The Year in Art

Otto Dix's Skat Players (Die Skatspieler), 1920. Photo: Courtesy MoMA

10. “Dada,” at MoMA
Marcel Duchamp probably influences more artists (whether they know it or not) than Jackson Pollock does. Even so, Dada remains the least popular modern movement among the general public. That paradox made “Dada” at the Museum of Modern Art unusually enlightening. The show both told the historical story of Dada and held up a telling, sometimes cruel mirror to the practice of art today. Is there a better critique to be found—of the worlds of celebrity, money, gender, and art itself—than Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa? Or a more fly-opening surprise than his urinal?

A scene from Mika Rottenberg's Still from Dough, 2005-2006. Photo: Courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

9. Mika Rottenberg, at Nicole Klagsbrun
It’s rare to see art about gender politics that doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Rottenberg’s video installation Dough showed an obese woman in a sweatshop-like setting whose tears, stimulated by allergies and conveyed through an assembly line, caused bread to rise. It was a fascinating New York solo-gallery debut by the 2004 Columbia MFA grad, who transforms women’s bodies into Rube Goldberg machines—a bizarre commentary on the division of labor.

Andrea Zittel's A-Z Homestead Unit (2001). Photo: Christopher Dawson

8. Andrea Zittel, at the New Museum
Why aren’t there more museum surveys of mid-career female artists? This one, an approachable presentation of Zittel’s podlike furniture, felted-wool dresses, and other neo-Bauhaus lifestyle experiments, appealed to bourgeois design fetishists and radical conceptualists alike. It made quite a few museumgoers wish for a trip out to A-Z West, the Mojave Desert Taliesin where the artist tests her creations on a varying cast of young art pilgrims. It also ginned up the anticipation for the New Museum’s debut on the Bowery next year.

Kara Walker's Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, from the series "Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)," 2005.Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

7. “Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge”
The Metropolitan Museum is not meant to be hip, radical, or quick-off-the-mark. That’s why “Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge” was so surprising. The museum gave this contemporary African-American the freedom to roam through its collections and put together whatever show she wanted. She came up with a provocative exhibit about race that was sharp but not tendentious, juxtaposing her own work with images of storms, race, and the sea. Her perspective was open, incomplete, playful, and exploratory—values every museum should occasionally embrace. Even the Met.

Barnaby Furnas's Heart Fucker, 2006.Photo: Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery

6. Barnaby Furnas, at Marianne Boesky
He’s been hyped steadily in the glossies since emerging from Columbia’s art school in 2000, but this Saatchi-sanctioned painter silenced naysayers by pulling off a high-profile fall show in Marianne Boesky’s new gallery. The large-scale canvases featuring tidal waves of poured pigment didn’t quite justify their epic proportions, but they revealed confidence and a willingness to experiment. Even better were the smaller watercolors laced with burns, slash marks, and Celtic curses—formal innovation with a touch of voodoo.

A still from Pierre Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't, 2005.Photo: Tom Powell Imaging/Marian Goodman Gallery/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum

5. Pierre Huyghe, “A Journey That Wasn’t,” at the Whitney Biennial 2006
The only artist in this year’s Whitney Biennial to truly flesh out the show’s “Day for Night” concept (a dystopian, artifice-laced riff on François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine), Huyghe made an enchanting pseudo-documentary about a search for a rare species of albino penguin, cutting from Antarctic ice floes to a rainy nightscape of Central Park. (New Yorkers, through the Public Art Fund, were invited to appear on set.) The resulting video installation conveyed a familiar yet surreal landscape: Wollman Rink haunted by the specter of global warming.

Boubacar Touré Mandémory's Couleurs de Pêche (Colors of Fishing), from the series “Capitales Africaines,” (2000-2005). Photo: Boubacar Touré Mandémory

4. “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography,” at ICP
Most people seem to know more about Antarctica than about Africa. And when they do think about Africa, they envision war, disease, poverty, and crisis. In its survey “Snap Judgments,” the International Center of Photography created a rich, new, and bracing image of the continent. The photographs ranged from delicate portraits to depictions of slums, from jazzy fashion shots to cool meditations on modern identity. What emerged was contradictory and surprising—Africa seen, at last, through African eyes.

David Smith with Australia (1951), outside his home in Bolton Landing, New York in 1951. Photo: David Smith/The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

3. “David Smith: A Centennial,” at the Guggenheim
Sculpture is so difficult for museums to show that even David Smith, the greatest American sculptor of the twentieth century, is today more admired than exhibited. In “David Smith: A Centennial,” the Guggenheim not only collected his work in unusual depth, it also created an installation that was a tour de force. The eccentric shape of the Guggenheim overwhelms most works of art, but Smith’s sculpture appeared completely at home there. His surreal pieces came alive in the open space and the radiant daylight, and his geometries made sublime sense. Art and architecture, in a brilliant rhyme.

Photo: Courtesy of Hearst

2. Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower
New York City long ago lost its architectural edge. Its new buildings tend to be slick, conventional, and boring. Lord Foster’s Hearst headquarters—a soaring zigzag attached to an Art Deco base—is an essential exception to this demoralizing trend. It disrupts the eye and enlivens the street. It arouses intense feelings of both like and dislike in New Yorkers, a sign of healthy architectural passion. Its hollowed-out interior, which has the otherworldly quality of a stage set, has even become a hot ticket. It isn’t easy to view unless you know someone inside.

Goya's Maja and Celestina, 1824-25.Photo: Robert Lorenzson/Courtesy of the Frick Collection

1. “Goya’s Last Works,” at the Frick
Museums, galleries, and artists should challenge, not just reflect, the fashions of our time. This show was a masterpiece of understatement and concision—values rarely found in this blowhard era. In a small space, the Frick captured the breadth of the aging painter’s imagination, presenting superb examples of his painting and drawing, and his haunting, strangely modern character. At the center of the exhibit was a collection of magical ivory miniatures; Goya would cover the surface with carbon black and then, using drops of water and some watercolor, find and improvise phantasmagorical scenes. No exhibition of 2006, however grand, seemed larger than this small one.

MardenPhoto: © 2006 Brice Marden/ARS/Courtesy of MoMA

Honorable Mentions
The Guggenheim found its niche with big international surveys. The Whitney grabbed the High Line site abandoned by Dia, thrilling uptown preservationists and downtown art aficionados alike. The Armory Show—still not as hip as Frieze or Art Basel Miami—at least got smaller, and therefore easier to navigate. New York museums finally delivered a major Eva Hesse exhibition—two of them, in fact, at the Jewish Museum and the Drawing Center. Triple Candie’s appropriated exhibits of appropriation art drew new audiences to Harlem. Renzo Piano made new sense of the Morgan Library & Museum, reorganizing what had been a jumbled-up treasure chest. Young Chinese artists took Chelsea by storm. At the new MoMA, the sixth-floor special-exhibition galleries worked out well (as the current Brice Marden show demonstrates).

LarnerPhoto: Liz Larner/Regen Projects/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum

New York celebrated Los Angeles as a viable—and vital—art center. Recent success stories: abstractionists Mark Grotjahn and Mark Bradford, sculptors Evan Holloway and Liz Larner. Museums discovered podcasting (notably the Met, which had Johnny Rotten narrate “AngloMania”). YouTube gave video auteurs a new platform. Next up: the site’s future first art star. Battle of the megadealers: David Zwirner gave Larry Gagosian a run for his money by tripling his 19th Street space; Gagosian opened his second Chelsea gallery. The Lower East Side gallery scene came into its own—again—preparing for the arrival of the New Museum. A trio of curators received deserved recognition: Donna De Salvo (for the Whitney’s greatest-hits show) and Leah Dickerman and Anne Umland (for “Dada”). The expansion of the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries, which will reopen next year, looks sensational. The number of galleries in Chelsea topped 300.

Industry Star: The Neue Galerie
Everyone loves an elegant “house museum,” where the art is superior and the scale human. New York has long had two such places, the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library. Now it has a third, the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue. Conceived by Ronald S. Lauder and the art dealer Serge Sabarsky, the Neue Galerie’s mission is to exhibit early-twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design, traditionally a significant weakness among the great collections of modern art in New York. The establishment and growth of this museum in the past few years is a gift, marvelous and unexpected, to the cultural life of the city.

Although Sabarsky died in 1996, Lauder never gave up their shared dream of a museum of German art. His June purchase of Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, reportedly for $135 million, is what provided the young museum with institutional solidity—and a defining jewel. (Lauder’s wallet will likely affect the entire market, as his Klimt-and-Kirchner taste makes its way down into the galleries.) Not least, the Neue Galerie has charm. It occupies a gracious Beaux-Arts mansion, and it knows how to balance the serious with the playful. Should the erotic melancholy of Egon Schiele prove overpowering, you can retire, as any Viennese would, to a delightful café. From anomie to pastry.

The Stinker
The lousiest show in the art world was not, this year, a traditional museum or gallery exhibition. It was The Money Show. The big money show at the auction houses, galleries, and in the press. No work of art excited the art world half as much as the extraordinary prices paid for art. In one Impressionist-and-Modern sale, Christie’s did about $500 million worth of business. A hedge-fund magnate reportedly paid $137.5 million for a de Kooning Woman painting. What stank was not the money per se—money, after all, is just money—but the abject surrender of the art world to careerist, cash-grubbing attitudes.

The Year in Art