YEAR IN REVIEW: Our Staff's Picks for the Best Art We Saw This Year
YEAR IN REVIEW: Our Staff's Picks for the Best Art We Saw This Year
We asked our staff — as well as some of our colleages at Modern Painters and Art+Auction — for their picks for most memorable art of the year. Here's what we came up with.
— Ben Davis, executive editor, Artinfo —
Trevor Paglen, “The Last Pictures”
At first I was not at all sold by what sounded like a gimmicky premise, or at the very least a detour from Paglen’s earlier politically themed works: the geographer-turned-artist would shoot a disk full of images into outer space aboard a satellite (with an assist from Creative Time). On reflection, however, my mind has changed. It did so in two stages. The first was when the absolute seriousness with which the project has been pursued forced me to let the earnestness of its premise sink in — these images really will be the last pictures to survive our civilization. Think about that for a moment. The second came when I actually reviewed the imagery Paglen chose for the project, which artfully conveys, for the terrestrial viewer, the terrible forces we humans have conjured up that make our own potential extermination all too easy to imagine in the totally foreseeable future. I prefer to think of “The Last Pictures” as a cry of frustration, shouted into space, rather than a sigh of resignation — but either way, it feels more important the more I think about it. Now I’m willing to say that “The Last Pictures” is one of the 21st century’s absolutely essential works of public art so far.
Eva & Franco Mattes, “Emily’s Video”
I didn’t see any video art this year that stuck in my brain quite like “Emily’s Video,” which I glimpsed at the Seven art fair in Miami earlier this month. The conceit is simple, asking a series of people to film themselves on webcam as they willingly watched a clip compiling “the worst things on the Internet” — a phrase that itself sends chills down my spine — and then splicing the results into a montage of reactions, as participants attempt to first decode and then to process what they are seeing. In essence, the artists hijack the “Two Girls One Cup” reaction video craze of a few years ago, and then throw a bit of “The Ring” in on top (you never learn what was actually on the video, and get only hints from the reactions). Participants put on a brave face or clown it up, become progressively revolted or break out in fits of nervous laughter, get angry or hide their eyes or walk away, and in the end what you are left with is a sense of how the vast dark reaches of the Internet defeat our ability to relate to what we see rationally or coherently.
Andrew Ohanesian’s “The House Party” at The Boiler
It is amazing the Proustian impact that wall-to-wall white carpet can have. Ohanesian’s crowd-pleaser at Pierogi’s Boiler space was certainly the triumph of the fall’s rash of immersive environments: The artist managed a pitch-perfect recreation of a suburban home circa the early-to-mid-’90s, complete with functional plumbing and fully stocked fridge. The installation only really became what it was, however, when it was inhabited for openings and gatherings. Then, as the name indicated, it became the site of an archetypal house party, and the hyperrealism of the art licensed gallery-goers to revert to hormone-addled teenagers, doing keg stands, making out in closets, and generally completely destroying the environment in a groovy act of wish fulfillment. I’d add that the very deadpan nature of this simulation caused many a visitor to fret about what it meant to turn art so directly back into the excuse for a party — and the morning-after debates about this issue are what, for me, pushed it beyond being a good time into being good art.
— Ben Sutton, news editor, Artinfo —
Fall on Your Sword, “Sea of Fire”
There was no more fitting artwork for the year of the Mayan apocalypse than this interactive audio-visual installation at the inaugural Armory Week mini-show Spring/Break, which let visitors orchestrate their own delirious and exhilarating annihilation of New York. The Brooklyn-based trio of Will Bates, Phil Mossman, and Lucy Alper rigged a piano to a kind of video-sampling device, so that every key triggered a snippet of Manhattan-destroying action from a seminal disaster movie — including “Independence Day,” “Armageddon,” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” Fall on Your Sword augmented the rush and fire and flood waters with their own operatic score, which made every shot of a shattered skyscraper or submerged Statue of Liberty seem all the more epic. Building up a symphony of urban destruction on “Sea of Fire” was undoubtedly the most fun I had at an exhibition in 2012.
Julia Dault’s Sculptures in “The Ungovernables”
Like beautiful and precariously torqued aesthetic traps, the Brooklyn-based Canadian sculptor’s two contraptions in the New Museum’s second triennial, “The Ungovernables” — “Untitled 19, 3:00 pm - 8:30 pm, February 4, 2012” and “Untitled 20, 1:00 pm - 5:30 pm, February 5, 2012,” named after the time of their making — seemed poised to snap explosively at any moment. Made of bent Plexiglass, Formica, and various other shiny or reflexive plastic panels fastened with string and boxing straps, Dault’s works packed a punch. Their seductive surfaces seemed incongruous given the artificial materials’ off-the-shelf origins, and the self-evident tension in their presentation — made all the more real by the prominent tear in the earlier of the two pieces — imbued them simultaneously with a sense of danger and an attractive fragility.
Monica Cook, “Volley”
Previously familiar to me for her large-scale hyperrealist paintings of female bodies, fruits, and octopi mashed together in neither exactly sexual, nor completely grotesque piles of flesh, Cook’s January solo show at Postmasters launched the year with a bang that was never matched. Her eerie sculptures of primate- and canine-like creatures equipped with squeezable valves that made their silicone organs pulse under patchy hides of animal fur made for a kind of terrifying but also inexplicably endearing post-nature petting zoo. They also set the stage for the exhibition’s most incredible beast: its titular stop-motion video, an exquisite and emotionally rich six-minute short in which the creepy creatures came to life in a dazzling cycle of death and rebirth played out in neon tones amidst swirling currents of oozing gels. Cook played on both science-fiction and nature documentary tropes, revealing her sculptures’ intricate inner lives in the process.
— Daniel Kunitz, editor, Modern Painters —
Wade Guyton at the Whitney
No exhibition this year has remained in my mind and stimulated more thinking than Guyton’s adeptly curated mid-career retrospective at the Whitney. First it demonstrated that an art of raw information — much of it consists of printouts of digital files — can be exceptionally gorgeous. The large canvases included struck me as being as beautiful as the Modernist abstractions they implicitly comment upon. And one crucial way they constitute a critique is in demonstrating that the chance imperfections of a print-out of a digital file can be as engaging as the chance operations of the vaunted artist’s hand. In short, Guyton’s was a beguiling show in its own right as well as being the most sophisticated visual commentary on Modernism that I’ve seen recently.
Jimmie Durham at MuKHA, Antwerp
His wry conceptual approach and strong political bent have made Durham, who was once the UN representative for the American Indian Movement, a touchstone for contemporary artists for almost 30 years. Yet because he has lived abroad for most of that time — he now divides the year between Berlin and Naples — his work has rarely been shown in this country. The superb exhibition at MuKHA in Antwerp offered a thorough retrospective look at this essential artist’s sculptures, videos, installations, and other work.
— Sarah P. Hanson, senior editor, Art+Auction —
Cindy Sherman at MoMA
Curator Eva Respini managed to make this comprehensive survey (currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through February 17) of the chameleonic photographer-performer’s career-to-date as wide-ranging and ultimately slippery as the artist herself. Sherman’s prescient early experiments with self-fashioned, self-promoted identities have only gained in relevance in the digital era, and the gallery given over to her little-exhibited mid-‘90s series grappling with themes of bodily harm and decay reminds us it hasn’t all been fun and games.
Mary Weatherford’s “Manhattan” at Brennan & Griffin
Mary Weatherford spent the early part of the year in Bakersfield, California, working on a new series of color-field paintings that had a crucial added element: an arc or slash of neon, complete with cord trailing down the canvas and plugged into the wall below. The instant of inspiration must have been something like when Barnett Newman hit on his “zip” or when Lucio Fontana picked up a penknife, both conscious allusions. She exhibited five new works in this vein at Brennan + Griffin in September. As in her series “Cave at Pismo,” the artist imbues the linen ground with colors in such a way that they become emotional impressions; in this show, those impressions derive from her past life as a New Yorker. The deceptively simple neon addition juices works already active with color in an unexpected way.
Diana Al-Hadid’s “The Vanishing Point,” at Marianne Boesky
The artist’s first solo show with the gallery contained three eye-popping, nearly room-sized sculptures, along with a wall piece strafed with incisions and several works on paper. These beautiful ruins support a self-contained, seemingly regenerative ecosystem. Allusions to ancient civilizations and art history rear up and recede, sometimes literally, as in the fragments of classical sculpture that litter the platform of “Suspended After Image.” Drawings in charcoal and conté crayon on vellum that bear the same streaked and rubbed texture as the sculptures only enrich the palimpsest effect.
— Julia Halperin, writer, Artinfo and news editor, Art+Auction —
Doug Wheeler’s “SA MI 75 DZ NY 12” at David Zwirner
Doug Wheeler's luminous, absorbing infinity environment at David Zwirner Gallery is one of those rare Chelsea events that becomes a local phenomenon. Visitors lined up outside the gallery in the middle of winter and waited for hours to spend 20 minutes standing inside the Light and Space artist's endless white expanse. The throng resembled that surrounding Christian Marclay's “The Clock” at Paula Cooper last year, another immersive artwork that makes viewers ask, “How’d he do that?” But while Marclay's magnum opus kept viewers hyper-aware of the passage of time, Wheeler's crowning achievement is to suspend us in the moment, making time temporarily halt inside his chamber of wonder.
“Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-Ha” at Blum & Poe and Gladstone
Blum & Poe worked side-by-side with aging artists from Japan's “Mono-Ha” movement — a loose collective active in the late 1960s and early 1970s — to recreate scores of deceptively simple artworks in an unprecedented historical survey. The spare, elemental sculptures, including Nobuo Sekine's steel containers filled to the brim with water, enrich our understanding of Japanese art history as much as they provide a counterpoint to western Modernism. What makes this exhibition particularly extraordinary, however, is how little exposure these artists — almost each and every one a powerhouse — previously had in the United States. It's a refreshing reminder that there is still meaningful work to be done in the crowded field of 20th-century art history.
Martin Creed, “All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes”
I must confess, I didn't personally witness Creed's artistic kickoff to the Olympics, for which he encouraged every person in England to ring a bell “as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes.” (I watched it on YouTube instead.) Even from my perch across the pond, though, footage of children and government officials uniting in this oddball expression of national unity was an example of relational aesthetics at its loveliest. Plus, it produced one of the funniest art-related memes of the year.
— Coline Milliard, editor, Artinfo UK —
Jérôme Bel’s “Disabled Theater” at dOCUMENTA(13)
For this piece, choreographer Jérôme Bel worked with about 10 mentally disabled actors, who were each asked to choose a piece of music and perform a routine of their choice. The result was very surprising, poignant, and funny at times, although the audience’s laughs were always uncomfortable. What made the piece particularly powerful for me was the inclusion of critiques of the performance by the performers themselves. They talked about their experience, how the show had been received by their friends and families, and how it could be improved upon by Bel. “Disabled Theater” really pushed dance into fascinating new territories.
Ruth Ewan’s “Liberties of the Savoy”
Ruth Ewan used her £50,000 CREATE Art Award to set up one of the most moving art events I’ve seen this year. She worked with 200 school kids from East London, some of whom had never left their borough before, to organize a high tea at the legendary luxury hotel Savoy. The pupils did everything, from the food to the music, developing new skills for the occasion. Loosely inspired by the storming of the Palace of Savoy during the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the one-off, no-audience party was a generous, ambitious, and boisterous affair. In the wake of the 2011 London Riots, this breaking down of social barriers also felt particularly topical and urgent.
— Allison Meier, writer, Artinfo —
Tate’s Online Gallery of Lost Art
Showing the possibilities for online exhibitions to do what physical spaces cannot, the Tate's “Gallery of Lost Art” was an incredibly well-done digital exploration of art that has been destroyed, burned, thrown away, erased, stolen, unrealized, or simply disappeared. It makes the essential point that art is not only about the pieces that have survived, but also about the works that have been destroyed, whose ghosts haunt the field. “Visitors” to the space soar over a simulated warehouse, with tables for each project displaying the remains, including photographs, films, or fragments, like crime scene evidence. While there are many works that you would expect, like Robert Rauschenberg's erased de Kooning, there are also moving reconstructions like those pieces destroyed in the Nazi's “Degenerate Art” exhibition meant to show the depraved nature of modern art (Otto Dix's striking war depiction “The Trench” and Otto Freundlich's plaster cubist sculpture “Large Head” among them), and Diego Rivera's 1932 murals for Rockefeller Center. The “Gallery of Lost Art” started with 20 pieces and is continuing to add a new phantom of art history each week, until it ends on July 3, 2013, and also fades away.
Tom Sachs, “Space Program — Mars” at the Park Avenue Armory
The Park Avenue Armory had a really strong year if you are into monumental immersive art (which I definitely am), with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's “The Murder of Crows” audio installation, Ann Hamilton's current “The Event of the Thread” with its soaring swings, and even the Tune-in Music Festival's sonically ambitious celebration of Philip Glass. However, the most enjoyable was definitely Tom Sachs’s “Space Program — Mars,” co-produced with Creative Time, which took over the drill hall and some of its adjoining rooms with all the elements for a Mars mission, provided it never left your imagination. For anyone who ever as a kid built a spaceship from a refrigerator box or a Styrofoam mobile of the universe, the plywood landing module and space contraptions were incredibly enticing, and a reminder of the thrill for adventure that has dwindled with the space program (although the recent enthusiasm for the Mars Rover this year suggests there is enthusiasm for exploration still to be sparked). Sure, Sachs's installation was heavy on the entertainment value and much lighter on meaning, but with its charming DIY aesthetic and quixotic spirit, it was a welcome experience and one of the year's most memorable.
The Quay Brothers’s “On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets” at MoMA
This was an exhibition I went to multiple times, initially won over by all the creepy characters and strange dioramas (I am a person with a fond place in my heart for Tim Burton, whose recent retrospective at MoMA was much less intricate although lurking in the same ghoulish territory, and am fascinated with things like the “Nutshell” dioramas, so I was totally the target audience for this playfully macabre show). However, I was surprised each time by how devoted the twin Quay brothers were to the details and depth of their art, not merely with their signature stop-motion animation, but also in their drawings, set designs, and live-action narratives. While the exhibition itself could feel a little cluttered and hard to navigate, the rooms where you could sit and watch their films warp reality were entrancing. The Quay Brothers had been on my radar before the exhibition, but the show made me better appreciate the forbidden allure wound through their art, and how it sat within the larger macabre currents of culture. It's easy to make something morbid and momentarily unsettling, but it's a real feat to make such things beautiful.
— Sara Roffino, writer, Artinfo —
Robert Irwin’s “Acrylic Columns” at Pace
In 1969 Robert Irwin conceived of the acrylic columns as they were installed at Pace this fall, but it took the past 40 years for the works to come to fruition. The three columns, standing 16-feet tall in the shape of an inverted triangle do not make an immediate impression. They require time in which to see that the columns themselves are not the focal point of the installation, but the starting point from which to observe the shifting light, and minute details of the space surrounding them. The masterful, minimalist installation is the perfect reminder that the power of an artwork is not in the work itself, but in what it reveals about the surrounding world.
— Terri Ciccone, writer/social media manager, Artinfo —
Maurizio Cattelan “All” at the Guggenheim
There’s something to be said for an artist who makes a statement about their work by using their own work. Right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds,” the shiny helium-filled pillows he created that could float up and away representing the end of his art career, and his foray into film. Maurizio Cattelan’s “All” at the Guggenheim, which began a year ago and ended in January, had a similar yet even more striking visual message. While this may not be the end of his career as promised, Cattelan made a statement about his oeuvre by playing up the themes of finality and death so often found in his work. He achieved this by hanging just about every sculpture he ever created from the ceiling of the rotunda of the Guggenheim. The pieces are displayed as if they were as worthless as laundry hung to dry, or as lifeless as a body hanging from gallows. The impact of the suspension of his work in this way was as thought-provoking as it was incredible to see, as life size statues of people in history, caskets with bodies, moving bicycles, and taxidermied horses and elephants — among many other objects — hung from the ceiling, revealing new layers and angles as the viewer walked up and around the rotunda.