‘HILMA AF KLINT: PAINTINGS FOR THE FUTURE’ at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through April 23). This rapturous exhibitionupends Modernism’s holiest genesis tale — that the male trinity of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian invented abstract painting starting in 1913. It demonstrates that a female Swedish artist got there first (1906-7), in great style and a radically bold scale with paintings that feel startlingly contemporary. The mother of all revisionist shows regarding Modernism.
‘LUCIO FONTANA: ON THE THRESHOLD’ at the Met Breuer (through April 14). The art of this Argentine-Italian modernist looks a bit like it comes from another planet, and it might as well, given how seldom we see it in New York. The Met Breuer show, with single environments at the Met Fifth Avenue and El Museo del Barrio, is the artist’s first museum survey here in over 40 years. This wouldn’t be especially notable — plenty of his Latin American peers never get seen at all — were Fontana, who died in 1968, not so influential a figure. The “threshold” in the title refers not only to the early phase of his career, which the Met Breuer exhibition highlights, but also to his position as a forebear of contemporary art as we know it. Things we take for granted — installation, new media and the poly-disciplinary impulse that defines so many 21st-century careers — Fontana pioneered in the 1950s.
‘THE JIM HENSON EXHIBITION’ at the Museum of the Moving Image. The rainbow connection has been established in Astoria, Queens, where this museum has opened a new permanent wingdevoted to the career of America’s great puppeteer, who was born in Mississippi in 1936 and died, too young, in 1990. Henson began presenting the short TV program “Sam and Friends” before he was out of his teens; one of its characters, the soft-faced Kermit, was fashioned from his mother’s old coat and would not mature into a frog for more than a decade. The influence of early variety television, with its succession of skits and songs, runs through “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” though Henson also spent the late 1960s crafting peace-and-love documentaries and prototyping a psychedelic nightclub. Young visitors will delight in seeing Big Bird, Elmo, Miss Piggy and the Swedish Chef; adults can dig deep into sketches and storyboards and rediscover some old friends.
‘FRIDA KAHLO: APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING’ at the Brooklyn Museum (through May 12). This is not exactly an exhibitionof Kahlo’s art — it contains just 11 paintings, from compelling self-portraits to ghastly New Age kitsch — but an evocation of an artistic life through her elegant Oaxacan blouses and skirts, not to mention the corsets and spinal braces she wore after a crippling traffic accident. Do her outfits have the weight of art, or are they just so much biographical flimflam? Your answer may vary depending on your degree of Fridamania, but the woven shawls and color-saturated long skirts here, as well as gripping photographs of the artist by Carl Van Vechten, Imogen Cunningham, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and other great shutterbugs, suggest Kahlo’s real accomplishment was a Duchampian extension of her art far beyond the easel, into her home, her fashion and her public relationships.
‘THE LONG RUN’ at the Museum of Modern Art. The museum upends its cherished Modern narrative of ceaseless progress by mostly young (white) men. Instead we see works by artists 45 and older who have just kept on keeping on, regardless of attention or reward, sometimes saving the best for last. Art here is an older person’s game, a pursuit of a deepening personal vision over innovation. Winding through 17 galleries, the installation is alternatively visually or thematically acute and altogether inspiring.
‘MONUMENTAL JOURNEY: THE DAGUERREOTYPES OF GIRAULT DE PRANGEY’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 12). This exhibition is a buffed jewel. In 1842, just a couple of years after Louis Daguerre unveiled the world’s first practical camera, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, a French aristocrat with a yen for experimental technology, set off on a three-year road trip, lugging a 100-pound kit as he took the world’s first photographs of Athens, Cairo, Constantinople and Jerusalem. More than 100 of Girault de Prangey’s precise daguerreotypes glisten here under pin lights, and his systematic photos of Islamic architecture, in particular, express how the new technology of photography could flit between art and science, and would soon become a tool of colonial rule. Girault de Prangey’s daguerreotypes were little seen before 2003, when his descendants put them on the market; their discovery was a landmark in the history of early photography, and this show is too.
‘R.H. QUAYTMAN: +X, CHAPTER 34’ at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through April 23). At the summit the Guggenheim’s spiraling rotunda, this show appears as if the exhibition of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, on the floors below, had suddenly exploded into 28 fragments. Quaytman made this series of works in 2018 in response to af Klint’s oeuvre from the last century, and Quaytman is the perfect artist to answer af Klint: Af Klint worked in series, and Quaytman works in what she calls “chapters.” Where af Klint took orders from spirits she claimed to have contacted through séances, Quaytman, for this project, has adopted af Klint as her higher power, working in a more secular, channeled collaborative vein. And where af Klint offers a bright, dynamic symphony, Quaytman responds with a spare, restrained and slightly dissonant tone poem.
‘BETYE SAAR: KEEPIN’ IT CLEAN’ at the New-York Historical Society (through May 27). Saar has been making important and influential work for nearly 60 years. Yet no big New York museum has given her a full retrospective, or even a significant one-person show, since a 1975 solo at the Whitney Museum of American Art. As this exhibition demonstrates, the institutional oversight is baffling, as her primary themes — racial justice and feminism (her 1972 breakthrough piece, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” merges the two by transforming the racist stereotype of the smiling black mammy into an armed freedom fighter) — are exactly attuned to the present.