Top Ten Museum Shows

What we're most looking forward to in museums this season

hiller monument colonial version install hi Top Ten Museum Shows

"Monument" (1980-1981) by Susan Hiller, at MoMA P.S.1. (Photo courtesy the artist and Timothy Taylor Gallery, London)

Crafting Modernism
Museum of Arts and Design
Oct. 12, 2011 – Jan. 15, 2012

Lest we forget that, as Tom Wolfe so eloquently put it once, this is the “museum formerly known as craft,” the place is putting on a mammoth exhibition devoted to craft, specifically to the relationship between it and design after WWII. This is a fascinating proposal because while craft slowly became a four-letter word during that period, design became uber-fashionable, to the point where, today, it sells to the same crowd that buys Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, and constantly prompts questions like, “Is it design, or is it art?” But forget the concept. Go for the pieces. The show, which is organized by MAD curators Jeannine Falino and Jennifer Scanlan, who are continuing a series of exhibitions presented at the museum in the 1990s, includes stunning pieces by George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi and many, many others.

De Kooning: A Retrospective
Museum of Modern Art
Sept. 18-Jan. 9.
On the heels of its show of Abstract Expressionism, MoMA has turned its full attention to Willem de Kooning, a central figure in that group of artists. In many ways, de Kooning and his cohorts planted the seeds of the New York art world as we know it today. (Warhol would put the finishing touches on it, but that is another story.) And so the show will be important to MoMA’s base audience not just for the paintings, but for what the painter represented. De Kooning was an artist’s artist; a painter’s painter. Go for the scary and brilliant series of “Women”; stay for the gorgeous late paintings, with their shimmering hues. (For more on the show, read an interview with its curator, John Elderfield, in the culture pages of this week’s Observer.)

Maurizio Cattelan: All
Guggenheim
Nov. 4, 2011-Jan. 22, 2012
The pope felled by a meteorite. A squirrel that committed suicide. A horse with its head stuck in the wall. A pair of upside-down policemen. Twinned miniature self-portraits in miniature coffins. Maurizio Cattelan’s artworks have been playing pranks on the art world since he began making them some 20 years ago. The Italian’s work has only been seen piecemeal in New York, so this will be an opportunity to figure out when he’s joking, and when he’s being serious. Be careful: he is almost always doing both at the same time.

September 11
MoMA P.S. 1
Sept. 11, 2011–Jan. 9, 2012
It takes a certain amount of audacity to call your art exhibition simply “September 11,” without any of the usual embellishments encouraging remembrance and forbidding forgetting, and it is probably to P.S. 1’s advantage that its relatively new chief curator Peter Eleey, who is responsible for this exhibition, was willing to cut to the chase. Well, not quite. In fact, his title’s a bit sly. What you won’t see here are any images of the attacks themselves. Nor will you see any art made directly in response to them, save for a long Ellsworth Kelly. What does that leave us with? There are more than 70 works by 41 artists and many of them were actually made prior to 9/11. What Mr. Eleey appears to be up to is creating a portrait of the cultural moment in which certain horrific events took place, and he defines that cultural moment broadly: there is, for instance, William Eggleston’s haunting photograph of what could be either soda or Scotch sitting in a beam of sunlight on an airplane food tray, from a portfolio dating to 1965-1974. The show has an intriguing roster of artists ranging from Diane Arbus to John Chamberlain to Bruce Conner to Thomas Demand, Jane Freilicher, Thomas Hirschhorn, Alex Katz, James Turrell and many more. Yoko Ono and John Lennon are also on the bill.

Picasso’s Drawings, 1890­-1921: Reinventing Tradition at the Frick Collection
Oct. 4, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012
We hear a lot about Picasso these days, and, in a way, it has ever been thus. He is, after all, the quintessential modern master, modern art’s game changer. But what we mostly pay attention to are the paintings, and lately our eyes have been on them not least because they change hands for astounding sums. Currently holding the record for most expensive painting ever sold at auction is Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which went for $106.5 million last year. His works on paper generally get short shrift, but they shouldn’t. There is nothing more fascinating than poring over an artist’s drawings, as there is no better way to see how the artist’s mind works, and what, precisely, gave birth to those beloved paintings. In other words, if you want to understand not simply that Picasso changed the art game but how he did so, make your way to the Frick this fall and see him, per the title, reinvent tradition in the crucial first decades of the 20th century. See him go from ambitious student to swashbuckling genius, and from classicism to Cubism and back to classicism again, at once breaking with tradition and cleaving to its bulwark.

Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art
Nov. 13, 2011–May 14, 2012
MoMA is such a behemoth that it is hard to believe it was young once. But it was, and in its scrappy youth it gave an enviable opportunity to a politically engaged Mexican painter: you make five giant “portable murals,” we’ll give you studio space on site. Diego Rivera’s murals were on show from December 22, 1931, to January 27, 1932, and comprised the museum’s second one-man exhibition. (The first was Matisse.) He started out with Mexican subjects—like the famous Agrarian Leader Zapata but decided, while in town, to take on New York, stricken then with the Great Depression. There may be some resonance with our current economic crisis.

New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Opens Nov. 1, 2011
The reopening of the Met’s Islamic galleries in vastly expanded form will be the hands-down highlight of the art season. The $50-million project, which puts back on view some much-loved objects that have been hidden in storage for eight years now, and others that have been stowed away for many more, features a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard meticulously created by Moroccan craftsmen. Thirteen hundred years of history will be on view, and while anything to do with the Middle East always seems to provoke controversy, these galleries will have much to tell us about the cultural roots we all share.

Carsten Höller: Experience
New Museum
Oct. 26, 2011-Jan. 15, 2012
Are you experienced? You will be after you get the Carsten Höller treatment. The museum-spanning show devoted to the Belgian artist and former scientist features artworks that seem a lot more like research experiments. In a way, you, the viewer, are the subject (double, or perhaps triple entendre entirely intended) of Mr. Höller’s work. Slides, carousels and a sensory deprivation pool are just some of the things you’ll find in this fun ride of an exhibition. Mr. Höller, who has never before been given full-scale museum treatment in New York, wants to yank you out of your usual routine, and you should let him.

Sherrie Levine: Mayhem
Whitney Museum
Nov. 10, 2011-Jan. 29, 2012
Surely by now you know what re-photography is, not to mention appropriation, if only from the many legal disputes it’s caused of late. (Paging Richard Prince.) Not long ago, the lifting of images from other artists’ work or the wholesale copying of them in the name of art was something of a novelty. It was conceptual copiers like Sherrie Levine, who has been doing this for 30 years, most notably in pieces like After Walker Evans: 1-22 (1981), the result of photographing a catalogue by the famous photographer Walker Evans, who gave the practice currency, and it’s been far too long since we’ve seen a serious presentation of her work. This is a serious presentation—a survey of old and new pieces curated by art historian Johanna Burton in collaboration with Whitney curators Elisabeth Sussman and Carrie Springer. It is also more that that: Ms. Levine considers the exhibition to be itself an artwork. Mayhem, indeed.

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951
Jewish Museum
Nov. 4, 2011-March 25, 2012
Like drawing, photography (as opposed to re-photography) is a medium that is sometimes overlooked. Overlooking this particular exhibition would be a mistake, as it promises to be one of the most compelling displays of work by street shutterbugs in history. Founded by a group of politically radical photographers, the Photo League became a hotbed of talent—Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, and Arthur Fellig (the crime-scene photographer better known as Weegee) were all members. So were Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind and Paul Strand. Much of the work was politically inclined; what will stay with you after seeing it is a sense of the vibrant personalities who populated New York in the years during which these photographs were taken, captured as they are in all their gritty humanity.

sdouglas@observer.com