New York Winter Exhibition Preview

From the first full-scale exploration of Gustave Courbet's body of work in 30 years to an explosive, museum-filling Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective, to a group show of underappreciated feminist art, there's plenty to see in New York this winter. Here are 12 of the best offerings of the season.  

"New York Winter Exhibition Preview" comes to ARTINFO from the winter 2008 issue of Museums magazine. Click on the photo gallery at left to see more images from the featured shows.

A Portrait of the Artist as anIndependent Spirit
Most art historians regard Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) as the first truly modern artist. Certainly his conception of the artist as an independent spirit with significant comments to offer about society established attitudes that still hold sway today. remarkably, “Gustave Courbet,” the full-scale retrospective of his work, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 27 to May 18, is the first devoted to him in 30 years.

The hundred or so works on view prove how revolutionary the artist wasin mid-19th-century France, when Neoclassicism and Romanticismdominated. To begin with, he was explicitly political: He once famouslydeclared that “the people have my sympathies. I must address myself tothem directly.” And at a time when polite society believed that onlyParis enjoyed any cultural importance, he never played down his ruralbackground or the mean circumstances in which many provincials lived.Then, he matched the roughness of his subject matter with techniquesthat led to accusations of deliberate ugliness. nowadays he is seen asthe first realist.

Courbet was probably also the first celebrity artist in the modern sense. He thumbed his nose at the Paris Salon while accepting its plaudits, turned down Napoléon III’s offer of the cross of the Legion of Honor, repeatedly portrayed himself heroically in large-scale paintings, and courted controversy by creating paintings so sexually explicit that they still make some viewers blush today. He ostentatiously declared that he should be remembered as having “belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.” To some, he was simply “the most arrogant man in France.” Either way, this is a fascinating show of a remarkable artist.

Southwestern Exposure
“Diebenkorn in New Mexico,” a rewarding glimpse into the development of one of America’s greatest abstract painters, comes to NYU’s enterprising but underappreciated Grey Art Gallery from the Harwood Museum of Art at the University of New Mexico, Taos. Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) eventually became the inimitable exponent of disciplined, angular color abstractions (the best known of which constitute his quartercentury-long “Ocean Park Series”), but this show, on view from January 25 to April 5, focuses on the less celebrated, more fluid version of Abstract Expressionism that the artist developed while enrolled under the G.I. Bill in the University of New Mexico’s graduate fine-arts department from 1950 to 1952.

The 50 paintings and sculptures that come together here for the first time show Diebenkorn benefiting from both the very particular desert light he discovered on his Southwestern sojourn and the distance from the artistic forcing houses of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Significantly, Diebenkorn was anything but a beginner during this highly influential period: He had already studied art at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and, after his discharge from the Marines, the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), whose faculty he joined in 1947. He had already evolved a personal artistic style by the time he arrived in New Mexico, but it’s clear the lessons in color combination and composition that he learned there had a crucial effect on his mature work. This makes for a fascinating, often strikingly beautiful show.

More than Movies
This winter brings a treat for Milos Forman fans, which means pretty much anyone interested in intelligent popular cinema from the last 45 years. From February 14 through 28, the Museum of Modern Art is offering a complete retrospective of Forman’s oeuvre, including everything from the remarkable new wave movies that he made in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s through his most recent success, the 2006 release Goya’s Ghosts.

Along the way, Forman has produced some of the most memorable—and diverse—movies of the contemporary period. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) not only won all five of the major Oscar categories and drew from Jack Nicholson what many regard as his finest screen achievement, it also established in many viewers’ minds the definitive perception of a mental hospital in all its horror. Utterly different is Forman’s 1979 reimagining of Hair, which, partly because of his brilliant filming of Twyla Tharps choreography, gives the rather lame flower-power paean that was the original Broadway show a genuine political edge. And different yet is the sprawling epic Ragtime (1981), one of the best historical movies of the late 20th century and the catalyst for the legendary James Cagneys emergence from decades of retirement.

Forman’s great strengths are his accurate observation, his unwaveringly intelligent scripts, and his ability to populate the screen with utterly plausible human society. And underpinning these are his black humor and, most important, his politics, in which the liberty of the individual is paramount. Audiences find themselves cheering on the iconoclast in the face of dumb authority, a remarkably constant thread running through a body of work that is otherwise so diverse. 

An Explosive New Experience
Many New Yorkers will recall Cai Guo-Qiangs remarkable summer 2006 piece Clear Sky Black Cloud, in which a solitary black cloud appeared above the Metropolitan Museum of Art precisely at noon each day.

Now this most unconventional of artists offers “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” a museum-filling retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from February 22 to May 31. Designed especially for the museum’s unique architecture, the exhibition features works from the 1980s to the present and offers a stylistic and chronological survey of his career.

Cai’s key mediums—gunpowder drawings, site-specific explosion events, large-scale installations, and social projects—are explored in depth here, and he emerges as an artist who has evolved a bizarre artistic language. real cars pierced by flickering neon tubes, Socialist realist sculptures that crumble to dust over the course of an exhibition, and a man-made river that visitors navigate on a raft are typical Cai works, but this show is like nothing that the Guggenheim—or the average visitor—has experienced before. As one might expect of an artist who takes his exhibition title from The X-Files, Cai is fascinated by what he calls the “unseen world,” and much of his work focuses on metaphysical explorations of cosmological energy. (These interests led him to give up control of his art making and to use explosives in his work.)

This summer an estimated four billion television viewers will see Cai’s work as art director of visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. The Guggenheim exhibition is much more intimate in scale, of course, but it feels like a real extravaganza nevertheless.

Who’s That Girl?
“Parmigianino’s Antea: A Beautiful Artifice,” on view at the Frick Collection from January 29 through April 27, presents only one painting, but it truly lives up to its billing. Parmigianinos portrait of a young woman known as Antea, circa 1531–34, is one of the most beautiful and haunting pictures of Italian Mannerism.

As one might expect of such a scholarly institution, the Frick pulled out all the art-historical stops in trying to solve some of the mysteries of the work, on view in the United States for the first time in 20 years, thanks to a special loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. To begin with, nobody knows for sure who Antea actually was. Her name is that of a celebrated Roman courtesan, and many believe she was Parmigianino’s mistress. Others say she was his daughter or perhaps his servant, while still others—basing their argument on the resemblance of her face to that of an angel in the artist’s Madonna of the Long Necksuggest that she was a member of the Baiardi family, commissioners of that work.

There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that the lovely Antea was not a real person at all, and that the painting is Parmigianino’s attempt to portray ideal beauty. Given the profound psychological presence the young woman exudes, though, few spectators seem content with this suggestion. Indeed, portraiture itself reached new heights in this picture, and it is this power—of Antea’s gaze and the palpability of her personality—that makes this “solo” show so rewarding.

How the Other Half Lived
It seems almost unbelievable that “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this past summer, is billed as “the first comprehensive historical exhibition to examine the international foundations and legacy of feminist art.” But that’s precisely what it is.

Some visitors to the show, on view at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center from February 17 through May 10, may be too young to realize the epoch-shifting significance of the work it features, or to remember when female artists were uniformly taken less seriously than their male counterparts. The discrimination that spawned feminist art between the mid-1960s and the beginning of the 1980s has dimmed somewhat, but the anger and energy that inspired the artists are undeniable in this show.

“WACK!” takes a broad approach, featuring 120 artists from around the globe and works from all the artistic disciplines (and hybrids thereof) that fin-de-modernism artists worked in. Included here are pieces by Marina Abramovic, Eleanor Antin, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Niki de Saint Phalle, Eva Hesse, Mary Kelly, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke: a veritable Who’s Who of feminist artists whom it’s embarrassing to remember once had to “know their place.” “WACK!” (its title is a slightly awkward joke meant to recall the acronyms of various women’s activism groups that flourished in the ’60s and ’70s) is not only a historical survey but rather a joyous celebration of the shift that occurred when women demanded acknowledgment. How could it be anything else? Imagine the present-day art world without women artists, writers, curators, museum directors, and gallerists. What a ghastly thought!

Masters of Puppets
It’s always delightful to discover an art form you never knew existed, and that is precisely what awaits most visitors at “Enchanted Stories: Chinese Shadow Theater in Shaanxi,” at the China Institute Gallery from January 31 to May 10. Shadow theater is still a hugely popular folk medium in China, but this show focuses on what many agree was its golden age, during the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) in Shaanxi Province. Brilliantly colored two-dimensional puppets, exquisitely cut from translucent animal hide, depict the heroes and deities of China’s past in miniature. Traditionally puppeteers operate them from behind a screen—that experience is simulated in the light-box presentations here—but an exhibition like this gives viewers a chance to admire the remarkable craftsmanship of the puppet makers. In fact, these wonderfully preserved puppets from the Shaanxi Art Gallery in Xi’an, regarded as exemplars of Qing Dynasty art, are similar in their technical sophistication, finesse, and ornamentation to contemporary fine porcelain and embroidery.

Curated by Chen Shanqiao, Li Hongjun, and Zhao Nong, world-renowned scholars in Chinese folk art, this show arranges thematically some one hundred examples of art by shadow-puppet makers to present dramatic scenes from classic plays, celestial deities and underworld demons, stock characters from courtiers to clowns, and stage settings, many of which have mechanically moving parts. The highlight is perhaps the section featuring comic-horror representations of justice and retribution in the Buddhist underworld of popular imagination.

It may seem odd that this traditional art form still holds such fascination in the digital 21st century, but a visit to this exhibition swiftly demonstrates how the famous folktales and legends that the puppets present still inform the customs and practices integral to daily Chinese life.

What's in Store
“Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” reinforces the International Center of Photographys reputation for stimulating exhibitions that address the very nature of contemporary art. Brought together by ICP adjunct curator Okwui Enwezor, the exhibition takes as its relatively simple starting point the understandable interest that photographers, filmmakers, and other artists have in how things—including their own works—are stored, and how the works’ meanings might be changed as a consequence.

The show, on view from January 18 through May 4, includes a range of pieces by leading contemporary artists for whom archival documents have become a source of fascination. Some use archives to rethink what we mean when we talk about history or the significance of individual and collective memory; others investigate how this affects our sense of identity and what happens when things are lost.

Artists whose careers span the last 30 years—like Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Thomas Ruff, and Anri Salaare included, and their work takes many different forms. There are actual archives sometimes arranged by peculiar cataloging methods, fantasized biographies of nonexistent individuals, wide-ranging collections of found and anonymous photographs, photographic albums rendered as movies, and photomontages and collages composed of historical photographs.

The show shifts widely in its tone, appearances, and subject matter, and is in turn thought-provoking, moving, and laugh-out-loud funny. What holds it together is the artists’ evident realization that there is a fundamental affinity between art forms that record the appearances of the world, like photography and film, and the sense that such recordings should be arranged in some logical order. The show intrigues with its suggestion that these art forms and their archives belong inextricably together.

The Short List
Lucian Freud is probably Britain’s most respected figurative painter. His painterly style and unforgiving observation have helped redefine possibilities for contemporary portraiture and nude figure painting. “Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art through March 10, brings together some 70 of his etchings, dating from the 1980s on, and more than 20 of his paintings, exploring the relationship between these two very different mediums in his body of work.

A reconsideration of the art of ukiyo-e, “Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680–1860,” on view at the Asia Society from February 27 to May 4, combines more than 150 exquisite prints, paintings, and illustrated books with fascinating background information about the artists’ emerging role as entrepreneurs, their relationships with their studio teams, the roles of publishers, and the ways in which work was mass-marketed.

Monumental vessels celebrating military and political heroes sit alongside prosaic domestic objects in “Silversmiths to the Nation: Thomas Fletcher and Sidney Gardiner, 1808–1842,” the first exhibition devoted to the silversmiths, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 4. Working in Boston and Philadelphia, they produced silver remarkable for its ambition, quality, and display of young America’s national pride.

In the poignant “Kenro Izu: Bhutan, the Sacred Within,” the final part of a trilogy, on view at the Rubin Museum of Art through February 18, photographer Kenro Izo focuses on what he dubbed the “spiritual within,” or the pure religion of the people of Bhutan, a blend of indigenous beliefs and Buddhist thought. Izo brings a special empathy to his subjects, who embody the mystery and serenity of all deeply held religious belief.