City Arts: The Best of 2019

A look back at an extraordinary year for art in New York.

27 Dec 2019 | 01:01

A New MoMA

The renovation at the Museum of Modern Art did more than open new spaces. It opened perspectives, understanding and conversations. The physical alterations are a success. The metaphysical ones are huge and important, and it's impossible to tell where they'll lead. If you change history, you change the future. MoMA's inclusion of more women artists, artists of color, and international artists tells a whole new story of humanity.

Art City

NYC's public art was museum-worthy, free and enriching again this year. Alex Katz sculptures added élan to Park Avenue. The MTA Arts and Design unveiled new permanent masterpieces like "The Arches of Old Penn Station" by Diana Al Hadid. Keith Haring's mural "Crack is Wack" at East 128th Street and the Harlem River Drive was restored. NYC Commission on Human Rights' first-ever Public Artist in Residence, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's murals proclaim women's strength. Deborah Kass's OY/YO sculpture spent 2019 at the Brooklyn Musuem, and the Public Art Fund presented works by Carmen Herrera, Pope.L, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, among others. The most uplifting may have been Yayoi Kusama's balloon "Love Flies Up to the Sky" floating above the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Hilma's Time

This year we learned that abstraction was pioneered by a woman. Hilma af Klint's magnificent, magical works filled the Guggenheim's rotunda with color, forms, spirituality, and energy. Rooted in nature, mysticism, and the power of one woman's vision, her paintings and drawings were largely unknown, but are now unforgettable.

Still Time

Vija Celmins' "To Fix the Image in Memory" at the Met Breuer through January 12th, was years in the making, but worth the wait. Celmins' technical mastery is off the charts. Her meticulous renderings – or as she terms them, redecriptions – of space, oceans, deserts, spider webs, and more remind us that infinity is within our everyday experience.

Gems Do More than Sparkle

Two shows at the Met bookended the year with looks at jewelry that did way more than dazzle. In "Jewelry: The Body Transformed" at the beginning of 2019 and "The Colmar Treasure," on view at The Cloisters through Jan. 12, curators Melanie Holcomb and Barbara Boehm revealed how through objects humble or spectacular, what we treasure can preserve history, proclaim power, seduce, subjugate, elevate, or decorate. Self-adornment, something everyone who's ever lived has done, has the ability to tell epic stories.

The Whitney Biennial

The 2019 Whitney Biennial raised lots of questions, both from the audience and the artists. It was a beautiful exhibition, filled with poetry and, at times, rage – varyingly explosive, smoldering, or reflective. History and newness were on view, voiced by an inclusive, diverse roster of artists. More, please.

Warhol Revisited

If you thought you knew Warhol, the Whitney's Donna De Salvo taught you a thing or two in her immersive retrospective “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again.” With 350 objects including iconic and little-known, it was the kind of show that only someone deeply engaged with Warhol's work could organize. It was also a generous farewell, as De Salvo recently left the Whitney to bring her talents to Dia in 2020.

A New Master

When Amy Sherald's painting of Michelle Obama was revealed, we knew we had a great new American portraitist. She's been painting for decades, but her second act for most of us was "the heart of the matter..." at Hauser & Wirth, an exhibition of glorious paintings of African American women and men suffused with everyday elegance. Sherald incorporated literary and art historical references to create monumental works.

An Old Master

Leonardo da Vinci's last great painting, "St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness," was never completed, though he worked on it, on and off, for more than 30 years. Its unfinished state uncovers the thinking process of this polymath Renaissance genius. To celebrate his 500th anniversary, we got an in depth look at a Vatican masterpiece from Leonardo expert, Met curator, Carmen C. Bambach.

A Rightful Place

“Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” (ongoing) at the Metropolitan Museum brought the creations of indigenous American artists out of the galleries for Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and into the museum's American Wing – a potent and significant move, at the Dikers' request. The exhibition offers a sweeping view of Native American art across distances and ages, and tells important stories about America and its people.