The years fly. As the art world grows larger, art can look smaller. But a few impressions from the past season remain strong.
1. 2015 Havana Biennial
This show coincided with prospects of a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and mixed-signals politics played a role in the event itself. When it opened in June, the Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera was under the equivalent of house arrest in Havana for trying to do a performance piece that invited people to speak freely at an open microphone in Revolution Square. During the Biennial itself, another Cuban-born artist, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, working with a group of her American students, quietly presented Cubans with a similar opportunity to express themselves by writing in notebooks on questions about current events, including whether art could contribute to cross-cultural conversations. The focused and passionate responses of the writers said yes. There was no government interference.
The opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new plant in themeatpacking district was the local museum event of the year. Everyone cheered the Renzo Piano building; many had praise for the permanent-collection show, “America Is Hard to See.” But with the confetti cleared, it’s apparent that the Whitney is still pretty much what it has always been, apart from a few years in the 1980s and 1990s: an institution often flat-footed in its programming and compromised by its narrow definition of “American.” It needs new thinking to match its new home.
Though it still harps on its own peculiar version of Modernism, one that we know all too well, the Museum of Modern Art gave signs of expanding its scope. The exhibition “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America 1960-1980” (through Jan. 3) brought little-seen work out of deep storage, examined it, and added to it. Much of the salvage operation was by in-house curators. In the fall, MoMA’s International Curatorial Institute, joined by the Center for CuratorialLeadership, hosted a conference of curators from museums in China, Greece, Nigeria, Palestine, Poland, Russia and Senegal. The visitors were in town to learn New York, but New York has everything to learn from them.
The city’s art scene continues to build, the promotional heat intensifying. The opening of the Broad in September was major West Coast news, though much of the collection is market boilerplate and East Coast-centric. More interesting was the city’s continuing attention to its own neglected history in “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through Jan. 18), a retrospective of an African-American artist who was a founder of the Watts Tower Art Center and established an outdoor museum in theMojave Desert.
The Bronx Museum had a strong year. It organized, with El Museo del Barrio and Loisaida, “¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York,” an atmospheric three-sitesurvey of an essential piece of the city’s Latino past. A fresh Triennial at the New Museum, “Surround Audience,” took the pulse of international trends. “Kongo: Power and Majesty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Jan. 3) turned a corner on traditional approaches to African material by explicitly presenting so-called classical African sculpture as a response to the traumas of colonialism.
For many, certainly for art historians, some of the most emotional art experiencesthis year were watching things disappear. Architectural and sculptural remains of some of the oldest known monuments in Iraq and Syria — Nimrud, Nineveh, Palmyra — were damaged or destroyed by Islamic State sledgehammers and explosives. History is riddled with useless ironies and paradoxes.The Islamic Stateespouses a supposedly pure version of Islam. Islam is a “religion of the book,” theQuran. Yet the group has tried to obliterate all traces of the ancient cultures that invented books and writing.
Anne Pasternak, Brooklyn Museum’s new director; Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, named curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial; Thomas J. Lax’s contribution as the youngest curator of “Greater New York” at P.S. 1 (the others were Douglas Crimp, Peter Eleey and Ms. Locks; through March 7); savvy art writing by Johanna Fateman and Mostafa Heddaya and Felix Bernstein’s blistering cultural commentary. And the strengthening presence of activist collectives like Not an Alternative, Occupy Museums and Interference Archive, who say yes by saying no.
9. Music to My Eyes
In conjunction with Asia Contemporary Art Week, the Met presented “Sonic Blossom,” an interactive piece conceived by Lee Mingwei, which had vocalists from the Manhattan School of Music singing Schubert lieder in the galleries. Heaven.
At New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, 80WSE Gallery and the Cheap Kollectiv of Berlin staged a revamped version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” minus Mozart but packed with magic. With a libretto by Vaginal Davis, direction by Susanne Sachsse, music by Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, and design by students led by Jonathan Berger and Jesse Bransford, this was theater for mind and senses. A film of the piece by Michel Auder will play this summer at 80WSE Gallery (June 8-Aug. 13), now confirmed as one of the city’s most inventive alternative spaces. Remember those dates.
Roberta Smith’s Top 10
Amid Rising Rents, Visions Flourished
There’s always much to complain about in the New York art world: the insane circus of auctions and shop-alike collectors; the Guggenheim Museum’s expansionism; the Museum of Modern Art’s infamous overcrowding; and the effect of surging Manhattan rents on the art scene’s lifeblood: artists and galleries. But then there is the art, which is what we’re all here for. In that regard, 2015 was a banner year for New York, so much that to my chagrin I barely went elsewhere. Here are a few high points.
1. The Whitney
The year’s outstanding art event — a real shot in New York’s cultural arm — was the inauguration of the Whitney Museum’s new downtown home. The Renzo Piano building is brilliant beyond hope and, in the opening show, the permanent collection had so much more room that it, too, felt new.
The Modern’s latest Picasso survey (through Feb. 7) is one of its greatest, devoted to his second life in sculpture, showing him blazing through sundry materials and styles, mostly figurative, often implicitly Cubist.
The Guggenheim continued to perfect the use of its signature spiral rotunda with an impeccable retrospective of On Kawara’s time-based paintings, postcards and telegrams that made it a kind of mortal coil. And the sculptures of Doris Salcedo turned the museum’s unwieldy tower galleries into a progression of hauntingly beautiful meditations on humanity’s inhumanity.
Frank Stella’s exuberant retrospective at the Whitney (through Feb. 7) is a show that the museum could never have pulled off in its old building. The abstractionist’s six-decade up-from-Minimalism, out-of-painting story should renew appreciation for that inescapable aspect of art called form.
The American Folk Art Museum continued to thrive in reduced circumstances, most visibly in “When the Curtain Never Comes Down,” which examined aspects of performance with the work of both European and American 20th-century outsider artists.
In the city’s busy alternative spaces, art history continued to expand. Artists Spaceimmersed us in the achievement of Tom of Finland, the Ingres of 20th-century homoerotic art, and his bounty of popular-culture source materials. White Column’slatest excursion into exhibition as archive/open storage (through Dec. 19) pays homage to Bob Nickas, one of New York’s most intrepid independent curators. Participant Inc. mounted an extraordinary survey of the trans artist, East Village denizen and doll maker extraordinaire Greer Lankton. And 80WSE, New York University’s experimental exhibition space, vibrated with the music, life and small, gnarly portrait busts of the blues singer and guitarist James (Son Ford) Thomas.
Commercial galleries did their bit to excavate the past. The superb biomorphic paintings of Flora Crockett (1891-1979), a forgotten American abstractionist, surfaced at Meredith Ward Fine Art. Andrea Rosen reintroduced Stan VanDerBeek’s 1960s forays into abstract film and language. Luxembourg & Dayan’s look at the rambunctious art of the ItalianEnrico Baj still fills its dinky uptown townhouse (through Jan. 30). And last summer, in a coup, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise bid farewell to Greenwich Street by restaging Jannis Kounellis’s legendary Arte Povera installation centering on a herd of cooperative horses.
9. Solo Shows
Living artists of all ages shone in solo gallery shows: Richard Serra’s not-quite cubes of solid steel formed a spiritual union with surrounding space at David Zwirner.Cecily Brown presented the best paintings of her career at Maccarone. Karma attended splendidly to Stanley Whitney’s paintings and drawings. Dona Nelson continued to attack painting front and back with vehement color at Thomas Erben. Jamie Isentein’s performing sculptures returned at Andrew Kreps. In his debut at Simon Preston Gallery, Clement Siatous turned the painterly political in 13 sunlit beach scenes that revisited life on an island in the Indian Ocean before the United States Navy took over. And in an outstanding sophomore appearance, on view until Dec. 20, Lucy Dodd cultivates her unusual fusion of Color Field painting, sewing, cooking, music and hanging out in a mutating show at David Lewis.
10. Resilient Galleries
And despite the economic pressures, New York galleries continue to prove their hardiness. With Chelsea breaking out in apartment towers, relocations to TriBeCa, Chinatown and the Lower East Side were achieved or announced by Andrew Edlin, Foxy Production, Derek Eller and Alexander and Bonin. More power to them and their kind.
The Best in Culture 2015
More highlights from the year, as chosen by our critics:
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."