Most art critics have such a file, I suspect—if not literally buried in their desk, then lingering metaphorically, at least, somewhere on their conscience: “Best shows I didn’t review”. For me, that file can reach bursting point by year’s end. Jpegs were gathered, soundbites poised, but circumstances got the better of noble intentions. From the waning hours of 2015, here is a sampling of such exhibitions.
Alexi Worth: Green Glass Doors at DC Moore Gallery, March 26 to April 25, 2015
Reviewed in these pages by Roman Kalinovski, this was a project room solo that played with boundaries on different levels. Perceptual provocateur Alexi Worth found a theme worthy of his visual mischief: the locked doors of almost completed building or renovation projects. The motif vied with his nudes on the beach or copulating couples precisely thanks to their chilly voyeur-inducing exclusion. Elaborate carpentry and mesh supports played off depiction against construction with surface wit and psychological depth.
Alain Kirili and James Siena at Art Omi, October 11, 2015 to January 3, 2016
This was a year of double exposures for sculptor Alain Kirili, who has divided his career of the last forty years between New York and his native Paris. Two shows brought his latest line-in-space sculptures in forged metal to two-person shows: two halves that add to more than one whole for an artist for whom dialogue, whether with peers, historic mentors or artists in other mediums (music or dance) is axiomatic rather than expedient. One show was with painter Bobbie Oliver at Peter Hionas Gallery, a coupling of the dealer’s suggestion; the other, however, very much of Kirili’s own devising, was with his friend James Siena at Art Omi in Columbia County, NY. Siena, legendary as a painter and draftsman, and whose sculpture also takes line for a walk, enjoyed his sculptural debut earlier this year at Pace Gallery.
Susannah Phillips at Lori Bookstein
A natural complement to the exquisite Morandi show a block away at David Zwirner Gallery, Susannah Phillips brought a brooding luminosity to her spatial meditations in paintings where the structural elements communicate with the silent intensity of still life. The mountainous scenery of several pictures created a tension between schematic reduction and observational presentness striking a chord somewhere between Milton Avery and Ferdinand Hodler, holding the elements – water, land, sky – in suspense. In more urban images, Richard Diebenkorn and Wilhelm Hammershoi were the presiding ghosts. Upping the ante in intensity were images of a nebulous space, perhaps a holding bay, ambivalent between interior and exterior, where forms pulsate in the dark.
Alternate Histories: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne, January 15 to April 11, 2015
Before New Yorkers could enjoy Seccessionist masterpieces amidst the plutocratic splendors and wafting caffeinated aromas of the Neue Galerie, the redoubt of Austrian and German Expressionism in this city were the altogether more sedate, businesslike premises of Galerie St. Etienne on 57th Street. This venue was a transplant from Vienna where it was founded in the 1920s by Otto Kallir, father of the present owner Jane Kallir, and originally named, indeed, the Neue Galerie. This jubilee exhibition brought together examples of the different strands that have ensured St. Etienne a crucial, vital role in New York art consciousness: arresting images from the likes of Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka and Kollwitz; American “primitives” like Morris Hirshfield and Grandma Moses; and that fearless living expressionist (no need for any “neo” prefix) Sue Coe.
Tom of Finland at Artists Space, June 13 to September 13, 2015
Touko Laaksonen, better known to connoisseurs and masturbators everywhere as Tom of Finland, enjoyed a steamy double header at the sprawling SoHo and Tribeca premises of Artists Space this summer. On Greene Street an elaborate installation afforded intimate corridor upon corridor of framed drawings and collages from which his published images derived. With glistening graphite he caught the erogenous sheen of muscle-bound workmen bulging in denim and leather uniformed hulks encountering each other in ever-cheerful, spontaneous orgies: S&M with a smile was his hallmark. Down on Walker Street, an utterly exhaustive, thematic vitrine arrangement recalled the fact that image horder Laaksonen’s background was in advertising. The exhibition archived his sources with an indexical totality that would have impressed Aby Warbug, a veritable iconology of lust.
Alex Katz at Barney’s, Spring 2015
Every year seems to be Alex Katz’s year as far as increased visibility for this prince of painters is concerned. Notwithstanding the absurdly overdue retrospective that New York museums are denying this realist master, 2015 saw its fair share of spectacular outings: new works that took startling liberties with expectations, at once reduxing and reinventing his familiar landscape motifs, closed the downtown space of Gavin Brown, for instance, while Mary Ryan showed a stunning set of nine screenprints, each 80 inches by 30, of women in little black dresses that nodded to The Black Dress, his iconic 1960 portrait of Ada repeated six times in a single canvas. There were big museum shows at the High in Atlanta, GA and at Colby College, ME, but the stand out memory for this critic were his windows at Barneys: with typical chutzpah Katz blacked out the store windows with a parade of starkly elegant figures etched into the glass, a provocation that pushed style outwards to the street rather than luring the stylish in, cajoling passersby with a frisson of exclusion. A related display of paraphernalia on the sixth floor produced for the store under the auspices of the Art Production Fund brought together linens, vanity products and kitchenware, all impressed with startling graphic flowers, heads, or dogs carved black out of white, white out of black. A beach spread purchased by this viewer to spare his couch from dog hairs was expensive for a towel but a bargain for an Alex Katz.
Francis Bacon at Gagosian (Madison Avenue), November 7 to December 12, 2015
When you are a world class modern master and the products of your late work seem, quite literally, washed out, the job of criticism, obviously, is to explain how dissipatedness is a sign of genius. For years, at Bacon retrospectives, of which there have been many, the oeuvre is shown to end on a dry, thin, almost evaporated note. But gather just late works, as Gagosian have done, intelligently and persuasively installed, and the late period does indeed cohere around faded grandeur as an organizing principle. Bacon, at his best, was brazenly decadent, anxiety inducing and tragic; this actually serves to make the “defects” of his late works a virtue. Inveterately inventive even as he wallowed in his own mannerisms, he could turn sterile precision into its own kind of terribilità.
Sean Scully at Montserrat, dedicated June 2015
Sean Scully turned 70 in 2015 and a slew of international events marked the occasion. Laurels included a major exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, a sculptural commission in south-western France and a sumptuous display in a palace on the Grand Canal, a collateral exhibition of the Venice Biennale, where his land-sea-sky partitioned stripe paintings, reveling in a new gestural looseness, assumed a symbolic role in their temporary home akin to “il Sposalizio del Mare,” the allegories of Venice’s betrothal to the sea. But the jewel in the crown of his birthday celebrations took place in the mystically fabled monastic complex of Montserrat, in this hills overlooking Barcelona. For the Dublin-born, London-schooled, New York-tested and Munich-proved artist, Barcelona has for long been the third node in the split nucleus of his peripatetic career. Within Catalonian national identity, and by extension Scully’s identification with the city, Montserrat has profound resonances, so the invitation to decorate an entire chapel – he has provided paintings, windows and sundry sacred furnishings – provides its own kind of allegorical significance in relation to his mentors, Rothko and Matisse.