Best Art of 2018

The art critics of The New York Times tell you what rocked their worlds this year: notable art events, works in museums and galleries, emerging artists and how they found beauty in unexpected places

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When the going gets rough, there’s always art. It can soothe and teach you, and arm you with new tools and perspectives with which to face the world. This year had some great winners and obvious losers.

Winner: Art History, Refigured

One of the most thrilling winners was European and American art history. Magnificent exhibitions at three museums advanced new research in areas that had seemed thoroughly explored. The Guggenheim Museum offers a revisionary chapter about the start of modern abstraction in its current headliner, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” introducing works that this Swedish artist and mystic made in 1906-7. Suddenly, the most sacred genesis tale of Modernism — the invention of abstract painting — has acquired a female actor who actually got there several years ahead of the revered triumvirate of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. Af Klint’s joyous paintings, with their radical palette, scale and openness, push abstraction toward the future. (Through April 23.)

Another gauntlet landed with “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University. Partnering with the Musée d’Orsay, the Wallach has combined some great paintings (by Manet, Bazille, Degas, Matisse and Bearden) with fascinating ephemera, bringing new detail about the plight and presence of black women in late-19th-century Paris life and art, and following this theme through the Harlem Renaissance into the present. (Through Feb. 10.)

In Washington, the Smithsonian American Art Museum unveiled “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” a stunning retrospective of this once-unknown outsider genius (1853-1949), a former slave and tenant farmer who spent the last decade of his precarious life making drawings on the streets of Montgomery, Ala. Effortless in their fusion of narrative and form, Traylor’s images distill memories harsh and pleasant into taut silhouettes on found cardboard. They now count among the greatest works of 20th-century American art, and thanks to a magnificent catalog, the artist is obscure no more. The show will not travel, so plan a trip to Washington soon. (Through March 17.)

Loser: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Blinks, Twice

Everyone who likes art, except residents of New York State, lost when the Met persuaded New York City officials to replace “pay what you wish” with an egregious mandatory fee of $25. With this, the immensely wealthy Met sacrificed one of its most honorable features: the broad accessibility offered by libraries. The loser is visual literacy.

In the fall, financial anxiety led the Met to back out of the last three years of its eight-year lease of the Met Breuer and reabsorb its department of Modern and contemporary art into its main building. The program at the Met Breuer has been surprisingly good and getting better, but attendance hasn’t been high enough. It certainly didn’t help that the Fifth Avenue museum remained the staging ground of big-draw contemporary shows like the David Hockney retrospective or the recent display of gifts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

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