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The best free art exhibitions in NYC

Discover New York City's top free art exhibitions and gallery shows in our roundup of critic's picks

Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
Haim Steinbach, Untitled (rabbit, sailor), 2016

Looking for some free art, culture vultures? Thought so. Which is why we found a bunch of gratis art shows at galleries and museums in NYC 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 restaurants in NYC.

RECOMMENDED: See all free things to do in NYC

Best free art exhibitions in NYC

Alexis Rockman, “Bioluminescence”

Rockman, who has said his work was inspired by childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History, emerged in the 1980s with fantastical paintings of flora and fauna, often portrayed in post-apocalyptic setting, limned in a style that married dire ecological warnings with magic realism. His career has included work for Hollywood, most notably the concept drawings he created for Ang Lee’s film of Life of Pi. His latest show plunges into the briny deep with images of bioluminescent sea creatures lighting up gouaches on black paper.

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Carolina Nitsch Project Room , Chelsea Saturday April 30 2016

Serge Poliakoff

Serge Poliakoff (1900–1969) was a Russian emigre who fled his homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually settled in Paris. An abstract painter known for jigsaw puzzle compositions of irregular blocks of color and surface effects filling the picture plane, he was part of the postwar revival of the School of Paris. Needless to say, he was barely known on this side of the Atlantic, and even struggled for a while to make ends meet, where he supported a family by playing Russian folk music in Parisian nightclubs. Recognition finally came during the last 20 years of his life, and his work kicked into high gear. This show is his first in the U.S. in decades, and offers proof that the development of abstraction in the postwar era was far richer and more varied than conventional history allows.

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Cheim & Read , Chelsea Saturday April 30 2016

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, “King of Lesser Lands”

Even for an outsider artist, the work of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was strange. It wandered among several mediums, including painting, drawings, ceramics and sculptures. Oddest of all were Von Bruenchenhein's erotic pin-ups photos of his wife, Marie, who was ten years his junior. Those images, plus psychedelic botanical studies, ritual objects made of chicken bones and other works, were all part of an elaborate fantasy life the artist shared with his spouse, who often posed for him naked, wearing crowns and other headgear fashioned by her husband. He also wrote poetry, much of it, like his art devoted to Marie. Von Bruenchenhein's richly imagined world (over which he annointed himself king) contrasted sharply with the small, ramshackle house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he lived with Marie, and also belied his ordinary existence working the night shift in a local bakery. As with many figures of self-taught art, Von Bruenchenhein’s work was discovered only after his death in 1983—a body of work that bears witness to a passionate relationship between lovers that was also a form of performance art.

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Andrew Edlin Gallery , Chelsea Until Sunday May 8 2016

“Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions"

This survey—the first of its kind in more than 20 years—explores the work of Dubuffet (1901–1985). One of the major figures of the School of Paris revival following the end of World War II, he's best known for his pioneering interest in what we call outsider art today, but which he termed Art Brut. He was especially fascinated by the work produced by the institutionalized, and it’s easy to see how he may have seen a reflection of Europe  traumatized postwar state their often inchoate visions. He promoted and collected work by Art Brut artists, and was also influenced by them, particularly in the frenetic, agitated quality of his figurative work. He also created overall abstractions that followed up on American AbEx with deeply textured surfaces that incorporated sand or studio detritus to suggest scorched or blasted landscapes.

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Acquavella Galleries , Upper East Side Until Tuesday May 10 2016

“Charles Bukowski & Walter Robinson: There’s A Bluebird In My Heart”

Known as the “laureate of American lowlife, Charles Bukowski is represented in this show by a framed printed copy of his poem, “The Bluebird,” a meditation on the manly art of  suppressing your vulnerability—allegorized in Bukowski’s words as “a bluebird in my heart,” kept locked within himself him by alcohol and cigarettes. Both vices figure prominently in accompanying paintings by veteran artist Walter Robinson, whose work immortalizes life's necessities, guilty pleasures and agents of dependency—from Jack Daniel's and White Castle sliders to prescription meds and stacks of cash—rendered in a style recalling 1950s paperbacks covers. The hardboiled sensibility and dark irony of both artists is evenly matched here.

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Owen James Gallery , Greenpoint Until Saturday May 14 2016

“Guðmundur Thoroddsen: Dismantled Spirits”

This Icelandic artist’s focuses on the deracination of male privilege by the forces of social change. His sculptures and works on paper ironically harken back to the phallocentric universe of Norse gods and mythological figures, represented here as men with long beards, who fight, preen, defecate and otherwise call attention to themselves within flat, empty spaces that often include images of dildos lording over the proceedings. The spirits of the poor saps running around Thoroddsen’s compositions are indeed being dismantled per the show’s title.

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Asya Geisberg Gallery , Chelsea Until Saturday May 14 2016

Jim Joe, “Look Means Memorize”

In his second solo show with the gallery, the enigmatic street artist and self-described “general idiot” known as Jim Joe presents the latest examples of his schematic brand primitivism with new paintings and wall texts in this. The works include a “personality assesement by a certified graphologist using Jim Joe’s handwriting and drawing as its point of reference” as well as “an analytical portrait of a person who isn’t there.”

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The Hole , Downtown Until Sunday May 22 2016

“David Hammons: Five Decades”

David Hammons is one of the most important American artists today, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it. An artist of his stature would have been recognized by now in major museum surveys, but as one of the first African-American artists to have emerged in the context of ’60s Conceptualism, he has always remained elusive and apart from the largely white art world as matter of strategy. Not that he’s unknown or hasn’t received significant exposure, but this must-see look back at his 50-year career really belongs at MoMA or the Whitney. The fact that it isn’t is the artist’s own choice, but since it’s being mounted in a gallery venue, it does have the virtue of being free.

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Mnuchin Gallery , Upper East Side Until Friday May 27 2016

Haim Steinbach

One of the movements that came and went in the 1980s art world, commodity fetishism revived and updated Marcel Duchamp’s readymade strategy for the conspicuous consumption of the Reagan era. Among the artists associated with it, Haim Steinbach has proven to have created its most durable formula, one in which kitsch items and consumer goods are arranged on shelves resembling minimalist sculptures—as if Target used Donald Judd’s work to parade its wares. And that’s the point: Steinbach deconstructs how the mechanics of display stimulate our desire for objects. What makes his work so compelling is that he’s also a consummate formalist who brings a keen eye to juxtaposing colors and shapes, resulting in three-dimensional rebuses left to the viewer to decode. Ironic and elegant, Steinbach’s work never fails to engage. This show presents his latest works.

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Tanya Bonakdar Gallery , Chelsea Until Friday May 27 2016

William Leavitt, “Telemetry”

A Los Angeles artist with a longstanding career, Leavitt channels the vernacular domestic landscape of his home town in tableau-style installations that combine furnishings, sculpture and paintings with the occasional addition of video and slide projection. The results resemble rambling, surreally disarticulated ranch houses and bungalows: Not ruins, exactly, but stage sets evoking Hollywood artifice and the unlikely existence of a major metropolis plunked down in a water-starved, desert basin. His latest works continue in a similar vein.

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Greene Naftali , Chelsea Until Friday May 27 2016
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Allie E
Allie E

Thanks! This list is really helpful. Looking forward to checking out Moira Dryer's work.