Best of 2017: Our Top 20 Exhibitions Across the United States

You won’t find too many blockbuster names on this year’s list, which is dominated by timely themes and under-recognized artists.

(photo by Allison Meier/illustration by Hrag Vartanian)

This year, our favorite shows in the US were especially quirky. There aren’t many blockbuster names on this list; instead, most of these exhibitions thoughtfully explore a theme, or introduce an overlooked artist from the past. The various museums, galleries, and spaces featured here span from the Bay Area to Boston (we have separate lists for Brooklyn, New York City, and Los Angeles). In our top selections, we chose to highlight three longer-term projects and series that impressed us in the depth of their research and ambition of their scope. With so many shows coming and going, it’s refreshing to see organizations and museums committing to a single idea or theme for long periods.

1. The Road Less Traveled at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, “untitled (bone tower)” (1970–80), fowl bones, paint, glue, varnish, 44 x 8 x 6 5/8 inches; “Untitled (bone tower)” (1970–80), fowl bones, paint, glue, wire, seashells, 43 3/4 x 6 3/4 x 7 inches; “Untitled (bone tower)” (1970–80), fowl bones, paint, glue, 54 x 8 3/8 x 7 1/4 inches; “Untitled (bone tower)” (1970–80), fowl bones, paint, varnish, egg shells, 49 3/4 x 9 1/4 x 9 3/4 in. Untitled (bone tower), c. 1970–80; fowl bones, paint, glue, clay, wood; 44 x 6 3/4 x 5 1/2 inches (courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection, photo by Rich Maciejewski)

Throughout 2017

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) celebrated its 50th anniversary with a year-long rotation of its collection of art environments, from the glitter-adorned home of Loy Bowlin (aka the “Rhinestone Cowboy”) to Fred Smith’s concrete and glass sculptures of people and animals. Many of these works are full art environments, like Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine” reconstructed from rural Nebraska with mobiles of bailing wire and aluminum intended to harness the Earth’s energy. So to see so many on view in the galleries at once was something special, and celebrated how JMKAC has been a leader in recognizing the value of saving artist environments, and considering them within the greater history of American art. —Allison Meier

2. Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp in New Orleans

Radcliffe Bailey, “Vessel” (2017) in Crescent Park (photo by Paddy Johnson)

November 18, 2017–February 15, 2018

The fourth iteration of this city-wide exhibition includes the works of 73 artists, who are based primarily in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe. Organized by curator Trevor Schoomaker, Prospect 4 is spread across 17 venues, including everything from art and jazz museums to an antique store and billboards, and is accompanied by over a 100 satellite exhibitions. While the site-specific artworks, such as Radcliffe Bailey’s poetic “Vessel,” strewn across Crescent park are a particular highlight, there is no one work in the triennial that steals the show — at least not yet: still to come is Kara Walker’s “Kataswof Karavan,” which will premiere during the closing week in February. —Alpesh Patel

3. On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection at the Pérez Art Museum Miami

Yoan Capote, “Islands (see-escape)” (2010), oil, nails, and fishhooks on jute, mounted on plywood (photo by Monica Uszerowicz for Hyperallergic)

June 9, 2019–April 8, 2018

Internal Landscapes, the first iteration in the multipart On the Horizon, focuses on a fraught motif in the Cuban historical and aesthetic cosmology, the​​ horizon, and specifically how it relates to the body. The curation is intelligently expansive; the show encompasses the many registers of diaspora and exile that frame the Cuban experience, with works on view by artists born in Miami, artists born on the island and living there like Yoan Capote, those based elsewhere like New York, and canonical Cuban-born, Miami-based giants like José Bedia and Gory. The deeply complex relationship to water and horizon is engaged in complex, evocative, and never reductive ways. —Laila Pedro

4. Speech/Acts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

September 13–December 23

Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s “Gradient” (2015) and Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s “because gwendolyn brooks said ‘we occur everywhere’” (2017) at Speech/Acts (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

What does experimental black poetry have to do with contemporary art? Everything, and this show, organized by Meg Onli, made the case easily. Sometimes consciously opaque, other times extremely accessible, Onli was able to create a show that allowed the works to be seen on their own terms, while carving out a space that asserted the centrality of speech and words in the work of these artists. Also, Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s poetic wall installations were emotionally gripping for the way they seemed to mimic the often esoteric patterns of language and thought. —Hrag Vartanian 

5. A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer at the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA)

Honoré Sharrer, “Resurrection of the Waitress” (1984), oil on canvas (image courtesy the Columbus Museum of Art)

February 10–May 21

American Surrealist Honoré Sharrer faded from public view early in her career, eclipsed by the prevailing trend of Abstract Expressionism and forced to move to Canada in the mid-1950s because of her outspoken Communist beliefs. A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer at the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is the first survey since the mid-20th century of the artist’s works, many of which are on loan from her estate, and showcases a largely uncelebrated powerhouse of multiple styles, including Rockwell-esque depictions of quotidian American life and unsettling, decidedly feminine Surrealist portraiture. Credit is due to CMA for putting together a remarkable exhibition on a fascinating artist worthy of deeper consideration. —Sarah Rose Sharp 

6. Walker Evans at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Walker Evans, “Truck and Sign” (1928–30), gelatin silver print, private collection, San Francisco (© Walker Evans Archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

September 30, 2017–February 4, 2018 

The notion that the vernacular — the popular, useful, unfancy — could have a place in the realm of fine art surely seemed a contradiction before Walker Evans. But the massive retrospective at SFMOMA reveals that this peculiarly American phenomenon is no contradiction at all. You’ll never catch Evans arranging the light just so, or wrangling the composition for dramatic effect. Such devices seem downright gimmicky after taking in the simple, unfussy, but vivid and revelatory body of work that could serve as a visual lexicon for the unglamorous, sometimes devastating truths of the American Century. His portraits, for instance, seem almost infuriatingly artless: unposed, whatever lighting, meh composition. Yet each subject offered their own rich material for deducing not only circumstance but the emotional life arising from that circumstance: the clenched jaw and wary eyes of a well-dressed man on the subway, the miner squinting, or maybe winking, from behind blackened cheeks. At the end of this year in particular, when many of us feel more flummoxed than ever by the questions of who we are, who we were, and who we might be, a show like this reminds us that the answers were never easy, and it is imperative that we keep looking. —Larissa Archer

7. About Face at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

Amy Sherald detail (photo by Cara Ober)

December 10, 2016–January 28, 2017

When Amy Sherald was selected to paint the official Presidential Portrait of Former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery — the first African-American woman to receive this honor — she became uniquely poised to alter the course of an art history dominated by white male artists. Way before the big announcement, Sherald, a painter of dreamy portraits that reference Barkley Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, had aligned herself with other artists to advance an agenda of diversity and inclusion. The group exhibition, About Face, at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance Main Gallery featured four artists of color who, like Sherald, depict empowered black subjects that exude a palpable sense of agency. The show featured Rozeal’s Japanese-inspired graphic scrolls, Tim Okamura’s painterly realism, and Ebony G. Patterson’s baroque fiber-based wall installations celebrating Jamaican dance culture. With Sherald’s romantic figures at the center, About Face explored portraiture as an effective tool for envisioning a more inclusive and authentic America, one created by diverse authors and devoid of tokenism and exoticism. Together these portraits pointed toward a future art historical cannon where black faces and figures are the rule, rather than the exception. —Cara Ober 

8. DUOX4Odell’s: You’ll Know If You Belong by Wickerham & Lomax

Duox for Odell’s images by Joseph Hyde

March 31 – April 28

Daniel Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax, also known collaboratively as DUOX, have been making theatrical, multi-media installations that use digital collage, animation, interactive video, and web design to posit queer-centered narratives since 2009. For Baltimore’s second iteration of Light City, a citywide art and technology festival, the duo was selected to explore Odell’s, a historic dance club that existed from 1976 to ’92 on North Avenue and served as an exclusive cultural hub for the African American community. After conducting exhaustive research and interviews, rather than attempting to replicate the dance hall as it was, Wickerham & Lomax envisioned the collective memory as it currently exists: a mythic, disco-laden haven. The result was an ambitious digital playground with dangling disco balls, larger-than-life cut out screens depicting 1970s style silhouettes, music, and documentary-style video interviews. A radical departure from linear or historical storytelling, You’ll Know If You Belong captured the essence of a legendary place and time in Baltimore’s history through searing color and maximal design inspired by fashion. —CO 

9. Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Johannes Vermeer, “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1664), oil on canvas, painted surface: 39.7 x 35.5 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection)

October 22, 2017–January 21, 2018

By placing key works by Johannes Vermeer among those by his contemporaries — including Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, and Gabriel Metsu — this exhibition illuminates the cross-fertilization and competition among the leading artists of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. We recognize common themes, compositions, props, and costumes — evidence that even the most innovative painters of the day were alert to what their fellows were doing. Vermeer dominates, but the individuality of all the included artists is clear. And we’ll never look at 17th-century Dutch painting the same way again. —Karen Wilkin

1o. Eye Fruit: The Art of Franklin Williams at the Art Museum of Sonoma County

Installation view of Eye Fruit: The Art of Franklin Williams at the Art Museum of Sonoma County

May 13–September 3

Franklin Williams had been one of the more arcane examples of unclassifiable Bay Area artists from the late 20th century. In 2017, Eye Fruit changed all that. This show offered the first and, thus far, the only retrospective on Williams’s massive career, introducing the art world at large to a formidable talent whose work is the very distillation of authentic self-expression. It’s no wonder that Williams’s art has since shown in LA at the Parker Gallery, is currently on display through December 22 in New York City at Karma Gallery, and will be exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the near future. Eye Fruit alone, however, deftly showed what was in store for art viewers as others take on the task of comprehensively examining the inimitable, mystical, and fascinating art of Franklin Williams. —Clayton Schuster 

11. Year of the Woman at Now + There

Silvia Lopez Chavez working on “Patterned Behavior” (photo by Dominic Chavez)

Throughout 2017 

One of Boston’s highlights this year was not a show exactly, but a series of public art projects (plus one indoor exhibit) assembled by nonprofit public art curator/producer Now + There. Under the overarching title Year of The Woman, and with a mission that included “lifting up community voices, and exploring the power of female resilience and creativity,” Now + There commissioned two large-scale mural projects; a multimedia storytelling project in a shipping container; and a gallery exhibition laser-focused on women artists “fiercely committed to non-traditional, collaborative artistic practices.” The series included works by local artists Elisa Hamilton, Silvia López Chavez, Rania Matar, Maria Molteni, Chanel Thervil, Evelyn Rydz, and the Safarani Sisters (Farzaneh and Bahareh Safarani), as well as Detroit-based Ann Lewis, who collaborated with residents of a local reentry facility for incarcerated women. With the exception of Ann Lewis, all artists were local, and over half were women of color — a scarce combination on many Boston wish lists, including mine, for high-profile undertakings. —Heather Kapplow 

12. Zhang Peili: Record, Repeat at the Art Institute of Chicago

Zhang Peili, still from “Document on Hygiene No. 3” (1991) (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

March 30–July 9

I found myself giggling at nearly every video work in this exhibition, the first US museum retrospective of Zhang Peili. Known as China’s first video artist, Peili excels in his wry responses to Chinese state media, produced as both propaganda and entertainment. This engrossing survey of his work from 1988 to 2012, curated by Orianna Cacchione, focused on his affinity for repetition as a powerful tool to upset what is typically seen on Chinese television, from Cultural Revolution-era films to the daily readings of a news broadcaster. Drama is rehashed as comedy, truth gradually morphs into blather — what constitutes any reality becomes inscrutable but increasingly subject to question. —Claire Voon

13. R.I.S.E.: Nothing is Natural at Reed College

(image courtesy Reed College)

August 11–October 1

Nothing is Natural was organized at Reed College by Indigenous artist Demian DinéYazhi’, curator and Director of Cooley Art Gallery Stephanie Snyder, and Indigenous arts collective R.I.S.E. (Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment). The exhibition, which was part of Converge 45 in Portland, Oregon, featured two installation works, one along the banks of tributary in Reed Canyon, and one in the historic Student Union. The outdoor installation, created by art collective Winter Count, titled “Nothing is Natural,” is an incredibly poignant work, redressing the notion of violence against the natural world, violence against women, and violence against Indigenous bodies. A work by Postcommodity, “Gallup Motel Butchering,” illuminated the contested nature of the landscape of Gallup, New Mexico as a commodified space — realities that tourism and the remnants of old Route 66 still present there — and that its identity as an Indigenous territory is often ghettoized. —Erin Joyce

14. Cassils: Phantom Revenant at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

Cassils, “Monument Push” (performance still), Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, 2017 (photo by John Ficenec, image courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY)

February 2–April 29, 2017

As part of their solo exhibition, gender nonconforming artist Cassils presented two installations, a live solo performance and, for the first time, a participatory event — all of which relate to the radical impossibility of representing the violence against LGBTQI+ subjects. Their eponymously titled performance included the artist punching a 2,000-pound block of clay in a dark room. The resultant object was bronzed and ultimately would become a focal point for a participatory work that involved the artist (with the help of friends and allies) pushing the amorphous structure around to strategically chosen sites in downtown Omaha, marking violence as well as celebration, such as the location of the first pride parade. Further grounding the exhibition in the context of “flyover country” was the integration of the Queer Omaha Archives into the exhibition. —AP

15. Roger Brown: Estate Paintings at Kavi Gupta

Roger Brown, “Aha! Heterosexuals Fuck Too” (1991) (photo by Sarah Rose Sharp)

May 5–June 24 

At Kavi Gupta gallery in Chicago, a retrospective paired Roger Brown: Estate Paintings, a selection of paintings and sculptures by the seminal Imagist artist, with Collecting came quite natural for me, a series of recreated assemblages of objects in Brown’s personal collections from his home in La Conchita, California. Brown was a voracious collector of outsider art and cultural ephemera, and the eclectic tableaux on the second floor at Kavi Gupta illuminated his playful and cartoony paintings on the first. That Brown chose to surround himself with such a mix of objects suggests that he acknowledged “fine” and “folk” art as belonging to the same whole. He further flattened the usual distinctions by creating “collaborative” compositions, in which his own paintings served as backgrounds for sets of found ceramics. The exhibitions at Kavi Gupta offered not only a compelling survey of that work, but an opportunity for visitors to examine their own prejudices regarding artistic authorship. —SRS 

16. “E” Is For Elephants: The Etchings of Edward Gorey at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MASSART)

Edward Gorey, “Elephant with Prostrate Passenger.” (image courtesy Edward Gorey House, Yarmouth Port, MA & the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust)

January 9–February 7

Some of the best shows in 2017 came from the marvelous archives institutions have access to, especially when they are willing to dig into the spiderweb corners of those archives. One of these shows was E Is For Elephants: The Etchings of Edward Gorey, a quirky look at Gorey’s late-in-life obsession with elephants at the Massachusetts College of Art. A celebration of Gorey’s enigmatic (and decidedly queer) way of being the world, it’s also nice to see a master artist, actively (“gleefully,” says curator James A. Edwards,) choosing to be a community college novice at a point in his career when, as an international cult hero, he could have been easily resting on his laurels. —HK

17. Nick Cave: Until at MASS MoCA

Nick Cave, “Until,” detail (photo by Robert Moeller for Hyperallergic)

October 15, 2016–September 4, 2017

Until may not have featured any of Nick Cave’s signature “Soundsuits,” but that didn’t stop it from being one of the more memorable shows of the year. Dominated by a massive installation that filled an enormous warehouse space, the exhibition was like an alternative universe. It was a somewhat disorienting expedition, from walking through the colorful “wind spinners” to climbing up bright yellow ladders to get a close-up view of the giant cloud of chandeliers, collected lawn ornaments, and various tchotchkes. While invoking a kind of childlike wonder, Until also brought us back down to reality, with repeated references to a pervading American racism, particularly the problems of gun violence and young black men killed by police. Even with your head literally in the clouds, you can’t get away from those deplorable lawn jockeys. —Elena Goukassian

18. Sunrise, Sunset at Emerson Dorsch

Onajide Shabaka, “Toward freedom (punch out 4)” (2017). watercolor, collage on paper

November 30, 2017–January 19, 2018

This show’s title is drawn from Edwidge Danticat’s story of the same name. Published in the New Yorker the same week as Hurricane Irma — which for a time seemed destined to hit Miami directly — made landfall in the States, it’s a story about familial relationships, the struggle to communicate between them, the importance of learning to understand each other when life is fleeting. Set in Little Haiti — just like the story — the exhibition’s 15 artists address these themes in their own ways, proving how art can gently mitigate messages about mortality, memory, and family. Curator Tyler Emerson-Dorsch has done an excellent job in grouping such varied pieces; each work tenderly makes room for the one nearest to it, as if in dialogue. —Monica Uszerowicz

19. Eric N. Mack: Vogue Fabrics at Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Eric Mack, “Willow within the Form of Prose” (2016) (image by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

February 18–June 18 

Writing about my favorite work in this one-room exhibition, “Willow within the Form of Prose” (2016), I said it “distills the best of Mack’s abilities to make something look simultaneously digital and analog, while engaging with the poetry of the material and the limitations of representation.” That ability to transform quotidian materials is part of the magic of Mack’s art. He effortlessly (or at least it looks like that) breathes life into tattered, flimsy, and even wistful forms. —HV 

20. Ken Gonzales-Day: Shadowlands at the Minnesota Museum of American Art

Ken Gonzales-Day, “Hands Up” (2015), Chromogenic print, 55 x 51 1/2 inches (image courtesy the artist and Luis de Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles)

January 19–April 16

Ken Gonzales-Day’s Shadowlands, curated by Christopher Atkins, explored historical incidents of lynching, and how that legacy of racialized violence impacts our present moment. His devastating Erased Lynching series manipulates historical photographs of lynchings so that the victim can’t be seen, minimizing the harm of re-traumatizing communities who might view this work, and also drawing focus toward the perpetrators of violent racism. His Searching for California’s Hang Trees and Run-Up series even further critically engages with the history of racism in the US, and the continual threat on black and brown bodies in this country. With visceral imagery and provocative use of narrative and theatrical elements, Gonzales-Day posed an evocative inquiry into our country’s ugly past and current plight. —Sheila Regan

Honorable Mentions:

John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night at the Pérez Art Museum Miami

John Dunkley, “Banana Plantation” (c1945). Image from the Collection National Gallery of Jamaica and provided courtesy the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Gift of Cassie Dunkley.

May 26, 2017–January 14, 2018

The self-taught artist’s first solo exhibition outside of Jamaica — and his first since the 1970s — is a gorgeous show, and an aptly titled one, too. Dunkley’s paintings evoke both the twilight of dusk and the verdant colors of day, the lush surrealism of fantasy and the poignant reality of life in a colonial territory. When Dunkley returned to his native Jamaica after working in Panama, he opened a barbershop in Kingston and honed his craft on the side; it was the 1920s, when the ideological groundwork was being set for the country’s eventual independence. Even the nighttime landscapes in his small oeuvre — it includes around 50 paintings and a few figurative sculptures, which curator Diana Nawi and exhibition assistant curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson researched extensively — seem otherworldly and lit from within. One standout: a portrait of President Roosevelt, dated at the time he traveled to Jamaica to visit a site that would eventually become a US air base, displacing residents from their homes. —MU

Yarrow Mamout at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

James Alexander Simpson, “Yarrow Mamout” (1822) being hung at the NPG (image courtesy NPG)

July 19, 2016–August 2017

This exhibition was important for the simple fact that it existed. We need to tell stories about Muslims in the US, particularly those that educate about the importance of accepting people from all walks of life and cultures who want to be in this country. This was a small gesture that was perfectly done before the election, and its resonance changed soon after, offering hope for a time when Muslims were less vilified in the US media. This small portrait was a beacon of hope, and kudos to curator Asma Naeem for her foresight and dedication to telling the complete story of American art. —HV 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Predecessors at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Predecessors (2013), detail view.

July 15–October 1

In Predecessors, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, created still life tableaus and powerful portraiture by combining a melange of images with astonishing polish and grace. What could potentially feel like an overwhelming mishmash of imagery instead became a fluid tapestry, controlled by Crosby’s extraordinary sensitivity to balance, perspective, and palette. Co-organized by CAC and the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, this exhibition was the first time that even Crosby had been able to see all the work in Predecessors, a series which spans at least half a decade, on display together. The intimate gallery at CAC housing these five large-scale works on paper had a chapel-like feel, offering both the intimacy and the peace required to take in such beautifully dense and piercingly direct images. —SRS

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