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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


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

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Best free art exhibitions in NYC

Marilyn Monroe
Photograph: Courtesy Ambika Singh

The Last Sitting: A Marilyn Monroe photograph pop-up

HGU New York, Midtown

Get a peek at fashion photographer Bert Stern's limited-edition photographs of Marilyn Monroe at this free exhibit at HGU New York Hotel. The original works, which are on display through its restaurant Lumaca and the Lumaca Lounge, are black-and-white and sepia photographs with the themes of red based on Stern's shoot with her for Vogue in 1962. It would be the last sitting for portraits she would ever do. "Bert captured Marilyn in a series of images so comprehensively," says curator Shannah Laumeister Stern, wife of the late Stern. "He went beyond her external and ethereal beauty to her essence. Marilyn seemed to trust Bert and let go in ways she had never before. She was free and playful, and Bert captured the total of her with the reverence and passion he felt. They had a relationship through what they both related to most, the lens of the camera." In honor of the exhibition, the Lumaca Lounge will have a Marilyn cocktail (spiced pear liquer with rhubarb bitters and CinZano prosecco). 

Photograph: Arturo Sanchez, courtesy of the artist and Jane Lombard Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

Michael Rakowitz, “The invisible enemy should not exist (Room F, section 1, Northwest Palace of Nimrud)”

Going on 19 years now, the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the latest of many conflicts that have wracked the region since organized warfare was originated by the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia. As the endless war has shifted from deposing Saddam Hussein to combating ISIS and confronting Iran, the collateral damage has included looted or destroyed historical artifacts from Sumer, Babylon and Assyria. Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has made it his mission to save these treasures in memory, if not in fact. Rakowitz’s latest show continues his ongoing project of reconstructing such objects in papier-mâché made from Middle Eastern product labels, covering the work in vivid colors and punchy Arabic type. Here, resurrected Assyrian bas-reliefs, demolished by the Islamic State in 2015, are presented through the prism of consumerism, connecting them to a global economy whose dependence on oil factored into the U.S. intervention in Iraq.  Elsewhere, there’s a stop-motion animation based on a hoax: In 2005, a jihadist website posted a ransom demand for a captured African-American GI, accompanied by his photo. However, the kidnappee turned out to be Special Ops Cody, a lifelike action figure marketed to U.S. servicemen through their local PX. In Rakowitz’s telling, Cody comes to life, finding his way into a museum vitrine filled with Sumerian figurines. Voiced by a female veteran of the Iraqi conflict, Cody pleads with them to escape but is met with eternally impassive stares. R

Jon Pylypchuk, You are covered sweetness, we outlast this worn out time, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy Petzel Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

Jon Pylypchuk, “Waiting for the Next Nirvana”

By his own admission, this Canadian-born, L.A. artist is a failed rock star, which is just as well, since his collaged send-ups of existential angst always make inventive use of trash and trash-cultural references. Here, he populates paint-splattered, glitter-bombed canvases with refuse, including upside track paints brought to life with the help of cue-balls shoved into their pockets to create glowering “eyes.” The show’s title “Waiting for the Next Nirvana,” conveys a plaintive middle-age complaint: “Why hasn’t there been any decent music since Kurt Cobain died?” The pants certainly seem pissed about it.

Kent Monkman, Resurgence of the People, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Art, Contemporary art

“The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park
3 out of 5 stars

The 2010s witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of artists of color exhibiting at galleries and museums—a wave of diversity challenging white heterosexual cultural hegemony that nevertheless remains dependent on both formal tropes borrowed from European art and the largesse of a collector base that is noticeably thin on minorities. It seems that bucking white rule begins with playing by white rules, an irony illustrated by Kent Monkman’s project for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall. A First Nations artist from Canada, Monkman presents two vast, compositions in a style—19th-century history painting—known for stilted figuration and outsize theatrics. In lieu of celebrating the usual monarchs, generals or other worthies, Monkman allegorizes the causal effect between the refugee crisis and climate change. Each canvas features indigenous people fishing storm-tossed white colonizers from raging seas. One depicts the latter, clothed in colonial period costumes (complete with conquistador helmets), being dragged onto land; the other, based on Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, pictures them in contemporary dress being hauled into a boat, as ICE agents and alt-right militiamen gesture with impotent fury from a nearby island. Presiding over both rescues is the artist himself, cast as a transgender shaman—a figure who, in certain tribal traditions, performed ceremonial roles. Monkman stacks queer aesthetics, ecoconsciousness and multiculturalism

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.

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.

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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