The best free art exhibitions in NYC

Culture vultures—discover gratis art exhibitions and gallery shows in our roundup

Looking for some free things to do, art enthusiasts? Thought so. Which is why we found a bunch of exhibitions at galleries and museums in New York that won’t cost you a cent. Visit well-known institutions like the Pace Gallery and David Zwirner and still have money in your pocket for lunch at one of the best New York restaurants.

RECOMMENDED: See all free things to do in NYC

Sam Falls, "Light Over Time"

Critics' pick

A process-oriented Los Angeles artist who works in a variety of media, Sam Falls has transformed Downtown Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons into a playground for his interactive art. Exploring the passage of time through light and color, Falls displays several sculptural works that are activated by the viewer and will physically alter over time. His Untitled (Thermochromic bench), for example, changes color due to heat generated by sitters or the intensity of sunlight. A maze has been painted with multicolored layers of powder-coated aluminum; one side has protective UV coating while the other doesn’t, so that the piece will partially fade from exposure. But as it does, another layer of paint will eventually emerge and regenerate the original color. A set of teeter-totters feature geometric forms that collect rainwater, thus changing the distribution of weight. A giant wind chime is too big for an ordinary breeze to move it, so visitors do the job instead by pushing the chimes around. A more solitary experience is provided by a pair of white, aluminum shelters with tiny entrances and stained-glass skylights. The ambience within each of these “light rooms,” as the artist calls them, will change with the weather. Playful and thought-provoking, these laboratories of fun seek to engage the curious child inside all of us.—Paul Laster

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Public Art Fund at MetroTech Center Commons, Downtown Until Friday May 29 2015 Free

Joe Fyfe, "make me one with everything"

Critics' pick

Fyfe's pieces are both formal and throwaway, made of fabrics and found objects ranging from felt and flags to broken umbrellas and cracked automobile bumpers. Some of his materials, including vividly graphic ads in Korean, were rescued from markets in Asia, where he spent some time on a Fulbright scholarship. Hints of Rauschenberg and Tuttle can be seen in Fyfe's work, but it's uniquely and magnetically his own.

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Longhouse Projects, Soho Until Saturday February 7 2015 Free

Helmut Lang

Critics' pick

Back in 2005, the famed Vienna born designer of minimalist fashion announced that he was hanging up his scissors to pursue his dream of being an artist. People in the fashion industry were understandably skeptical, as were some in the art world. However, he's stuck to his guns, and now he's having his first solo show in New York with a presentation of sculptures made of resin and pigment. Taut pillar-shaped forms are exhibited along with flat, sheetlike pieces resembling plankton. According to Lang, it's all about exploring materials "with a certain history, elements with irreplaceable presence and with scars and memories of a former purpose."

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Sperone Westwater, Lower East Side Until Saturday February 21 2015 Free

Juan Muñoz

Critics' pick

Muñoz (1953–2001) was a self-professed storyteller, and indeed, the Spanish artist's monochromatic, figurative sculptures do contain narrative elements, even if they are inconclusive. The installations in this show, for example, include a large set piece of identical, desaturated gray figures in matching baggy uniforms, standing and conversing with each other even though they're missing their feet. Questions like what they may represent (a cocktail party? diplomatic reception?) elude answers; the work is really a monument to impenetrability, as are the other pieces here.

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Marian Goodman Gallery, Midtown West Until Saturday January 31 2015 Free

The Memphis Group

Critics' pick

This two-gallery show (at Chelsea's Koenig & Clinton and the Joe Sheftel Gallery on the Lower East Side) takes a trip back to the Reagan era with a collection of creations by Memphis, the Italian design group founded in Milan in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass (which got its name from Bob Dylan's song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again"). Memphis created furnishings characterized by a blend of Art Deco refinement and Pop Art theatricality, as well as a pronounced flirtation with kitsch. Its designs were also notable for their juxtaposition of high- and low-culture materials, mixing marble, for example, with Formica in the same piece. Brightly colored and over-the-top, the Memphis look became one of the signature styles of ’80s postmodernism.

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Koenig & Clinton, Chelsea Until Saturday January 31 2015 Free

"The New York School, 1969: Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art"

Critics' pick

This show recalls The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s massive 1969 survey of New York School art, from Pollock to Warhol. Mounted as part of the Met’s centennial celebration that year, the show was organized by Henry Geldzahler, the legendary art-world macher, critic and curator who also served as former mayor Ed Koch’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City. Effectively, the exhibit represented the high-water mark for New York as the undisputed art capital of the world—a status it can no longer really claim in this globalized era.

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Paul Kasmin Gallery, Chelsea Until Saturday March 14 2015 Free

John Miller, "Here in the Real World"

Critics' pick

Best known for his sculptural aggregates of found objects covered in shit-colored goo, Miller has created an eclectic body of work in a variety of media during his 30-year career. But they all share a jaundiced view of both conceptual aesthetics and pop culture mixed with sincere interest in the quotidian. This two-space show at Mary Boone Gallery and Metro Pictures includes paintings of game-show sets, relief portraits of TV personalities and additional works—a mural, a painted frieze—depicting ordinary pedestrians in everyday life. Taken together, Miller latest foray sounds a cautionary note about our grasp of the concrete growing ever more tenuous.

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Metro Pictures, Chelsea Until Saturday February 14 2015 Free

Yael Bartana

Critics' pick

Inspired by the replica of Solomon’s Temple built by evangelical Christians in Brazil, Yael Bartana’s video Inferno opens with a menorah and the Ark of the Covenant being helicoptered over São Paulo, followed by a multiracial rainbow of men, women and children flocking to the temple to receive priestly benediction. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, an earthquake shatters the proceedings, and the temple bursts into flames. Is it divine retribution for monumental hubris? For the blasphemy of a high priest in drag? Or it is for the truly unforgivable sin of white-robed congregants wearing Carmen Miranda headpieces made of fake fruit and flowers? Regardless, a denouement shows the temple reduced to an ersatz Wailing Wall, complete with souvenir vendors and worshippers happily praying and dancing. We might expect something meaty in an Israeli artist’s riff on cross-cultural translations of religious faith, as well as the tenacity of an ancient Semitic cult in the face of millennial catastrophes. But Inferno just seems silly, its medium-budget production generating little heat, especially after Eve Sussman’s The Rape of the Sabine Women and Francesco Vezzoli’s Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula have essayed sword-and-sandal reenactments to much greater effect. A second video, True Finn, finds a group of immigrants gathered in a snowy retreat to debate questions of national authenticity. The earnest documentary draws too-obvious analogies with other multicultural societie

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Petzel Gallery, Chelsea Until Saturday February 14 2015 Free

Mike Nelson, Gang of Seven

Critics' pick

Ambitious installations underpinned by narrative conceits are the stock-in-trade of this British artist, a two-time short-lister for the Turner Prize who was also Britain's representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale. His mix of storytelling and elaborately crafted interior settings owe more than a small debt to the work Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, though he adds a bit of dour British stoicism to their dour Russian resignation. His current installation consists of assemblages created out of driftwood and washed-up detritus; in Nelson's backstory, they were collected along the shores of British Columbia by a fictional beachcomber who imagines the ocean as an inchoate yet sentient being.

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303 Gallery, Chelsea Until Saturday February 21 2015 Free

Tal R, "Altstadt Girl"

Critics' pick

This Danish artist born in Israel has described his work a boiling pot into which he throws all kinds of materials, and as with many contemporary painters today, materials in the case means assorted references to 20th-century modernism couched in a naive or folkloric style. His work is often based on his personal experiences and Jewish identity, unfolding as dreamscapes (picture a cross between Chagall and Picasso). This show focuses on portraits of women in confined compositions.

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Cheim & Read, Chelsea Until Saturday February 14 2015 Free

Djordje Ozbolt, "More paintings about poets and food"

Critics' pick

Born in Belgrade (while it was still in Yugoslavia), Ozbolt has called London home since the 1990s. Since then, he's established a reputation for creating paintings and sculpture featuring generous helpings of the bizarre and macabre. His work is a surreal stew of styles (both Western and not), brimming art-historical and pop-cultural references, as well as his takes on traditional genres such as landscape, portraiture and still life. All of it is occasionally spiced with passages of abstraction. The results are apiece with the contemporary vogue for mix-and-match painting, but Ozbolt's panache and technical skills set him apart. An allegorist of his own imagination, Ozbolt knows how to grab your attention.

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Hauser & Wirth New York, Upper East Side Until Saturday February 21 2015 Free

Erik van Lieshout, "I am in heaven"

Critics' pick

Dubbed the Ali G of art because of his videos featuring antic and sometimes confrontational interactions with such subjects as Neo-Nazis, Van Lieshout is a Dutch painter and filmmaker who builds sculptural installations for the purpose of presenting his cinematic projects. Cartoonish and provocative, the works on view here represent his gallery debut.

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Anton Kern Gallery, Chelsea Until Saturday February 28 2015 Free

"Call and Response"

Critics' pick

It's hard to say what exactly the theme of this group show is—if it has one, that is. But you could certainly call it an exercise in cramming as many artists as conceivable—59 in this case—into a single exhibition. The roster includes members of Brown's stable (Joe Bradley, Bjarne Melgaard, Laura Owens), but others, as well, creating a veritable cross-section of the art world's coolest practitioners.

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Gavin Brown's Enterprise, West Village Until Saturday February 28 2015 Free

Benjamin Fredrickson

Critics' pick

In this new exhibit, the local artist documents his time as a sex worker in the Midwest with stark, unflinching Polaroids, including several self-portraits as well as shots of other young men engaged in similar professions.

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Daniel Cooney Fine Art, Chelsea Until Saturday February 28 2015 Free

"Art & AIDS: Amor y Pasión"

Critics' pick

For the sixth year, Leslie-Lohman hosts multimedia pieces by artists living with HIV and AIDS whose work was created in therapeutic art classes at the GMHC's Volunteer, Work and Wellness Center. Proceeds from pieces sold during the show will go directly to the artists.

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Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Soho Until Sunday February 1 2015 Free

Kenny Rivero, "I Can Love You Better"

Critics' pick

Garbage accumulates like repressed urges in Kenny Rivero’s show “I Can Love You Better,” where paintings with assemblage elements are installed alongside sculptures made from discarded debris. The former blends collage, Surrealism and folk art into cartoonish compositions, while the latter piles shards of glass, bits of broken records and scraps of paint into quasi-shamanistic objects. In both, art history is treated like a trash can to be picked through. Rivero, a Yale MFA graduate, grew up on the mean streets of Washington Heights in the 1980s, and memories of life there provide a theater where psychologically charged narratives play out. In three large paintings, It Happened on the Corner, El Pique and The Fire Next Time (all from 2014), confrontations, beatings and fires dissipate into pictorial snippets. Sidewalks are transformed into sacrificial altars, slabs on which figures are dismembered. But Rivero also employs a comic touch that blunts the impact of his images. He mixes body parts, architectural fragments, letters and numbers to create a playful confusion, complicating our relationship to urban brutality. Evocations of violence within the aesthetic realm are nothing new; they informed the figurative mutations of early modern art. But Rivero understands that actual assault isn’t symbolic or a mere transgression of someone’s space: It can leave wounds that are mortal. Rivero links the shedding of blood on the pavement to the smearing of paint on canvas and in doing

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Shin Gallery, Lower East Side Wednesday January 28 2015 - Saturday February 28 2015 Free

"Fetching Blemish"

Critics' pick

Following modern art's proud tradition of making the beastly beautiful, this show offers a top-notch roster of contemporary artists, whose works—portraits mostly—make references to defects, deformities, blemishes and just plain old butt-ugliness. Wolfgang, Nicole Eisenman and Amy Sedaris (!) are among the contributors.

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Invisible-Exports, Chinatown & Little Italy Wednesday January 28 2015 - Saturday February 14 2015 Free

Entang Wiharso

Critics' pick

An Indonesian artist who splits his time between his homeland and Rhode Island, Entang Wiharso explores social, cultural and political issues in a variety of mediums. Since 1995, Wiharso has exhibited his work internationally, which has cropped up with greater frequency in the last several years at such prestigious events as the 2013 Venice Biennale. For his first solo show in New York, Wiharso presents a solid selection of figurative paintings, sculptures and metal reliefs, all blurring boundaries between expressionism, surrealism and traditional storytelling. One large painting from 2014, Double Protection: Invisible Threat, depicts a man and woman coupling at the center of a nightmarish whirl of levitating bodies, severed heads and machinery with tubes snaking out of them, suggesting some sort of medical equipment. His massive 2013 aluminum relief, My Heart Is Bigger than You Think, connects contorted figures, weapons and word balloons (with texts like your brain is very delicious) into a modern-day version of Hieronymus Bosch’s hellish 16th-century masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. While these works recall the oppression that Wiharso’s family suffered while the artist was growing up in Jakarta during the regime of former Indonesian strongman Suharto, his life-size sculpture from 2014, Inheritance, offers a different vision. A family portrait, it shows Wiharso with his American wife and child around a table, which is surmounted by a gigantic carp. Magical but th

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Marc Straus Gallery, Lower East Side Wednesday January 28 2015 - Sunday February 8 2015 Free

Nolan Simon, "Portraits"

Critics' pick

Simon's off-center paintings would have fit right in with MoMA's "Forever Now" show. They employ a light, ironic touch to depict random images—faces, cute animals, boats—in a series of realistic watercolors on canvas. Resembling stock photographs or commercial illustrations, these pictures are sometimes ganged together on a single canvas to enhance their weird sense of disconnection. Simon edges them with strips of trompe l'oeil masking tape, as if to suggest that they're fastened to a studio wall. But they could just as easily represent the result of a Google image search and the impermanence of the Internet age.

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47 Canal, Chinatown & Little Italy Wednesday January 28 2015 - Sunday February 15 2015 Free

"David Weiss: Works, 1968-1979"

Critics' pick

Better known as half of Fischli/Weiss, the wry conceptualist duo whose work often questioned the nature of things, David Weiss (1946–2012) pursued his own art throughout his 33-year partnership with fellow Swiss artist Peter Fischli. Largely unseen during his life, Weiss's solo efforts are characterized by the same spirt of ironic whimsy found in the videos, sculptures and installations produced by Fischli/Weiss. The works on paper presented here provide a rare look at this aspect of his career.

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Swiss Institute, Soho Wednesday January 28 2015 - Sunday February 22 2015 Free

Vera Lutter

Critics' pick

Views of New York, including such iconic landmarks as the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, are the subjects of this German photographer's latest show. As usual, the works have been created using her trademark technique: Transforming an empty shipping container (or room) into a gigantic camera obscura. The results are equally huge, comprising negative images with a nightmarish, Twilight Zone vibe.

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Gagosian Shop, Upper East Side Thursday January 29 2015 - Saturday March 7 2015 Free

Agustin Fernandez

Critics' pick

Algus has committed himself to showing forgotten or underappreciated artists, and Fernandez (1928–2006) is no exception. A Cuban artist who sojourned in New York, Paris and San Juan, Puerto Rico, he created paintings and drawings in a style mixing abstraction and Surrealism, with nonobjective forms rendered in an illusionistic manner. The result recalls the sort of ’50s sci-fi paperback illustrations that owed a heavy debt to Yves Tanguy. His work was engrossingly weird enough to attract the attention of director Brian De Palma, who featured one of Fernandez's pieces in his creepy classic Dressed to Kill.

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Mitchell Algus Gallery, Lower East Side Thursday January 29 2015 - Sunday March 1 2015 Free

Christopher Knowles

Critics' pick

On view are large versions of Knowles's "typings" series of drawings done on a typewriter, including pictograms that form progressions of the letter C (for Christopher). They remain the best-known work by this autistic poet and artist who provided the libretto for Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s 1976 avant-garde opera, Einstein on the Beach.

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Gavin Brown's Enterprise, Lower East Side Thursday January 29 2015 - Sunday February 22 2015 Free

Philip Taaffe

Critics' pick

Taafe's latest paintings follow the same approach he's taken over a 30-year career, creating works marked by vivid colors, dense decorative patterns (with shapes often borrowed from nature) and mixed-media techniques ranging from collage to silkscreen. Emerging in the 1980s, he's become one of New York's most reliably engaging artists.

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Luhring Augustine Bushwick, Bushwick Friday January 30 2015 - Sunday April 26 2015 Free

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