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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 Lurhing Augustine
By Howard Halle |

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

Harry Dodge, Late Heavy Bombardment, 2019, video still
Photograph: Courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts
Art, Contemporary art

Harry Dodge, “User”

icon-location-pin Callicoon Fine Arts, Lower East Side

Interdisciplinary artist Harry Dodge marks his debut at Callicoon Fine Arts with recent examples of sculpture, drawing and video. The selection includes assemblages of incongruous materials imbued with a presence that’s equal parts low-fi, DIY and sci-fi. Also featured is Late Heavy Bombardment, an animated short with a yard-sale Surrealist vibe that unpacks the “fuzzy…space between self-defense and…retaliatory aggression.”

Bruno Gironcoli, Untitled, 1975-1976
Photograph: Courtesy CLEARING New York/Brussels
Art, Contemporary art

Bruno Gironcoli, “Sculpture”

icon-location-pin CLEARING, Central Brooklyn

Strangeness is no stranger to art, but the oeuvre of Austrian artist Bruno Gironcoli (1936–2010) certainly took eccentricity to the max. His baroquely futurist sculptures combined organic elements and machine-like parts into objects that resembled extraterrestrial vehicles arriving from space. Trained as a metalsmith, Gironcoli turned to sculpture in the early ‘60s during a sojourn in Paris where he became acquainted with Alberto Giacometti. He was particularly taken with latter’s early efforts—pieces like The Palace at 4 a.m. in which spindly forms are assembled on a platform like actors on a stage. Taking the idea and running with it, Gironcoli heaped towering piles of stuff, both representational (fauna, fetuses, brooms, toilets) and not (borrowings from Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró) onto podiums, creating, as it were, altars to chaos. Like other Austrians of his generation, Gironcoli was reacting to the horrors of Nazism through works that evoked a world pulling itself together after coming apart at the seams.

Kiki Kogelnik, Friends, 1964
Photograph: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Art, Contemporary art

Kiki Kogelnik

icon-location-pin Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Chelsea

Born in Austria, Kiki Kogelnik (1935–1997) moved to NYC in 1961, just as Pop Art was starting to take off. While her oeuvre is generally associated with that genre, it wasn’t about the cartoons, product brands, celebrities, advertising and other subjects associated with Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, etc. Rather, her paintings and sculpture bounced off of couture design for sly observations on gender and the constraints imposed on women by culture and commerce. Bodily silhouettes in punchy colors were a frequent motif, whether they were painted into overlapping compositions that combined figures and geometric patterns, or cut out of vinyl sheets before being draped on hangers or pipe racks like so many pieces of shmatte or flayed skin to suggest the ways that culture uses up and disposes of women’s bodies. During her lifetime, Kogelnik struggled to be recognized, but as this show proves, her work has begun to earn posthumous acclaim for its piquant feminist commentary.

Andy Warhol, Glamour Portrait, 1962
Photograph: © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Art, Contemporary art

“Andy Warhol By Hand: Part II, Drawings 1950s–1960s”

icon-location-pin Sperone Westwater, Lower East Side

Missed the Whitney’s big Warhol show? This look at Andy’s early works on paper might be the next best thing. Curated by Vincent Fremont, founder of the Andy Warhol Foundation and formerly Andy’s right-hand man, the exhibition comprises 125 drawings from the 1950s and 1960s organized by subject: Flowers, female and male portraits, religious iconography and so on. Together, they offer an fascinating slice of Warhol’s career before he became famous for way more than 15 minutes.

Steven Parrino, Blue Idiot, 1986
Photograph: John Berens, courtesy Skarstedt Gallery New York/London
Art, Contemporary art

“Steven Parrino: Paintings & Drawings 1986–2003”

icon-location-pin Skarstedt Gallery, Lenox Hill

A member of the “Infotainment” generation that emerged in the 1980s East Village around galleries like Nature Morte, Steven Parrino (1958–2005) stood out because of his commitment to abstraction of the Minimalist persuasion. This was at a time when the genre had been buried under an avalanche of Neo-Expressionist painting, and pronouncements of the medium’s demise dating to Conceptualism late-’60s, still reverberated though the Reagan-era art world. So painting was both dead and not, a contradiction Parrino distilled into flat, monochromatic canvases that appeared to have been wrenched off of their stretchers by unseen hands. Parrino described as his process as “re-animating the corpse of painting,” but it also parodied the faux sturm und drang of artists like Julian Schnabel. Parrino’s punk nihilism was unabashedly confrontational, so his efforts were largely ignored by the art market of the period, though he had some success showing in Europe, particularly in France. Still, by his time of his death in a motorcycle accident in Brooklyn, he had become a classic case of an artist who couldn’t get arrested. Two years later, though, Gagosian Gallery mounted a retrospective of his work, some of which sold for over $1 million. This show at Skarstedt represents a second stab at a revival (or re-animation, if you prefer) of Parrino’s career, and it’s something of an irony, perhaps, that this exhibit, like Gagosian’s, has been mounted on the Upper East Side—a far cry from the mean st

Julia Scher, Information America, 1995
Photograph: Courtesy Ortuzar Projects
Art, Contemporary art

“Julia Scher: American Promises”

icon-location-pin Ortuzar Projects, Tribeca

Three decades ago, long before the Internet loomed as a threat to people’s privacy, Julia Scher explored the ever-increasing encroachment of CCTV and other means of surveillance on the public through multi-camera video installations that ensnared audiences in a feedback loop of scrutiny. Forcing viewers into a performative role they weren’t even aware of, Scher essentially undertook a feminist deconstruction of the sort of videos that typified the late-’60s work of artists such as by Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, countering their solipsism by connecting the controlling presence of the camera to that of the male gaze. This mini-survey of the artist’s presciently critical output represents her first solo exhibition in NYC in 15 years.

Soto, Untitled (Compositions dynamiques), 1951
Photograph: David Bordes, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Art, Painting

“Soto: Vibrations, 1950–1960”

icon-location-pin Hauser & Wirth New York, Upper East Side

Known simply as Soto, Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005) was a Venezuela sculptor and painter who settled in Paris in 1951 and became a leading figure in the postwar revival of geometric abstraction on the Continent. He also played a seminal role in the subsequent development of Op and Kinetic art. Soto’s early work built upon the style of Mondrian, but he eventually became interested in artistic experiments with transparent materials—such as Marcel Duchamp’s motorized sculpture, Rotary Glass Plates—and began to paint stripes and other shapes on stacked sections of Plexiglas for varying optical effects. Examples of both approaches—as well as others are included in the pocket survey spanning Soto’s first decade in Europe.

Photograph: Courtesy Shrine, NYC

Mary T. Smith, “I WE OUR”

icon-location-pin Shrine, Downtown

Vibrant paintings are on offer in this exhibit devoted to the work of Mary T. Smith (1904–1995), a self-taught artist from Mississippi who first made her work during the 1970s after she retired from her job as a domestic servant and cook. Painting on plywood and corrugated metal, Smith created portraits and Biblical scenes, installing them outdoors in “yard shows” typical of African-American outsider artists in the Deep South. Smith favored bold colors, limning animals and figurative subjects with broad brushstrokes that she also used to spell out religious messages and other texts. The result was a kind of vernacular Expressionism that appears strikingly contemporary.

Portrait of Gretchen Bender, 1986
Photograph: © Hans Neleman
Art, Contemporary art

“Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless”

icon-location-pin Red Bull Arts New York, Chelsea

A lesser-known light of the Pictures Generation, Gretchen Bender (1951–2004) set deconstruction to a dance beat in her pioneering video installations of the 1980s. This excellent retrospective gives the artist her due as a compellingly prescient interrogator of images, technology and mass communication, and the ways in which all three seduce and manipulate us. Arriving in New York in 1980, Bender quickly fell in with likeminded artists, including Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, who became her partner. These artists explored how images work—like how, say, Sherman’s film stills of lone women engender both cultural attitudes and personal subjectivity. Bender followed suit, exhibiting reliefs that juxtaposed panels bearing appropriated images from advertising and television, along with others featuring works by her peers that pointed to the self-aggrandizement and sexism of the art world. But, dissatisfied with the limitations of static formats, she turned her sights on critiquing larger issues through moving images. Her experiments with multichannel videos on stacked monitors culminated in the ambitious Total Recall (1987), a theatrical arrangement of 24 monitors on four tiers. Eighteen minutes long with 11 channels and a driving post-punk soundtrack, Total Recall shows a rapid-fire succession of then-nascent computer animation, glittering 3-D corporate logos, TV commercials, military recruiting ads and clips from Oliver Stone’s film, Salvador, about El Salvador’s bloody civil

Time Out says
Jean-Luc Moulène, More or Less Bone (Formal Topological Optimization), 2018–2019
Photograph: Kyle Knodell, courtesy the artist, Miguel Abreu Gallery New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel Paris and Thomas Dane Gallery London/Naples
Art, Contemporary art

“Jean-Luc Moulène: More or Less Bone”

icon-location-pin SculptureCenter, Long Island City

What do you get when you combine a sphere, a spiral staircase and a knucklebone? Something like the skull of antediluvian crocodile according to French artist Jean-Luc Moulène, who devised this fiberglass sculpture with the help of aerospace engineers and a fancy algorithm that processes the “most efficient, least wasteful solution given a set of discrete variables” to create an optimized whole. The skeletonized appearance of the results here suggests that if there is an ultimate optimizing solution to any problem, it can probably be found in the grave.

Issy Wood, Me in 2007, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy JTT
Art, Contemporary art

Margaret Wharton and Issy Wood, “I came as soon as I heard”

icon-location-pin JTT, Lower East Side

The “psychological pull of domestic objects [and] the impulse to anthropomorphize them” is the theme behind this two-person show featuring work by Chicago sculptor Margaret Wharton (1943–2014) and London painter Issy Wood (born 1993). Wharton was best known for taking apart chairs and reconstituting them as different sorts of objects (here, they include talismanic effigies). Wood’s canvases, meanwhile, picture items—clothes, teapots, etc.—as metonymical portraits of women. Despite differences in the artists’ chosen mediums and generational affiliations, their pairing yields some interesting resonances.

Photograph: Courtesy Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
Art, Contemporary art

Alex Katz

icon-location-pin Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Harlem

Now 91, Alex Katz continues the prodigious output that has marked his six-decade career. In recent years, his always economical amalgam of Pop Art and contemplative realism has moved even further towards simplicity as evinced in his latest offerings, which include paintings of landscapes and nudes, as well as freestanding outlines of the latter fabricated in stainless steel.

Hannah Levy, Bone-in, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy Jeffrey Stark
Art, Contemporary art

Hannah Levy, “Bone-in”

icon-location-pin Jeffrey Stark, Chinatown

Hannah Levy’s installation for Jeffrey Stark’s micro gallery slash display case is what you might call high-concept: A giant femur wedged diagonally into a space too small for it to fit in. Made of stainless steel, the bone recalls her jumbo stalks of asparagus, and is apiece with her interest in those everyday objects from we tend to overlook or ignore. It also represents a shift in subject from items that could be considered extensions of the body (medical equipment, handrails, chairs) to an actual anatomical feature.

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Art, Contemporary art

“Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper”

icon-location-pin FLAG Art Foundation, Chelsea

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1970s, Washington D.C. served as the center for a group of cutting-edge abstractionists who pioneered color-field painting, a genre which featured compositions formed out of solid expanses of thinly applied pigments. Among their number was Sam Gilliam, who stood out as a rare artist of color working in an overwhelming white art world. Moreover, he introduced the rather radical notion of dispensing with stretcher bars and treating painted canvases like pieces of draped fabric. Now 85, Gilliam is still going strong, as this show of oversized works on paper makes abundantly clear.    

André Butzer, Untitled, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy Metro Pictures
Art, Contemporary art

André Butzer

icon-location-pin Metro Pictures, Chelsea

The German painter’s previous show at the gallery in 2013 presented black-and-white geometric abstractions that were quite a bit severe when compared to the riotously hued, cartoonish canvases—both abstract and figurative—that preceded them. This outing represents a return to color-filled form, occasioned, perhaps, by a recent move from Germany to Los Angeles, where the climate permits the artist to paint outdoors.

Mark Manders, Tilted Head, 2019
Photograph: Jason Wyche, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Art, Contemporary art

Mark Manders, “Tilted Head”

icon-location-pin Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Upper East Side

Dutch artist Mark Manders puts a new spin on face time with his public art project at the 59th Street entrance to Central Park. Seemingly in repose within the confines of the Doris C. Freedman Plaza adjacent to the park, Tilted Head appears to have been cut in half, with the missing sides shorn up by planks. Despite looking likes it’s been made out of (cracked) clay and wood, Tilted Head is actually completely cast in bronze, a bit of trompe l’oeil that’s something of a specialty for the artist. With its eyes closed as if it were sleeping, dreaming of the green space just beyond, the poetic sculpture speaks to Mander’s original ambition to be a writer and is of apiece with the artist’s aim to create a language out of objects.

Deborah Kass, OY/YO, 2015
Courtesy the artist and
Art, Contemporary art

“Something To Say”

icon-location-pin Brooklyn Museum Shop, Prospect Heights

For the next year, a group of text-based outdoor sculptures will be taking up residence in front of the Brooklyn's Museum main entrance as part of the institution’s “role as a civic space for conversation and shared learning.” Brooklyn Hi-Art! Machine, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Hank Willis Thomas are among the contributors, and so, too, is Deborah Kass, whose monumental sculpture OY/YO will be making its third public appearance after extended stays in Brooklyn Bridge Park and North Fifth Street Pier Park in Williamsburg.

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