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 Met 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 twenty 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.