The best (and worst) of 2010

From the return of AbEx to Jeff Koons as curator, the year had its up and downs.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

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    Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf.

  • Photograph: Courtesy GBE Gavin Brown's Enterprise

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    Rob Pruitt, Exquisite Self-Portrait: Father Martian

  • Photograph: Courtesy The New Museum of Contemporary Art

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    "Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection," installation view

Photograph: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf.

The best

1

"Abstract Expressionist New York" at the Museum of Modern Art
This look back at the moment when America birthed its first truly homegrown modernist movement, and New York became the capital of the art world, is an astounding reminder of how the city had once been the epicenter of visual innovation—and of what it has unfortunately become, six decades after Jackson Pollock et al. exploded onto the scene in the years following World War II. The works here still radiate with the presence of the artists who made them, proving that there's no substitute for real ideas and artistic commitment.

2

"Hipster Hustlers and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950--1980" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Another show that harkened back to a New York art scene that was mercifully less professional and money-oriented than today's, "Hipsters" resurrected the work of Leon Levinstein, the least-known member of a stellar crew of NYC street photographers that included Weegee, Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and William Klein. Unlike most of them, Levinstein was less interested in ferreting out found narratives than he was in imparting to his subjects a sense of formal grandeur and monumentality.

3

2010 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum
of American Art I know, right? A Whitney fucking Biennial showing up on a best-of list? But the 2010 edition, curated by old art-world pro Francesco Bonami, aided by Gary Carrion-Murayari, had it all: a tight selection that didn't favor youth over experience, but rather put young and older artists on an equal footing. And most importantly, it gave the works plenty of room to breathe and relate to one another, allowing formal and thematic connections to emerge organically. In other words, this was a show that actually tried to be cogent (and succeeded), instead of just settling for its established role as "the show everybody loves to hate."

4

"Henri-Cartier Bresson: The Modern Century" at the Museum of Modern Art
The undisputed giant of photography was feted with a survey that lived up to his unequaled role as the 20th century's greatest photojournalist, and auteur of the decisive moment when an everyday situation becomes a metaphor for larger events.

5

"Slash: Paper Under the Knife" at Museum of Arts & Design
Although it was only a few years ago, it's hard to remember the furor over the redesign of the former "lollipop building" at Columbus Circle into the new home for the Museum of Arts & Design. MAD has become the go-to place not only for design, but also for quirky, unorthodox takes on contemporary art that emphasize handcraft materials and techniques. Case in point, this roundup of creations cut, burned, shredded and rolled, made from that most quotidian and omnipresent of matter—paper. The result was a triumph all the way, an eye-opening look and some of the marvelous and imaginative uses of this unassuming medium over the past five years.

6

Amy Sillman, "Transformer (or, how many lightbulbs does it take to change a painting?)" at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Who says painting is dead? Certainly not Amy Sillman, whose tour de force oils and works on paper thumbed a nose at the old Conceptual Art saw, and made a convincing argument for the primacy of a painterly touch in 21st-century art.

7

"The Drawings of Bronzino" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met's revival of the 16th-century Mannerist master was a revelation, showing the artist at the height of his power, in works on paper that he never considered to be art. Nevertheless, the full panoply of his distinctive style was on view, from the emotional intensity of his nude studies to the psychological acuity of his portraiture.

8

Superflex, "Flooded McDonald's" at Peter Blum Gallery
The Danish artist group's hypnotic meditations on disaster scenarios, including a video of a fast-food joint undergoing a gradual inundation, were wry metaphors for the state of the world as it entered the second decade of the millennium.

9

Rob Pruitt, "Pattern and Degradation" at GBE (Gavin Brown's Enterprise) and Maccarone
The veteran art-world prankster and perpetual comeback kid stepped up his game with his most ambitious show yet, a kind of self-portrait of the artist as folk hero, fraud and demented pop-cultural prophet for our new age of malaise.

10

Antony Gormley, Event Horizon at Madison Square Park
The English sculptor and Turner Prize winner put his stamp on the city with this outdoor project, featuring the same figure of a nude man (cast from the artist's own body) positioned around the park, and on various rooftops in the surrounding neighborhood. The result was an eerie and existential object lesson on the meaning of scale, perspective and the place of the individual in the urban landscape.

The worst

1

"Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection" at the New Museum of Contemporary Art
What happens when a museum allows its richest board member (in this case, a Greek gazillionaire resort developer who has a taste for flashy, puerile art with a strongly grotesque figurative bent) the run of the place? Why, a perfect storm of wretchedness, judging from "Skin Fruit." The nominal curating duties were left to Dakis Joannou's BFF Jeff Koons, who managed to make the show look like the cantina scene from Star Wars—only without the catchy music.

2

Dan Colen, "Poetry" at Gagosian Gallery
In his Gagosian debut, Colen stunk up the joint with lame attempts to take the piss out of art, with bad-boy AbEx "paintings" created from schmears of bubble gum on canvas. When every critic in town piled onto his show, I did kinda feel sorry for the guy. Still, the exhibition was little more than an extravagant hair ball of coughed-up references.

3

Gabriel Orozco at the Museum of Modern Art
I always suspected that this Mexican artist was highly overrated, and his career survey proved it. Seen together, his Arte Povera--tinged oeuvre, touted in some quarters as poetically speaking to the plight of global underclass, just seemed weightless and more than a bit mawkish.

4

"Greater New York" at MoMA PS1
The third edition of what is basically MoMA's version of the Whitney Biennial was by far the weakest, suggesting that having five years to organize a show is no impediment to phoning it in. While there were some high points—notably Rashaad Newsome's video mash-up homage to hip-hop hypermasculinity and Erin Shirreff's sublimely mysterious photos—the effort as a whole felt desultory and thrown together.

5

"Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present" at the Museum of Modern Art
Most people apparently luurved this career survey of the Serbian performance-art diva; my initial reaction to it was lukewarm, if not indifferent. But the more I thought about the show, the more it seemed to symbolize all that's wrong with contemporary art's growing desire to become a form of popular entertainment. Not that there's anything wrong with pleasing a crowd, but Abramovic's attempts to do just that—substituting hot young hard-bodies for her older self in nudity-filled restagings of her '70s performance work—seemed like cheap stunts. Then, of course, there was her marathon staring contest with museumgoers, a pure piece of theatrical pandering disguised as art. While notable as a feat of endurance, it seemed better suited for the Guinness World Records than for a museum

Report card

The year was truly an unusual one; 2010 may go down as the moment when the contemporary art world finally jumped the shark with respect to maintaining a critical distance from the popular culture it has long been inspired by. From the Bravo reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist to James Franco's exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery, the lines between high culture and low have become increasingly blurred. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when you compare the achievements of today's art scene with the work currently on view in MoMA's "Abstract Expressionist New York"...well, it's enough to make those who really care about art to shake their heads in sadness. Speaking of which (the MoMA show, that is), this year saw a continuation of the trend in which museums rely more and more on collection shows as a cost-saving measure. As "Abstract Expressionist New York" proves, this doesn't have to be a limiting factor, though that obviously depends on the quality of an institution's holdings.

Final grade: B+

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