Patricia Satterlee, “atomic 08” (2019), Flashe on board, 14.25 x 10 inches (image via

To look back each year is to mark another step in our unraveling. Last December, the Democrats had just taken the House, which became a much more decisive turning point in our Grand Guignol of a political theater than we could have imagined.

“Democratic subpoena power looms,” I wrote at the time, “while the president lashes out like a blind hyena, and the world spins out of control with a ferocity unseen since 1968.” That was the conclusion of Act I. We have now completed Act II, with the bilious twists of Act III flickering just beyond this brief intermission.

Marino Marini, “Susanna” (1943, cast 1946-51), bronze, 28 7/8 x 21 1/8 x 10 5/8 inches; Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, photo: Lee Stalsworth (image courtesy the Center for Italian Modern Art, New York)

And what of art? In recent posts, I have reviewed three shows that are still on view, and each offer a different perspective on the way art remains, as I wrote of Marino Marini: Arcadian Nudes at the Center for Italian Modern Art, a “signal of hope within the dread.”

Marini was on both sides of the 20th century’s struggle for civilization, joining Italy’s Fascist Party and then, as World War II raged around him, self-exiling to Switzerland, where he created a series of female nudes. These figures were often scarred and truncated, but ultimately affirmed humanity’s renewal and rebirth.

The contemporary artist Michael Armitage, in his solo Projects show at New York’s reopened Museum of Modern Art, transforms the political dramas of his native Kenya into allegorical cautionary tales. As “a painter who’s too intelligent to attempt to affix the flow of history or explain away the unfathomable contradictions of politics,” he makes pictures that avoid pushing a particular point of view, preferring instead to let “the demons run riot.”

Michael Armitage, “The Promised Land” (2019), oil on lubugo bark cloth; courtesy of the artist and White Cube (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The abstract paintings in Patricia Satterlee’s exhibition, ATOMIC, at Frosch&Portmann, may be entirely intuitive and improvisational, but they also inspire “multiple interpretations that speak to our moment, without any one association overwhelming the rest.” Like the word “atomic,” these inferences embrace the duality of creation and destruction; the paintings’ “exquisitely ravaged expanses” are exhilarating to look at, despite reading as signifiers of “the irreparable damage already done.”

Over the course of the year, there were several shows that hit the crises facing the globe head-on, none with greater force than Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror at MoMA PS1, a superb retrospective of one of the most original and uncompromising artists of our time. Her text/image works, especially her monumental scrolls dealing with women’s subjugation and empowerment, “are nothing less than a personal redefinition of the nature and meaning of visual art.”

Nancy Spero, “Torture of Women III” (1976), cut-and-pasted typed text, painted paper, gouache, and handprinting on paper, 14 panels, 20 inches x 125 feet overall, © Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY (photo: courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co)

Spero, who died in 2009, never lived to see today’s upside-down world, though everything she made predicted it. But her spirit could be found in Wars, a group exhibition at David Nolan Gallery that delved into “combat, militarism, and civil strife, [as well as] boxing, sex, and unsettled interior states,” making macho aggression its real subject.

The infiltration of alienation and political strife into our daily lives was treated with nuance and irony in another group show, Interior Monologues, curated by Mary Birmingham at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, New Jersey. Ostensibly dealing with domesticity, the artists delivered insights into the idea of home that were alternately chilly and comforting, menacing and sublime.

The politics of domesticity overlapped with the politics of race in SubSuperior, a solo show from Pat Philips at Catinca Tabacaru, in which homespun symbols — a tin of pomade, orange work vests, a pair of black boots — resonate with associations to white supremacy, forced labor, and the prison-industrial complex.

Pat Phillips, “DIGGERS / The Procession” (2018), acrylic, pencil, oil pastel, airbrush, aerosol paint on canvas, 64 x 80 inches (image courtesy Catinca Tabacaru)

Two exhibitions that spelled out the challenges facing Western democracies were held in Vienna, where a bloodstained history of nationalism and authoritarianism is ever-present. The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (aka Mumok) presented Photo/Politics/Austria, which chronicled a century of photojournalism and the “monstrous role played by media manipulation in the shaping of Austria’s political life.”

The other show, The Value of Freedom at Belvedere 21, gathered together the work of more than 50 artists and artist groups to examine “the human desire for self-determination vis-à-vis the insidious currents” — from think tanks and lobbyists to political corruption and violent oppression — “engineering public opinion and subverting the popular will.”

The two exhibitions, taken together, provided a glimpse into “the fragility of democratic structures, and how skillfully memory-history can be distorted to drive a destructive course of action.”

Also in Vienna, alongside shows at the Leopold and the Belvedere devoted to 2018’s centenary of Egon Schiele’s death, was the retrospective SHE’S HERE: Louise Lawler at the Vertical Gallery of the Sammlung Verbund. In the context of “our current crisis of faith in institutions and culture,” Lawler’s photographs of artworks in private homes, museums, and auction houses seemed less like the formal exercises or social satires they once appeared to be. Rather, their evocation of humanism via images largely devoid of humans made them feel more like “statements of purpose in the face of a collapsing social compact.”

Louise Lawler, “Bulbs” (2005/2006), silver dye bleach print, © Courtesy Louise Lawler and Metro Pictures, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

The question of where do we go from here seemed particularly relevant for several historical exhibitions featuring artists who confronted the failure of aesthetic conventions to deal with the breakdown of political, philosophical, or aesthetic order. Piero Manzoni and Eva Hesse, both showcased at Hauser & Wirth (the latter paired with John Chamberlain), and Tom Doyle at Zürcher all made materials-based work whose approach to art, as I wrote of Manzoni, was “to jettison its past, strip it down to zero, and start over.”

A breakdown of another sort was addressed by Formula 1: A Loud, Low Hum, a group exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation organized by Mira Dayal and Simon Wu, artist/curators in their 20s, who sought to turn a weakness of present-day aesthetic conventions, namely Neo-Conceptualism’s “tendency to illustrate a priori ideas rather than intuit unexpected ones” into a strength. By crowd-sourcing suggestions for the show’s selection criteria, Dayal and Wu attempted to distill art-making “to a set of formulas without becoming formulaic.”

A similar escape from academicism, on an entirely different track, was found in the “naked portraits” of Lucian Freud at Acquavella Galleries and “The Fulbright Triptych” by Simon Dinnerstein at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. The work of these artists, with its straightforward translation of observed reality into paint, possesses a power that, as I wrote of Dinnerstein’s triptych, “lies not in its adherence to models from the past, but in the openings it provides into the future.”

Lucian Freud, “Portrait on Gray Cover” (1996), oil on canvas, 47 3⁄4 x 60 7/8 inches, Private Collection

(That past, however, was gloriously on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome, a quiet, spare, single-work exhibition organized by Carmen C. Bambach that came off as the perfect riposte to the hype surrounding the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.)

One of the biggest events of the art season, of course, was the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art this fall. But one of the last shows staged there before it closed down in the spring was Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, organized by Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman, which recalled an earlier chapter in the museum’s history when its ethos was much more open and inclusive — goals that the new incarnation has made healthy strides to achieve.

Developments like MoMA’s recognition of modernism’s multiverse, alongside artist-led drives for greater financial transparency on the part of museums and their boards, have brought a twinge of optimism to the close of the year in art, even as the standoff in the political arena has brought us to the edge of our seat.

Pete Schulte, “Untitled” (2019), graphite, pigment, and ink on paper, 11 x 11 inches

Two shows, one at the Whitney Museum of American Art and one on the Lower East Side, were instances of the uplift we still seek, especially in troubled times, from “basking unapologetically in the pure pleasure of looking.” The Whitney’s Spilling Over: Painting in the 1960s, organized by David Breslin with Margaret Kross, was just such an experience, a refreshing summer show — smartly curated, visually splendid, historically revealing, and broadly inclusive — based solely on the elusive element of color.

Pete Schulte: Properties of Dust and Smoke, pt. 2, which closed at McKenzie Fine Art on December 21, engaged the formal properties of a particular medium — graphite on paper — to transcend the quotidian. Echoing classicized aesthetics of the past, Schulte’s installation of white-framed drawings permeated the space with a sanctuary-like shimmer, transforming it “into a refuge as comforting as it is out of sync with the chaff of everyday life — a necessary point of stillness amid the unspooling disarray.”

It’s a shelter we’ll need again, and soon.

Patricia Satterlee | ATOMIC continues at Frosch&Portmann (53 Stanton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 12, 2020.

Projects 110: Michael Armitage continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 20, 2020.

Marino Marini: Arcadian Nudes continues at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Soho, Manhattan) through June 13, 2020.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.