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Best (and worst) art of 2012

From Cindy Sherman at MoMA to the Whitney Biennial, it’s been a year of hits and misses.

The best

“Cindy Sherman” at the Museum of Modern Art

Sherman brought her bombshell babes, bulimic monsters and ladies of a certain age to MoMA, demonstrating both the range and consistency of her work—and the chameleon-like transformations that make it possible.


“Edvard Munch: The Scream at the Museum of Modern Art

Not so much an exhibit as an opportunistic cashing-in on art-world notoriety, MoMA’s display of Munch’s masterpiece was occasioned by The Scream fetching nearly $120 million at Sotheby’s in May—the highest sum ever paid for an object at auction—making it the most famous artwork in the world. When the anonymous purchaser offered it to MoMA on temporary loan, the museum naturally jumped at the chance. But icons are iconic for a reason, and The Scream’s undeniable power remained undiminished even in front of hordes of gawkers.

Rachel Harrison, “The Help” at Green Naftali

The title of Rachel Harrison’s show seemed like an apt description for what the art world has become: a place in which serving the tastes of the super-rich trumps originality. Yet even though her own work sells exceptionally well, her latest efforts—sculptural totems sprouting curious found objects related to housekeeping; drawings featuring the late Amy Winehouse—appeared to critically interrogated this sad state of affairs.


Lebbeus Woods, “Early Drawings” at Freidman Benda

These remarkable renderings by visionary architect Lebbeus Woods delineated an array of retrofuturistic urban structures so complex, they made the High Line and the Second Avenue subway look like kid stuff. They brought the artist-designer’s vividly dreamt world to life.

Antony Gormley, “Bodyspace” at Sean Kelly Gallery

The British sculpture and Turner Prize recipient inaugurated Sean Kelly’s capacious new location at 36th Street and Tenth Avenue with mostly figurative, solid-steel sculptures forged into a style that could be called digital-cubism, as if Georges Braque and Donald Judd had loudly argued over who got to use the 3-D printer. The result combined humanism and heavy metal into a conversation between viewer and viewed.

The worst

Whitney Biennial 2012 at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Putting a Whitney Biennial on a year-end worst-of list is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the fact that the 2010 edition was actually—gasp!—good only made this year’s show doubly disappointing. Curators Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman managed to demonstrate that they knew next to nothing about the craft of mounting an exhibition, leading to such head-scratching moments as Nick Mauss’s third-floor installation, which incorporated works from the Whitney’s collection. The Biennial had some high points, but mostly it felt phoned-in—a middling muddle, timid and something of a snore. Rather than hate it, the whole thing made you just go, meh.

“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

You’d think that the Met would be satisfied with being the premier repository of 5,000 years of art history. But no, the august institution wants to be a player in contemporary art. Having announced its intention to rent the Whitney’s old home once the latter decamps to the MePa in 2015, the Met mounted this survey as a harbinger of things to come. Surrounding the Pope of Pop with 60 artists who followed in his wake, the show looked like what it essentially was: a Warhol retrospective packed with filler. It presented Andy as the Old Master, with everyone else reduced to footnotes. But the Met scarcely did anyone’s reputation a favor, Warhol’s included.

“Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan” at the Museum of Modern Art

Although Alighiero Boetti’s elegant, if slight, conceptualist style and globe-trotting, peripatetic practice anticipated the work of such artists as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Maurizio Cattelan and Francis Alÿs, MoMA’s retrospective of the Italian artist made you wonder why they bothered to mount the show in the first place. All too often, insouciance subsumed substance in Boetti’s work, making it seem twee and self-absorbed.


Wade Guyton, “OS” at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Guyton’s compositional, technical and conceptual strategies felt like slight digital updates on the work of other artists—making it hard to regard his mechanical, nearly content-free abstractions as anything other than deeply impoverished notions of contemporary art’s potential.

“The Ungovernables” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art

Out of the box, the title of the New Mu’s second triennial survey of emerging artists read like false advertising: There was nothing unruly or envelope-pushing about any of the works here. But if you accept the idea that artists themselves have become content-providing commodities, expressing little more than the inexorable, unimpeded flow of money across international boundaries, then yeah, the term “ungovernable” totally fit.

Aaron Curry, “Buzz Kill” at Michael Werner

Aaron Curry’s sculptures featuring curvy interlocking shapes à la Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi seemed eager to take down modernism’s utopian ideals without offering much in their place. But at least the modernist hope of creating a better society remains an historical memory, while Curry’s pastiches represented a dead end.


Ai Weiwei, "Sunflower Seeds" at Mary Boone Gallery

Ai Weiwei’s status as a celebrated artist-dissident makes his work increasingly difficult to judge as art, but even so, his output suffers from what could be called global art-star disease: a scale and level of fabrication that’s designed to impress viewers rather than transport them. This installation of the artist’s signature work (a much smaller version than the one at London’s Tate Modern) proved the point, suggesting that so far, the artist’s career has produced more high political drama than great art.

Iran do Espírito Santo, “Switch” at Sean Kelly Gallery

Although the Brazilian sculptor’s works were neatly realized and in impeccable taste, they felt superficial and unnecessary. His gray-scale wall painting, set of “folded” translucent mirrors and glass lamp shade forms may have been museum-ready and easy to hype, but at heart, they were slick and self-important—and just plain boring.