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Unexpected delights
Vija Celmins' "House #2" (1965) in New York, Sept. 23, 2019. From retrospectives to debut shows, and even the MoMA reopening, art held our attention in 2019 with innovation and variety. Haruka Sakaguchi/The New York Times.

by Roberta Smith


NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- From retrospectives to debut shows, and, yes, even the MoMA reopening, art held our attention with innovation and variety.

1. MoMA’s Reopening
For New York, the signal event of the year was October’s reopening of the Museum of Modern Art with its newly expanded, improved building and more inclusive, historically accurate permanent collection, which fleshes out the epic of Modernism with works by women, artists of color and non-Westerners. There are more creature comforts: lots of chairs by Jean Prouvé and sofas by Charlotte Perriand in the lobby, for example. And for the occasion, all other exhibitions on view were also drawn from the permanent collection, with the latest show from the “Artist’s Choice” series being especially notable. Titled “The Shape of Shape,” it was chosen by New York painter Amy Sillman, who orchestrated a dense installation that compared and contrasted work by around 70 artists. The result was a visual feast that might also be read as a reminder to MoMA’s brainy curators that pleasure is its own form of knowledge.

2. ‘Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory’ at the Met Breuer
This ravishing retrospective traces the changing expanses — waves, night skies, desert floors — over six decades, illuminating the artist’s penchant for revealing the infinite in the intimate (and vice versa) while pitting perception, philosophy and patient process against one another. An impressive argument for her greatness, the show also emphasized the strengths of Marcel Breuer’s landmark building in a rare collaboration of artist, curator and architecture.

3. Leonora Carrington at Gallery Wendi Norris of San Francisco, in New York
This pop-up exhibition offered further evidence that some of the best surrealist paintings were made by women working in Mexico. Surveying the art by the well-born, rebellious Brit Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), it revealed a fantastical imagination influenced in part by myths learned as a child from her Scottish mother and nanny. There were several showstopping canvases, especially “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” (1953), which MoMA acquired and put on view as a centerpiece in its reconfigured surrealist gallery. It depicts an orange-robed female Minotaur and a pale flowerlike creature greeting two children in black perhaps as they return from school, with a lithe spirit trailing behind them. A genre scene it is not.

4. ‘John Dunkley: Neither Day Nor Night’ at the American Folk Art Museum
This exhibition (organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami) introduced the work of the self-taught Jamaican artist to American audiences. Part folk artist, part surrealist, Dunkley (1891-1947) was best in luminous landscapes in which strange trees, outsize plants and sudden waterfalls cast a hypnotic spell.

5. ‘Amy Sherald: The Heart of the Matter’ at Hauser & Wirth
Relatively unknown Sherald shot to fame in 2017 when she was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Michelle Obama’s official portrait and soon after achieved representation by a blue-chip gallery that quickly scheduled her New York debut. Sherald, who is 46, rose to the occasion, holding down an enormous space with just seven new portraits, also of black subjects, that took her formally distinctive, beautifully painted realism to a new level.

6. ‘A Specific Eye: Seven Collections’ at Demisch Danant
This New York City design gallery invited several art-related sorts — artists, photographers and art dealers — to display some of their most cherished objects of furniture designed in the 1960s by Maria Pergay (still working at 89). The resulting arrangements had a cabinet of curiosity intensity. This could be a biannual event.

7. Eli Leon Collection at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive
A trove of 3,000 quilts by African American artists is surely one of the most transformative museum gifts of the late 20th century. Among its riches are more than 100 dazzling quilts and other textile works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, (1936-2006) one of the few women in the top tier of American outsider artists.

8. Jasper Johns at Matthew Marks Gallery
This display of new paintings, prints and drawings was one of the best and most open-ended shows of Johns’ long career. Presenting new series and revisiting old ones, the show centered on two paintings and numerous drawings based on a photograph of a U.S. soldier during the Vietnam War weeping over the lives lost in the day’s battle. The bent figure is camouflaged by contrasting textures in shades of green and gold, from which the figure gradually emerges, grounding the sense of muted grief.

9. ‘Simone Fattal: Works and Days’ at MoMA/PS1
The first museum exhibition devoted to this Syrian-born Lebanese artist (who has lived for many years in the United States and Paris) revealed a polymathic talent interested in painting, drawing and film but best represented by a profusion of mostly small, roughly improvised glazed ceramic sculptures dizzying in their suggestions: of animals, figures, ancient artifacts, religious rituals, tourist souvenirs, desert structures ruined by war, and, always, of life lived and the encroachments of time. The variety, carefreeness and layered meanings added up to a body of work with few equals in the realm of ceramic sculpture.

10. The Art World Mourns
Okwui Enwezor, Virginia Zabriskie, Takis, Leon Kossoff, Matthew Wong, Carolee Schneemann, Ed Clark, Francisco Toledo, Bruce Ferguson, Mavis Pusey, Lutz Bacher, Robert Ryman, Gillian Jagger, Joyce Pensato, Mary Abbott, Charles Ginnever, Marisa Merz, Claude Lalanne, Ronald Jones, Ingo Maurer, John Giorno, David Koloane, Huguette Caland, Jill Freedman, Robert Frank, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Dan Robbins, I.M. Pei, Stanley Tigerman, Douglas Crimp, Hildegard Bachert.

© 2019 The New York Times Company






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