We’ve already entered 2014, but there’s no better time than the present to look back at New York’s art shows of 2013 that deserve a special mention as some of the most outstanding of the year. Here are our picks:
#1 — Gutai at Guggenheim Museum
(February 15–May 8) 2013 was the year of Japan in New York, and while the Museum of Modern Art’s Japanese modernism–related tomes topped our best art books list, it was the Guggenheim’s large Gutai exhibition that starts off this year’s best of in NYC art.
This scholarly show brought together a large body of work never before seen in the Americas. It is remarkable that a US museum hadn’t before organized a show that corrects the long-held misconceptions about what Gutai is and how painting was only a small part of the larger effort to create a truly pioneering movement of intermedia experimental art. Objects like Tanaka Atsuko’s “Electric Dress” (1956) and Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture “Bisexual Flower” (1969) are masterpieces of the era, but they’re not the only ones deserving of that label that were on display. The show may not have been as visually stunning as those of some other non-conceptual movements of the same era, but the ideas were so powerful that they continue to resonate today. One of the uncanny things I noticed when walking through Gutai was that some of the work looked like it could’ve easily been created yesterday by a young ambitious artist.
#2 — Iran Modern at Asia Society
(September 6–January 5) Few art shows are as timely as the Asia Society’s large show of modern Iranian art, Iran Modern. As American hawks started banging the drums of war with Iran earlier this year, and Hollywood awarded a very anti-Iranian film, Argo, the best picture Oscar, a show like Iran Modern helps puncture holes in many people’s monolithic ideas about a country that was once a democracy (overthrown by a CIA coup), was at the forefront of non-Western modernization throughout most of the 20th century, and that placed a strong emphasis on art as an important medium to visualize future ambitions. Panels and events that accompanied this exhibition included a daylong discussions of things little discussed in the West anymore, like the influential Shiraz Arts Festival, and all these helped enrich our understanding of Iran today and the factors that helped birth future cultural movements that changed the world, like the incredible explosion of Iranian film in the 1990s. Artist like Ahmad Aali, Siah Armajani (the only artist in this show who is relatively known in the US), Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Marcos Grigorian, and Faramarz Pilaram deserve to be better known in the history of 20th- century art, and hopefully this show will help make that possible.
#3 — LaToya Ruby Frazier: Haunted Capital at the Brooklyn Museum
(March 22–August 11) There’s no question that LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Haunted Capital was one of the most powerful exhibitions I saw all year — so powerful that I have trouble figuring out where to start. I had just seen the El Anatsui exhibition upstairs at the Brooklyn Museum, and spent some time justifying it to my boyfriend as more than mere establishment-sanctioned shiny art objects, when I entered the small Frazier show and found myself retracting all those previous comments. It wasn’t El Anatsui’s fault, really, but Frazier’s work is so damn daring, gripping, and haunting, it’s hard not to judge everything around it by its standard. With her deeply personal black-and-white photographs set against a quietly political backdrop, Frazier challenges us to actively see what’s going on all around us. It’s hard work, exhausting even, and we’d rather repress those emotions and move on. But Frazier demands that we look, and in looking, feel. —JS
#4 — Claes Oldenburg’s The Street and The Store & Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing at the Museum of Modern Art
(April 14–August 5) Nothing brings us together quite like consumerism. Smiling and salivating visitors took in Claes Oldenburg’s works from The Store, speaking as if ordering off a menu. With bright colors and dripping paint, the plaster pieces aren’t as bloated or polished as his later work, and look fresher than ever. Seen together with works from The Street, this exhibition displayed a cross-section of the ’60s — the plastic dream of product and style and the nightmare of consumption. The gleaming wares inevitably fall into disrepair and become trash, found on a city sidewalk or amidst the destruction of a tenement fire. For Oldenburg, these were formative years, and the works reveal that before he used scale to make the inconsequential imposing, he was creating immersive art environments. His range is astonishing — ink sketches and sculpture made of newspaper, burlap, cardboard, plaster, found wood, and canvas shared the gallery with experimental films that document performances and installations. In each medium he conveys down-to-earth imagination and slapstick satire. Downstairs in the atrium visitors wound through his “Mouse Museum” and “Ray Gun Museum,” squinting at a microcosm of his thinking: that whether found or purchased, the objects we amass create an archeological record with purpose stripped and value misunderstood — a piece of wood can be our flag, an L-shaped straw our revolver, a BLT our monument. —SC
#5 — Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1
(October 13, 2013–February 2, 2014) Two things you should know about this exhibition: a) it’s still on view, so you can go see it, and b) I have yet to write my full review of it. That will come soon, but in the meantime I can easily say this is one of the best shows I saw in 2013. Mike Kelley had a smart, funny, idiosyncratic mind, and his work reflects that: it’s dark, sly, hilarious, and horrifying. It’s also incredibly wide-ranging, which makes the scale of this exhibition — more than 200 artworks, filling the entire MoMA PS1 building — essential. A smaller show would necessarily have been superficial; this offers a much deeper dive. Prepare to spend hours. —JS
#6 — “Three Duets, Seven Variations” Performances by Tameka Norris and Senga Nengudi at the Studio Museum in Harlem
(November 14, 7–9pm) Few performances stay with me for weeks afterwards, but this one-two punch of short performances that were simultaneously part of the Performa performance festival and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s half of the Radical Presence show were powerful.
Tameka Norris’s untitled performance involved the artist live painting on the walls of a gallery using her tongue, which she slit with a knife in front of the audience. The endurance of the act of painting (it took roughly 20 minutes), coupled with the fascination of congealed blood that formed on the walls gave the work a silent visceral quality that vibrated in my bones.
After Norris, Senga Nengudi presented a work from her important RSVP series, featuring sand and pantyhose sculptures that were activated by artist Maren Hassinger (one of Nengudi’s original collaborators), Regina Rocke, and Marya Wethers. The relationship between the art and the bodies of the performers was obvious, and coupled with Norris, it was an intense meditation on the limits of the human body and its abstraction into art.
#7 — Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Tender Love Among the Junk at MoMA PS1 and Ecce Homo: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and the Art of Rebellion at Pavel Zoubok Gallery
(November 18, 2012–April 7, 2013 and June 6–August 9) If I had to crown my favorite artist discovery of the year, it would be Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. I wandered into Lanigan-Schmidt’s show on a whim at MoMA PS1 earlier this year, knowing nothing about him, and was completely enthralled. I got a chance to see more of his artwork at Pavel Zoubok Gallery over the summer and left on a similar high. Lanigan-Schmidt’s creations are intricate and intimate, religious bordering on reverential. They transform their mundane materials — cellophane, aluminum foil, glitter, tinsel — to an unrecognizable extent. The work may at first seem like kitsch, but it’s actually camp; the longer you look, the more a world opens up before you. —JS
#8 — Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors at Luhring Augustine
(February 1–March 23) Ragnar Kjartansson was sort of the art poster child of 2013, and I was tempted to leave him off this list just for that (I know, I know). But his emotionally resonant creations have stuck with me. And what’s somehow refreshing about Kjartansson is that, unlike so much contemporary art, his conceits turn me off but the work itself ends up drawing me in. That was the case with The Visitors — the artist and his friends singing a slowed-down, overdramatized version of an ABBA song for an hour? Um … Yet the work was aching and engrossing and — dare I say it — beautiful. In an art world that long ago let go of the concept, there’s something admirable about Kjartansson’s push to bring it back, in a different but familiar form. —JS
#9 — Photography and the American Civil War at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
(April 2–September 2) Today we like to talk about and pontificate on all the events we’re experiencing through photography and various media, but hey, it turns out the Civil War beat us by more than a century. The War Between the States was, among other things, the first conflict of its kind extensively documented through photography. And this show had tons of its — gruesome shots from the field, stomach-turning medical and injury photos, personal photographic portrait keepsakes from soldiers on both sides, even the first political campaign buttons with photos on them (Lincoln, 1860)! For anyone interested in photography and questions of how we document and represent ourselves, this exhibition was revelatory. —JS
#10 — Phil Collins at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
(September 7–October 19) Tanya Bonakdar’s solo show by Phil Collins was a powerfully claustrophobic series of cultural mixed tapes contrived to make one feel a bit dirty. Visitors to the Bonakdar gallery could climb into any one of three British caravans and sit down to view a really cheesy porn flick while chomping on potato chips and guzzling some awful fruit drinks from plastic cups. It was a bit of rancid fun, especially if one had read the press release about how Collins got people to purchase a chance to star in the movie via a home-shopping channel.
When one grew weary of the camp, there was more keyhole luxury upstairs, where a series of sound booths were set up with instructions and turntables at the ready for any and all who wished to listen to seemingly intimate conversations between people in the throes of personal disaster. Collins fished those from a phone he set up in a shelter. Users agreed to be taped, their conversations randomized, in order to use his free phones.
When all self-respect had dissipated into a fog of weltschmertz, one could finish off the visit with Collins’ short film about skinheads in Penang, demonstrating finally “The Meaning of Style” by testing outfits, swapping items, exchanging poses, and, you know, workin’ it. —CW
#11 — Ann Liv Young at the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival, Jack Theater
(July 13, 8pm–12am) I left Ann Liv Young’s performance quite shaken; she had grabbed the camera from the person sitting next to me, who then tackled Young and wrestled her and her assistant on stage. The transgression seemed to fuel rather than disrupt Young’s performance as she continued to criticize, condescend, and call out her largely Brooklyn hipster audience for their fascination with theatrical cruelty and for not offering to help people being attacked (verbally and otherwise) in their midst.
In her work, Young has obviously demolished the fourth wall of theater, but her shtick (I’m only calling it that because I’m not sure what else to call it) goes beyond theater to incorporate the rubric of performance art. It was almost maddening to watch her respond to anything thrown at her with the ease of a serial killer stalking her prey. It was pure (unnerving) magic.
#12 — Mathieu Lefevre’s The Stuff Things Are Made Of at Regina Rex
(May 18–June 23) This posthumous exhibition of never-before-seen work by Mathieu Lefevre was tinged with sadness as the memory of this talented Montreal-born and Brooklyn-based artist continues to linger in a community that mourns the injustice of his death. Regardless of the backstory, the show was a fascinating exhibition complete with Lefevre’s characteristic humor, love of paint, and rejection of the notion of “good” or “bad” art. What was infinitely fascinating about the show was that it seemed to clarify for me that Lefevre’s work has long been probing a more primordial concept of art that results from very serious play.
#13 — Barbara Bloom: As it were … So to speak at the Jewish Museum
(March 15–August 4) The concept of artists raiding museum collections isn’t new, and Barbara Bloom’s exhibition of that kind — the first at the Jewish Museum — could have been a mere curiosity. Instead it was the sleeper hit of the year. Bloom didn’t just pick and pull objects and arrange them based on visual associations; she constructed a physical and metaphysical context for them, as well as curating a series of conversations and debates. By having the form of her exhibition follow the form of the Talmud, she revealed the depth of her engagement with the collection; by shaping it with sensitivity and humor, she revealed her own strengths as an artist. —JS
#14 — OWS Screenprinters Return to Zuccotti Park for #OccupyGezi
(June 8) While this isn’t a traditional art show by any means, the return of OWS Screenprinters to Zuccotti Park (the first time they had set foot in the green space since the November 15, 2011, eviction) for the Occupy Gezi protests was a powerful symbol of art’s role in protest and the ability of artists to give a visual voice to the politics of resistance.
Alongside hundreds of Turkish, Greek, and other protestors who were furious at the Turkish government crackdown in Istanbul, OWS Screenprinters demonstrated how artists can do what they’re good at while building bridges to other communities that share their frustration with crony capitalism and injustice. It was an inspiring scene that I wish we saw more of.
#15 — A.K. Burns’s Ending with a Fugue at Callicoon Fine Arts
(September 15–October 27) This was a small, excellent show that very few people I know saw, but it’s entirely their loss. Long interested in the issue of labor and body politics, A.K. Burns’s exhibition at the superb Callicoon Fine Arts lingered on the absurdity of a flower show but accompanied that video poem with images of deterioration and erosion. Castoff button-down work shirts were cast in aluminum in a way that appears to wink at Lynda Benglis, minimalist slabs of sand are embedded with images of Robert Mapplethorpe flower photographs, and the boundaries between sexuality, labor, and beauty overlap and blur. This beautiful body of work cast a new light on some well-trodden paths to make them feel fresh and new.
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With contributions by Sarah Cowan, Jillian Steinhauer, and Cat Weaver