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Substance and Spectacle

December 19, 2011

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YOU can complain all you want about the art-world money-go-round and the celebrity circus spinning in its widening gyre. Prices are up; so are mentions of Art Basel Miami on Page Six. Artworks seem only to get bigger and shinier, and spectacle — participatory or not — is becoming the new normal at museum exhibitions of contemporary art. Note the record crowds lining up to gawk at Maurizio Cattelan’s career immolation at the Guggenheim or whiz down Carsten Höller’s tubular slide at the New Museum.

Tom Powel Imaging/L&M Arts

David Hammons’s show at L&M Arts (including his untitled piece) was among the year’s standout gallery exhibitions. More Photos »

The year was full of dismaying sights, as the art world kept jumping the shark. Who can forget Francesco Vezzoli’s dreadfully slick, churchlike installation at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea in February? Who can remember? There’s been so much sludge under the bridge since then. Art and life imitated each other in countless, sometimes hair-raising ways. Not least: At this year’s Venice Biennale the oligarchic yachts moored outside the Giardini were answered from within by a huge upturned military tank. It was the most ostentatious element in the extremely expensive, and thus institutionally dependent, institutional critique offered by Allora & Calzadilla at the American pavilion.

And yet there were also close encounters with artworks past and present in all mediums for which to be deeply grateful. I was mostly in New York, which — despite the booming success of the Hong Kong art fair, a wealth of interesting-sounding exhibitions in Europe (especially London) this fall and the multifaceted curatorial triumph of “Pacific Standard Time” in and around Los Angeles — remains the art capital where the greatest number of people participate in the largest, most random multi-tiered scene. There is certainly more art in New York’s museums, galleries, alternative spaces and outlying artist-run showplaces than any one person can see, much less digest.

Hats off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the extraordinary cultural revelation of its new and expanded Arab Lands galleries and to the Museum of Modern Art for its once-in-a-lifetime de Kooning retrospective, memorializing an artist who never stopped trying in a show that never lets us down. The Modern also deserves our thanks for continuing to aerate its permanent collection with artists previously absent from its overly compact version of art history.

In addition there was the Whitney’s retrospective of Glenn Ligon’s serene but barbed art; the New Museum’s summation of Lynda Benglis’s subversive sculptural tendencies, as well as “Ostalgia,” its examination of recent art from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. At MoMA PS1 antic videos by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, screened among their equally antic assemblages of Ikea furniture, felt alive and of the moment.

Read more at:  In the New York Art Scene, Spectacle and Substance Both Wow

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