A lot happened in 2019. The Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale made headlines; MoMA closed and reopened again; leading art institutions woke up to demands for greater globalism, protests over toxic philanthropy rocked museums in the UK and the US—and the art market weathered it all to a backdrop of fake news, wars, migrant caravans, revolts, hurricanes, political polarization and, finally, presidential impeachment.
Art, meanwhile, took the measure of things and provided both new and historical perspectives. Here are a few of the exhibitions that captured some of the spirit of the time while speaking poignantly to their own concerns in their own visual language. Ars longa, indeed. C.V.F
“Sarah Sze”, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Sze’s scaffolding-like sculptures, which sometimes look like rose bushes with 3-D images for flowers, are the perfect works of art to reflect on information glut. Arrayed across various kinds of supports in a gallery-wide installation that included the exterior windows, its corners, floor and ceiling, this exhibition suggested a capacious metaphor for life’s disorders, and not a few of its promises.
A typical work consisted of a flimsy-looking armature that contained—to name just a few materials—cut paper, video projections, printed photographs, notes, moss, metal clips and a bottle of cleaning solution. Sze’s first New York exhibition since 2015 made a trope of the idea of transformation—objects turned into images, iPhone vids into postcard stands, workstations into global villages and information silos into observatories. To grasp their symmetry was akin to waking up from a nap with the ability, suddenly, to speak Mandarin. C.V.F
“Beatriz González: A Retrospective”, Pérez Art Museum Miami
The first large-scale U.S. retrospective of the work of this Bogotá-based artist, the show spans six decades of art-making by one of the few living representatives of Latin America’s “radical women” generation.
Critically celebrated but vastly underknown in the US, González’s retrospective—which is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (until 20 January 2020)—seeks to fill this gap by presenting 150 works belonging to the artist as well as from public and private collections in Colombia, the US and Europe.
The show includes conventional oil-on-canvas paintings, but also paintings on curtains, recycled furniture and other surfaces—formal rebellions against being lumped into American-style “international” Pop art. González once described her pictures and picture-objects as “underdeveloped paintings for underdeveloped countries”. Rather than a put-down, the 81-year-old meant to invoke her art’s relationship to the 85% of the world that lives in developing nations. C.V.F
“God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin”, David Zwirner
“Troubled times get the tyrants and prophets they deserve.” So begins Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and curator Hilton Als’s introduction to his exhibition-as-a-profile of writer James Baldwin: novelist, essayist, playwright, political philosopher, and 20th-century Jeremiah of all things American and othered.
A composite sketch of the Harlem bard by way of paintings, drawings, sculpture, video and photographs by artists such as Richard Avedon, Beauford Delaney, Alice Neel, Kara Walker and Baldwin himself, the revealing display captured the visual verve of some of the writer’s most important ideas. Think eloquent, but also urgent, disquisitions on race, sexuality, power, religion, family and creativity.
Among the highlights: a 1941 nude Delaney portrait of Baldwin at age 15, several photographs taken by his Bronx high school classmate Avedon in 1945, and a 2005 Walker video titled 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America. C.V.F
“Garry Winogrand: Color”, Brooklyn Museum
The first exhibition dedicated to the nearly forgotten color photographs of Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), this elegiac display rolled out reams of “what ifs?”. Among them, how much more influence would Winogrand wield today if more people knew his color work?
Shown though immersive projections of 450 never-before-seen slides of US streets, suburbs, beaches, motels, theaters, fairgrounds, airports and amusement parks, Winogrand captured the raw poetics of life in pre-1970s America—at a time when color film was the preserve of advertisers and amateurs. Selected from more than 45,000 saturated slides the artist produced during the 1950s and 1960s, the artist’s Kodacolor snapshots echo postwar America’s product-consumerist rainbow, while capturing people of all hues and social origins, gracefully and generously, in a show that provides its own civics lesson. C.V.F
“Ribera: Art of Violence”, Dulwich Picture Gallery
Seventeenth-century Europe was a dark and violent place, convulsed by religious conflict—the Reformation and Counter-Reformation plunged the continent into wars. The century was characterized by battles for economic supremacy, plagues and revolution. This was the world of El Greco, Velázquez and Caravaggio, artists to whom the less-well-known Jusepe de Ribera is sometimes compared.
This exhibition, the first in the UK of Ribera’s work, brought together eight monumental canvases, plus prints and drawings, by the Spanish-born, Naples-based artist (1591-1652), from the Prado, the Capodimonte and the Metropolitan Museum among others.
His paintings display a shockingly grisly level of violence, chief among them an enormous painting of an icy calm Apollo torturing a twisted, supine Marsyas (Apollo and Marsyas (1637)). The god peels off strips of skin while the satyr howls in silent pain. An unflinching show, co-curated by the Wallace Collection’s director Xavier Bray, of an artist famous in his time and now slowly returning to prominence. J.M.
Maurizio Cattelan: “Victory is Not an Option”, Blenheim Palace
It was a brave move to let Maurizio Cattelan loose in the opulent baroque chambers of one of Britain’s swankiest stately homes, especially in light of his recent escapades at Art Basel Miami Beach. And Blenheim Palace certainly got more than it bargained for when Cattelan’s golden toilet, America (2016), was stolen from a cubicle in Winston Churchill’s birthplace within days of the opening. There was even speculation that Cattelan was responsible (he wasn’t, but despite five arrests in connection with the theft, no one has yet been charged). However, the heist did not detract from all the other brilliant interventions by art’s most mischievous provocateur within this palatial monument to Britain’s past military might.
The show, Cattelan’s largest in the UK to date, took on a particular resonance in the context of the current Brexit crisis. Sometimes spectacular (his carpeting with giant Union Jack flags of the processional outdoor courtyard, which visitors had to trample across to enter the palace); sometimes sly (the insertion of a number of mini-Maurizios perched on lofty cornices among the swaggering family portraits), the exhibition repeatedly punctured pomposity and injected a very human poignancy into Blenheim’s hubristic aristocratic grandeur. An anti-monumental triumph. L.B.
“La Pelle: Luc Tuymans”, Palazzo Grassi, Venice
Recent choices for shows at the Palazzo Grassi, one of French billionaire and Christie’s owner François Pinault’s pair of Venetian galleries, have divided, even appalled, the critics (Martial Raysse in 2015, Damien Hirst in 2017). But this substantial show of more than 80 paintings by Luc Tuymans was widely-agreed as a return to form.
La Pelle means “the skin”, an ambiguous title—taken from a novel by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte—that could be taken literally (there are pictures of hands, bodies, faces). Perhaps it is a reference to the very thin layers of diluted paint, applied in a single sitting, that skim the canvas.
More likely, it’s a reference to what lies beneath. Tuymans’s paintings, often inspired by photographs or images from smartphones, billboards and magazines, are superficially cool, but mask dark, often complex, subjects. An innocuous painting of a lampshade on a small glass side-table that forms part of the triptych Recherches (1989), turns out to be anything but. Photographed in an officer’s house at Buchenwald concentration camp, it was made from human skin. J.M.
“Sarah Lucas”, Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing
Sarah Lucas’s first exhibition in China took the form of a survey of some hundred key pieces, along with new work made for the occasion. While the selection of often anatomically explicit sculptures made no concessions to Chinese conservatism, Lucas’s formal acuity and skill in handling scale was brought to the fore.
In the hangar-like larger galleries, photographic works blown up to an unprecedented size formed dramatic backdrops to the fruit-and-veg classics, along with crumpled car sculptures and a new series of bodily “Bunnys” made from stuffed tights. Especially striking was the way in which the plaster-cast lower bodies of Lucas’s female “Muses”—along with her three-meter-tall sculpture of thigh-high cast concrete boots and an especially audacious pair of colossal concrete phalluses balanced on blocks of crushed cars—all became less bawdy and more reminiscent of grand classical fragments. L.B.
“Anne Imhof: Sex”, Tate Modern
Anne Imhof came to international attention when the work she installed in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Faust, won a Golden Lion. Taking over the three Tate Tanks—the underground concrete vaults that were used to store the oil for the former Bankside power station, for a series of four-hour evening performances was arguably a bigger challenge.
Expectations were high, queues long, and the packed audience varied from ultra-serious solo viewers to socially-motivated bunches of selfie-seekers. In the end, “Sex” proved a powerful mix of voyeurism and being viewed, as a troupe of disdainful dancers and musicians strutted through the free-flowing throngs, glaring or ignoring the audience as they chose.
Sometimes the viewers were raised up on crowded ramps, sometimes the performers circled on scaffolding high above. The “dance” was improvised, the performers taking instructions from Imhof in real time via-WhatsApp, while the crowd responded, taking iPhone videos and pictures. The smell of oil that still clings to the tanks, the deep, throbbing music, and Eliza Douglas’s Nico-inspired vocalizing—evoked if not actual sex, then something quite like it. J.M.
“Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers”, Tate Britain
You could smell Mike Nelson’s commission for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries before you saw it. Giant pieces of salvaged industrial machinery—rusting, clogged with dust and dripping oil—were arranged to form a pungent and dramatic memorial to Britain’s recent manufacturing history.
Mounted on work benches, girders and trestle tables, these stilled, scrapped contraptions also carried strong associations with the 20th-century artists who were so influenced by such mechanical forms. A lathe selected by Nelson was a dead ringer for a reclining Henry Moore; another chunk of equipment resembled a robotic Eduardo Paolozzi; while slabs of steel and stacked wooden planks evoked Richard Serra and Tony Cragg.
Other elements in this masterly installation included swing doors, panels and partitions reclaimed from hospitals and public housing in a richly associative elegy for a more optimistic, productive post-war Britain, whose aspirations for social equality and a welfare state have all but vanished today. L.B.
Okwui Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic, Young Vic theatre
To witness Okwui Okpokwasili perform is to witness a storyteller in complete control of breath, rhythm, and narrative. This is what I kept reminding myself of in June as I walked into London’s Young Vic theatre for one of Okpokwasili’s final performances of Bronx Gothic. By now, Bronx Gothic has become heralded as a masterpiece of dance-theater and Okpokwasili a performer of unparalleled form. Indeed, in Bronx Gothic, the artist is at the height of her powers.
Upon entering the theater, I watched Okpokwasili move sharply and percussively from a small corner of the dimly lit set. We, her attentive audience, watched as her arms stretched, as she bent at the waist, as her hips turned, as her breath heaved, as the music grew louder, as she conjured. And as she stepped to the microphone and began to read the first of several letters that comprise the verbal narrative elements of the performance we, her attentive audience, were still vibrating.
The solo dance work chronicles the story of two young women from the Bronx who are just as curious about one another as they are about the world around them. We meet these young girls through their words that live in these letters—journal-like entries might be a more accurate characterization—and the curiosities that inform their mappings.
Though not entirely or explicitly autobiographical, Okpokwasili, who grew up in the Bronx as a first-generation child of Nigerian immigrants, has acknowledged the way in which the spirit of these protagonists is informed by personal memories and experiences.
At times, as Okpokwasili embodies their interiorities, she sings. In other moments, her movements become increasingly jarring as her legs, arms, and body slam into the floor. Still, it is impossible to look away. This too is Bronx Gothic’s potency: that in her conjuring, Okpokwasili dares to challenge the liminal space between audience and performer. J.L.
“John Edmonds: Between Pathos and Seduction”, Company Gallery
John Edmonds has long been concerned with the visual manifestations of intimacy within his image-making processes. His summer solo exhibition at New York City’s Company Gallery, “Between Pathos and Seduction”, extended this central inquiry through a series of photographs that took up the human form as well as Edmonds’s deepening collection of Central and West African sculptural objects as subjects.
In one image, a young man leans against a table filled with several sculptures, his eyes averted away from the camera and intent on the objects themselves. A stillness pervades this composition as line, hue, and gaze become entangled between the sitters—human and non-human. In another photograph, the sitter’s back is toward us, their gaze cast downward and to the right, their arms bent at the elbow.
Elsewhere, Edmonds’s sitters pose against, with, and covered by West African fabrics. Domestic interiors are a shared site throughout the series. As a gesture, Edmonds expertly employs a complex use of light and shadow within his images as a methodology for thinking through the terms of (black) subjectivity and perhaps even, pleasure, just as they engage in a dialogue in and through (diasporic) time. J.L.
“Frank Bowling”, Tate Britain
“Gradually, as I became more involved in the making of painting,” Frank Bowling begins in his Tate Britain interview, “I realized that one of the main ingredients in making paintings was color and geometry. I found that this was the place I felt the most comfortable and I’ve been going along that track ever since.”
Such a statement quite possibly represents the best framework through which to read Bowling’s oeuvre, which spans more than 60 years and was the subject of this most ambitious retrospective at Tate Britain.
The exhibition follows a necessary trend in which major art institutions have finally taken note of, and explicitly named, the rigorous formal and conceptual contributions made by a generation of black artists, now elders, who transformed the contemporary artistic landscape in the latter half of the 20th century—Bowling, 85, being chief among this roster. The artist, long regarded as a master abstractionist, is beginning to receive his due.
The exhibition was organized in eight chapters that chart Bowling’s technique as it developed and evolved from his early studies at the Royal College of Art to his time in New York City in the late 1960s, his acrylic foam paintings of the 1980s, which took on an almost sculpture-like quality, and to the work that he continues to produce in to this day.
Indeed, it is Bowling’s “map paintings” a series embarked upon while in New York that depict startling shapes of South America and, specifically, his birthplace of Guyana, that haunts me still. His paintings take on great depth and profundity as color and scale yield a singular vocabulary of form. In Bowling’s hand, the paint runs and pours, spills and maneuvers its way on the canvas to demonstrate the very possibility of what a painting can be. J.L.