The Best Art of 2012


R.C. Baker

George Bellows (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through February 18). This full-dress retrospective proves that the Ohio-born Bellows (1882–1925) could wrangle light and color like an ace impressionist. More important, his subjects—flailing boxers, exuberant mobs, pounding machinery—synced painting with the accelerating excess of the budding American century.

Michiel Ceulers: “Des Malentendus et le Temps Perdu” (Ana Cristea Gallery). There’s a sense of the medium’s very flesh and marrow in this young painter’s abstractions. Whether irregularly racked monochromes or clotted grids, Ceulers’s canvases tug at the body while reanimating formal concepts of figure and ground long thought buried.

Skylar Fein (C24 Gallery). As the Nazis rounded up his Jewish friends in Paris, Irish national Samuel Beckett joined the resistance. Fein re-created some of the author’s spy-craft—coded telegrams, messages concealed in cigarette packs—at poster scale, suavely filling a void left by Beckett’s dismissal of his bravery as “Boy Scout stuff.”

Wang Guangle (Pace Gallery). Created from multiple gray rectangles and gently shifting tones, Wang’s canvases give the illusion of gloomy, dead-end corridors. Stand before one for a few minutes, though, and simple allusions to depth and volume are subsumed into a meaty radiance that burns right through any op-art clichés.

Wade Guyton (Whitney Museum, through January 13). Updating the uncanny beauty of Warhol’s mass-produced flaws, Guyton uses ink-jet printers to spit out huge and tangy murals. It’s not yet clear if he’s an artist for the ages, but at minimum Guyton is the color-field master our throwaway epoch deserves.

Martha Schwendener

Juan Downey: “The Invisible Architect” (Bronx Museum). The art world laments the fact there was only one Robert Smithson, but figures like Downey labored in a similar visionary mode. Viewer-activated sculptures in the ’60s led to extraordinary videos in the ’70s and ’80s that fused art, anthropology, and autobiography.

Fred Lonidier (Essex Street). A forerunner to appropriation, Lonidier dropped off the art-world map somewhat, showing in union halls and making work about NAFTA. Now is the perfect moment, however, to reconsider this Marxist-conceptualist who looks beyond theoretical issues of representation to the actual production of images and objects, from news photographs to clocks and license plates.

“Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art” (Brooklyn Museum, through February 17): Although lightly criticized for foregrounding Lippard as a conceptualist rather than an activist-feminist, this show—based on Lippard’s radical, canon-bending book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972—demonstrates how what happened in art during these years was a form of political engagement.

May Day (citywide). Banners, puppets, flyers, costumes, assemblies, marches, and a free university: May Day was an explosion of energy, proving once again that art and creative activism don’t exist solely in spaces sanctioned by the art world.

“Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980” (MOMA P.S.1, through March 11). If much of the work here looks fresh and contemporary, it’s not just the scruffy assemblage aesthetics but the engagement with “real world” events like Watts and the farmworkers movement. My only quibble is that the show should be mounted at MOMA’s mother ship, not its “alternative” Long Island City outpost.

Robert Shuster

“Ghosts in the Machine” (New Museum). The sprawling collection of machine-related art—much of it kinetic sculpture from the 1960s and ’70s—took us back to a time, before smartphone worship, when we marveled at mechanical things. Highlights included Gianni Colombo’s perspective-skewing room and a life-size model of that fearsome torture apparatus first imagined by Kafka.

Tim Hetherington (Yossi Milo Gallery). Serene photographs of battle-weary Liberia and of U.S. soldiers at ease in Afghanistan demonstrated Hetherington’s compassionate approach to documenting war and its ironies. Likewise, his personal film, Diary—completed a year before his death in Libya—offered a heartbreaking portrait of his profession.

Quay Brothers: “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets” (Museum of Modern Art, through January 7). In this engrossing retrospective—which confirms the deviant, decades-long brilliance of stop-motion animators Stephen and Timothy Quay—creepy puppets took center stage, moving silently through shadowy worlds and enacting beautiful nightmares.

Peter Sacks: “New Paintings” (Paul Rodgers/9W, through December 29). Painted layers of antique cloth, affixed to canvases and covered with various cultural texts, give Sacks’s latest work a visual and conceptual intensity that feels, at times, completely immersive. Subtly recognizable forms (a boat, a soldier) float in complex seas of abstraction, making references to everything from the Civil War to Virginia Woolf.

Doug Wheeler (David Zwirner). Entering Wheeler’s wondrous, seemingly infinite void—a blankness of glowing fog, simulated with nothing but filtered light—was like stepping into a mystical, transformative fantasy of cinema. Minimalism has never been so thrilling.

Christian Viveros-Fauné

“Caribbean, Crossroads of the World” (Studio Museum in Harlem; Queens Museum, through December 31; El Museo del Barrio, through January 6). The summer’s big blockbuster, this three-venue collaboration brought together more than 500 works by 250 artists for New York’s first large-scale, multi-borough survey of Caribbean art. The Big Mango, anyone?

Valerie Hegarty: “Altered States” (Marlborough Gallery). A pre-Sandy installation that brought to artistic life (then) secondhand news stories of disaster, the individual works in this show featured astounding trick-the-eye feats that began with the artist building up living room walls, paintings, and furnishings, only to tear them down again. I Am Legend for the thinking set.

Huma Bhabha: “Unnatural Histories” (MOMA P.S.1, through April 1). The year’ best solo exhibition by a soon-to-be-major artist. Creating Promethean works by way of Constantin Brancusi and chain saw carving, this assemblage sculptor manages to represent contemporary man’s tragic flaws by making art from our own toxic leavings. A triumph of vision and resourcefulness.

Rineke Dijkstra: “A Retrospective” (Guggenheim Museum). Dijkstra’s first solo U.S. museum outing, this show featured her characteristically compassionate and revealing photo and video portraits of young people in transition. This artist’s still and moving images generously illustrate that there’s more to truth than just the facts.

“The Ungovernables”: 2012 New Museum Triennial (The New Museum). A Great Recession primer on global art attuned to social issues, the exhibition made the navel-gazing Whitney Biennial 2012 look fatuous and ultra-lame. Adventurous, illuminating, and often genuinely risky, this was the one museum show this year that managed to identify the art of our time.