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Best of 2014, 2014's Best Art Shows
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The 10 best art shows of 2014

The absolute best of New York’s art shows and exhibits from 2014

By Howard Halle

With so many museums and galleries in one town, it's hard for New York's art world to have a bad year, but 2014 was marked by especially fine exhibits, providing something for everyone. MoMA had the lion's share with surveys of Matisse, Sigmar Polke and Lygia Clark, but even small institutions liked the American Folk Art Museum surprised with its show of Dutch outsider artist, Willem Van Genk. All in all, 2014 offered more than enough events to satisfy even the pickiest art lovers.

RECOMMENDED: Best of 2014

Otto Muehl, Material Action no. 26, Nahrungsmitteltest (Food Test)1966

10. “Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960–1966”

This survey of paintings, collages, drawings and performance photographs provided an eye-opening introduction to Postwar Europe’s most outrageous avant-garde groups, the Vienna Actionists. Members Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, engaged in visceral and often bizarre antics, in which abjection, debasement and self-mutilation—as well as the prevalence of blood, bodily fluids and fecal matter—were employed both literally and figuratively. Group sex, coprophilia and animal entrails as a medium were just some of Actionism’s more outré aspects. The results weren’t pretty, but they articulated something about the outer edge of human experience that continues to resonate today.

Installation view
Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery

9. Jordan Wolfson

Wolfson’s robotic witch-mask-wearing female stripper—inspired by the character Holli Would from Ralph Bakshi’s 1992 film, Cool World—simply blew everyone’s mind in the art world and beyond with its weird audio-animatronic dance in front of a large mirror. A soundtrack of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” a slowed-down version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and strange mumblings in the artist’s own voice only added to the work’s nightmarish ambience.


8. “Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic”

The Dutch outsider artist created panoramic jumbles of figures, skyscrapers, bridges, planes and dirigibles, sourced from travel books and magazines illustrated in scratchy outlines and textures that recall children’s drawings. Crammed with incident, his work represented fanciful flights to destinations such as New York, Prague and Moscow. They sweepingly conveyed the unnerving energy of modern times. Van Genk described them as “symphonies that spring from the brain.” In that sense, he could be considered the Beethoven of self-taught art.

Art Spiegelman, Art Spiegelman,  Lead Pipe Sunday no. 2 (detail), 1997
© 1997 by Art Spiegelman

7. “Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: A Retrospective”

With his limitless imagination, Art Spiegelman transformed the comic book into something with the expressive wallop of Picasso's Guernica. This fascinating exhibition was the museum equivalent of a page turner, tracing the artist's development from high school cartoonist to masterful deconstructionist.


6. “Goya and the Altamira Family”

This exhibition reuniting The Met's beloved portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a.k.a. the "Boy in Red" with the paintings of the other members of his family done by Goya was small but packed a mighty art-historical punch.

Lygia Clark, Trepante, versão 1 (Climber, version 1), 1965
Jones Bergamin

5. “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988”

This fascinating exhibition surveyed the work of Brazilian avant-garde artist Lygia Clark (1920–1988), a central figure in Brazil’s short-lived Neo-Concrete movement of the late 1950s and early ’60s. As the title notes, Clark eventually gave up creating paintings, sculptures and performance pieces to pursue a career as a psychotherapist, though in fact she considered that practice part of her work, which she once described as “outside any scheme of art.” That was indeed the case, a posture that remains radical a half century on.

Lasar Segall, Eternal Wanderers, 1919
Lasar Segall Museum

4. “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937”

With all the horrors of Nazism, it's easy to forget that the Third Reich was at heart an aesthetic project, dedicated to perpetuating an ideology of racial superiority that was often couched in visual terms. This fascinating show examined one of the milestones of that effort, The 1937 "Entartete Kunst"—or Degenerate Art—exhibition, in which examples of Fauvism, Cubism and German Expressionism confiscated from public and private collections, were openly mocked.

Garry Winogrand,  Central Park Zoo, New York 1967
Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher © The Estate of Garry Winogrand

3. Garry Winogrand

Midcentury New York produced a remarkable generation of street photographers, but none did a better job of intuiting the vast social changes brewing beneath the surface of American life than Garry Winogrand. This comprehensive Met survey magnificently captured Winogrand style, in which dynamic, decentered compositions collided with the artist’s sense of the absurd and eye for surreal details.

Sigmar Polke, Untitled (Rorschach), c. 1999
Alistair Overbruck

2. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010”

This giant of postwar painting and the originator, with Gerhard Richter, of Capitalist Realism—Pop Art’s darker German variant—got the retrospective he deserved, in this first exhibition to present Polke’s prints, photographs, films, installations and performances alongside his paintings and drawings. The results induced bafflement, then exhaustion and finally, exhilaration.

Henri Matisse, The Codomas (Les Codomas), 1943
Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle

1. “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs”

This exuberant survey of one of Matisse’s iconic bodies of work, begins in the 1930s when Matisse first took scissors to paper to work out compositions for murals and theater curtains, and ends in the last decade of his life before his death in 1954, when expanded upon the cut-outs’ initial possibilities. The results competed with this very latest developments in painting at the time, showing that the old modern master still had plenty of tricks up his sleeve.


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