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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

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Photograph: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, all rights reserved/VAGA at ARS, NY, courtesy the Foundation and Hauser & Wirth

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 the full guide to free things to do in NYC

Best free art exhibitions in NYC

1
Bill Traylor, Hunter on Horseback with Spotted Dog, 1939-1942
Photograph: Courtesy The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections and David Zwirner New York/London/Paris Hong Kong
Art, Folk art

Bill Traylor

David Zwirner, Lenox Hill

These days, Bill Traylor (1854–1949) is generally acknowledged as a master of 20th-century art, a reputation made all the remarkable by the fact that he was self-taught. In a life story that has also become somewhat familiar, Traylor was born into slavery and freed by Lincoln to live the hardscrabble existence of an Alabama sharecropper, until, suddenly, something truly astonishing happened: In 1939 he moved to the state capital of Montgomery, where, after a brief stint working in a shoe factory, he picked up a pencil and began to draw on pieces of cardboard. He was 85, and moreover, homeless, using the street as his studio. Between 1939 and 1942, he created some 1,500 pieces populated with figures and animals based on his observations and recollections. Indeed, you might describe the result as a menagerie of memory, since Traylor imparted a fanciful, almost magical, quality to his subjects. But what truly set his work apart was a startlingly modernist style in which man and beast were depicted as abstracted shapes that rivaled Paul Klee and Joan Miró for formal power. Though Traylor exhibited in his lifetime, it wasn’t the 1970s that his genius was finally recognized. This exhibition offers further proof with a selection of Traylor’s renderings from The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections.  

2
Sérgio Sister, Impress your feelings with your fingerprint, 1970
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler
Art, Drawing

“The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists”

Inmate art has long held a fascination for the way it provides a window into the lives of those coping with imprisonment. Though usually associated with convicted felons behind bars, the genre is broadened in this exhibition of works on paper to include individuals incarcerated for reasons ranging from political dissent to mental illness. The show features pieces created while under confinement by canonical names such as Honoré Daumier and Gustave Courbet (both of whom were tossed in jail for anti-government activities) as well as contributions from the ranks of the anonymous, like holiday greeting cards to family produced by unfortunate souls condemned to the Soviet Gulag.

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3
Katsura Funakoshi, Sound of Tree Water, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy Van Doren Waxter
Art, Contemporary art

“Katsura Funakoshi: A Tower in the Night Forest”

Katsura Funakoshi was Japan’s representative at the 1998 Venice Biennale, and while he’s considered a major artist in his country, he isn’t well known here. A figurative sculptor who works primarily in wood, he crafts sublime, enigmatic busts of subjects who alternate between surreal, mythical beings possessed of an animistic presence and straightforward portraits of friends and acquaintances. Kissed by subtle glosses of color, Funakoshi’s objects are fashioned in an elegant, attenuated style of smoothed features that distantly recalls the work of early modernists like Elie Nadelman, especially in the way that Funakoshi imbues sophisticated forms with folk art guilelessness. This is the artist’s first show in NYC in 10 years and is definitely worth catching.

4
Wangechi Mutu, The NewOnes, will free Us, 2019
Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art
Art, Contemporary art

“The Facade Commission: Wangechi Mutu, The New Ones, will free Us”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park

For the first-ever facade commission at the Met, Mutu fills the niches flanking the museum’s entrance with four monumental bronzes that put an Afro-futuristic spin on a classical architectural feature known as a caryatid, a column or pillar that takes the form of an allegorical female figure.

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5
Installation view of “Third Dimension: Works from The Brant Foundation”
Photograph: Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy The Brant Foundation
Art, Contemporary art

“Third Dimension: Works from The Brant Foundation”

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, East Village

The Brant Foundation’s NYC location follows up its inaugural presentation of Jean-Michel Basquiat with a selection of paintings and sculptures by a list of name-brand artists, ranging from Pop Art icons such as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg to current art market faves such as Urs Fisher and Nate Lowman.

6
Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019
Photograph: Timothy Schenck, courtesy the High Line
Art, Outdoor art

Simone Leigh, “Brick House”

High Line Plinth, Upper West Side

Simone Leigh’s 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a black woman takes its title from the 1977 Motown hit by the Commodores, and portrays its subject as a monumental head crowned by an Afro atop a domed-shaped body resembling a hut. With Brick House, Leigh salutes the strength and fortitude of women in the African Diaspora.

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7
Photograph: Courtesy Bridget Donahue
Art, Contemporary art

“Ragen Moss: 8 Animals”

Semi-transparent and suspended from the gallery ceiling, Moss’s sculptures resemble ectoplasmic blobs or maybe giant chrysalises in which an odd assortment of items—hearts, eyes, snatches of text—appear to float inside like random thoughts in pupal stage. In some cases, Moss draws images on her objects, or paints patterns on them. Whatever else is going on, something seems ready to hatch.

8
Tyree Guyton Sam's Girl, 2005
Photograph: Charles Benton, courtesy Martos Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

“Tyree Guyton: Love, Sam”

4 out of 5 stars

Of all the Rust Belt cities that spiraled into decline over the past several decades, few have done so as precipitously as Detroit, which declared bankruptcy in 2013 as whole neighborhoods were reduced to vacant lots. Still, bright spots persisted, especially on Heidelberg Street in the McDougall-Hunt section of town. There, Tyree Guyton, a former firefighter and autoworker, transformed the block fronting his house into an outdoor showcase for his funky found-object installations. Begun in 1986, the Heidelberg Project, as he called it, attracted national attention for the indomitable spirit it came to symbolize after Detroit went bust. Art world interest followed, resulting in his first NYC show. Though he attended art school, Guyton is often mistaken for an outsider artist, and it’s easy to see why: He combines detritus (sneakers, vacuum cleaners, lawn chairs) with primitivistic paintings that recall those of Jean-Michel Basquiats. But Guyton’s engagement with the battered past and future hopes of Detroit stands in sharp contrast to Basquiat’s self-mythologizing. Here, totemic portrait heads stare from dented car hoods and wood panels, flashing toothy smiles that resemble Cadillac grills. In Extinction, a nervously grinning couple is depicted under the legend 1967 + sam, invoking the devasting riots of that year. The middle of the floor, meanwhile, is taken up by an ebullient constructivist arrangement of salvaged doors painted in clashing colors. Recently, Guyton disass

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9
Roger Brown, Old and New Eight Ladies Typing, 1972
Photograph: Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan
Art, Contemporary art

Roger Brown

Chicago Imagist Brown (1941–1997) painted vivid land- and cityscapes as wallpaperlike motifs. This exhibit presents a selection of his works, which mix Art Deco, Pop Art and outsider art to eerie effect.

10
Mike Kelley, Yummy Puffy Mommy Yoni, 2008
Photograph: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, all rights reserved/VAGA at ARS, NY, courtesy the Foundation and Hauser & Wirth
Art, Contemporary art

Mike Kelley, “Timeless Painting”

Originally from Detroit, L.A. artist Mike Kelley (1954–2012) was one of the true greats of recent American art, producing a provocative and multilayered output that commented upon popular culture, sex and religion. He imbued his approach with a savage wit born of the clash between his working-class background and an art-world, which he viewed as elitist, particularly in NYC. Although he employed a wide array of mediums—drawings, sculpture, performance, music, photography and video—this exhibition focuses on his engagement with painting, and its place within the larger scheme of his work, with a selection of pieces created during a 15-year period between 1994 and 2009.

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