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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 |
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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

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Installation view of Adam McEwen, "10, Feels Like 2", 2019
Photograph: Jesse David Harris, Courtesy the artist, Lever House Art Collection and Petzel Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

Adam McEwen, “10, Feels Like 2”

icon-location-pin Lever House Art Collection,
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Adam McEwen signature schtick of milling replicas of everyday objects out of graphite blocks is on full display in this Lever House lobby installation of contemporary Americana, as the artist puts it. Presenting a sparse array of familiar items (the top of a Weber grill, a hubcap, an office wall clock and a packet of birth control pill) rendered in pencil-lead gray, the show aims to unpack the way ordinary things are invested with the weight of memory and history. The chilly allure of the work is turned down several degrees further by a floor covered in white polystyrene sheets that make the space look like an ice rink.

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Rutene Merk, Kamea, 2019
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Downs & Ross, New York
Art, Contemporary art

Rutene Merk, “Sprites”

icon-location-pin Downs & Ross, Chinatown
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Rutene Merk, a Lithuanian artist who lives and works in Munich, Germany, marks her U.S. solo debut with portrait paintings of subjects who looked like they stepped out of a video game circa 2000—which is to say weirdly uncanny and disarticulated at the same time. While the show title seems to allude to fairy tale characters, it's also a reference to a term used in computer graphics to describe the overlay of figure to background.

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Paola Pivi
Photograph: Guillaume Ziccarelli, courtesy the artist & Perrotin
Art, Contemporary art

Paola Pivi, “We are the baby gang”

icon-location-pin Perrotin New York, Upper East Side
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It seems like an eccentric choice for an Italian artist to live and work in Anchorage, Alaska, yet Paola Pivi does indeed call the 49th state home—which may explain this installation of ursine sculptures for her first NYC show in six years. Resembling Care Bears more than grizzlies, her subjects wear brightly colored coats made of feathers instead of fur as they Instagrammably gambol about the gallery.

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Sanya Kantarovsky, On Them, 2019, detail
Photograph: Adam Reich, © Sanya Kantarovsky; Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London and Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin
Art, Contemporary art

Sanya Kantarovsky, “On Them”

icon-location-pin Luhring Augustine, Chelsea
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Like many millennial painters, Sanya Kantarovsky raids the closet of 20th-century modernism to create enigmatic, figurative compositions that bounce pinball-style between multiple sources (Matisse, blue-period Picasso, Munch). The result resembles a stylistic synthesis of Symbolism and Expressionism, suffused with a kind of sardonic sense of humor that could only be described as Russian. (Kantarovsky was born in Moscow, though he was educated at RISD and UCLA, and currently calls New York home). For his debut at Luhring Augustine, Kantarovsky continues in a similar vein with paintings populated by a surreal cast of characters that include a “suicidal bureaucrat, an elaborately coiffed murderess [and] a headless infant accordionist” engaged in a tragicomedy of errors.

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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
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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.

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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
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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
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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
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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.

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

“Something To Say”

icon-location-pin Brooklyn Museum Shop, Prospect Heights
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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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