Our intrepid art critics have been at it all year, striding from gallery to gallery, museum to museum, loft to . . . well, some illegal space in Bushwick that smelled of oils and expensive coffee. After 12 months of gazing and pondering, and no doubt a fair amount of debate, three Voice writers each select their top five exhibits of 2010.
1. ‘Primary Atmospheres’ (David Zwirner): Call it what you want—”California Minimalism,” “Light and Space,” or “Finish Fetish”—the artists filling this show rewrote the book on stodgy American (read: New York) minimalism. Featuring stunning works by, among others, Doug Wheeler, James Turrell, and John McCraken, their efforts transformed Pacific light and space into “material form.” Less is more, indeed.
2. Marina Abramovic, ‘The Artist Is Present’ (MOMA): A retrospective of performance art as a staring contest, the artist’s daily presence at the museum (and that of nude “enactors” of past works) all but ensured Abramovic’s star turn. The public blinked—and art (in the guise of previously marginalized performance) won big-time.
3. Whitney Biennial, ‘2010’ (Whitney Museum): A laconically titled but highly competent biennial, “2010” represented various contemporary microtrends and their attendant confusions (borne of a bonkers era). Chucking curatorial authorship, the organizers bravely avoided overreach. Like doctors, curators should swear by the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
4. ‘Skin Fruit’ (New Museum): A show of big swinging dicks to match Fire Island in July, this train wreck unintentionally turned the page (one hopes) on conspicuous displays of trophy art inside American museums and also (one hopes against hope) on Jeff Koons’s noxious career. A signal lesson on how not to put on an art show during a recession.
5. Peter Saul, ‘Fifty Years of Painting’ (Haunch of Venison): A capsule display of old and new paintings by a 21st-century Hieronymous Bosch, this exhibition gave the finger to the idea of art as a series of plush, conformist, faux-transgressive bromides. Art bites man when we are most in need of it.
1. Charles Burchfield, ‘Heat Waves in a Swamp’ (Whitney Museum): Every painter I know made a pilgrimage to contemplate these luminous watercolors of cathedral forests, radiant dandelions, carnal butterflies, and other visions from this upstate master’s ecstatic communion with nature.
2. ‘Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968’ (Brooklyn Museum): Martha Rosler’s slyly violent photo collages, Rosalyn Drexler’s wittily painted celebs, and Idelle Weber’s mural of silhouetted businessmen are only a few of the knockouts delivered by this sharp corrective to the boys’-club mythos surrounding Pop art. (Through January 9, 2011.)
3. Demetrius Oliver, ‘Jupiter’ (The Highline): With the city’s most magical public space as a backdrop, this young multimedia artist combined a billboard depicting such mysterious tableaux as empty violin cases wedged into open windows with stargazing sessions and musicians jamming on Coltrane’s “Jupiter.”
4. Bruce Nauman, ‘Days’ (MOMA): Seven different voices—male, female, young, old—randomly repeated the days of the week through 14 suspended speakers. By turns cacophonous and crystalline, the words filled the empty gallery with contemplation-inspiring reverberations. Philip Larkin once wrote, “Where can we live but days?” Nauman captured every mote of angst lurking in that “but.”
5. Hans Hartung, ‘The Last Paintings 1989’ (Cheim & Read): Confined to a wheelchair and using garden hoses, the German-born Hartung (1904–89) sprayed lithe spatters across broad clouds of bold colors. These wonderful abstractions were shaped by gravity, viscosity, and the passionate skill of a man who survived the Gestapo, grievous war wounds, and bad reviews in America. Welcome back, Hans. (Through December 30.)
1. Superflex, ‘Flooded McDonald’s’ (Peter Blum): From the shrewd Danish collective, three videos of anti-consumerist doom captured the year’s mood with astonishing visions: a Mercedes engulfed by flame, shot as a TV commercial; a hypnotist mesmerizing you with financial terror; and a Mickey D’s franchise inundated by water, transformed into a swirling maelstrom.
2. Tim Hawkinson, ‘One Man Band’ (The Pace Gallery): Misfit machines—operating with Rube Goldberg arrangements of scrapped hardware—plucked steak knives, drummed pie plates, and insanely tooted a whistle. In an age of slick gadgets, the pathetic sounds and awkward mechanics offered unmatched charms.
3. Lee Bontecou, ‘All Freedom in Every Sense’ (MOMA): Over the past 50 years, Bontecou has assembled a marvelously intelligent body of work that somehow gets neglected. Reintroduced here, her sculpted vortices, soot-based abstractions, and sketches of odd flora and fauna—often hinting at sci-fi—were, by turns, formidable and gorgeous.
4. Edward Kienholz, ‘Roxys’ (David Zwirner): First displayed in 1962, when Kienholz invented installation art, this acerbic tableau of a 1940s brothel—meticulously re-created from the original mannequins and flea-market junk—was still a stunner. The biting Art Brut of seven hideous figures powerfully portrayed lives of quiet despair.
5. Omer Fast, ‘De Grote Boodschap’ (Postmasters): Like Fast’s other short films that screened in early 2010, De Grote Boodschap (The Big Shit, in Flemish slang) unfolded as a jumbled, looping dream. Strangely linking an airline passenger’s defecation to a man who swallowed diamonds, the compelling work confirmed the director as a master of enigmatic drama.