Tomorrow, Patti Smith will turn 66. The day before yesterday, on the 27th, her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye reached the same age. “We’re three days apart,” Smith announced last week in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art at her “walk-in” concert celebrating the birthday of the French writer Jean Genet.
Two years ago, the museum’s chief curator, Klaus Biesenbach, invited Smith to mark Genet’s 100th birthday on December 19, 2010, and since then she’s turned the anniversary into a tradition. The first year she was joined by Michael Stipe; she went solo in 2011, and last week she performed an hour-long set with Kaye, reading from Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and singing “Wing,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and “My Blakean Year,” among others.
In a moving interlude, she dedicated a poem and a song to the 20 dead children of Newtown, Connecticut, and then led the audience in a rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” recalling the proximity of the Nativity story to the Massacre of the Innocents, followed by “People Have the Power.”
Although Biesenbach and the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry, could be spotted among the large and enthusiastic crowd, an incongruity persists between the punk trailblazer’s unapologetically scruffy Dionysian aesthetic and the sleek corporate shaft of MoMA’s atrium. Something doesn’t fit, but Smith’s presence there feels more like a case of Inside stepping Outside than the other way around.
I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin. —Patti Smith, “Babelogue” (1978)
What credo for the pursuit of art could be clearer than that? Downtown at the New Museum, Judith Bernstein (like Smith, a take-no-shit Jersey girl born in the 1940s) is having her solo museum debut at the age of 70. Seeking the nerves under the skin is not always endearing to institutions, as Bernstein, whose drawing of a Brobdingnagian penis/screwdriver was censored in Philadelphia in the 1970s, can assure you.
Another rock’n’roller who juiced up the New Museum this year — with a towering, sci-fi/fantasy gray clay sculpture, the breakout work of the museum’s second Triennial — was Adrián Villar Rojas, a 32-year-old Argentine who creates installations around the globe with posse of kindred spirits. The New York Times described this pack of artists as “less like a group of studio assistants than like a band, with Mr. Rojas as lead singer and one of the songwriters…”
Villar Rojas’ work, “A person loved me” (2012), dominated the fourth floor, even with Danh Võ’s acclaimed “WE THE PEOPLE” (2011) on the other side of the room. Once the Triennial ended, the same floor was filled with equally epic sculptures culled from industrial waste by Phyllida Barlow. This was another instance of late recognition: Barlow is a 68-year-old British artist, and this was her first museum show in the U.S.
Timothy and Stephen Quay are also veteran London-based artists (though born in Philadelphia, in 1947) who are receiving their share of belated recognition. Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets at the Museum of Modern Art is the first full retrospective of their stop-motion animations, live-action films, paintings, sculpture, graphics, set designs and television advertisements.
MoMA offered other pleasures this year, including the “closed-eye” drawings of Willem de Kooning and the soon-to-achieve-landmark-status Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925. The Whitney presented Sinister Pop, a thought-provoking reconfiguration of works from its permanent collection, as well as the latest edition of its Biennial, which included a room dedicated to the visionary painter Forrest Bess, curated by the artist Robert Gober.
But for consistency of quality and imagination, it was hard to beat the modestly-sized Morgan Library & Museum, which featured the exhibitions Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper; Robert Wilson/Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach; Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich; and Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing.
The best museum show not offered by a museum was the multi-generational survey of women artists curated by Jason Andrew and titled, tongue in cheek, To Be A Lady, at the 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery.
Elsewhere in Manhattan there were revelatory exhibitions celebrating the sculpture of Jackson Pollock and Tony Smith at Matthew Marks, the drawings of Eugen Schönebeck at David Nolan and the paintings of Jan Müller at Lori Bookstein. There were also noteworthy solo turns by Dennis Adams, Mark Bradford, Maria Bussmann, Caroline Cox, Will Kurtz and Ellen Lecher.
And in Brooklyn, outstanding one-person shows included Matt Freedman at Valentine and Craig Olson at Janet Kurnatowski, though there were many that I missed. Here’s to a more thorough pursuit in the New Year.
Exhibitions mentioned in this article that are still running:
Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 15, 2013.
Judith Bernstein: HARD continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 20, 2013.
Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 6, 2013, and Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing continues through February 3, 2013,
Sinister Pop continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 31, 2013.
Drawings Dedicated to Hannah Arendt by Maria Bussmann continues at Deutsches Haus (NYU, 42 Washington Mews, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through January 4, 2013.
To Be a Lady continues at the 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery (Midtown, Manhattan) through January 18, 2013.
Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 7, 2013.
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 7, 2013.