Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
I’d like to start with a disclaimer: Top 5, 10, whatever lists make me nervous. They feel so definitive, so set in stone, and that makes me uncomfortable. What happens when my opinions evolve (as they inevitably will), or when I change my mind tomorrow, or if I accidentally forget something? I have a terrible memory, in fact, and although I try to write everything down, especially when it comes to the art I’ve seen, there will always be gaps, holes, omissions. One of the shows I picked for this list wasn’t even on here originally, until I stumbled across a photo of it while scrolling through my iPhone’s camera roll.
But here I am anyway, rounding up and offering the highlights of my year in art — in a list, no less (!), a form that those who know me know I’m more than wary of. The other strange fact is that I’m kind of excited about it, because it turned out to be an engaging challenge to figure out what stood out the most this year, what experiences lingered in my mind. I suppose I understand the onslaught of year-end lists just a little better this year.
“Experience” is a useful word, because much of the art on this list invited (or compelled) me to engage with it in a more interactive way than basic contemplation. Beyond that, I’m not sure there’s much to string these six (well, with an honorable mention, it’s seven) art experiences together besides the fact that all were solo (or duo) outings, and my taste, of course. And yes, I know one is supposed to compile either a Top 5 or 10, but as I’ve made clear before, I’m bad at sticking to the rules, mainly because I’m bad at making tough decisions. Choosing six plus an honorable mention may be my version of a cop-out. I’m OK with that, though, because according to my notebooks — and somewhat to the surprise of my dodgy memory — this year I saw some really great art.
(These picks are numbered, but not ranked.)
1. Miguel Gutierrez: “Sensewalk #1: Everything Is New” with Elastic City
Since I’ve already mentioned experience, why not dig in with the most interactive of all? I first discovered Elastic City, an organization that invites artists of all types to give walks, when I was assigned to write a story about it. As part of my reporting, I went on two walks, the second of them with dance artist Miguel Gutierrez. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the experience, in which we would apparently investigate our senses and “[watch] how they interact, compete, rise and fall to construct a magical and wondrous reality.” I was prepared to roll my eyes and sort of judge the whole thing. Instead, I found myself alternately marveling and panicking as a stranger led me, eyes closed, through Prospect Park; swiping and tasting strawberries from the Grand Army green market; listening hard to the rustle of the wind in the trees; and alternately leaping, sashaying, and meandering backwards across one of the park’s lawns. It may sound like a glorified version of summer camp, and maybe it was, but it also opened me up in a way that nothing else has since — I guess summer camp.
2. Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: “The Murder of Crows” at Park Avenue Armory
I think, when I was trying to describe “The Murder of Crows” to a friend I wanted to accompany me to the Armory — before I had seen/heard the work yet, mind you — I said something like, “Um, I don’t know, it’s a sound installation, so there’s sound, and it’s really dark, and it’s in the giant drill hall.” Small wonder I got her to come. I’m not sure I could describe it so much better now, though, because Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller put together the components of this piece — from the physical arrangement of the space to the sound effects and storytelling — so carefully and skillfully that the whole rises far beyond the sum of its parts. Listening to “The Murder of Crows,” I felt myself chillingly enveloped and transported, and despite the ominous sadness of the piece, I want to stay the whole day.
3. Alighiero Boetti’s kilims in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art
There was much to admire about this year’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Game Plan, of Italian artist Alighiero Boetti. But my favorite part, unquestionably, was the atrium filled with nine kilims installed on slightly raised platforms (other tapestries and embroideries on the walls), a single lightbulb hanging poetically above each one. Maybe it was this arrangement and the force of their visual picture; as Holland Cotter wrote in the Times, they were laid out “as if to accommodate a congregation of abstract thinkers, some of them Sufi perhaps — Boetti was very interested in Sufism — for discussion and contemplation.” But there is also something so strikingly modern about these rugs, which gives them incredible resonance: premonitions of digital art filtered through the mind of an Italian conceptualist and woven by the hands of Afghan artisans.
4. Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe: Stray Light Grey at Marlborough Chelsea
OK, I’ll admit: I’m late to Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. I heard about the meth labs but never saw them (gasp), so when I found out that the duo would be transforming Marlborough’s Chelsea space this fall, I was disproportionately excited. (This may also have led me to be disproportionately swept away by the results.) Transform the gallery they did — it was barely even recognizable as such, and I salute the sheer amount of labor and planning that must have gone into the construction of Stray Light Grey. But it’s execution that counts, and it was there that I found myself the most blown away. The details in every room, from the toothpaste by the sink in the bathroom to the bizarre items for sale in the store, pitched the installation at an incredibly eerie tenor. I’ll bite and agree with other critics who said the rooms and the story don’t quite hang together, but for me, it didn’t really matter. The journey (which I went on multiple times) more than made up for the lack of destination.
5. Mark Dion: Phantoms of the Clark Expedition at the Explorers Club
It’s hard to figure out what I enjoyed more about Mark Dion’s Phantoms of the Clark Expedition: the artwork itself, or the fact that it brought me to the Explorers Club, a curiosity of a place on the Upper East Side. In reality, it was probably the interaction of the two. Dion was commissioned by the Clark Institute to contemplate Sterling Clark’s early-20th-century expedition to China; he did so by recreating artifacts from the journey in ghostly white papier-mâché. There was a revolver, shoes, animal specimens, an ax — all of them neatly arranged in the club’s trophy room among the club’s real objects, which included moose heads, bear rugs, elephant tusks, and bronze busts that were as affecting as anything by Dion. You (or at least, I) never knew such a place existed. It seems a relic of a bygone age, and by filling it with his own contemporary relics, Dion gave it a curious new life.
6. Klara Lidén: “S.A.D.” at Reena Spaulings
Last year, Americans bought a total of 31.8 million real Christmas trees. When January rolls around, where do all those trees go? In 2012, at least some of them went to Reena Spaulings gallery. For her exhibition Pretty Vacant, artist Klara Lidén collected loads of Christmas trees she found on the sidewalks of Manhattan, hauled them over to Reena Spaulings, and installed them — dozens and dozens of them — in a gallery, plopping them in buckets of water and spotlighting them under purple grow lights. Deep in the forest, she also installed a leather couch. The piece was appropriately titled “S.A.D.,” because dead Christmas trees are a pretty sad symbol of both our overconsumption and the post-holiday depression of January. But it was also a bit of the opposite, because the feeling in that room was complicated. Mixed with the trees’ “somewhat oppressive perfume,” there was a whiff of fading, but not yet faded, love in the air.
Honorable mention: Polly Apfelbaum: Flatland: Color Revolt at Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden
Polly Apfelbaum’s glitter piles at Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden get an honorable mention for being so very stunning. Whimsical yet meticulous and hugely evocative, they are bursts of emotions distilled to primal lumps of sparkly color.
Josué Rojas came from El Salvador as a toddler, and his family settled in the Mission.
For a fleeting few hours, a procession of boats on the Grand Canal reenacted the full pomp and pageantry of 15th-century Venice.
The intricate patterns and strategic colors of the linens used on mummified remains have only begun to be understood by humanists, museum specialists, and chemists working together.
With films touching on protest in France, China’s one-child policy, and Indigenous life in Canada, the 2021 Currents program stays both culturally and politically forward-thinking.
In The Contest of the Fruits, the art collective Slavs and Tatars investigates language, politics, religion, humor, resilience, and resistance in a pluralistic world.