The paradigm of the 21st-century art world is paradox. On the one hand, there is the vast interconnected network of artists, collectors, curators, critics (hi!), advisers, galleries, and fairs that make up the art world as fulfillment center, with assets that can be shipped anywhere, anytime. Enormous amounts of money are pumped into this aesthetic matrix by people who came through the 2008 financial collapse and the pandemic stronger, with even more accumulated wealth. But instead of buying only modernist masters or postwar stars, many of these people are buying art as a way to signal ethical correction and self-improvement, a way to bestow beneficence on those whose lives have been a living hell under the system that generated their wealth.
Art and money have always slept together. Perhaps the art world has merely gotten kinkier about it. It’s no surprise that an actual Murdoch — James, son of Rupert — is now a major stakeholder in the company that puts on Art Basel, a fair that publishes an equity-minded publication during its shindigs. It’s like Laurie Anderson’s lyric: “This is the hand, the hand that takes … ’Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice / And when justice is gone, there’s always force.”
Either way, the die is cast. Shady, disconcerting, and affected as it may be, something is blossoming in the paradox. Without renouncing the great art of the past, we may finally start to see more than 50 percent of the story. In our own backyard, the rewriting of art history could not begin in a better place than with a full-on survey of Faith Ringgold, including her giant, hand-painted narrative quilts and installations. Further uptown, the Met is putting a toe in bold waters by presenting the work of West Coast sculptural giant Charles Ray — while at the bonkers end of the spectrum, we’ll see a solo show by the most expensive living artist. With shows good, bad, and very bad all within our reach, anyone who says art is merely woke and mediocre in 2022 will seem of another era.
Charles Ray: “Figure Ground”
Metropolitan Museum of Art (opens January 31)
Charles Ray emerged in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and is among America’s preeminent sculptors. In Ink Line (1987), Ray gives us a jet-black line that looks like a string going from floor to ceiling. Look closer and you soon make out that this solid form is, in fact, a stream of black ink pouring out of a tiny hole in the ceiling into an equally teeny hole in the floor. (A recirculating pump embedded in the wall funnels the ink back to the top — a postmodern fountain.) Spinning Spot, made the same year, looks like a circular pencil line drawn on the floor. Again, space seems to wobble; you notice a disc spinning so fast it seems to stand still. And Ray just kept getting better, with huge sculptures of a twisted car wreck and a fire truck, hyperrealistic self-portraits, and stainless-steel, almost classical sculptures. All this culminated in 2015 with his controversial Huck and Jim, which depicted Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn bending to look at something while Jim — who, in the book, is an escaping slave trying to make his way on the river — stands over him, looking into the distance. Both figures are naked. The Whitney Museum rejected this commissioned work, fearing it would offend. Finally, in this retrospective of Ray’s work at the Met, all will get a chance to come to terms with it. Issues of the body vie for attention with issues of society.
Faith Ringgold: “American People”
New Museum (opens February 17)
When MoMA opened the new installation of its vaunted modern art collection in October 2019, many hailed waves of change in the museum’s pairing of its foundational masterpiece, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), with Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967). Demoiselles was the painterly shot heard around the world. In Ringgold’s vibrant, mural-size painting, we see murder in the streets: Black and white figures carry guns and knives. Some run in terror. Children cower underfoot. It summed up America in that time of civil rights. It still sums it up, alas. Now, the New Museum — one of the best in the world at giving great yet underappreciated artists their due — is mounting a full-bore retrospective of this 91-year-old master innovator. While Ringgold is an excellent painter, what she calls her “story quilts” stand as a towering testament to the power of an artist using whatever medium necessary to smash down the walls of the canon. Here, that sledgehammer happens to be made of fabric and paint. Meet modernism’s long-denigrated half-sibling, craft.
Jack Hanley Gallery (opens March TBD)
Get ready to rumble with this gallery show from Mike Winkelmann, a.k.a. Beeple. This is the famous NFT star who in March 2021, out of nowhere, sold his digital crypto work Everydays: The First 5000 Days for $69,346,250 — a record-smashing price for a living artist. The rest is history: envy, arguments, and oceans of NFT artists and entrepreneurs rushing in. Art-world gatekeepers not only didn’t see this coming, they aren’t even sure if Beeple is an artist. Or, if he is an artist, whether he’s a bad one. Or, God forbid, a good one. It isn’t unusual for a flash in the money pan to show in a gallery — but Beeple will show with one of the coolest galleries around, Jack Hanley in Tribeca.
Hanley’s bona fides are impeccable, having been an early champion of San Francisco street artists and other avant-gardes. He’s always been an almost-outlaw. (About 15 years ago at a Christmas party, he gave me a cork-size wedge of hashish. As my wife and I drove home, we were stopped in a routine Christmas check by police near the Holland Tunnel. When the officer smelt the weed, he told me to pull over. I handed the hash to my wife, who threw it out the window before we parked, ten feet down the road — thus saving weekly art criticism for a year or so.) The Beeple show in this place, at this time, could throw a spanner in the works of an art world that, for good reasons and bad, is suspicious of the NFT gold rush. Pop some corn and stay tuned.
Henri Matisse: The Red Studio
Museum of Modern Art (opens May 1)
It is almost a rite of aesthetic passage to be swept off your feet by The Red Studio. Matisse painted this epoch-defining 1911 masterpiece when he was 42 and in the thick of a supercharged pas de deux with his rival, 30-year-old Picasso. It imparts new meaning at every viewing. First, there is the miracle of it being almost all red — not a crimson or a ruby, but a smoldering, border-to-border, ecclesiastical-vestment red. Then there’s the vision of Matisse painting his own paintings, in his own studio, making them all live again in this sanctified space where they were created, and where, for the artist, reality begins. (Or ends.) The space in the painting is so flat that it reads both as a simple, almost-childlike rendering and one of the most advanced visual operating systems ever devised. Only MoMA, the caretaker of this monad, could reunite it with six of the real paintings that Matisse depicted within it. This hall of mirrors will crack open in front of your grateful eyes.
“Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present”
MoMA (opens October 9)
The gallery Just Above Midtown — or JAM, as it was always called — opened in 1974. Originally located on West 57th Street, it had to relocate twice due to rising rents, finally closing in 1986. In this short period, the gallery’s visionary owner/director/everything Linda Goode Bryant, who founded the space at the age of 23 (!), showcased artists who were then unknown but who are now almost canonical, including David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, Lorraine O’Grady, and Senga Nengudi. JAM was a tremendous exception to the almost all-white, all-male gallery model, showing mostly artists of color. The artists Bryant worked with went on to twist the shape of painting and sculpture in ways that altered the flow of art — proving that quality is quality, without having to be qualified as advocacy. See for yourself at this long-delayed MoMA retrospective.
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