AT MIDNIGHT ON DECEMBER 31 the ball dropped in Times Square as usual. Last week, the New York art world met 2016 by waiting for the other foot to do likewise.
Despite performances to kick up a little fairy dust, the mood was anxious, almost becalmed. Galleries opened shows in what felt like a holding pattern, as if they were planes circling an airport until a threatening storm has passed.
That would be the real world, which has now surpassed the art world for madness and danger. That’s one reason why we take refuge in art and ideas. The question is whether the market-ready material that is so prevalent is up to the task. To stay relevant in a landscape of H-bomb tests, mass killings, violent rhetoric, pronounced bigotry, and corporate trickery, artists need to call on their nerve.
“January is the Monday of months,” observed dealer Andrew Kreps of the season’s desultory start. Several galleries appeared more eager to catch up to the neglected but time-tested past than embrace the unpredictability of the here and now.
Peter Freeman brought the octogenarian Alex Hay back from Bisbee, Arizona for his opening and included recent drawings and sculptures as well as process works made just a few blocks away in the SoHo of the 1960s. Larry Poons, who keeps fit by racing vintage motorcycles, was on foot at Loretta Howard, where he had paintings from the ’70s. And at David Zwirner Gallery, dealers Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal and David Leiber brought together paintings and sculpture from ’50s Cuba by The Ten, a group of nearly forgotten artists who gave themselves to hard-edged, geometric abstraction and showed together in a formidable gallery run by one of them in prerevolutionary Havana.
The two still living, Pedro de Oráa and José Angel Rosabel, were at the opening and the dinner at Il Buco Alimentari with family, friends, and interested parties like collectors Catherine Petitgas and AC Hudgins and art historian Abigail McEwen, whose book on Cuban art of the period is due out from Yale University Press any minute. Everyone was happy, and I’m happy for them—and for all of these artists. Their work deserves reconsideration and recognition. But in the context of now, it looked a bit worn out.
Chelsea began to feel awake on Friday, when Guido van der Werve tested spectators at Luhring Augustine by rustling up that old saw of provocation, pornography. At least, that’s what he called it. Perhaps he was kidding. His three-channel, twelve-part, fifty-minute film, Nummer zestien, the present moment, is an orgy of young, aging, corpulent, stooped, and obedient bodies eating and kneeling and fucking, Santiago Sierra style, but in less orderly fashion. Set to music of van der Werve’s own composition that emanated from a player piano, it was an aching and meditative experience rather than titillating.
In his last film here, which I loved, the artist performed a surrealistic triathlon while following the route that Frédéric Chopin’s sister traveled to bring the dead composer’s brain from Paris to Warsaw. “That was about my body,” van der Werve said. “This one is more about the mechanics of the mind.”
For enormous male organs, one had to see the feisty Judith Bernstein’s show of new phallus paintings at Mary Boone’s West Twenty-Fourth Street location, “Dicks of Death.” Bernstein is another senior artist enjoying the spotlight after decades in the shade. “I hit it out of the ballpark,” she boasted during dinner at Bottino. “Sorry,” she added, without actual apology. “I waited so long for this that I have no modesty.”
The button-pushing Robert Melee has no truck with modesty, either. His riotous opening at the Kreps gallery was a winter carnival of bright color, sequins, and gold lamé. “It’s about opulence, excess, and depression,” he said of a show that features an almost seething mass of party paraphernalia tucked under a translucent aboveground swimming pool turned upside down.
Another pathology was operating at Paula Cooper, where Tauba Auerbach attracted the largest crowd all weekend with a performance by her favorite Brooklyn noise band, ZS. Buried in the crowd were platforms displaying unidentifiable 3-D-printed instruments worthy of a futuristic David Cronenberg horrorfest. Auerbach made them to produce the equally mysterious paintings on the walls. “Tauba is a high-tech artisan,” said her former dealer, Jeffrey Deitch, who planted himself front and center before the band. “I didn’t know of them,” he said. “But I was totally absorbed.”
That was a sign that things were returning to their normal level of madness. But the season only began to recover fully with another Cuban-born artist, Coco Fusco. Her searing installations of books, films, and facsimiles of secret documents at Alexander Gray illuminate the ways any government’s abuse of power affects human life—and art—on a daily basis.
Finally, someone had put the past in the context of now. Fusco is a messenger who makes it clear that no matter how long we look over our shoulders, we can’t afford to keep turning back—or stand still for whatever comes next.