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Best of 2016: Our Top 10 Los Angeles Art Shows

These top 10 shows in no way capture a full overview of the art seen in LA this year, but they provide highlights of the rapidly developing artistic landscape of the city.

Shinique Smith, “Forgiving Strands” (2015–16), clothing, fabric, ribbon, rope, found objects (photo by Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

The rest of the world seems to finally be giving Los Angeles its due as a world-class art city, and while much of the press is hype, there’s no doubt that the art scene is flourishing in unprecedented ways. A few new major institutions have opened or been announced, like the mega-gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, the Main Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, while the gallery district just east of the LA River continues to expand, fueling a heated debate over art and gentrification. These top 10 shows in no way capture a full overview of the art seen in LA this year, but they provide highlights of the rapidly developing artistic landscape of the city.

1. Revolution in the Making at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel

Françoise Grossen “Five Rivers” (1974) (photo by Seph Rodney/Hyperallergic)

March 13–September 4

Revolution in the Making at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel was an exhibition that did several important things at the same time. It demonstrated that the male-centric, canonized accounts of the development of post-war, abstract sculpture have unjustifiably left aside many brilliant women artists. You saw many of them in this show, such as Ruth Asawa, Senga Nengudi, Cristina Iglesias, and Françoise Grossen​. The exhibition also showed that craft — an intimate, hands-on approach to making work ​(as opposed to outside fabrication) — ​is a crucial part of what ​marks this work as made by women, and a crucial part of what makes the work strong. The exhibition was not more than we deserved, but it was certainly more than we are used to seeing. —Seph Rodney

2. Agnes Martin at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Agnes Martin, “Little Sister” (1962), oil, ink, and brass nails on canvas and wood (photo by Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

April 24–September 11

In our digital age, when we’re perhaps more likely to encounter artwork on our phones than in the gallery, there is still some work that cannot be communicated or understood via pixels. Agnes Martin’s minimal, meditative abstractions are just such works, which truly must be seen in person to be fully grasped. There is no substitute for standing before one of her 6 x 6 foot canvases covered in a grid of thin pencil lines, moving closer then father away, to catch the moment when the individual marks coalesce into a sea of grey. LACMA’s Agnes Martin retrospective, her first in the US since 1992, featured seldom-seen early works that incorporated circles and other shapes (shocking!), to the hand-drawn grids and thin paint washes she is best known for. Although we may think we know her work, the exhibition showed us how much variation she was able to achieve through her basic formula, and — given slow and quiet looking — how much she still has to offer. —Matt Stromberg 

3. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 at the Hammer Museum

Robert Rauschenberg, “décor for Minutiae” (1976 after 1954 original), oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, plastic, with mirror on string, on wood structure. 84 1/2 × 81 × 30 1/2 in (via hammer.ucla.edu)

February 31–May 15

Located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Black Mountain College brought together some of the most notable and influential artists of the 20th century, and it wasn’t even an art school. The experimental college viewed the arts as central to a liberal arts education and considered the arts broadly, dismissing the hierarchy between fine arts like painting and sculpture, the performing arts, and the applied arts of pottery, textiles, and jewelry-making. The Hammer’s comprehensive but tightly focused retrospective on the school featured work from both faculty and students including Josef and Anni Albers,  John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, and many more. More than simply showcasing masterpieces, the show highlights how a philosophy of fearless, cross-disciplinary experimentation laid the groundwork for an unprecedented creative explosion in American culture. —MS

4. Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón at the Fowler Museum

Belkis Ayón, “Sin título (Sikán con chivo) (Untitled (Sikán with Goat))” (1993), collograph, collection of the Belkis Ayón Estate

October 2, 2016–February 12, 2017

UCLA’s Fowler Museum presents a mind-blowing retrospective of Belkis Ayón, a Cuban artist for whom wide recognition is long overdue. She was a master of collography. Her prints, which meld Christian iconography with ritual imagery from the Cuban Abakua secret society, subtly challenged the restrictive, patriarchal society in which she lived. Through her extraordinary powers of composition and figuration, she sounded the depths of emotion and experience. —Daniel Gerwin 

5. Wallace Berman: American Aleph at Kohn Gallery

Wallace Berman, “Untitled (Sound Series #3)” (1967-68), verifax collage and acrylic on board, 12 x 13 inches (via kohngallery.com)

May 6–June 25

California artist Wallace Berman was an influential part of mid-century underground and artistic movements ranging from the Beat Poets to Pop Art — he appears on Peter Blake’s cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — yet is often referenced more for his “circle” than for his own artwork. Kohn Gallery’s exhibition American Aleph — the artist’s first LA retrospective in 40 years — aims to reexamine his heterogeneous artistic output, which ranged from publishing the poetry and art magazine Semina, to assemblage art, collage, photography, and film. One of the show’s highlights was a room full of Berman’s verifax collages that placed images taken from mass media, pop culture, religion, and science into a grid of hand-held transistor radios, often with allusions to Jewish mysticism, encapsulating Berman’s wide-ranging aesthetic vision. —MS

6. Michael McMillen: Outpost at LA Louver

Michael C. McMillen, “Transmitter” (2014) at LA Louver gallery (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

January 13–February 13

This exhibition was like entering a steampunk tinkerer’s workshop. Michael C. McMillen combined the languages of vernacular architecture, retro-futurism, sci-fi whimsy, and a healthy dose of dystopia — all the rage nowadays — in this show. One work, “Dr. Krump’s Mobile Field Lab” (2004–14), pretended to be a lost trailer of some fictional character, and the space is stuffed with the refuse of a strange pseudo-scientific type of imagined nostalgia from a “golden age” of America. Here, like most of his best work, something appears to be “off,” as if the object was transported from an alternate reality and placed under glaring spotlights of a laboratory. In his ghostly “Della Sala (Interior with Stairs)” (1985) you look through a hole in the wall to see a miniaturized space. In another, “Transmitter” (2014), a spinning tower mesmerizes you as it spirals like something out of a disaster movie sequence. McMillen’s experience as a prop maker and model designer is clear, but the artworks go beyond the surface to manufacture a sense of deep-seated discomfort that made the show unforgettable. —Hrag Vartanian 

7. Henry Taylor at Blum & Poe

Henry Taylor, “carolina miranda” (2016),
Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 40 x 1 1/2 inches (via blumandpoe.com)

September 10–November 5

Henry Taylor’s portraits are deceptively simple, capturing their subjects’ psychological essence through economic usage of painterly strokes. For his recent exhibition at Blum & Poe, the Los Angeles-based painter created an expansive installation that included a recreation of his studio, a faux pool surrounded by astroturf, and a vacant dirt lot complete with a graffiti-covered crumbling wall and full-size tree sprouting from the gallery floor. For the centerpiece, gallery visitors entered a dark, smoke-filled room inspired by a backstage meeting between Taylor and reggae legend Bob Marley. A film by Kahlil Joseph played like a frieze around the upper portion of the room while a related interactive performance took place below, bringing the bold immediacy of Taylor’s paintings to life. —MS

8. Lucita Hurtado at Park View

Luchita Hurtado, “Untitled” (1949), crayon, ink, and watercolor on board, 20 x 11.25 inches (via parkviewparkview.com)

November 12–January 7, 2017

2016 was the year of the comeback, especially for female artists, with a number of exhibitions celebrating those whose work was overlooked for much of their career. These ranged from a retrospective of Carmen Herrera’s minimal abstractions at the Whitney, a new suite of feminist text paintings by Betty Tompkins at Gavlak, and the inclusion of Huguette Caland in the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA biennial. One of the most surprising and dazzling of these shows, however, was a tight survey of works from the 1940s by Luchita Hurtado at the small apartment gallery Park View. Born in Venezuela in 1920 before moving to New York as a child, Hurtado was involved with post-Surrealist movements in Mexico City and the Dynaton Group in California, though her contributions received far less attention than those of her colleagues — and husbands — Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican. The intimate works in the show are lively, colorful abstractions that dance and vibrate within their frames. Created with wax crayons, ink, and watercolor, they recall prehistoric cave paintings and Mesoamerican ceramics, and incorporate Surrealist techniques like automatic drawing. Shown for the first time in decades, they provide an overdue glimpse at the oeuvre of the nonagenarian artist who still lives in Santa Monica where she settled six decades ago. —MS

9. He/She/They at ROSEGALLERY

Yasumasa Morimura, “Portrait of Marilyn” (1995), 4 x 5 inch Polaroid (image copyright Yasumasa Morimura and courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY)

October 1–November 30

In 2015, “they” was nominated word of the year by the American Dialect Society, an indication, at least on the level of language, that American culture is making some moves away from the gender binary. The exhibition He/She/They took that shift to heart, organizing works dating from the early 1930s to the present from around the globe, with a focus on portraiture in the ever-changing medium of photography. The works either directly discussed the constructs of gender or dismantled them altogether. Katsumi Watanabe’s late ’60s portraits captured candid shots of people from Tokyo’s queer nightlife. Susan Meiselas documented carnival strippers during the early ’70s, at the same time the feminist movement was taking shape in the US. In his series Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera, Wayne Lawrence documented beachgoers at the Bronx’s only public beach. He/She/They brought a much-needed, refreshing look at gender. —Alicia Eler 

10. Channa Horwitz: To the Top at François Ghebaly

Channa Horwitz, “8 Sets of Moires (Rhythm of Lines Sampler)” (1987) (via ghebaly.com)

February 13–March 26

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the late Los Angeles-based artist Channa Horwitz embarked on a series of grid-based experimentations in serial art similar to those being undertaken concurrently by other artists like Sol Lewitt. Horowitz’s system was based on tracking permutations of variables such as color, shape, angle, and number, and the resulting works were much more colorful and rhythmic than other examples of seriality. Fittingly, her compositions could also be read as notations for music or movement. The exhibition To the Top at François Ghebaly featured a selection of works on paper and mylar showcasing the potential range within her limited system. The show was a somewhat bittersweet coda for this artist who was included in her first biennial and received a Guggenheim fellowship only the year before her death in 2013. An accompanying project by Haroon Mirza, titled A Chamber for Horwitz; Sonakinatography Transcriptions in Surround Sound, translated Horwitz’s delicate, spare works into an immersive environment of light, color, and sound. —MS

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