Our Favorite NYC Art Shows of 2014

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Another year in the books, another kajillion art exhibitions installed and taken down. For this, the Voice‘s final issue of 2014, we asked R.C. Baker, Jessica Dawson, and Christian Viveros-Fauné to share with readers their picks for the five best art shows of the year. The writers appear in alphabetical order, their choices in ascending order of preference.

5. ‘Nicola Samori: Begotten, Not Made’ (Ana Cristea Gallery) By twisting, gouging, and flaying the thick oil-paint layers of his Renaissance-inspired figuration, this young Italian artist (born in 1977) transubstantiates Christianity’s narrative of tortured flesh and divine spirit into viscerally gorgeous abstraction.

4. Sarah Cain: Burning Bush’ (Galerie Lelong) Cain hit a trifecta of sly eye candy, whip-smart formalism, and exuberant conceptualism with her headshop-hued canvases festooned with craft-store baubles. Expanding her compositions beyond the stretchers and onto the floor and walls, she dazzled the eyes while engulfing the body in a welcoming spatial ruckus.

3. ‘Witness’ (Brooklyn Museum) Revisiting the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, “Witness” gathered photos of marches, movement leaders, and racial violence that chimed with paintings, collages, clothing, and posters created amid the triumphs and tragedies of the era. To lift just one example from work by 66 artists, the powerful graphic design and “Cool Ade” colors of Jae Jarrell’s velveteen dashiki live up to her memories of the moment: “Bring it: outspoken word, music with infectious cadence, images that look like me and mine, fond titles of ‘Sister’ and ‘Brother,’ and the Black community was utopia.”

2. ‘Chuck Jones: What’s Up, Doc?’ (Museum of the Moving Image, through January 19, 2015) Sometimes the way to make great art is to not even try. In their heyday — the 1940s through the early 1960s — Chuck Jones and his crew of Warner Bros. animators created seven-minute masterpieces of comic mayhem that often outshone whatever movies were sharing the bill. Bugs Bunny’s outer-borough savvy, Elmer Fudd’s cornpone stolidity, Wile E. Coyote’s existential stubbornness, and Road Runner’s pursuit of blissful velocity defined an American culture shifting from abstract expressionism’s metaphysics to pop’s egalitarianism. For good or ill, we’ve never looked back.

1. ‘Sigmar Polke: Alibis’ (Museum of Modern Art) Child of a devastated and
divided Germany, Polke (1941–2010) was a one-man group show who manipulated the chemical processes of painting (and, through various hallucinogens, his own mind) to divine a fresh reality for the ancient medium. Whether deft cartoons, depictions of ghostly architecture, or abstractions simultaneously grubby and cosmic, Polke’s imagery proved utterly transportive, the best exhibition in New York so far this young millennium. R.C. Baker

5. ‘Small’ (The Drawing Center) Defying economies of scale, the Drawing Center’s summer group show went big with very little. Exemplars included James Sheehan’s postage stamp–sized work, which, embedded into a gallery wall, could have passed for a scuff mark; turned out it was a sweet little watercolor of abstraction’s patron saint Kazimir Malevich on his deathbed. Also fine: Claire Harvey’s wall, populated with so many inch-high humans rendered on scotch tape.

4. ‘Agnieszka Kurant: Variables’ (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery) Polish-born Kurant gives life to the ghosts in our machines. Here a rock hovered above a pedestal, a trick of magnets that nevertheless felt like sorcery. Titled Air Rights, it was just too perfect for Chelsea. There an Autopen cranked out unrecognizable signatures compiled from hundreds of real ones, riffing on collective authorship. Up front, sculptural mounds built by unwitting termites proved that even invertebrates can be artists.

3. ‘Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I’ (New Museum) No zombie formalism here — just a feel-good time had by all in the Icelandic artist’s wholehearted, full-floor exhibition filled with raffish young men hired to strum acoustic guitars and sing a catchy harmony. Those who wanted to could join them on their thrift-store couches and watch a dopey sex scene from an old movie starring the artist’s parents.

2. ‘Harun Farocki: Parallel I-IV’ (Greene Naftali) The great German artist’s last work (he died in August) was a riveting tutorial on the history of video games. Dramatically installed in the main gallery, four screens traced the evolution of gamer animation, from kooky pixelated clouds to old ladies meeting thugs on city streets. A voiceover narrator’s clinical observations suggested that the closer virtual worlds hew to reality, the more sinister they become.

1. ‘Maria Lassnig’ (MOMA P.S.1) A fierce, nearly 70-year career surveyed. Born a year after Egon Schiele died, Austrian painter Lassnig was heir to his style of brutal expressionism; her portraits render interior states with acidic color and emotional frankness. The artist’s death in May transformed the show from compendium to elegy. Jessica Dawson

5. ‘Chris Ofili: Night and Day’ (New Museum) This long-overdue survey packed 30 major paintings, 4 sculptures, and 181 watercolors into three floors of the New Museum. Featuring several immersive environments crackling with painterly electricity, the show gave New Yorkers ample reason to reconsider Rudolph
Giuliani’s callow 1999 characterization of the Briton’s work as “sick stuff.” Ars longa, politicus brevis.

4. ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ (Museum of Modern Art, through February 10, 2015) A dazzling exhibition of the Frenchman’s stay-fresh cutouts demonstrates that art is perennially present in the humblest materials. Scissors, pins, and colored paper were all an older, ailing Matisse needed to create an overload of synesthetic pleasure. Overheard at the opening: “Most orgies aren’t this good.”

3. ‘Gabriel Orozco’ (Marian Goodman Gallery) This sculptor of everyday life turned natural philosopher in a gallery show that packed multiple revelations. The biggest installation featured a dozen boomerangs arranged around a room like a frieze. They were simple, curved shapes carved from raw plywood; the sum of their parts triggered thoughts on Diogenes’ practical philosophy, the idea of eternal recurrence, and the power of anti-
Cartesian thinking.

2. Eva and Franco Mattes: ‘By Everyone, For No One, Everyday’ (Postmasters) The artist duo downloaded images from the darknet, then disseminated them to online respondents willing to watch the “worst video ever.” While depriving the gallerygoer of the sickening footage, the Matteses recorded the volunteers crying, gagging, and squealing. One respondent’s final conclusion: We make us sick.

1. T.J. Wilcox: ‘In the Air’ (Whitney Museum) Wilcox’s state-of-the-art panoramic film filled up most of the second floor at the old Whitney. Shot from the top of his Union Square studio on a cloudless day, the humongous projection cast back to 19th-century cinema-in-the-round. It also dredged up poignant 21st-century allusions to what New Yorkers have come to call “9-11 clear.” Christian Viveros-Fauné