Best Art of 2019
This was a year of highs that included political protest in the art world, a historic Whitney Biennial, inspiring monuments and a revamped MoMA.
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From retrospectives to debut shows, and, yes, even the MoMA reopening, art held our attention with innovation and variety.
1. MoMA’s Reopening
For New York, the signal event of the year was October’s reopening of the Museum of Modern Art with its newly expanded, improved building and more inclusive, historically accurate permanent collection hang, which fleshes out the epic of Modernism with works by women, artists of color and non-Westerners. There are more creature comforts: lots of chairs by Jean Prouvé and sofas by Charlotte Perriand in the lobby, for example. And for the occasion, all other exhibitions on view were also drawn from the permanent collection, with the latest show from the “Artist’s Choice” series being especially notable. Titled “The Shape of Shape,” it was chosen by the New York painter Amy Sillman, who orchestrated a dense installation that compared and contrasted work by around 70 artists. The result was a visual feast that might also be read as a reminder to MoMA’s brainy curators that pleasure is its own form of knowledge.
2. ‘Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory’ at the Met Breuer
This ravishing retrospective traces the changing expanses — waves, night skies, desert floors — over six decades, illuminating the artist’s penchant for revealing the infinite in the intimate (and vice versa) while pitting perception, philosophy and patient process against one another. An impressive argument for her greatness, the show also emphasized the strengths of Marcel Breuer’s landmark building in a rare collaboration of artist, curator and architecture.
3. Leonora Carrington at Gallery Wendi Norris of San Francisco, in New York
This pop-up exhibition offered further evidence that some of the best Surrealist paintings were made by women working in Mexico. Surveying the art by the well-born rebellious Brit Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), it revealed a fantastical imagination influenced in part by myths learned as a child from her Scottish mother and nanny. There were several showstopping canvases, especially “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” (1953), which MoMA acquired and put on view as a centerpiece in its reconfigured Surrealist gallery. It depicts an orange-robed female Minotaur and a pale flowerlike creature greeting two children in black perhaps as they return from school, with a lithe spirit trailing behind them. A genre scene it is not.
4. ‘John Dunkley: Neither Day Nor Night’ at the American Folk Art Museum
This exhibition (organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami) introduced the work of the self-taught Jamaican artist to American audiences. Part folk artist, part Surrealist, Dunkley (1891-1947) was best in luminous landscapes in which strange trees, outsize plants and sudden waterfalls cast a hypnotic spell.
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