best of 2009

The Best Art of 2009

In 2009, change came to the art world; batons were passed. Sculpture moved away from room-filling installations to explore the substrata of recombining strategies, appropriation, and found objects in individual works. Painting became more pliable, viable, and visual. Video explored the world as a living specimen, looking into culture, ethnography, anthropology, and sociology. Performance went beyond its own belly button to look at the belly buttons of the world. Meanwhile, mid-career older artists and underknowns made their presence felt. The Metropolitan Museum had a yearlong field day of rotating shows; the Guggenheim started to shake off the horror of twenty years under the recently retired Thomas Krens. If audiences can handle the uncertainty of not knowing what’s next in art, the coming year will be rich indeed. In the meantime, let’s celebrate what just passed. (Note that pictures six and seven are NSFW.)

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Moving from her WPA/political-cartoon style, in her solo at Leo Koenig Inc. Eisenman let her painterly freak flag fly high and wild. She got more physical, splashing, splotching, and shaping paint, squeezing it directly from the tube, creating a whole new language of personal surface. Eisenman is one of the strongest, most inventive painters working. R.M. Fischer, known over the last 30 years for imaginative sculptures that are also lamps, tapped into less futuristic modes at KS Art, creating a tribe of golems, gnomes, and clown demons fashioned from vinyl, felt, and upholstery. Conjuring art’s ancient powers, these sculptures were seemingly not meant only to be looked at but to be held aloft, worshiped, and burned in effigy.
This artist’s super-gaga painterly precisionism made seeing his show like peering at the world on 50 Claritins. In paintings we saw crystal ships and skeletons preening. In one video, a fish from another dimension lectures on science, metaphysics, and time. Weinstein isn’t well enough known, but his work shows you how important it is for artists to toss out everyone else’s ideas of what art is to get as close as possible to one’s own ideas. He still needs to find a way to rope in a larger audience, however.
This mock sea battle between several of New York’s museums, staged by artist Riley in a flooded pool near the Queens Museum, was a Dionysian blow-out involving togas, robes, crowds throwing tomatoes, Black Sabbath’s War Pigs blasting from speakers, watermelon cannonballs, and the sinking and burning of life-size boats. Riley coaxed the spirits of reverie, chaos, and abandon out into the open, while advancing ideas of what art could be if it is willing to go in its own direction.
Ruby’s randy show featured nine large video wall projections of buff naked men masturbating, each alone in the same scuzzy cubicle. A few of the subjects fail to ejaculate; one uses a girlie magazine to get going; another gives a double thumbs-up on completion; another stretches forward and licks himself clean. The Masturbators is an amazing analog for art’s exhibitionism, voyeurism, neediness, weirdness, and ways of doing things in public that you do in private. It mixed Nauman’s ideas about video, Acconci’s ways with sex, De Sade’s aggression, male sexuality, the visual, and the vulnerable.
Saying she felt “underrepresented in the male-run artistic community,” the then 33-year-old Lynda Benglis took an ad out in the November 1974 issue of Artforum Magazine: A color picture of her naked, wearing sunglasses, holding a long double-headed dildo between her legs. The rest is art history. Five Artforum editors wrote a letter telling the art world how offended they were by the “extreme vulgarity,” while late art historian Robert Rosenblum wrote, “ … give three dildos and a Pandora’s Box to Ms. Lynda Benglis, who finally brought out of the closet the Sons and Daughters of the Founding Fathers of the Artforum Committee of Public Decency and Ladies Etiquette.” This show tracked that brouhaha in scrumptious, hypocrisy-revealing detail.
Common art-world wisdom has it that Picasso petered out over the last 30 years of his career. Hah! This magnificent show of 52 powerful paintings and 41 intricate prints — all made between 1962 and 1972, when Picasso died at the age of 91 — obliterated those idiotic notions forever. These mysterious, juicy, ironic paintings and prints show Picasso frolicking with women, helplessly aging, and still hungering for life. As organized by art historian John Richardson and Valentina Castellani, this focused survey blew the eyelids off of young artists, showed that Picasso only got better, and proved that he was also one of the best painters of the sixties.
The lecture is an inherently ironic and unstable form — theatrical, formal, fictive, factual, and fractured all at once. Toward the end of Performa 09, a trendlet surfaced: the lecture as form, pedagogy as material. Terence Koh delivered a 45-minute art-history lecture composed of made-up gibberish; William Kentridge interacted with images of himself interacting with images of himself; Guillaume Désanges staged a magic-lantern art-history talk; Alexandre Singh explained how everything is connected; and the Bruce High Quality Foundation ended a lecture with an a cappella rendition of a Wham! song.
Gaillard’s Desniansky Raion, a 30-minute video featuring a throbbing soundtrack by Koudlam and internet-gleaned scenes of two Russian gangs pounding the crap out of one another, allowed glimpses into the chaos, love, confusion, and information younger artists are turning into art these days. Halvorson’s quiet paintings of things like shelves conjured the mighty spirits of Chardin, Morandi, and William Nicholson. And Churchman’s beautifully rendered paintings on wood combined folk art and Indian manuscript painting with an extraordinarily sensual supernal sensibility.
This sharp-eyed artist/social observer/loaded weapon proved that the pen is mightier than the word, with his full-page drawing for the cover of Brooklyn Rail depicting the multiple conflicts of interest surrounding the New Museum. This single drawing changed art-world minds, including mine. His spring solo at Schroeder Romero & Shredder was also one of the trickiest and most satirically cutting shows of the season, including portraits of art stars and players taken from the gossip site Now that this Daumier-in-the-making and all-around bullshit detector is becoming something of an art star himself, it’ll be all the more interesting to see what develops.
Part of the Met’s collection since 1949, this portrait of a mustached middle-aged man in a shadowy space was previously attributed first to Van Dyke, then the “workshop” of Velázquez, and then “School Piece in the Velázquez Manner.” Ouch! The picture went in for cleaning earlier this year, and after restorers found layers of botched restoration, the painting emerged as a real work by Velázquez, the greatest painter of all time. The world is now one masterpiece richer: “Portrait of a Man” isn’t the best Velázquez, but my gut tells me it’s the real thing. Which makes my heart happy. Church bells should be rung throughout the city to hail its arrival.
The Best Art of 2009