You read Kaitlin Phillips’s gift guide and picked off what you could afford for the people you love or are most afraid not to give presents: Now what? You could go to an expensive lunch and chew the napkin but why not console yourself with a sold-out art exhibition instead? Galleries, unlike most businesses, won’t sell to just anyone and are immune to most begging (even for the use of their pretty toilets). They are museums of things you can’t have and there is no gift shop. Your wallet is safe.
Inaugurate your crawl uptown and pay respect to your elders by catching James Ensor at Gladstone 64 and Hilma af Klint at David Zwirner. To the latter’s credit, the gallery provides a bench albeit one too far from any of the pictures to be able to see Klimt's century-defining badassery, silver milk pen genius and her crude cherubs. Both shows are slight and relatively hard to dawdle in like one feels they ought to when treated to such canonical names. The galleries seem to know Ensor and af Klint’s fumes can fill a room—and they do!
There is great lighting on Fifth Avenue so take the bus to 57th Street where you can role-play as Joseph Duveen while baptizing yourself in the undeniable cool of photographer Francesca Woodman at Marian Goodman Gallery.
In Chelsea, you might begin further north than your usual route at Kasmin Gallery where Cynthia Daignault is having a moment. The paintings on view here offer a more comprehensive window into her preoccupation with monument-making than those on view at the current New Museum Triennial. Here, the garden path between art and power is made characteristically inescapable.
The nature in Daignault’s pictures has an ulterior agenda too, which is brought to the fore in Tanya Merrill’s painting show at 303 Gallery. Merrill dips in and out of art historical idioms to flesh out the consequences of ecological catastrophe in a scold we understand and can maybe even admire.
At Matthew Marks Gallery, the late artist Ken Price uses the canon for similar ends but in his case deployed ceramics and small concentrated prints to underline the importance of toxic smokestacks and their coughs—the ones he kept painting under the fantasy of his beloved West Coast sky.
In Robert Gober’s show just one door over, the danger is coming from inside the house and the artist tries to help you see that by adding windows to Matthew Marks gallery. He provides real paper snowflakes and fake cigarette butts as evidence. He makes you roleplay a neighborhood pie snatcher: someone curious enough to peer past the muffins into the lives that made the confections left on the sill. It’s window shopping at its finest.
You’ll likely want to spend some of those skills at Portia Zvavahera’s dream-like “Ndakaoneswa murima,” which uncoils at David Zwirner’s Chelsea location. The show stares back at you fiercely with googly eyes and feels like it is talking to a snake you never knew was in your chest. Your brain can’t find the file, but Zvavahera’s shapes feel familiar, and you want to celebrate their return to your consciousness. Marisa Lassnig’s show at Petzel Gallery scratches a similar itch but the references are less veiled.
Set aside special time to sit in for Kara Walker’s Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies (2021) at Sikkema Jenkins. It runs about 12 minutes but its formal transitions are so satisfyingly complex that you’ll stay past the loop to admire the way the artist glides between stories and emotions by finding the superpowers of basic tools. It’s impossible not to cry a little in the dark here. Human cruelty strikes a note you cannot ignore, and Walker has bottled it.
Downtown, Cynthia Talmadge shares Gober and Walker’s dark sense of humor, vulnerability and formal ambition but with a different kind of craft glue. Franklin Fifth Helena (2021), Talmadge’s installation at 56 Henry, dallies in the murderous conspiracies around Marilyn Monroe and her psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson whose home the movie star copied in detail in the creation of her own when she’d finally phased out of the immersive part of his treatment—the part where she’d live with him. Talmadge recreates one of Greenson’s rooms in colored sand and fills it with imagery from Monroe and Greenson’s joint and imagined holdings. The show is a shock treatment that asks us to be honest about how far people are willing to go with their ideas, including artists.
If you make it to Talmadge, you should probably also stop by Maggie Lee at Jenny’s because Lee understands your withdrawals intimately. And then there is Jamian Juliano-Villani to visit at O'Flaherty's. Let her give you a bag of chips and munch on those quietly when you hit up Tishan Hsu at Miguel Abreu Gallery, Devin N. Morris at Deli Gallery and Eric N. Mack’s window at Paula Cooper Gallery, all of which are enjoyable experiences on their own.
Follow this guide for a long day with limited damage and large rewards. Things are generally better than you expect, even in painting.