The Year in Art

Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York

The Eye-Opening Moment

Last winter, Urs Fischer dug a 38-by-16-foot crater, nine feet deep, extending almost to the walls of the Gavin Brown Gallery. It was a transforming and shocking sight. Standing on the fourteen-inch ledge of concrete floor surrounding the piece induced thoughts of earthworks, minimalism, chaos, and hell. Fischer had torn up a gallery, forcing us to look into his own “hole.” But presciently, it was just as much a precipice for us and for the art world, since this was going to be the state of the world for the year to come: We’d all be poised on the edge—politically, psychically, financially, and aesthetically. The stark gesture was simultaneously surreal, loving, violent, and audacious. Fischer shattered perceptual space, destabilized our relationship to art and art galleries, overturned ideas about the market, and made us understand that all that is solid melts into air, that something momentous was coming.

The Year in Superlatives
The Top Nine Shows (and One Event)

The Year in Superlatives

Best Photography Show: William Eggleston
The southern eccentric’s superb Whitney retrospective reminded us exactly where all the snapshot-style photography that’s out there originated. Except that Eggleston did it with the spontaneity and innocence of a maverick, barely acknowledging the outside world’s opinion. His lust to slow down and find poetry in everyday moments, turning the mundane (the contents of a freezer, an icy glass of Coke on an airline tray) into the sublime, continues to seduce and reveal.

Best Trend: More Big Shows for Women
The New Museum mounted strong surveys of Tomma Abts, Mary Heilmann, and Elizabeth Peyton, and MoMA opened its Marlene Dumas show—all the more impressive at a time when the cards are still odiously stacked against female artists. Case in point: This fall, of 240 solo shows of living artists in 300 contemporary New York art galleries, just 31 percent were by women.

From Nathalie Djurberg's animated video I found myself alone (2008).Photo: Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Gio Marconi

Best Oddball Trend: Toy Art
Playful small work provided a life-affirming relief from so much abstract, hard-to-get-your-head-around art. At Spencer Brownstone Gallery, sculptor Tessa Farmer’s grisly yet peculiarly dainty fairies made from dead animal and plant parts were as morbidly pleasurable as Six Feet Under reruns. In October at Washington Square Windows, the artist-novelist Sloane Tanen took her rather twee idiom—photos of little chenille chickens in familiar human settings—into the realm of teen angst, offering a surprising amount of social commentary for, well, toy chickens. At Gallery Hanahou, the Japanese collective Alfort turned sci-fi into high fashion with dozens of moon-eyed, robotic girl dolls in dresses—it looked like manga, but stripped of its story lines, requiring that you supply your own. And this month, Nathalie Djurberg’s brilliant claymation films play out twisted fairy tales at Zach Feuer Gallery.

Dreams Are Like Water (2008), by Polixeni Papetrou.

Best Photography Shows That Slipped Under the Radar: Rachel Sussman and Polixeni Papapetrou
At Michael Steinberg Fine Art, Sussman turned the oldest, gnarliest things on earth—mostly several-thousand-year-old trees—into magical objects you wanted to curl up in. And at Foley Gallery, Papapetrou’s “Games of Consequence” transported us to the Australian outback, where the artist’s 11-year-old daughter and her primly costumed girlfriends played rough games. As grand as a Baz Luhrmann film, minus the schlock.

Best Response to a Bad Economy: Street Art
Deitch Projects’ re-creation of a Keith Haring mural from 1982, on its original wall at Houston Street and the Bowery, was a Day-Glo delight—and it gained a little actual street cred once it was neatly tagged by a long-lost collaborator of Haring’s, Angel Ortiz. The legendary Banksy outfitted a West Village “pet store and charcoal grill” as a sort of sick-joke zoological commune, housing a vainglorious cosmetics-wearing rabbit and fish sticks swimming in a bowl like guppies. And the 25-year-old Poster Boy carried out his subversive overhaul of subway-station ads, slicing and dicing the posters, repositioning bits of type and image into far wittier visions than their creative directors ever imagined.

Best First “Big” Show: Gary Panter
Panter isn’t just a legendary underground comic-book artist and the guy who created the sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse; he’s also a painter. For his Clementine Gallery retrospective, “Pictures From the Psychedelic Swamp, 1972–2001,” Panter covered the walls with recurring characters (like his “post-nuclear punk-rock” dude named Jimbo) and curated a room with the quirky ephemera that’s inspired his work (soap wrappers, Japanese candy, wet paint signs). “Show” is probably the wrong word for what was on view here: It was more like walking into Panter’s messy, expressionistic, and entirely original brain.

The Year in Art