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Best of 2017: Our Top 20 NYC Art Shows

It was a powder keg of a year in visual art, with strong, politically inflected, deeply personal, and wildly inventive exhibitions that touched on the classics, courted controversy, and yielded new favorites.

(illustration by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

It’s been a tumultuous, exciting year for visual art in New York City, with no shortage of controversy; beloved artists getting their due; and exciting, inventive curation from major museums to independent galleries. New York art lovers seem ever more willing to get off the beaten path, and museums in the Bronx and Queens were particularly rewarding of an adventurous spirit. Here are the best shows we saw this year.

1. Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting at MoMA PS1

Installation view of Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting (Image courtesy MoMA PS1; photo by Pablo Enriquez)

October 22, 2017–March 11, 2018

Carolee Schneemann’s powerhouse show at MoMA PS1 did exactly what major retrospectives always should do but rarely pull off. It reminded us why we love her, and shed light on less known corners of her mind and practice. Schneemann has radically foregrounded her own body in her work for decades, to transcendent, politically charged, barnstorming effect. Against this context, her early experiments in painting, on view here, feel particularly intimate and nearly tender. —Laila Pedro

2. Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, installation view (courtesy David Zwirner Gallery and the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation)

April 27–July 14

An astonishing thing about Felix Gonzalez-Torres is that when he died in 1996 at the age of 38, he seemingly left behind only fully mature bodies of work. In a sprawling and somehow still tight and cogent show that included David Zwirner’s 20th-street space and billboards across the city, the gallery’s first co-representing the peerless conceptual artist’s estate with his longtime dealer Andrea Rosen, nine installations covered his major series, including his text portraits, candy works, paper stacks, and more. Gonzalez-Torres’s open-ended, fully conceived artworks managed to be rigorous without being pedantic, and deeply, gorgeously human without being sentimental. —LP

3. The Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Shara Hughes, “In the Clear” (2016); Oil, acrylic, and dye on canvas, 68 x 60 in. (collection of the artist; courtesy Rachel Uffner Gallery)

March 17–June 11

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial was submerged in the tidal wave of controversy over its curators’ inclusion of Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket.” While necessary discussions were had, this was also a shame, because it sucked most of the attention from the truly staggering range of work on view by contemporary artists.

There were Shara Hughes’s sensual, glowing, chilled-out fantasy landscapes; Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s lovingly rendered paintings of quotidian moments; Deana Lawson’s intimate, somehow monumental photographs; and of course, Henry Taylor’s “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH” a mind-bendingly urgent, riveting, gut-wrenching portrayal of the murder of Philando Castile — the painting everyone should have been talking about. —LP

4. Michelangelo, Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sybil, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

November 13-February 12, 2018

There are few things as rewarding as engaging with the drawings of a master; it’s something like seeing their brain in action, or their artistic bones and muscles at work. This is especially true of the Renaissance greats, who dove so hungrily into the properties of mass and proportion, depth and space. At the Met’s blockbuster show, Michelangelo’s figures twist and turn and dive through 133 drawings; the marble sculptures and architectural model that accompany it are instructive and transporting. The Met’s billed it as a once-in-a-lifetime presentation. They’re not wrong. —LP

5. A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints at the Japan Society

Isoda Koryūsai (1735–1790), “Samurai Wakashu and Maid” (18th century); color woodblock print, 973 x 85.12 cm (courtesy the Royal Ontario Museum ©ROM)

March 10-June 11

This revelatory exhibition changed how I read ukiyo-e style woodblock prints by highlighting a specific type of figure scholars have long misidentified: wakashu, or male adolescents who closely resemble young women or are androgynous. Ambitious and in-depth, it illustrated the myriad ways wakashu have been depicted, making clear how non-binary expressions of gender in the Edo period were not just widely accepted but regarded as standard. Most significantly, to see how different gender identities and sexual expressions were embraced in Japan centuries ago was inspiring, especially in our current, often messy gender revolution. —Claire Voon

6. Angel Otero: Elegies at the Bronx Museum

Angel Otero: Elegies, installation view (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

October 25, 2017-April 29, 2018

This was easily one of my favorite shows of the year because curator Christian Viveros-Fauné places Otero’s work in relation to that of artist Robert Motherwell and it pays off, big time. It was also nice to walk into a museum gallery and smell the paint of newly finished work, not that I usually advocate for a studio to museum pipeline, but in this case, the work felt important and benefited from that freshness — the ideas were strong, the perspective clear, and the work definitely impressive. In the conversation with Motherwell, Otero has a lot to say, and I was happy to listen. —Hrag Vartanian

7. Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms at the Met Breuer

Lygia Pape’s “Divisor” (“Divider”) (1968) in Rio de Janeiro (photo by the Elisa Wouk Almino for Hyperallergic)

March 21–July 23

For many American audiences, this retrospective was their introduction to the beloved and brilliant Brazilian artist Lygia Pape. The exhibition moved chronologically through her diverse yet cohesive output, from her early abstract experiments in the Concrete art movement to her interventions in public spaces during the dictatorship years. As I wrote in my review, the show illustrated Pape’s radical approach to space. While much of her art is interactive and therefore limiting to see today in a museum, the Met did take some good faith efforts, including staging a reenactment of her piece “Divisor,” for which dozens of people processed under a giant white sheet down Madison Avenue. —Elisa Wouk Almino

8. Duane Linklater’s From Our Hands with Ethel Linklater (Trapper) and Tobias Linklater at 80WSE Gallery

A work by Ethel Linklater

December 8, 2016–February 18, 2017

Writing about this show earlier this year I noted that “stripping of things to their essence is what I most associate with Duane Linklater. He shows us the bones of things — in a sparse, minimal aesthetic — to both reveal and obscure their meaning.” With that in mind, I’ll add that I found this exhibition particularly important in the way it traces the ties that bind families and artists together. HV

9. Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969). Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body, spring/summer 1997; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons, photograph by © Paolo Roversi

May 4-September 4

Rei Kawakubo, the inscrutable queen of avant-garde fashion, shone in this sprawling exhibition, which explored her “experiments in in-betweenness.” Kawakubo’s work seems to ask bodies to twist and meld into seemingly impossible shapes; their ingenuity lies in remaining physically wearable. She plays with scale, hits and depths of color, unexpected cutaways, and surprising adornments to humorous, exciting, sometimes unsettling effect. Kawakubo has said, “Fashion is not art. The aims of fashion and art are different and there is no need to compare them.” With that tiresome binary neatly dispatched, we are free to revel in her artful experiments, which transform our aesthetic and embodied experience of the world, whether we call them art or not. —LP

10. Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW at MoMA

Louise Lawler. “Pollyanna (adjusted to fit), distorted for the times” (2007/2008/2012) As adjusted for the MoMA exhibition WHY PICTURES NOW, 2017; dimensions variable (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

April 30–July 30, 2017

Something about this show, and Louise Lawler’s work in general, gets under my skin — in a good way. It has a way of causing me to reconsider my notions of value in art and it accurately reflects a shift in meaning that is a constant in her best work. In this exhibition, Lawler — with the excellent curation of Roxana Marcoci — creates a funhouse of objects that refract and rip apart images to expose their innards. I wrote something about Lawler’s 2014 exhibition at Metro Pictures that is more true now than ever before. “Carving away at the elusive promise embedded in each art object is something Lawler does expertly, and here the final product is more hollow than ever before.” Strangely, it’s in that hollowness that we find the meaning that seems to elude us elsewhere. HV

11. Never Built New York at the Queens Museum

Caption: Samuel Friede, “Coney Island Globe Tower” (1906), postcard (courtesy Queens Museum)

September 17, 2017-February 18, 2018

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s futuristic community for Ellis Island, to an unrealized airport for the West Side of Manhattan, Never Built New York  visualizes never realized futures for the city. While a gallery packed with ephemera and models, like Thomas Hastings’s early 1900s sketch for a National American Indian Memorial on Staten Island and material on I. M. Pei’s 1950s Hyperbloid circular tower, has plenty of thwarted visions, the temporary intervention on the Panorama of the City of New York really communicates their derailed disruptions. Illuminated 3D models mingle with the 1960s diorama of the five boroughs, placing Raymond Hood’s 1925 residential skyscraper bridges over the Hudson River and Paul Rudolph’s Galaxon star viewing platform outside the Queens Museum. Oh yeah, and the exhibition has a bouncy castle realization of Eliot Noyes’s unrealized 1964 New York World’s Fair pavilion. Allison Meier

12. José Leonilson: Empty Man at the Americas Society

José Leonilson, “Saquinho (Small Bag)” (1992) (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino for Hyperallergic)

September 27–February 3

Walking through this small yet rich show, one can tell it was curated with great care. It focuses on the work and life of José Leonilson, an artist from the northeast of Brazil who is especially known for his stunning embroidery work. The exhibition begins with the very end of his output — when he was tragically diagnosed with AIDS in his early 30s — and goes backward in time. His pieces, which range from an embroidered orange pocket to a rectangle of cloth studded with beads, often incorporate intimate, confessional language, as though Leonilson were speaking directly to you. —EWA

13. Louise Bourgeois: Holograms at Cheim and Read

Louise Bourgeois,”UNTITLED” (detail), 1998-2014;
suite of 8 holograms, each about 11 x 14 inches

January 5-February 11

Cheim and Read gave Louise Bourgeois fans a lovely opportunity to discover the holograms she began making in 1998. The projected images, formed by laser beams recording an object’s entire light field that is then burned onto a plate of glass, are small rabbit holes of fantastic immersion. One has to stand in the exact place before each piece, where light projects through the glass at the correct angle to see the miniscule, domestic dioramas: a dressing table, set of mirrors, a bed and its frame with the lovers’ feet intertwined. It’s wonderful that standing in the right place can literally take one through the looking glass.Seph Rodney

14. Tamara Gonzales: Ometeoli at Klaus Gallery

Tamara Gonzales, “Two Moons” (2016)

January 6–February 12

A talented painter with a strong sense of color, Tamara Gonzales has an indiscriminate appetite for cross-cultural pollination and distills the dissonance of contemporary life into her art objects in such a ways that they can seem as jarring as they are soothing. In this show, she presented three connected bodies of work and each was fully developed and sophisticated in their own way — my favorites were the stylized tapestries made by artisans in Peru based on Gonzales’s designs. As I wrote at the time, “Looking at her paintings, you can feel unmoored from the boundaries of form as they swim in waves of moody azure, crimson, and the muddy waters of darker hues.” I can’t stop looking. HV

15. Rosalyn Drexler: Occupational Hazard at Garth Greenan

Rosalyn Drexler, “Masked Reader” (1988) (Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

September 7–October 21

It’s always a treat to see more of Drexler’s delightful yet biting Pop art paintings, and this show of 11 large canvases, all dating from 1988 and 1989, truly packed a punch — for evidence of this, look no further than the crisp primary tones of “Rub Out” (1988), which depicts a dapper assassination victim face down in a sparsely defined space painted bright yellow, red, and blue. The exhibition featured plenty of images of seemingly powerful men undermined in one way or another by Drexler’s rendering, a fever dream of a riff on Henri Rousseau, and an enormous but heartbreaking homage to Ana Mendieta. In almost every instance, despite the flatness and stillness often associated with Pop painting, Drexler’s saturated tones and ecstatic stylizing gave the paintings irresistible pull. —Benjamin Sutton

16. Saya Woolfalk: ChimaCloud and the Pose System at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

 

Saya Woolfalk, “ChimaCloud Crystal Body B” (2017) (Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

February 16–May 6

As a sucker for art incorporating elements of science-fiction, I can never get enough of Saya Woolfalk’s expeditions into the world of the Emphatics, a species of human-plant hybrids whose dazzling world incorporates elements of performative mask traditions, Eastern religion, cyberfeminist theory, and more. This exhibition revealed more of the world of this transcendental species, with elaborately costumed mannequins holding outlandish poses, ornately futuristic masks and busts, kaleidoscopic projections, and an augmented reality experience. The most enticing feature, for me, was a series of architectural plans for a project Woolfalk wants to actually build, a virtual reality chamber for ChimaTEK, the corporate branch of the Emphatics. Here’s hoping that project gets off the ground in 2018. —BS

17. My Country Tis of Thy People, You’re Dying at Radiator Arts

Cannupa Hanska Luger, “At What Cost: Extraction” (2016), ceramic and fiber (courtesy Radiator Arts)

March 31–May 26

This small but powerful exhibition (curated by Hyperallergic contributor Erin Joyce) showcased work about the land—and more specifically, extraction of resources from it—by seven Native American artists. The showstopper was Nicholas Galanin’s “God Complex,” a wall-mounted, ceramic suit of armor whose pearly, iridescent glaze suggested the greed of white America in plundering Native land for oil and whatever else it desires; an accompanying police baton, hovering nearby, drove home the message of violence. Other works were more subtle but no less meaningful, including Tom Jones’s photographs of plastic children’s toys of plants, glowing eerily against black backgrounds, and a short video by the Winter Count collective made as part of the #NoDAPL movement. The latter shows drone shots of land and water and tells of a fearful creature “born out of the anxiety of separation” before sounding its titular alarm: “we are in crisis.” Jillian Steinhauer

18. Tomáš Rafa: New Nationalisms at MoMA PS1

Still from Tomáš Rafa, “New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe”

April 9-September 10

Since 2009, Rafa has been documenting the escalation of far-right extremism in Europe, and for this show at PS1, he presented several videos that are part visual ethnography and part war reporting of protests, rallies and marches mostly in the eastern nation states. Much of the footage is shot using a handheld camera that puts the viewer in the thick of the action:  explosions, smoke from launched teargas canisters, martial chants and rocks and bottles being thrown. In one scene a teeming throng of refugees surge against gates through which only a select few are permitted. The police in riot gear lock arms in formation and try to hold the line, to keep order in a situation that is very close to tipping into full chaos. The human drama of these short, cinema-verité-style fragments make one viscerally feel the urgency of these crises, and connect them to similar situations in the US where the issues that have precipitated these calamities are also not going away. —SR

19. Invisible Man at Martos Gallery

Pope.L, "Pedestal" (2017), acrylic paint, drain, Elkay drinking fountain #EFA201F, hardware, hole, photo timer, plastic pail, plastic sheeting, solenoid, tape, tubing, and wood, dimensions variable
Pope.L, “Pedestal” (2017), dimensions variable

May 3-June 24

Martos Gallery inaugurated its new Chinatown space with a sophisticated show of conceptual artists dealing with how bodies move through, are shaped by, and transform fixed systems.

From Pope.L’s 2017 “Pedestal,” a suspended, slowly dripping water fountain facing an untouchable glass of water, which evoked this country’s legacy of segregating, abusing, and dominating bodies; to Jessica Vaughn’s minimal arrangement of seats from Chicago Transit Authority busses to evoke stories of who has been allowed to sit where and why, the show sharply and obliquely revealed the invisible structures that shape us and can come to define us. —LP

20. Arthur Jafa’s piece “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Arthur Jaffa’s “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” (2017), installation view (courtesy Gavin Brown)

November 12, 2016-January 28, 2017

Arthur Jaffa’s piece is perhaps the most moving work of film or video I have seen in several years. It’s a harrowing breakdown of the ecstatic heights and sinister depths of black life in the US, and at a little over seven minutes long, is remarkable in its power. These are seven minutes that stay with the viewer long after the the piece has been seen. Jaffa figured out how to make images not merely seen, but also felt, and felt down to one’s bones. —SR

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