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Best of 2016: Our Top 20 NYC Art Shows

This list barely scratches the surface of the city’s artistic offerings this year, from overdue retrospectives to surprising sides of artists we know well.

(photo of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “The Social Mirror,” outside the Queens Museum by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

New York is no longer the center of the art world, its art scene is doomed, and artists are fleeing because the rent is too damn high. Writers can declare all sorts of doomsday scenarios, but the fact remains: New York is still an incredible place to see art. This list of 20 exhibitions (plus honorable mentions) barely scratches the surface of the city’s artistic offerings this year, from overdue retrospectives to surprising sides of artists we know well. It provides a small comfort: 2016 may have been really shitty, but at least we saw some really good art.

1. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at the Met Breuer

Kerry James Marshall, “Still Life with Wedding Portrait” (2015), acrylic on PVC panel (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017

The title of this exhibition (which began its journey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago before arriving at the Met’s new contemporary art outpost) is at least a double entendre, if not triple or even quadruple. It evokes the Old Masters whom Kerry James Marshall remixes throughout his many large, narrative paintings of black figures both contemporary and historic, as well as his mastering of that history — his ability to not simply refer to those antecedents, but to claim his place among them. The show’s centerpieces are the vibrant paintings of artists in their studios working with models or on self-portraits, of men and women getting done up and going out, of families and friends playing in parks — subjects that are familiar from art history, but that Marshall complicates and enriches with layers of contemporary details, winks to history, and black bodies. Other bodies of work on view range from powerful (the ongoing, comics-inspired Rythm Mastr light boxes) to underwhelming (his recent Rorschach pattern paintings), but the overall effect is stunning. —Benjamin Sutton

2. Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art at the Queens Museum

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Ceremonial Arch IV” (1988/1993/1994/2016), more than 5,000 gloves donated from 10 urban organizations, in steel cages and on steel rods, situated over six columns wrought from materials donated from local and federal agencies (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

September 18, 2016–February 19, 2017

In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote a manifesto for s0mething she called “maintenance art,” which is summed up perfectly by an often-quoted line: “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” That deeply insightful question has shaped the decades of work she’s developed since, from carrying out various maintenance tasks at museums to shaking the hand of every sanitation worker in NYC to envisioning the Fresh Kills landfill as a park. Ukeles’s brilliant reconception of both art and labor has gone underappreciated for too long; this eye-opening survey begins to rectify that.  —Jillian Steinhauer

3. The Keeper at the New Museum

Ydessa Hendeles, “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002), in The Keeper (photo by Claire Voon/Hyperallergic)

July 20–October 2

The Keeper was first of all a sight to behold, with visitors chasing objects at every corner and up staircases. But it didn’t feel cluttered; instead, the exhibition evoked the addictive impulse to collect and create, making use of the New Museum’s awkward nooks and crannies to maximum effect. Refreshingly, the curators — Margot Norton, Massimiliano Gioni, Natalie Bell, and Helga Christoffersen — considered non-art objects as worthy of display at a museum. These ranged from artifacts rescued from the shellfire of the Lebanese Civil War to luminous still lifes of apples painted by a German priest. Many of the artists and collectors — or “keepers” — behind the scrapbooks, rock collections, and plastic bags of debris and hair were not well known; when they were, their objects tended to be surprising, like Vladimir Nabokov’s anatomical studies of butterflies. I didn’t like everything in the show, but I don’t think that was the goal. The Keeper was less about contemplating the object on the wall than recognizing the power and necessity of art-making and images. They help us to carry on living and make sense of the world. —Elisa Wouk Almino

4. Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art at Magenta Plains

Lillian Schwartz, still from “Olympiad” (1971) (image courtesy Magenta Plains)

September 18–October 30

Calling an artist “ahead of their time” is a worn-out cliché, but in the case of Lillian Schwartz, it’s also true. A member of Experiments in Art and Technology, Schwartz began collaborating with engineers in the 1960s and went on to work as an artist at Bell Laboratories for over three decades. During that time, she used the computer to make prints, graphics, film, videos, and animations that today look unbelievably current. The standout of this solo show — her first in New York City, at the age of 89 — was the reel of moving-image works, often set to electronic scores, that popped, pulsed, flashed, and fired up the screen, immersing the viewer in a formidable world of artistic possibilities. —JS

5. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 at Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, “Untitled” (nd), ink on paper, 19 x 24 in (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

November 1, 2016–January 28, 2017

Reading the timeline of Richard Nixon’s presidency made me feel nauseous and naïve. Displayed at the entrance to Philip Guston’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, it was a chilling reminder of how the past comes back to haunt us. The 180-plus satirical drawings the artist made of Nixon in the ’70s depict the former president as a cookie and Nazi, with a penis for a nose and a gruesome foot that has swelled from phlebitis. The drawings are funny, repulsive, and satisfying — I detected a small sense of vengeance in the overwhelming number of caricatures. And yet it was emotionally exhausting to persist through the entire show. Because no matter how many times Guston rendered this ghastly political figure, he was still there, settling more deeply into his ways. —EWA

6. Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories at the New Museum & Nicole Eisenman at Anton Kern Gallery

A view of Nicole Eisenman’s show at Anton Kern Gallery (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

May 4–June 26; May 19–June 25

The fairy-tale world envisioned in Nicole Eisenman’s art is strangely familiar. Her universe of multicolored figures features scenes of revelry and intimacy that often reveal the sparks of attraction between two people (or groups of people) in otherwise banal settings, and it conveys a sense of hope in the abyss of contemporary life. These two concurrent shows were a great celebration of an artist who continues to reflect a certain bohemian spirit that’s threatened by the ever-expanding gentrification of the American cultural imagination. When John Yau, who is not one for hyperbole, called her “a truly great artist,” you knew it was true. —Hrag Vartanian

7. Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America at the Museum of Chinese in America

Sculpture by Heidi Lau inspired by the architecture and culinary staples of Shanghai (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

October 6, 2016–March 26, 2017

The social, political, and historical content of this exhibition — which looks at the way food shapes and reflects Asian American identity via the experiences, cuisines, and objects of 33 chefs — would have been rich enough for a healthfully dense show on its own. But on top of this winning premise, the show’s co-curators (Audra Ang, Kian Lam Kho, Andrew Rebatta, and Herb Tam) invited artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang to create ceramic sculptures riffing on a signature dish by each featured chef, plus larger centerpieces extrapolated from the major cities and culinary traditions that figured into the chefs’ development. The resulting installation, a banquet table of abstract yet delicious-looking sculptures, is a veritable feast for the senses, while surrounding screens stream tasty and candid interviews with each subject. —BS

8. Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room at the New Museum

At the Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event, part of Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room at the New Museum (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

June 22–September 18

It’s rare for an artist’s solo museum show to consist almost entirely of work that’s not their own. But that was the case with Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room, for which she invited all manner of artists and practitioners — all of them people of color, most of them women — to lead workshops and sessions focused on care — not the luxurious kind, but care born of necessity in a country that prioritizes the well-being of white people, mostly white men, over everyone else. Perhaps the culmination of her efforts was the museum-wide event organized by a group of more than 100 Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter that saw the traditionally white space transformed into a bastion of black empowerment. It was an unforgettable night, and, I hope, a vision of the future. —JS

9. Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art

Edgar Degas, detail of “Three Ballet Dancer” (1878) (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

March 26–July 24

Let me begin by saying that I do not love Edgar Degas. I find many of his paintings of ballerinas boring and repetitive — in fact, those ballerinas often irritate me. But his monotypes in the Museum of Modern Art’s A Strange New Beauty took me by surprise. There were still ballerinas, but their bodies were bone white against black backgrounds, eerie like the flutes of factory smoke that Degas depicted dispersing hazily in the sky. The monotypes of women in bathtubs and at brothels were mysterious, sexy, disturbing, and obscured; they were not all crowd pleasers. Equally beautiful was a room of Degas’s monotypes of landscapes, which appear as abstracted layers of color. While we may not have needed another Degas show, it was undeniably exciting to see a famous artist working in a different medium, and being better at it. —EWA

10. Decolonize This Place, Anti–Columbus Day Tour at the American Museum of Natural History

A view of the 2016 Anti–Columbus Day protest at the American Museum of Natural History (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

October 10

When you’re an encyclopedic storehouse of historical cultural artifacts, it’s assumed that you reflect the troubling history of colonialism — since only colonial powers were able to amass such collections in the first place. In the case of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), those issues are compounded by exhibiting the human remains and artifacts of non-European peoples and “natural” history (i.e. plants, animals, rocks … ) together. This anti–Columbus Day (aka Indigenous Peoples Day) tour by Decolonize This Place was well-attended (over 200 people), but it really succeeded at exploring the institutionalized aspects of oppression to which museums contribute (whether consciously or not). Many see the Roosevelt statue in front of the museum as one of the most visible monuments to white supremacy in New York City, yet it still stands. This wasn’t the first protest at the beloved AMNH on this matter, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. There was a real effort to create a coalition of indigenous, black, Muslim, and other marginalized voices for this tour, and to hopefully build a new movement in support of a more inclusive and decolonized museum. —HV

11. Martin Wong: Voices at PPOW

Installation view of Martin Wong: Voices at PPOW (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

January 9–February 6

Walking into Martin Wong’s solo show at PPOW, it was hard to define what exactly was hanging on the walls. The works looked like ancient scrolls or steles, and from afar I was unsure if they bore a real or invented language. These visual poems span much of Wong’s career, from 1968 to 1999, and while less exhibited than his paintings, they comprise a deeply personal and consistent project that reflects many of his artistic inspirations. Most of the works are ink on vellum and cobble together conversations Wong overheard while living in California and later in New York, where he was especially drawn to the language of gang members, graffiti, and newspapers. He wrote in all caps, with some letters tilted and hardly any space between the lines. To read the words, you have to really focus, dive into the dizzying space of language. Elegantly laid out on pillars, walls, and plinths, Wong’s clusters of words pulled me in, from an intense description of a “Scarry Night” to a light, short dedication to “Love’s sweet residue.” —EWA

12. Suellen Rocca: Bare Shouldered Beauty, Works from 1965 to 1969 at Matthew Marks Gallery

Suellen Rocca, “Paul’s Umbrella Painting” (1968), oil on canvas (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

September 9–October 22

After getting a taste of her delightfully colorful, whimsical, and comics-influence work in What Nerve! (also at Matthew Marks Gallery, in the summer of 2015), I was delighted to delve deeper into Suellen Rocca’s Hairy Who–era paintings, drawings, and drawn-on objects. Spanning just five years, the works offered a glimpse of a strange world with its own playful iconography — featureless torsos and faces, umbrellas, underwear, palm trees, car radios, hands, handbags, and other icons of everyday Americana — deployed in enigmatic compositions. Like so many of this year’s best gallery shows, it left me wanting to see a lot more (hint, hint, Whitney Museum). —BS

13. Bearing Witness: Drawings by William Gropper at the Queens Museum

William Gropper, “Congressional Declaration” (c. 1937/1953–56), ink and gouache on paper (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

February 14–November 6

When I saw this show in April, I knew it resonated with our times, but it’s only in hindsight that I understand just how much. This gathering of drawings, paintings, and prints demonstrated many things about William Gropper: his artistic talent, his wit, and his moral courage. Through tragedy (his aunt was a victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire), success (multiple newspaper staff jobs), and then persecution (he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee), Gropper made it his lifelong duty to critique abusive power and corruption. And as dark as his work got, he never lost his sense of humor.  —JS

14. Arlene Shechet: Turn Up the Bass at Sikkema Jenkins & Co

Arlene Shechet, “Beyond Belief” (2016), glazed ceramic, wood, paint, steel (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

October 13–November 12

When I saw this pristine exhibition, I immediately wanted to write about it, but about five seconds later I realized that there was almost no way to write about such smartly executed and potent sculptures without lapsing into babbling nonsense. Here, Shechet wedged her scrumptiously glazed ceramics into blocks of wood, between concrete tablets, or atop one another to build seemingly precarious totems. By playing textures, tones, and materials off of one another, she managed to heighten the effects that made her earlier works so addictive. I was a recreational Shechet user before this show, but now I’m a junkie. —BS

15. Walid Raad at the Museum of Modern Art

The performance space at Walid Raad’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

October 12, 2015–January 31, 2016

The art of Walid Raad is what we need today. Starting with the Lebanese Civil War, Raad has been active in pointing out the merging of fact and fiction in regard to the wars in the Middle East — how Western governments and media have played hard and fast with the facts, manufacturing a bogeyman for their fears (see: orientalism). It’s the 21st century, and nothing has changed. Whether it’s the fake WMDs in Iraq or the continuing fiction that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, there’s an unmistakable residue of imperial lies that lingers over all Western discussions of Western Asia and North Africa. In this retrospective, Raad — with the excellent curation of Eva Respini — presented his body of work along with a specially made performance that offered entry into his sometimes hermetic world. The whole exhibition felt eclectic, fantastical, somewhat unhinged, and a little paranoid, while aestheticizing and injecting a connoisseur’s sensibility into depictions of war. All in all, it encapsulated our contemporary moment — and little did we realize at the time how perfectly it did. —HV

16. Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth” (Hellenistic period, 2nd century BCE), marble (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)

April 18–July 17

The Metropolitan Museum of Art had some epic exhibitions this year (go see the sprawling Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven before it closes January 8!), and especially ambitious was Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, with its large loan of objects from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. That German institution is undergoing a major renovation, and it’s unlikely such a wealth of its Hellenistic objects will again journey across the Atlantic after completion. Lovely as the sculptures, jewelry, coins, and vessels were, what was surprisingly relevant was the exhibition’s emphasis on beauty as a tool of power and the cult of personality that buoyed the elite, even after the death of figurehead Alexander the Great. Although the exhibition has closed, New Yorkers can still view two of its rare colossal sculptures — the 12-foot-tall Athena and supplely carved “Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth” — on a longer loan through 2018. —Allison Meier

17. Mary Mattingly, “Swale” at Concrete Plant Park, Yankee Pier, and Brooklyn Bridge Park

Mary Mattingly’s “Swale” docked at Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by Jillian Steinahuer/Hyperallergic)

July 16–November 15

Part of why I can’t quit art is that artists continue to awe me by not only dreaming up, but also realizing, projects that sound impossible. In Mary Mattingly’s case this year, that project was “Swale,” a floating food forest that anyone could visit and pick from for free. The idea behind it was to consider food as a public good — something we don’t just buy and consume, but to which we deserve access. Behind the scenes, “Swale” was a huge undertaking, involving collaboration with some 50 people and groups, as well as a host of conversations with NYC officials; in person, it appeared modest. Mattingly was similarly humble and understated when we spoke about it — she made it sound simple, but it was radical. —JS

18. Louise Despont: Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture at the Drawing Center

Installation view, Louise Despont: Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture at the Drawing Center (photo by Claire Voon/Hyperallergic)

January 22–March 20

If you believe that there’s some force or energy generated by the totality of mental effort being spent by people who are awake and conscious at the same time, you might call that, like a friend of mine does, the mind-net. During the daylight hours in New York City, the mind-net is up, and too many things arrive at the same time. For those who are sensitive to the city’s relentless demands, it’s more than frenetic, worse than noisy — it’s essentially unmanageable, with only brief windows of accomplishment that let light through. But this exhibition shut down the system for a while. Louise Despont worked on graph paper (the kind you used to do high school geometry assignments on) to make large-scale drawings in soothing pastels, with a mix of human figures and geometric abstraction. The drawn lines in each work were said to represent the invisible structures and energy pathways that circulate through and around the human body. The drawings certainly were meditative, lifting me upwards and away to waft towards freedom. But the hold of the net was not fully broken until I heard the music of Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s “gamelatron,” an instrument he created that is a mechanized version of the gamelan, a traditional Balinese and Javanese orchestra of drums, vibraphones, bells, chimes, and gongs. Listening closely to the music as the patterns repeated, the drawings became endless mandalas for an infinite universe made available for me to explore. —Seph Rodney

19. Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Detail of a hanging with Dionysian figures, tapestry weave of dyed wools and undyed wool (Antinoopolis, Egypt, late 6th-early 7th century CE) (Metropolitan Museum of Art) (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)

February 25–May 22

With its free exhibitions on ancient culture, New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) continues to be a valuable and accessible connection to the past. Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity was especially strong, featuring delicate textile works often exhumed from graves after serving their purpose for the living. They create a tactile link to the people of Late Antique Mediterranean society, when Christianity was overtaking the pagan beliefs of the Roman Empire. These textiles are the kinds of fragile objects that museums often keep in storage, and as with the artifacts in ISAW’s current exhibition, Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity, highlight an area of ancient study that’s often just a footnote in larger exhibitions. —AM

20. Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony at the Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs’s teahouse at the Noguchi Museum (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

March 23–July 24

Single artist–focused museums like the Noguchi are starting to welcome outside artists to transform their spaces, and one of the best examples this year was Tom Sachs’s contribution to this small institution in Astoria. Combining bodies of work by two reputable artists, this mash-up worked remarkably well, since Sachs has a long history of researching the Japanese tea ceremony, while Noguchi was always a fan of hybridization (particularly when it involved traditional Asian forms and contemporary art). The sculptural elements of Sachs’s installation made the monumentality of Noguchi’s sculpture more evident and brought a playful element to work that’s often seen as serious and austere. I really wanted to do a podcast about this show, but the audio didn’t translate the experience very well. Sometimes there’s a beauty in being present, and this was one of those times. —HV


Honorable Mentions

Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films at Galerie Lelong

Ana Mendieta, still from “Sweating Blood” (1973), Super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, color, silent, 3:18 min (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

February 5–March 26

For those of us who’ve been unable to catch the larger, traveling exhibition Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta (which, frustratingly, does not appear to be coming to New York), this show was a consolation prize — and a worthy, spellbinding one. The 15 films on view, including her first ever and nine others that had never been seen publicly before, showed us Mendieta working through her usual themes — the body, blood, the earth — in media and in ways we don’t typically associate with her. The films were mostly short and silent, and they felt like experiments, intimate tests of hypotheses and ideas. In that sense, they were tentative, but they were never insecure; even with blood creeping down her face, Mendieta was always resolute. —JS

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at the American Folk Art Museum

Installation view of Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at the American Folk Art Museum (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)

October 6, 2016–February 26, 2017

When we read about the high childhood mortality rate in the 19th-century United States, it’s easy to think that those mothers who lost sometimes several children must have felt stoic resignation at their deaths. But Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America affirmed a universal human love through each of its artworks. Often these self-taught painters traveling the country had only a corpse to work from, or a photograph, and the likeness they portrayed was imperfect. Yet by depicting these lost children and adults as living beings, they called out without saying the words, “Remember me.” —AM

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