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Oct. 28, 2009 

How seriously to take the First Annual Art Awards, set to go down at the Guggenheim Museum at 7 pm tomorrow, Oct. 29, 2009? An initiative of consummate art jokester Rob Pruitt, the awards are clearly meant to be viewed with a dash of irony. The unnamed awards statuette -- should it be called the "Pruitt?" -- designed by the artist, consists of an empty champagne bottle topped by a light bulb, set in a bucket of fake plastic ice. According to reports, it doubles as a functional lamp.

On the other hand, the event is a real fundraiser for the Guggenheim, with tickets for the dinner going at $1,000 per seat, or $10,000 per table; the event has a real fashion sponsor, Calvin Klein Collection, which provided Pruitt with a suit to wear in a clip featured on the Gugg website announcing the nominees; it has actual celebrity presenters, including Freaks and Geeks legend James Franco and distinguished artists like Cecily Brown and Nate Lowman; and real "Lifetime Achievement" awards on tap for Joan Jonas and Kasper Koenig. And the arts cable channel Ovation is supposedly producing a documentary.

True, the voting process has not been particularly transparent or even representative -- "more than four hundred artists and art world professionals have been invited to form the Nominating Council," the Gugg says -- but in this Pruitt’s awards are no different from any other art prize (only less remunerative -- no cash is involved).

Come to think of it, the First Annual Art Awards could turn out to be a big prank. Nevertheless, art-world insiders are watching things with some bemusement, avidly voting for their favorites. Herewith, for your reading pleasure, we handicap Thursday night’s races. Mark your ballots!

* Artist of the Year: Louise Bourgeois (2-1); Urs Fischer (3-1); Mary Heilmann (5-1) ; Dan Graham (7-1)

Fischer is easily the hottest artist here (his show at the New Museum, which occupies three floors of galleries, has just opened), but he’s also the youngest, so sentiment may favor one of the elders. Heilmann is an insider’s favorite, a painter whose abstractions are cheerful and carefree, while Dan Graham is a legend, though his works seem distracted and generate little heat. In the end, you’ve got to give it to Bourgeois: At 98, she is the Grand Dame of avant-garde art. Plus, the Guggenheim presented her 2008 retrospective, so she has home-field advantage.

* Curator of the Year: Massimiliano Gioni (2-1); Klaus Biesenbach (3-1); Daniel Birnbaum (5-1); Connie Butler (5-1)

Biesenbach has rocketed up the MoMA power structure, and is the newly crowned head of P.S. 1 -- but for just these reasons he loses the art-world’s ever-contrarian vote. Birnbaum’s Venice Biennale was in the spotlight this summer, but failed to excite. Butler’s "WACK!" was an important event, but sadly, the neo-feminist art surge it promised never materialized, so you can’t really say that the year belonged to her. Gioni, on the other hand, curated at least two definitive exhibitions in recent memory: the lovely, experimental "After Nature" (also nominated as "Best Show") and the much-hyped Gen Y survey "Younger than Jesus." He’s also young and Italian, an unbeatable combination.

* Exhibition Outside the United States: "Jeff Koons Versailles," Château de Versailles (2-1); "Francis Bacon", Tate Britain, London (3-1); "Mike Kelley: Educational Complex Onwards, 1995-2008", Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels (10-1); "Wolfgang Tillmans: Lighter, Hamburger Bahnhof," Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (10-1)

Kelley and Tillmans are successful artists, to be sure, but the academy voters are unlikely to know much about the nominated shows. Bacon is clearly the most distinguished choice, and is a legend, i.e., he’s comfortably dead. Plus, "Francis Bacon" was just at the Met, and is fresh in people’s minds. But Jeff Koons’ spectacle at Versailles was a seminal undertaking -- and besides, when it comes to the art world, it always votes for Koons. The guy is a winner.

* Group Show of the Year, Gallery: "Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?," Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York (2-1); "ZERO in New York," Sperone Westwater, New York (3-1); "A Twilight Art," Harris Lieberman, New York (10-1); "Your Gold Teeth II," Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York  (10-1)

"Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?," the Urs Fischer-curated homage to dealer Tony Shafrazi at his eponymous gallery, gets the edge in this category. Fischer is clearly having his moment, and "Art Awards" mastermind Pruitt himself had a starring role in that exhibition with Viagra Falls, his drug-laced "fountain of youth." Sperone Westwater is a close second with its smart survey of the "ZERO" art movement, which commands the scholarly vote. As for the admirable Harris Lieberman and Boesky surveys, they looked good and had provocative themes -- but "Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?" was the most talked about group show of the year by a country mile.

* Group Show of the Year, Museum: "After Nature", New Museum, New York (2-1); "The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984," Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (4-1); "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,"P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York (4-1); "The Quick and the Dead," Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (10-1)

The Walker’s smart conceptual art show should get the votes of anyone who actually traveled to Minneapolis to see it, while the sturdy "WACK!" and "The Pictures Generation" surveys were certainly prized by all the artists who were in them. The winner should be "After Nature," which hit the art-world trifecta, being experimental, environmental and political. Plus it got good reviews. Easy favorite.

* New Artist of the Year: Ryan Trecartin (2-1); Elad Lassry (4-1); Marlo Pascual (5-1); Daniel McDonald (7-1)

All worthy names, but is there any doubt that Trecartin is on the ascent? He just won the $150,000 Wolgin Prize from the Tyler School of Art, and his film installation was the maniacally beating heart of "Younger than Jesus." With Lizzie Fitch, he was even featured at the Rose Art Museum this summer, where his presence was explicitly meant to give a sense of "future" to an institution on the edge of extinction. Photo-conceptualist Lassry gets a certain boost from the fact that he was also in the trend-setting "Younger than Jesus," Pascual’s photo collages are enigmatic and beautiful, and McDonald’s  constructions made from action figures certainly capture a mood -- but Trecartin will take home the Truitt.  

* Solo Show of the Year, Gallery: "Picasso: Mosqueteros ", Gagosian Gallery, New York (2-1); "Manzoni: A Retrospective," Gagosian Gallery, New York (3-1); "Cindy Sherman", Metro Pictures, New York (5-1); "Paul Sharits", Greene Naftali Gallery, New York (10-1);

Greene Naftali certainly deserves kudos for undertaking to showcase the difficult experimental filmmaker Paul Sharits, and everyone agrees that Cindy Sherman just gets better and better, but that wins her bupkis in this competition. This category is pure Gago vs. Gago, with the most famous artist in the world going mano-a-mano with the man who canned his own shit.  In the case of "Manzoni" or "Mosqueteros," you have to go with the old swordsman.

* Solo Show of the Year, Museum: "Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective", Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Museum of Modern Art (2-1); "Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton", New Museum (5-1);  "Dan Graham: Beyond", Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Whitney Museum of American Art (7-1); "Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See", Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Whitney Museum of American Art (7-1)

Retrospectives of Graham and Weiner were both overdue, but you don’t win prizes for that -- and the two shows will split the pointy-headed vote anyway. Elizabeth Peyton is much loved, needless to say, but the New Museum show seemed extraneous. That leaves Kippenberger, the beloved German wild man, whose MoCA/MoMA one-two punch brought his eclectic oeuvre well-earned prominence.

* Writer of the Year: Jerry Saltz (2-1); Tim Griffin (4-1); John Kelsey (5-1); Walter Robinson (5-1)

Artforum editor Tim Griffin is best known for those short intros he pens in every issue, hardly the stuff of a writing award, which he would in any case be likely to condemn as a capitulation to the depthlessness of late capitalist consumerist spectacle. Kelsey, a co-founder of the Bernadette Corporation and sometime Artforum contributor, has cachet but is not particularly prolific. Saltz, who writes from the heart as well as the head, may well be the most liked critic in the art world. Add to that the fact that his columns are carried in this magazine, and he is clearly the favorite. As for Robinson, well, let’s just keep his light under a bushel.