1. BEST EXHIBITION
The Met’s New Greek and Roman Wing
At a time when museums of every kind get expansions and new wings so wrong, transforming stately spaces into bland exploratoriums and anonymous people-movers, it’s almost a miracle how close to perfect the Metropolitan Museum of Art got the new Greek and Roman galleries. This is a gift that will keep giving for generations. In these rooms, the early history of Western art unfurls majestically and becomes what it truly is: one of the greatest visual stories ever told.
2. MOST IMPROVED INSTITUTION
The Whitney Museum of American Art
Even though it staged two clunkers, "Picasso and American Art" and "Summer of Love," the Whitney Museum had a great year around contemporary art, concurrently mounting the overcrowded but scintillating Lawrence Weiner show and the terrifying Kara Walker retrospective. Last summer saw the retina-rippling survey of Rudolf Stingel’s bold monochrome art. Stingel’s aluminum-foil room, intended to be carved up by visitors’ fingers, ended up looking like the scarred back of Moby-Dick and was one of the finest sights in any museum this season. Director Adam Weinberg and curator-associate director Donna De Salvo have largely stopped the museum’s slide into corporateness, mounting relevant shows of living artists and overseeing intelligent installations of the permanent collection. If Kathy Halbreich, MoMA’s new associate director, can start to do the same for her museum, things could get really interesting uptown.
3. BEST SHOW
On a Sunday afternoon in April, in a raw ground-floor cold-water loft 20 feet from the East River, Matthew Barney staged an extraordinary performance. A spellbound crowd watched him walk around slowly with a dog on his head; two half-naked women bent over backward in order to urinate in an arc, a marching band wore terrorist masks; a huge bull attempted to mate with a 1967 Chrysler. What made all this so great, in addition to Barney’s relentless attempt to plumb his own inner cathedral, was how homemade and speculative the whole thing was. There were more art-student types there than art-world A-listers. Most important, it wasn’t an overproduced glamour event full of celebrities -- just an artist trying to figure something out in front of a grateful audience.
4. BEST DAY TRIPS
The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College
Over the past few years, two institutions, each within two hours’ drive from midtown, have become excellent venues for contemporary art. The first, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, under director Claudia Gould and senior curator Ingrid Schaffner, has been mounting shows New York institutions should be doing. This year, there was a daring Karen Kilimnik retrospective and a fantastic installation by Phoebe Washburn, who you’ll be able to see in this spring’s Whitney Biennial. Meanwhile, just up the Hudson, under new director Tom Eccles, the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard not only expanded its space but came to vibrant life with excellent surveys of Martin Creed and Keith Edmier. Both of these institutions are as lively as any. Each deserves more attention.
5. BEST RETROSPECTIVE (MAD GENIUS DIVISION)
The American Folk Art Museum made the best of its narrow 53rd Street space by mounting a glorious retrospective of this visionary, who ranks with "outsider" giants like Bill Traylor, Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli. Institutionalized for more than 30 years, Ramírez depicted caballeros, trains and wildlife. He’s called a "self-taught artist." Yet it would be better to say that Ramírez used art to save his life and preserve his sanity. His quasi-modernist pulsating landscapes and hallucinatory drawings of saints and animals, done with handmade tools from homemade inks, are replete with repeating lines that seem to radiate energy, forms and shapes that echo and nestle one another, and a vision that recalls Goya’s sensibility as he went deaf -- someone who watched everything, taking it all in, but was only able to communicate by art. The rediscovery of 140 of his drawings in California after this show went up added a beautiful coda.
6. BEST SEQUEL
Two years ago, the critic and historian RoseLee Goldberg -- working with a tiny staff and almost no money -- invented her own performance-art biennial, staged all over town for seventeen days. This fall, over 25 days and 95 events, she pulled off another hit. Among its many extraordinary performances: Nathalie Djurberg created a live soundtrack for her Claymation snuff film; Aïda Ruilova combined dance and magic; Adam Pendleton preached about being queer in front of a full gospel choir; and Tamy Ben-Tor, the shape-shifting demon mistress of personality disorder and chaos, transformed herself into a dwarf rabbi before a stunned audience. (About its misfires -- the ludicrously overhyped Francesco Vezzoli performance starring celebrities like Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman -- well, it’s performance art, and it doesn’t hang around if you don’t want it to.)
7. BEST REDISCOVERIES
"High Times/ Hard Times"
This show of abstract paintings by painters who were born too late for Pop or hard-core Minimalism -- and most of whom are nearly forgotten -- was uneven and incomplete. Yet it was a fantastically necessary and instructive exhibition, thought up and staged at the National Academy by artist David Reed and critic Katy Siegel. When these artists came of age, the bright lights and big-city images of Pop were dominant, along with the clean machine-made forms of Minimalism; Conceptualism was the new kid on the block, the object was dematerializing, and painting was being pronounced dead. These painters picked up the pieces, cobbled them together, and were passionately dedicated to abstraction. Artists today are still finding strains that they practiced useful. That this exhibition was staged in a so-called peripheral institution only made you understand that other, larger museums should be in the same game.
8. FRESHEST CENTURY-OLD PAINTING
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at 100
Picasso’s insurrectionary shot across the world’s bow was completed a century ago this past summer, and Demoiselles is proof that it can take 100 years to look at a picture. The painting of five whores in a bordello still shoots sparks. Critic Leo Steinberg said it was "a tidal wave of female aggression." Once ridiculed as the end of art, this painting changed the world when it was shown for just 15 days in 1916. (It then stayed out of view until 1939, by which time MoMA had bought it for $28,000.) So much still comes out of this one painting: the shattering of space, the fragmentation of figuration, the dislocations of form, the simultaneous coexistence of conflicting styles within a single work of art, the urge to make transgressive objects, and the desire to go beyond the status quo while also plugging back into some of art’s most ancient and revered traditions. We’ll be marking its 200th birthday with just as much respect in 2107.
9. BEST GALLERY SHOW (MAD GENIUS DIVISION)
Morton Bartlett at the Julie Saul Gallery
Whether you think of this outsider photographer (1903-1992) as a real-life Humbert Humbert, an inspired Gepetto, the Henry Darger of photography, or just a pervert who photographed the anatomically correct dolls he fashioned of young girls, it was thrilling to see this gallery show of rediscovered color images by a great self-taught artist. These new pictures, which came to light only recently, are more vivid and new-looking than anything we’ve seen by Bartlett so far. Yet the subjects were familiar: flashes of panties, pouting misses and Shirley Temple-like moppets. His perfect dolls, meticulous handmade clothes, and fetishistic scenery pave the way to a broad swath of contemporary photographers like Jeff Wall, Laurie Simmons and Gregory Crewdson. Bartlett’s art is proof that the label "self-taught artist" is as limiting and redundant as ever; all artists are self-taught in some sense of the word.
10. BEST NEW SCENE
The Lower East Side Gallery District
Just when it seemed like Manhattan real-estate prices had made it impossible for art galleries to cluster in another neighborhood, the Lower East Side has emerged as a real and non-annoying place for looking at art. There are only around 30 galleries, spread out, meaning you have to take a breather as you walk between shows. The neighborhood is mixed-up and interesting; the spaces are small and intimate and call to mind the DIY early East Village. Galleries aren’t better because they’re here or worse because they’re in Chelsea -- and in a few years, the Lower East Side may be saturated. For now, however, it’s lovely.
The New Museum
Its boxy new Bowery home may feel slick to some, and it looks too small to me. But the new New Museum represents (and is the product of) great institutional ambition, and opened with the unglitzy, sincere show "Unmonumental." Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it all clicks.
The Hoist by His Own Petard prize goes to Prince for his installation at the Frieze Art Fair in London, for which he hired a buxom girl in a bikini to pose next to a muscle car he designed. Like so many artists these days, Prince was attempting to game the system, but as in most cases, the system ended up gaming him. There was no way to look at this attention-getting attempt at being cagey and cool and not feel put-off. Having seen that picture, one even felt that Prince’s retrospective at the Guggenheim disintegrated a little bit.
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where a version of this article first appeared. He can be reached at Jerry_Saltz@NewYorkmag.com