and confounding costume-wearers were irresistible and unforgettable. —BS

Honorable Mentions

Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio

Rodríguez Calero, “Jesús y Magdalena” (2000) (courtesy the artist and El Museo del Barrio)
Rodríguez Calero, “Jesús y Magdalena” (2000) (courtesy the artist and El Museo del Barrio)

July 22–December 19

Back when I reviewed Rodríguez Calero’s three-decade retrospective at the El Museo del Barrio in August, I compared it to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical (a standout of art in all media this year) in her work’s sampling of consumer media and history, while Calero’s imagery is religious, reimagining Byzantine icons as people from her community. As part of the museum’s continued dedication to putting on solo shows devoted to women, Calero was affirmed as an artist who deserves a wider audience. Her collages of acrylic, gold leaf, and other mixed media conveyed the good and bad complexities of human nature as something sacred. —AM

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the Metropolitan Museum

John Singer Sargent's unfinished portrait of Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1893), oil on canvas (Herta and Paul Amir Collection, via Wikimedia)
John Singer Sargent’s unfinished portrait of Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1893), oil on canvas (Herta and Paul Amir Collection, via Wikimedia)

June 30–October 4

Because a gestural approach to figurative painting is commonplace in studio practices these days — it may even be considered a requirement in the pursuit of postmodern credibility — it bears repeating that before the influx of expressionist tendencies Daniel Belgrad dubbed “the culture of spontaneity,” there was a method of painting that grew out of a desire to capture something substantial of a subject’s appearance. John Singer Sargent was a rare master at this method. In the hands of others like his contemporary Guiseppe Boldini, it often drifted toward affectation. This show at the Met gave painters a chance to see how high the bar ought to be placed, if spontaneity is to mean more in contemporary painting than a facile historical reference. —Peter Malone

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