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In a turbulent year marked by increasing nationalism, constant attacks on the free press, a retreat from dealing seriously with climate change, and a further, sanctioned erosion of women’s rights, my roundup of memorable exhibitions is nothing more or less than a list of shows that made a lasting impression on me, mostly by opening my eyes and mind to something challenging. These shows reminded me that nothing should be taken for granted, whether it’s drawing with a pencil or crayon, painting with a brush or broom, writing a line of poetry, or reading and interpreting text, from the classical to the arcane. My list is not arranged hierarchically.
1. The exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, with the assistance David Horowitz, Curatorial Assistant, challenges any fixed view of art that you might still cling to, despite the museum’s botched, blatant attempt to normalize af Klint by treating her retrospective as a run-up to a related show by R. H. Quaytman. Spirits guided af Klint’s hand and eye. You cannot blame the Guggenheim curators for being flummoxed. They are used to dealing with marketable products, not spiritual inquiries.
2. Gray Foy: Drawings 1941–1975 at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art was an eye-opener on every conceivable level. Working with, in the artist’s own words, “a hard pencil and untoned paper,” Foy made a small body of drawings of mind-boggling precision and sensual texture. They went unseen for years until this exhibition, which reintroduced this inimitable minor master to a wider public. Initially influenced by Surrealism and the visual hijinks of Salvador Dali and Pavel Tchelitchew, Foy arrived in his own territory when he began making highly detailed, botanically inspired drawings in the 1950s. From that moment until he stopped drawing altogether, Foy pursued his own course.
3. The exhibition Ed Clark: A Survey at Mnuchin Gallery was the latest indication that this important postwar abstract artist is finally beginning to get his due. His contribution to both abstraction and black abstraction has yet to be recognized, partially because he belongs to the generation of abstract artists that was branded as “Second Generation Abstract Expressionists.” If painting had died around 1960, as many have proposed, then what happened in painting after that would have to be a closed book — but, of course, it isn’t. Just because most museums in America are still asleep at the wheel, it doesn’t mean all is lost.
4. In the marvelous exhibition, Harriet Korman, Permeable/Resistant: Recent Paintings and Drawings, at Thomas Erben Gallery, Korman contemplated something basic — the division of a painting’s surface through color and geometry. Instead of regarding painting’s rectangle as a problem, she finds freedom within its limitations, without limiting herself to a signature style. This is a remarkable achievement that has never received the attention it warrants.
5. First known for his concrete poems, Ian Hamilton Finlay moved with his family in 1966 to a small farm on the moors of Pentland Hills, near Edinburgh, Scotland. There, on seven acres of land, he expanded the notion of poetry, spending the rest of his life concretizing words and passages he read (and reread) into sculptures and art works, which were then integrated into gardens and other areas that he carefully cultivated. In the beautifully organized exhibition, Ian Hamilton Finlay: “The Garden Became My Study,” at David Nolan, viewers encountered work where poetry and art, language and object, met. Not derived from a dictionary or thesaurus, Finlay’s use of language comes from his deep reading in divergent subjects, from the French Revolution to classical literature, and a punster’s sensitivity to homophones and other links. It was one of the great shows of the season that seemed to fly under the art world’s radar.
6. Covering nearly four decades, the exhibition Vera Molnar: Drawings 1949-1986 at Senior & Shopmaker offered a fruitful glimpse into the trajectory of Molnar’s career, from post-Constructivist abstraction to algorithmic drawings to — in 1968 — her first use of a computer as a drawing tool, which she has continued to do for nearly 50 years. Other artists have used the computer, of course. Frederick Hammersley made a series of computer-generated geometric drawings in 1969, but Molnar was never interested in making any kind of imagery. The journey she undertook is dazzling. Her pioneering use of the computer and her de facto position, by Sol LeWitt’s definition, as a conceptual artist, give us a glimpse into the unique terrain that Molnar occupies.
7. The exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, curated by Denise Murrell, focuses on the depiction of the black female figure, beginning with Edouard Manet’s 1860s portrayals of the model known only as Laure, who also posed as the maid in “Olympia” (1863). Frédéric Bazille’s “Young Woman with Peonies” (1870), which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., is one of the many must-see works in this groundbreaking exhibition.
8. Marilyn Lerner is an outlier in the domain of abstract art: her inspirations include Hilma af Klint, game boards, tantric art, and trips to Turkey, Africa, and Southeast Asia during the 1970s and ‘80s. While her work shares something with two other underrated painters of cross-cultural hybrids, Simon Gouverneur and Stephen Mueller, Lerner has long followed her own path. Her debut exhibition at Kate Werble Gallery, Marilyn Lerner: Walking Backward Running Forward, reminded me that Lerner’s work is unlike anything else being done. That should be a good thing, but in an age of copying and plagiarism, originality seems to be getting short shrift.
9. Lois Dodd is one of our best painters. Her exhibition, Lois Dodd: Flashings at Alexandre Gallery, consists of paintings done on flashing, a common construction material made of aluminum. Dodd’s paintings on aluminum generally measure around 5 by 7 inches. They are done in oil with small brushes. Her subjects can include the corner of a house at night, a nude sitting in a garden, a bumblebee landing on a flower, or a pinecone. As Faye Hirsh has stated, they are “unsentimental, untouched by nostalgia or melancholy […].”
10. In the two-person exhibition of Tammy Nguyen and Nicole Won Hee Maloof, One Blue Eye, Two Servings at CRUSH Curatorial, the artists used the motif of the banana to express their concern about the way Asians are perceived in and by America. Although Maloof works in video, etching, and silkscreen, and Nguyen makes paintings, the work in this exhibition reveals the thoroughness of their research. No matter what subject they focus on, they dive deep into every corner as well as ponder every possibility. There were two reasons to see this exhibition. The first was Maloof’s single-channel video, What color is a banana (color, sound, 2017), which touches upon the banana as slang, as a color, and as a fruit farmed by large corporations that care little for their workers. The other reason to go was Nguyen’s “Đức Mẹ Chuối,” which means “Holy Mother of Bananas” (2018), a nearly life-size painting that restates Sandro Botticelli’s well-known depiction of a female nude in “Birth of Venus” (1484-1486) as a yellow-skinned, female Cyclops.
11. The exhibition, Lydia Cabrera and Édouard Glissant: Trembling Thinking at the Americas Society, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gabriela Rangel, and Asad Raza, has stayed with me. Cabrera and Glissant were important, influential thinkers and writers who are central figures in the postcolonial history of the Caribbean. The exhibition contained early editions of books by Cabrera and Glissant, magazines with their articles, drawings by Cabrera, and a wonderful film interview with Glissant. Many of the other works — but not all — directly address or deal with Glissant and Cabrera and their considerations of identity. The list of artists included Etel Adnan, Kader Attia, Tania Bruguera, Manthia Diawara, Mestre Didi, Melvin Edwards, Simone Fattal, Sylvie Glissant, Koo Jeong A, Wifredo Lam, Marc Latamie, Roberto Matta, Julie Mehretu, Philippe Parreno, Amelia Peláez, Asad Raza, Anri Sala, Antonio Seguí, Diamond Stingily, Elena Tejada-Herrera, Jack Whitten, and Pedro Zylbersztajn. While the show was modestly sized, it opened or pointed to many doors that I have begun to research further.
12. This first in-depth exhibition of the artist’s drawings, Cy Twombly: In Beauty It is Finished: Drawings 1951-2008, at Gagosian proved beyond a doubt that Twombly cared deeply about poetry, from the archaic Greek poet Sappho, whose work survives in fragments, to the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, to the radical 19th-century Italian, Giacomo Leopardi, to the first modern poet, Charles Baudelaire. His passions and enthusiasms extended to paintings of all kinds, as well as to history, mythology, music, and much else, and he did not care if others did not share them. He was learned in a non-scholarly way. For him, culture was a living thing. Twombly’s drawings are about the awakening of the senses and the recognition of the transience of an erotic awakening. This compact state of intense sensory consciousness and its unavoidable dissipation are themes that few artists have ever expressed so precisely in their work. There has been no one like Twombly in American art. He was a self-indulgent hedonist of the highest order, which is to say a formally rigorous artist for whom line and color meant everything.