Let’s start with stating the obvious: 2017 was an absolutely horrendous year for equality, tolerance and morality.
To a degree that we would not have believed possible even after the shock of the election, our hearts and minds have been held hostage by a coarse, crass, ignorant, reflexively deceitful and malevolent chief of state, whose potentially irreversible damage to the national fabric is the most pernicious of all: the partisan undermining of empiricism and consensus; i.e., the defilement of truth, which is the foundation of art.
And so we turn our gaze toward 2018 with more urgency than hope, joining the growing resistance to the Republican chokehold on government, while shuddering at the thought of what else will be broken before a new Congress can be sworn in.
Two artists who have made the mendacities of power their life’s work are Jenny Holzer and William Powhida; both weighed in with exhibitions early in the year, Holzer in January (REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE: Jenny Holzer’s Street Posters, 1977-1982 at Alden Projects on the Lower East Side) and Powhida in March (William Powhida: After the Contemporary at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut).
Holzer was not directly involved with REJOICE, which presented selections from the artist’s series of early text works, Truisms (1977-79) and Inflammatory Essays (1977-82), from the gallery director Todd Alden’s own collection. Opening the week before Trump’s inauguration, the show underscored the extreme emotion of Holzer’s work as well as its moral ambiguity. The perfection of the show’s timing felt like a rallying cry, and now almost a year later, the burst of spleen in its title work has turned into a prophecy of hope:
REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE. TAKE COURAGE, FOR THE WORST IS A HARBINGER OF THE BEST. ONLY DIRE CIRCUMSTANCE CAN LEAD TO THE OVERTHROW OF THE OPPRESSORS. THE OLD AND CORRUPT MUST BE LAID TO WASTE BEFORE THE JUST CAN TRIUMPH.
Powhida, by contrast, deployed his characteristically corrosive irony to predict a future of neo-feudal states ruled by a sliver of the super-rich, known as the Ultras (short for Hereditary Ultra High Net Worth Collectors), whose personal wealth exceeds that of the French Ancien Régime. With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Trump’s single legislative “win,” the designers of that world — the morally bankrupt Republican party and its rapacious donor class — have dropped their masks and shown themselves for what they really are.
Politics was also a major presence in Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, the artist’s retrospective at the New Museum; Creature, a selection of artworks centered on the human body, which opened at the Broad in Los Angeles a week before the election; and Michael Landy: Breaking News – New York, in which the second floor of Sperone Westwater on the Bowery was overrun by tiny red-on-white protestors, and on the third floor, Landy installed Break Down (2001), the documentation of a performance in which he systematically destroyed everything he owned, including artworks and a car, over the course of two weeks, more than 7,000 items in all.
If Hyperallergic were to choose an Artist of the Year, a prime contender would be Elizabeth Murray, whose drawings were presented at CANADA on the Lower East Side in January (having opened in December 2016), and whose studio sketches, were on display in November and December at David & Schweitzer Contemporary in Bushwick. These shows provided ample evidence, if any were needed, that her work remains both vital and singularly youthful in the most affirmative sense of the word. There is also a major exhibition of Murray’s paintings currently on view at Pace Gallery’s West 25th Street location, reviewed in these pages by John Yau.
Murray’s vitality was highlighted at David & Schweitzer by pairing her work with that of the 31-year-old Daniel John Gadd, whose smashed-and-splintered paintings on plywood and mirrors pick up the improvisational spirit of Murray’s colored-pencil sketches and take it into territory considerably darkened by the times.
Given their frequency, to speak of museum-quality exhibitions presented by commercial galleries risks becoming tiresome, though it would be unfair to allow them to go unacknowledged. Murray’s paintings from the 1980s, mentioned above, is an obvious choice. Another is the sublime Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943–47 at Hauser & Wirth’s outpost on East 69th Street, which delved into the artist’s tragically short personal flowering before he took his own life. Gorky has been called the last Surrealist and the first Abstract Expressionist, though his methodical approach to art making, lucidly articulated by the exhibition, could be seen as heretical to both camps.
The year brought a number of opportunities to visit venues far from the New York scene, particularly in Vienna, where a staggering retrospective of Egon Schiele’s drawings was on display at the Albertina, while the provocative WOMAN. FEMINIST AVANT-GARDE of the 1970s could be seen at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (familiarly known, in lowercase, as mumok). A prefiguration of the #MeToo movement — which exploded six months later — WOMAN documented the convulsive birth of Feminist Art, in which women claimed both their own bodies and their own paths to art-making.
Also at mumok was a compact solo show by Hannah Black, a British artist living in Berlin, who was at the center of the furor around “Open Casket” (2016), Dana Schutz’s painting of the Civil Rights martyr Emmett Till, which was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. Black had circulated an open letter demanding that the painting be removed and destroyed, neither of which happened. For her installation at mumok, titled Small Room, Black presented, in video and latex, an elegant meditation on the biological cell. The exhibition also included an artist’s book, Life: A Novel, written in collaboration with Juliana Huxtable, whose first chapter begins with the words, “The definition of life is controversial.”
The perpetual cycle of life, labor, and the seasons was the subject of an exhibition by Petra Buchegger, which opened in May at a storefront-size space, Galerie Eboran, far afield from Vienna’s opulent Museum District. Through photographs, video, and Styrofoam sculptures based on amulets worn by Galician farmers and fishermen, the artist pays homage to the work required to harvest sustenance from the soil and the sea. Two months later, Buchegger was lost to cancer at the age of 46.
The moral choices implicit in how we obtain the sustenance we need to perpetuate our lives make up Elaine Tin Nyo’s aesthetic core, whose ongoing project, This Little Piggy, follows the life of a pig, as her description of the piece states, “from birth to ham.” Settling for a year in Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port in the Basque region of France, she collaborated with a breeder to help raise four pigs destined to become Jambon de Bayonne, which Tin Nyo describes as the “emblematic ham of France.” With the abattoir a constant presence, she took care to give each pig a name, complicating the project’s emotional baggage and pitting affection against observation.
Finally, it was an electric year for both painting and drawing, kicked off by the opening of the Whitney’s Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s on January 27th. There were incisive shows of the remarkable 1970s tape paintings by Merrill Wagner at Zürcher Gallery in the East Village; the architectonic abstractions in hot colors on a black ground by Jason Karolak at McKenzie Fine Art on the Lower East Side; and the minimal early paintings of the found-object sculptor Al Taylor at David Zwirner in Chelsea.
In escalating degrees of weirdness, 2017 also offered a retrospective of John D. Graham’s paintings at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, which traced the borderline-reactionary artistic journey of a man better known as the impresario of the Abstract Expressionist movement; and, at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) in Soho, a selection of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico’s polymath younger brother, Alberto Savinio, whose clashes of style within a single work made him a Postmodernist paragon and forebear.
Concurrent retrospectives of the paintings and woodcuts of Helen Frankenthaler were presented by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, offering a deep dive into the range of her experimentation beyond the pour technique; and a stunning retrospective of Amedeo Modigliani’s drawings, paintings, and sculpture at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side drove home the artist’s self-identification as both an outsider and a Jew. In Kiefer Rodin at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, sculpture and painting were not only the art forms on display but also the subject matter of Anselm Kiefer’s iconoclastic commemoration of Auguste Rodin’s death 100 years ago, which incorporated casts of the French artist’s fascinating figural fragments known as abattis.
Excavations & Certainties at John Molloy Gallery on the Upper East Side was another show that brought together sculpture and painting but in an altogether different way, featuring recycled plastic vessels by Shari Mendelson and thickly articulated abstractions by Theresa Hackett, whose interaction unexpectedly transformed the space around them into a construct of uncanny, unitary perfection.
And then there was Patricia Satterlee’s solo show at the Martin Art Gallery of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a rare opportunity to see the work of a painter’s painter whose canvases are an unbroken string of contradictions: abstract and representational; painterly and linear; graphic and colorist; biomorphic and geometric; formalist and Pop.
There is nothing more that can be said about the Michelangelo drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and so I will close with a mention of the series Drawing in a Time of Fear & Lies, published every Saturday in Hyperallergic Weekend, which made its debut on January 14th with a blistering volley by William Powhida and closes out this nasty year with an appropriately nasty drawing by the indomitable Judith Bernstein.
As the editor of the series, I’ve been overwhelmed by the contributors’ wealth of imagination and variety of expression as they grapple with the unprecedented, frightening, and altogether maddening times we must now endure — a parody-defying moment that leaves outrage and satire little room to maneuver. And so I would like to end the year with a note of thanks to these outstanding artists for their talent, dedication, and the light they’re shining at the end of the tunnel.