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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 Van Doren Waxter

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

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.  

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”

The Drawing Center, Soho

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.

Joe Coleman, Old Man Brown, 1995
Photograph: Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

“Joe Coleman and The Shadow Self”

Coleman’s career has been colorful, to say the least. He’s panicked audiences with transgressive performances in which he spit the bitten-off heads of mice into crowds, or hung upside down as fireworks strapped to his chest exploded (unsurprisingly, these events sometimes attracted the attention of law enforcement). He also tests viewers with visionary paintings that meld intricate details of weird Americana with Grand Guignol, as if Hieronymus Bosch were limning sideshow banners for P.T. Barnum. This exhibit explores 20 years of the artist’s output on canvas with a focus on his “degenerate and deviant” portraits featuring himself and infamous historical figures that he admires like the radical abolitionist John Brown.  

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

“Katsura Funakoshi: A Tower in the Night Forest”

Van Doren Waxter, Central Park

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.

H. R. Giger, Birth Machine Baby, 1998, detail
Photograph: Matthias Belz, © H. R. Giger Museum, Gruyères, Switzerland, courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

“Birth Machine Baby: H. R. Giger and Mark Prent”

Gagosian Gallery Park & 75, Lenox Hill

Fans of Alien might want to check out this show featuring works by Swiss artist H.R. Giger (1940–2014), creator of the eponymous monster that rampaged through that film and its sequels. Joining Giger is Mark Prent, a Canadian artist with a similar taste for grotesque surrealism. Both offer figurative sculptures that may leave you a bit spooked. Giger, for instance, presents machine/human hybrids, including the titular piece that portrays a pair of steampunk infants who look like they've just climbed out of a jar of formaldehyde. Prent, meanwhile, offers a lifelike rendition of a gymnast performing a balance beam handstand—lifelike, that is, if you overlook the fact that his legs have been transformed into a merman’s tail. 

Ebecho Muslimova, Fatebe Deep Frog Organza, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy Magenta Plains
Art, Contemporary art

Ebecho Muslimova, “TRAPS!

Magenta Plains, Midtown West

Since 2011, the work of Ebecho Muslimova has centered on the artist’s irrepressible alter ego, Fatebe, whose naked, corpulent figure acrobatically bounces across the artist’s drawings and paintings. Rendered in sweeping cartoon outline, Fatebe is usually alone, confronting nonsensical situations with unconquerable good cheer as she overcomes outlandish depredations that often involve defecation, urination and other acts of abjection; indeed, her vagina and sphincter—which are sometimes elastically stretched with unlikely objects such as pianos or ceiling fans—are often prominently depicted. Born in the former Soviet Union, Muslimova adroitly mines a particularly dark vein of absurdism that feels uniquely Russian. That remains true of her current show, in which Fatebe contends with a plague of frogs among other disasters.

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.

Installation view of Nicolas Party, “Pastel,” 2019
Photograph: Steven Probert, courtesy FLAG Art Foundation
Art, Contemporary art

Nicolas Party, “Pastel”

FLAG Art Foundation, Chelsea
4 out of 5 stars

A material vulnerable to smudging and fading, pastel—powdered pigment pressed into sticks—became prized during the Rococo period in France for precisely those delicate qualities. It’s since been a staple for working on paper—and, in the case of Nicolas Party, on walls. Featured here are four of Party’s labor-intensive murals, each one overlaid with a framed pastel by another artist. The show delves into the history of the medium with contributions by contemporary artists as well as by canonical figures like Edgar Degas. But mostly, Party focuses on pastel’s 18th-century roots and two masters of the form, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715–1783) and Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757). Perronneau’s rosy Portrait of a woman with pink ribbons hangs atop Party’s circular still life of oddly colored fruits, while Party’s room-wrapping detail of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Progress of Love backstops Carriera’s three-quarter Portrait of a Lady. Elsewhere, La Conversation, a Degas rendering of a female couple engaged in a tête-à-tête, is paired with Party’s close-up of the dress from François Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour. And Brooklyn artist Robin F. William’s playful depiction of two nude women holding the legs of a naked man who is standing on his head is juxtaposed with Party’s interpretation of another Fragonard, the fleshy Birth of Venus. Party rounds out the proceedings with individually installed pieces on brightly painted walls by artists ranging from Mary Cassatt to Chr

Richard Serra, Nine, 2019
Photograph: Robert McKeever, © 2019 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy Gagosian
Art, Contemporary art

Richard Serra, “Forged Rounds”

No one does heavy metal heavier than Richard Serra, who is presenting three new bodies of work at as many Gagosian locations. Uptown, the gallery’s Madison Avenue space features a new set of Serra’s monochrome drawings made by pressing oversize sheets of paper into thick layers of black pigment. Gagosian’s W 21st venue is taken up by one of the artist’s signature installations of curving Corten plates. But the work that arguably outweighs them all is his “Forged Rounds” series at the Gagosian flagship on W 24th Street. Comprising arrangements of massive drums fabricated from solid steel, each sculpture tips the scale at exactly 50 tons, though they vary in height and diameter, offering a kind of monumental object lesson in the meaning of mass.

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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