2015 was the Year of the Whitney. Within a swift, seven-month span since the Mayday opening of its new headquarters on Gansevoort Street — a light-filled, magically flexible space designed by Renzo Piano — the museum has dominated the New York art world’s conversation with a rapid-fire succession of major exhibitions, including its sumptuous inaugural show, America is Hard to See, followed by Frank Stella’s eye-filling retrospective, and an overview of a promised gift of art from the last four decades from Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner.
The cross-disciplinary approach taken by America is Hard to See and Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, as the gift exhibition is called, is becoming the model for a new generation of curators. As reported by Robin Pogrebin in a recent New York Times article, the Museum of Modern Art is planning a move that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: reinstalling its permanent collection outside of the museum’s traditional hierarchy, which placed painting and sculpture at the top of the pyramid, with drawing, prints, photographs, and illustrated books playing supporting roles, and film, performance, digital media, architecture, and design as outliers of varying importance.
Pogrebin cites MoMA’s Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War, an exhibition examining postwar representational art from the former Allies and Axis nations, as a harbinger of interdepartmental cooperation. Another example would be MoMA’s retrospective of Walid Raad, an artist whose politically charged photographs, videos, performances, sculptures, prints, and collages, all of which fall uncomfortably between the conceptual and the material, make hash out of categorical distinctions.
MoMA also scored a success with the reinstallation of its contemporary collection. Titled Scenes for a New Heritage, the display is filled with every form of contemporary expression, from computer games to cellphone photos to paintings on cardboard. It’s an intergenerational, international look at the art of today that avoids the pitfalls of the latest iteration of the New Museum’s Triennial, another global perspective on all things contemporary, where a sense of discovery was supplanted by the generic and the tried and true.
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City’s venerable storehouse of historical books, manuscripts, and art on paper, has recently leapt into the modern/contemporary fray. In February it presented a sampling of its newly acquired drawings from the 20th and 21st centuries, followed in June by a sweeping survey of portraiture from four centuries of drawings, which included many outstanding modern works.
Portraiture was also the theme of a lively summer group exhibition at Life on Mars in Bushwick, in which impressive work by Brenda Goodman, James Prez, Todd Bienvenu, Elisa Jensen, Clarity Haynes, and Edith Singer, among many others, dispensed with convention in favor of a more expressive and subversive form of representation.
There were also a number of strong, smart summer shows on the Lower East Side, including Cosmicomics at Frosch&Portmann; I Dropped the Lemon Tart at Lisa Cooley; and Metamodern at Denny Gallery. The most perfectly realized of them all was a three-artist affair, Cuts Noon Light (the title is from a poem by Pablo Neruda) at Brian Morris Gallery, which featured collages by Andrew Ginzel, installations and sculptures by Kara Rooney, and photographs by Steel Stillman. Not only were the individual pieces stunning in themselves, but they seemed to have been made for each other, interacting seamlessly within the gallery space to create an independent, aggregate work of art.
In Dumbo, the painters Gabriele Evertz, Anoka Faruqee, Gilbert Hsiao, Douglas Melini, and Michael Scott were featured in Breaking Pattern at Minus Space, a show of post-Op optical art that reveled in interruptions and imperfections. Though hardly freewheeling in their approach, these artists delved into the highly codified realm of perceptual painting with an attitude that was far more open to the messy and the visceral.
Messy and visceral certainly applies to the dynamic paintings of Judith Bernstein at Mary Boone; Mark Bradford at Hauser & Wirth; Karen Schwartz at Life on Mars; and Jackie Saccoccio at a double-venue outing on the Upper East Side (Van Doren Waxter) and Lower East Side (Eleven Rivington).
A number of galleries staged revelatory historical exhibitions, featuring, among others, the late painters Jack Tworkov (Alexander Gray Associates); Edith Schloss (Sundaram Tagore); Gregory Gillespie (Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects); and Andrew Forge (Betty Cuningham).
Another engaging show traced the stylistic turning points in the early career of Donald Baechler (Cheim & Read), while elsewhere, strikingly assured younger painters (Jason Karolak’s boldly colored abstractions at McKenzie Fine Art; William Buchina’s complexly arrayed figurative works at Garis & Hahn; Alison Hall’s historically aware Minimalism at Stephen Harvey) were making their presence felt.
History and its discontents were evoked with exquisite subtlety in Elana Herzog’s sculptural installation at Studio 10 in Bushwick and John Brill’s photographic installation at Kent Fine Art in Chelsea. Latter-day Minimalism and Conceptualism were given an airing, respectively, in the lumpy plaster and Hydrocal sculptures of Robin Peck at CANADA and the Faustian contracts drawn up by Patrick Killoran at Studio 10.
Outside of New York, notable exhibitions included a group show of narrative drawings by four Brooklyn-based artists — Alex Gingrow, Carlos Rodriguez, Frank Magnotta, and Michael Scoggins — at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, and a set of extravagant installations by Anselm Kiefer at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.
Farther afield (Italy, to be exact), there were fascinating things to be found wheat-pasted to a wall in Rome and inside an empty altarpiece in Ravello. At the Vatican Museum, an armless plaster figure made by Marino Marini in the immediate aftermath of World War II is rife with ambiguity — did the artist mean it to be a circus performer, as the title claims, or a disguised, desacralized Christ for a godless world?
And in Naples, at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, on a fragment of a 2,000-year-old fresco, a pair of lovers, their limbs intertwined in erotic abandon, spiral upward into a bejeweled blue sky, their ecstatic connection floating freely across the millennia.