Things were pretty much business as usual for the art world during 2019: Art museums continued to expand, art fairs continued to proliferate, auction records for contemporary art continued to be shattered and the biggest galleries continued to consolidate market share at the expense of middle-size spaces, forcing many of the latter to close. These trends have been unfolding over the past decade, but have arguably accelerated in the past couple of years as more and more of the world’s wealth has been accumulated by the one percent—a cohort that includes art collectors. Their deep pockets are now dictating the direction of art in a way that hasn’t been seen since the days of the Medici. Of course, the Medici’s largesse kept artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci in business, but are today’s mercantile princes fostering talents of the same stature? For the most part, I’d say no, but then, I won’t be around in, say, 100 years, when art history has the final say on whose tastes were better: A lowly art critic’s, or that of the buyer who shelled out $91.1 million for a Jeff Koons this past May? Speaking of which, this is the time of year where I’m obliged to put up or shut up about just which shows from the last 12 months were the best, and when all is said and done, there were quite a few of them. So without further ado, here is my list of the top ten art exhibitions of 2019.
1) “Rachel Harrison: Life Hack”
The Whitney Museum of American Art
As the Whitney’s retrospective of Rachel Harrison demonstrated, assemblage with an attitude has been her work’s calling card for 20 years. Emerging in the early 1990s after the Wall Street crash that killed the ’80s art boom, Harrison channeled that era’s disenchantment with pieces that were funny, furious and all up in your grill. Combining photos, found objects and brightly painted, amorphous forms, her sculptures tore male privilege a new one, targeting the fragile ego behind the dick-swinging that defines culture, both high and low. Abraham Lincoln, Mel Gibson, Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning have all become grist for Harrison’s merciless mill.
2) “Hans Haacke: All Connected”
New Museum Of Contemporary Art
Rich patrons have always underwritten the work of artists, but, as I noted above, more and more people are waking up to the fact that today’s one percent have literally taken over the art world. But Hans Haacke saw it all coming 50 years ago. As a founder of Institutional Critique, he targeted the thorny entanglements between art, money and power. His New Museum survey was a reminder that it’s still important to keep those connections out in the open.
3) Vija Celmins
The Met Breuer
Over her five decades as an artist, Vija Celmins has been known mostly as an artist’s artist, a reputation stemming from the contemplative nature of her photo-realistic images of empty oceans, distant stars and arid vistas, as well as her sculptures depicting stones and other objects with uncanny verisimilitude. And while the Met Breuer’s elegantly presented retrospective didn’t necessarily elevate her to a household name, it did allow a much-warranted re-consideration of an artist who delimited her scope in order to deepen a quietly intense meditation on how we observe reality.
4) Amy Sherald, “the heart of the matter...”
Hauser & Wirth New York
Last year was a banner one for Amy Sherald, who went viral after painting the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama. This year may have been even better, marking her first NYC show since that historic honor. On view at Hauser & Wirth were her signature likenesses of African-American subjects, set against vividly colored monochrome backgrounds to contrast with Sherald’s decision to render their skin tones in grisaille. Her debut with the gallery, the exhibit cemented her reputation as a major artist. By the way, she’s still in touch with the Obamas.
5) Simone Leigh, Brick House
The High Line Plinth
When the High Line decided to do its version of the Fourth Plinth—London’s public art showcase in Trafalgar Square—the elevated green space figured it had better go big or go home. The first project doesn’t disappoint: Located above Tenth Avenue at 33rd Street, Simone Leigh’s Brick House is a 16-feet-tall badass bronze black woman who symbolizes the “strength, endurance and integrity” of the titular domicile—which is also the name of a 1977 hit song by the Commodores. As that group might put it, she’s mighty-mighty.
6) “Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless”
Red Bull Arts
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 gave 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. At a moment much like our own, when the state and corporations began to exercise their tentacular grip on politics through the mass media, and the technological illusions that now enthrall us were still in their infancy, Bender’s prophetic art laid bare the sinister effects of what a key exhibition of the time called “infotainment.”
7) “Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces”
New Museum Of Contemporary Art
This survey of video artist Mika Rottenberg revealed a master of indelibly incongruous juxtapositions and circular narratives, unraveling the web of connections—audio, visual, psychological, economic, metaphoric—between phenomena as disparate as science, agribusiness and pop-cultural self-gratification. The artist’s reliance on mesmerizing segues—a clay cube scored by a tiny rake, smoothly merging into an aerial view of combine working a furrowed field; a shot of the camera gliding across the colossal Large Hadron Collider at CERN before alighting on a group of Siberian throat singers—amounts to a kind of Social Surrealism for the 21st century, imagining global capitalism as a dreamlike dive into a collective subconscious that is both funny and Freudian.
8) David Byrd
Anton Kern Gallery and White Columns
An obscure artist who appeared to have deliberately embraced obscurity, David Byrd (1926–2013) studied in New York during his twenties with the French Cubist Amédée Ozenfant before moving, in 1958, to a small town upstate where he painted assiduously for the rest of his life. There things stood until this year, when two august New York galleries—White Columns and Anton Kern—joined forces to mount a major revival of a gifted artist whose work harkened back to American Regionalism and Social Realism, as well as to Edward Hopper’s bleak loneliness and his teacher’s stripped down Cubism. All of which made for an oddly anachronistic style limned in a offbeat yet haunting palette of greige, chalky mint, rust, apricot and a sky blue that he seldom used for the sky. He painted landscapes and street scenes, but his most memorable pictures carefully observed people from everyday life, especially the patients he encountered while working at the VA hospital over the course of 30 years. Alone and unknown, Byrd was a paradoxical hybrid of insider and outsider who lived largely through his art.
9) “The Young and Evil”
This thought-provoking show revisited NYC’s art scene of the 1930s and ’40s, when it was a sleepy provincial backwater. But one corner bubbled with homoerotic ferment. Back then a group of gay male painters—Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and Jared French—coalesced around Lincoln Kirstein, a writer and impresario who cofounded the New York City Ballet. They rejected abstraction for a figurative approach redolent of the love that dare not speak its name, creating an early expression of queer aesthetics that hid in plain sight for some 80 years.
10) Ebecho Muslimova, “TRAPS!”
Leaning hard into body positivity, Ebecho Muslimova’s recurring, Rubenesque alter ego Fatebe made an energetic return in the artist's latest drawings and paintings. In them, she she could be seen bouncing along in nothing but her birthday suit, committing transgressive acts (defecating, urinating and shoving improbable objects into her vagina or rectum) with unconquerable good cheer. The show was a delight as Muslimova turned the tables on the abuses of living while female with persistent nastiness.