The Eye-Opening Moment
Last winter, Urs Fischer dug a 38-by-16-foot crater, nine feet deep, extending almost to the walls of the Gavin Brown Gallery. It was a transforming and shocking sight. Standing on the 14-inch ledge of concrete floor surrounding the piece induced thoughts of earthworks, minimalism, chaos and hell. Fischer had torn up a gallery, forcing us to look into his own "hole." But presciently, it was just as much a precipice for us and for the art world, since this was going to be the state of the world for the year to come: We’d all be poised on the edge -- politically, psychically, financially and esthetically. The stark gesture was simultaneously surreal, loving, violent and audacious. Fischer shattered perceptual space, destabilized our relationship to art and art galleries, overturned ideas about the market, and made us understand that all that is solid melts into air – that’s something momentous.
1. Tino Sehgal: Marian Goodman Gallery. I often see shows I don’t like but this was the only show I’ve ever seen that didn’t like me! Last winter Tino Sehgal had performers stand in the rear room of this gallery and discuss art and philosophy. Viewers were acknowledged as they entered and occasionally included in conversations. After answering one of the performers he basically upbraided me. I was horrified, mortified and thrilled. Sehgal has taken "relational esthetics" to a whole new level.
2. The most mind-blowing work of art I saw all year was a scroll, part of one of the greatest narrative works of art ever produced, an enormous 740 foot tour-de-force by the great Chinese master Wang Hui (1632-1717) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 12-scroll masterpiece depicts a 1,700-mile journey made in 1698 by the Kangxi Emperor. The 72 feet of Scroll Seven take us from the city of Wuxi, south to the metropolis of Suzhou. Along the way we see fields, mountains, lakes, palaces and scenes of everyday life, people weaving, selling rice, walking dogs, riding horses, eating. At the far left we behold the sight of the emperor himself as he sits in his boat as it sails into port. All these landscapes and figures are deployed in a myriad of imaginative spatial perspectives and atmospheric effects, making this a machine of sheer pleasure.
3. Pipilotti Rist. Rist’s enormous enveloping MoMA video was the trippiest, most visually alluring installation seen in New York since Rudolf Stingel’s aluminum foil room at the Whitney last season. Vibrant images of flowers, blood, earthworms and nudes covered the walls. Rist mixed the essences of modernism, the colors of Matisse, and the fragmented forms of Picasso, with her own sensuous sensibility.
4. Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures. With no pictures of spring chickens in sight and crow’s feet the order of the day this perennially shape-shifting avenging angel of photography donned the psyches of aging women torn by conflicting social proscriptions and inner yearnings. For an artist who has set up such narrow parameters it’s amazing Sherman isn’t making boring, narcissistic pictures.
5. Klara Liden: Reena Spaulings. For this solo show Liden built a wall with a narrow doorway. A long corridor led to a dark living room. If you listened you’d hear pecking sounds, scratching and cooing from above. It turned out Liden left the gallery windows open and pigeons were roosting atop the enclosed living room. It was as scintillating as an Edgar Allen Poe novel.
6. Jeffrey Wells: Marianne Boesky Gallery. For his sleeper show Wells projected barely visible auras of light, shifting blips and flickering effects on the white walls. Wells explored the vision that happens without lenses, the glitches, negative images, flashes and floaters our eyes produce. His installation was as subtle as an Ad Reinhardt, as architecturally transformative as a Sol LeWitt and as smartly radical as a Lawrence Weiner wall text.
7. Fia Backstrom: White Columns. Few have turned the hierarchical tables or manipulated the conventions of display more effectively of late than Fia Backstrom. In her White Columns outing Backstrom deployed works by artist friends, copies of emails, interviews, texts and other paraphernalia. She transformed the appropriation of Louise Lawler and Richard Prince and proved that a new generation of artists is extending the implications of Relational Esthetics.
8. Carroll Dunham: Per Skarstedt Gallery. A survey of paintings from the early 1980s illustrated the ways this artist carried on a shamanic call-and-response conversation between his inner self and materials. Dunham didn’t just paint over wood he painted in concert with it, augmenting wood grain, knots and irregularities. He was speaking with trees and art history. His technique paved the way for many artists who used material as a living thing rather than just something to cover up.
9. Two performances, one a gigantic spectacle, the other sadly telling, were as far as possible from the gallery system but both basically sent the same message: China rules. On Aug. 8, 2008, in one of the most elaborately beautiful, terrifyingly totalitarian events ever organized, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics featured as many as 15,000 color-coordinated synchronized actors performing in perfect symmetrical unison. If the sheer visual force and organizational effort didn’t make it clear that the west’s days may be numbered, the closing ceremonies, 16 days later, did. The torch was passed to Great Britain with a paltry performance featuring an English-style double decker bus, former Led Zeppelin dinosaur Jimmy Page performing his 1970s hit, Whole Lotta Love, and David Beckham kicking a football into the crowd.
10. Group Shows. Alternative-type spaces staged a lot of good group shows this year, including "We Burn, We Shiver" at Sculpture Center, "Against Nature" at the New Museum, "Looking Back" at White Columns, "Blue Balls" at Art Production Fund, "Minus Space" at P.S.1, and "Peanut Gallery" at The Journal Gallery. The gold for gallery group show goes to "Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns" at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, in which esthetic hierarchies ran wild, art was hung over pictures of other art, and at an after-party Shafrazi almost apologized for spray-painting Guernica in 1974.
Honorable Mention: The New Museum’s surveys of painters Tomma Abts, Mary Heilmann and Elizabeth Peyton. These shows impressed all the more at a time when the cards are still odiously stacked against women artists. Case in point: This fall, of 240 solo shows of living artists in 300 contemporary New York art galleries just 31 percent were by women.
1. As art museums face hard times and institutions are forced to consider canceling or postponing shows due to lack of funs, two exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum stand out as examples of curatorial irresponsibly and wastefulness. The Cai Guo-Qiang survey, curated by Thomas Krens, featured flying tigers and cars tumbling from the ceiling, and was exactly the kind of flashy spectacle museums became enamored of over the last decade. Currently there’s "theanyspacewhatever," curated by Nancy Spector. Reportedly this show took a ridiculously long four years to curate and cost over $1 million. Both exhibitions were textbook cases of insularity, self-satisfaction, empty showmanship and esthetic narrowness.
2. Andreas Serrano’s exhibition of large color photographs of human and animal excrement at the Yvon Lambert Gallery was one of the following: (a) Good idea, bad work; (b) Bad idea, bad work; (c) An attention-getting fizzle by a legendary shock-meister; or (d) Shit.
3. Nate Lowman on his own is a good artist. But his collaboration with Dan Colen at Maccarone, featuring a beat-up car filled with electronic equipment and sundry half-hearted efforts here and there, was an illustration of what happens when young artists are told that everything they do is cool and that they should do whatever they want because it will be cool and it will sell. Hopefully, this dismal show marked the end of the four-year-long Boys-in-Black-and-Silver school of quasi-nihilist pseudo-punk art.
4. Subodh Gupta has often been called "the Damien Hirst of India," like that’s such a great thing. Whatever, his show at Shainman Gallery this year featured a lot of shiny sculptures of kitchen utensils, huge bronze heads and other hideous-looking objects that proved that one Damien Hirst is all that is necessary. Gupta was little more than a chance for moneyed collectors with nothing else to spend money on to buy something large, metallic and simple.
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org