Billboards on the High Line, Ab-Ex all over town, plus Cattelan, Levine, Holler: A year-end art-crawl

Sanford Biggers' 'Cheshire,' 2008. (Michael Klein Arts)
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If you’re in town for the stretch before New Year’s with time and/or visiting family on your hands, you can go stir-crazy thinking the city's fast asleep 'til 2012. But right now there’s actually a good deal of great art—in museums and galleries and city parks—still on view and mainly free. But act now, since most of these items are ending soon.

The High Line is by now well-known as a great place for a winter stroll, but recently it also became a great place to see art played out on billboards—a form imbued with so much metaphorical richness during these economically lugubrious times. And two artists do it well. John Baldessari’s billboard installation The First $100,000 I Ever Made, (up through December 30) may be your only chance to glimpse that particular denomination of currency, particularly in its massive 25-by-75-foot incarnation. Only 42,000 of these bills were ever printed, and they were released to Federal Reserve Banks as gold certificates for just three weeks in 1934-1935 (at the height of the Great Depression); most have since been destroyed. Kim Beck’s Space Available, (through January 2012) is equally stirring but easily missed—only because her series of sculpted rooftop structures resemble the skeletal frameworks of billboards whose space has not yet been sold. Right. But move past these hollow structures (between West 13th and Gansevoort Streets) and you’re in for a surprise.

Joan Mitchell, a second generation American Abstract Expressionist, was one of the few females active in the group (along with Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, and Elaine de Kooning). Mitchell was included in Leo Castelli’s historic 1951 Ninth Street Exhibition, and her work from those years remains that for which she is best known. Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings, at Cheim & Read (through January 4) contains 13 large-scale selections from her late work, rarely seen, and it is remarkable. Mitchell was one of the rare female voices amidst the notorious artistic debates that went down at the Cedar Tavern. One of the loudest was that of Ab-Ex titan Willem de Kooning. MoMA’s de Kooning: A Retrospective (through January 9) offers a sweeping chronicle of the life of one of the 20th century’s most important and prolific artists, and gives viewers a sense of the man moving through various stages of his life: from his exploratory, derivative work as a young academic; through his landmark abstract works; the impassioned, figurative period, capped by the famed Woman series; through the meditative spare abstractions of his later years. David Geffen bought de Kooning’s Woman III in 2006 for $137.5 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. The MoMA is much cheaper, and of course Fridays after 4 it’s free!

There are a lot of flashy, big-name shows this season, and many of them are ending soon to make way for another round in early spring. The best of those closing include Sherry Levine: Mayhem at the Whitney (through January 29), Carsten Holler’s Experience, at the New Museum (through January 15), and Maurizio Cattellan’s All at the Guggenheim (through January 22). Levine’s show spins with art historical and metaphorical richness (see her bronze Duchamp urinal), Holler presents an adult playground that is at once visceral fun and a heady foray into relational aesthetics, and shock artist Cattellan presents literally all of the work he’s ever produced hung from the center of the Guggenheim’s central spiral.

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Yet HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Brooklyn Museum (through February 12), tops them all. It is an important show, one which demonstrates the role of sexual identity in the shaping of American art. The first museum exhibition of its kind, HIDE/SEEK exhibits work by a catalog of the world’s most renowned artists, but seen through a particular lens. While Grant Wood’s most famous work is American Gothic, a portrait of the American heartland, another portrait, Arnold Comes of Age, shows a surprisingly different view of that same heartland, a view of youth, vitality, and sexuality. Beginning with Thomas Eakins in the later 19th century and ending with Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz in the late 20th, this evocative, if not completely comprehensive, show puts into context some of the most important works of art history.

While at the Brooklyn Museum, check out another of its shows ending soon. Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk—An Introspective (through January 8) is Biggers’ first museum presentation in New York, and it’s a stunner, including his great large-scale multimedia installation Blossom.