It has been a tumultuous year politically in the United States, which feels like it has already slid into oligarchy with an executive administration that looks to cement the nation there. The art exhibitions in New York City which caught and held our attention are those that have in subtle and oblique ways moved towards precisely those values that stand in opposition. They are shows that take seriously pressing issues such as state power, the weight of history, the primacy of the human body, the failure of liberal institutions, the need to end the violence of empire — but without falling into cliché. And unexpectedly, there were some shows that celebrated our capacities for being generous in all the wide and varied ways we in the arts can be.
1. Mel Chin: All Over the Place at the Queens Museum
April 8–August 12
This exhibition, curated by Manon Slome and Laura Raicovich, was the kind that really required two visits to see: the first time, one might get a sense of how varied and voluble Chin’s practice is, and then on the second one might come to understand how profound the meanings are that are somewhat belied by the elegance of his making. What comes through is that Chin is interested in how collective knowledge is made, how it comes to be, and how this knowledge wends its way through culture. His concern with this took on particular relevance in the portion of the exhibition dedicated to the “Flint Fit” project (2018–ongoing) which comes as close as visual art does to not merely drawing analogies or making proposals, but actually intervenes in the sociopolitical realm to attempt to change the material circumstances of people’s lives. It deserves this place in the list because Chin joined his ambition with his ethics and that is a rare accomplishment indeed. —Seph Rodney
2. Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now) at the Met Breuer
March 21–July 22
There have been few exhibitions in the Met Breuer’s limited repertoire that have delivered on its promise of transhistorical dives into the museum’s encyclopedic collection. And algorithms be damned, Like Life, curated by Luke Syson and Sheena Wagstaff, was a superb examination of humanity’s fixation with its fabricated self across time and space. Is it vanity or introspection? Syson and Wagstaff’s curation deliciously borders on the profane, an unholy suite of juxtapositions that force viewers to consider if something like a Jeff Koons sculpture of Buster Keaton belongs in the same room as a 15th-century polychromatic wood sculpture from the Renaissance. —Zachary Small
3. Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim Museum
February 9–May 9
Danh Vo, as a migrant from Vietnam who grew up in Denmark and now lives in Berlin — that is, having sampled several distinct cultures — is uniquely poised to suss out how personal memories can become interwoven with collective ones, especially those remembrances that coalesce around historical events or figures. In this exhibition, organized by Katherine Brinson, Susan Thompson, and with support from Ylinka Barotto, Vo uses the term “tiny diasporas” to indicate that the objects he collects or acquires, like the chairs from the Kennedy administration, are intertwined with those communal and individual memories. And the show never gives the visitor an easy emotional getaway; the information conveyed through these objects is surprising, touching, appalling, and sometimes depressingly cliché — in short, representative of the gamut of human feeling. —SR
4. An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017 at the Whitney Museum of American Art
August 18, 2017–August 27, 2018
The long-running exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest took to task organizing the Whitney’s collection since 1940. Curators David Breslin, Jennie Goldstein, and Rujeko Hockley, together with David Kiehl and Margaret Kross, excavated the museum’s archival objects and fine art, and methodically organized the most political objects by their social implications in the United States: the AIDs crisis, Jim Crow, anti-war efforts, and far beyond. The museum pulled records from its own history, like protest letters demanding the inclusion of Black women in its exhibitions, and the representation of Black artists working outside of figuration. Following the curatorial success of An Incomplete History of Protest, the museum’s legacy of protest has continued. Most recently, activists have opposed the museum director’s support of Whitney board member Warren Kanders, whose manufacturing company provided tear gas at the US-Mexico border, despite the Whitney staff’s protests of their own. —Jasmine Weber
5. The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S. at the Shiva Gallery at John Jay College
September 4–November 3
Few exhibitions offer a new way of looking at contemporary art, but this exhibition, curated by Monika Fabijanska (you can hear our podcast with her on iTunes), is one of them. Her central thesis is that sexual violence has been a central theme of women’s contemporary art, unifying disparate artists and bodies of work in a way few other things can. And here’s the reality: she makes the case convincingly. While focusing on the United States — hopefully future exhibitions will expand this circle — it connects the art of Yoko Ono, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Suzanne Lacy, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi, and many others to demonstrate that #MeToo couldn’t come fast enough. (She started working on this exhibition far before the movement appeared on the scene.) Of course, women aren’t the only ones impacted by sexual violence (one in six men have also been sexually abused or assaulted) but the tight focus of this show was much needed in a field that can too easily ignore the issues that face us who are arts community members. —Hrag Vartanian
6. John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire at the New Museum
June 20–September 2
This exhibition, unlike most of the others on this list, was entirely comprised of film. There is something inherently immersive about the medium, which is typically experienced in a dark and quiet grotto where the only light issues from the main screen. Akomfrah takes full advantage of the medium, playing with the form, using it to paint pictures, to document a towering figure in British Cultural Studies, to decoct colonialism. This show, curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, is the first American survey exhibition of the work of British artist, film director, and writer. When one views “Vertigo Sea” (2015), the most compelling film in the installation, one wonders why it’s taken this long for the work to get here. Akomfrah constructs visual expeditions that take the viewer out of that grotto, to the edge of one’s sense and feeling, and the world becomes immensely, overwhelming large through his eyes. —SR
7. Leon Golub: Raw Nerve at the Met Breuer
February 6–May 27
Raw Nerve, curated by Kelly Baum, may be the most fear-inducing exhibition mounted in the city this year. It consisted of images of people (men mostly) who seemed to engage in violence in ways as normalized as the habits of eating and sleeping. The images of this brutality were indelible — mostly because of Golub’s method of making, which entails painting and stripping layers away and painting over these layers again. The resulting figures look ravaged and raw and they are caught in tableaux that offer no way out of that seemingly endless cycle of violence. It was a dark show for a dark time, and it relentlessly spoke a kind of truth. —SR
8. Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum
October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019
During the grueling nine years it took Swedish artist Hilma af Klint to paint her spiritual and abstract “Temple” paintings, she planned to develop a structure eerily similar to the Guggenheim Museum: a circular, four-story building connected by a central spiral staircase imbued with what she called a “certain power and calm.” A century later and the Upper East Side institution granted her wish with interest. Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, curated by Tracey Bashkoff and David Horowitz, celebrates af Klint as one of Europe’s earliest precursors to the modern art movement that swept abstraction into the mainstream with an immense exhibition that simply strives to elevate a hidden figure from art history. And in doing so, the Guggenheim has again shifted how we conceptualize women’s contribution to a modernist canon predominantly stacked with men. —ZS
9. Chaim Soutine: Flesh at the Jewish Museum
May 4–September 16
Chaim Soutine is one of those turn-of-the-century modernist expressionists who doesn’t get his due attention given the brilliance of his painting practice. He often gets considered after his compatriots such as Modigliani or Chagall, but his renderings of animal carcasses, hovering in the in-between place where they are still almost animal bodies, but moving towards becoming food, flesh for the eater’s sustenance. This exhibition, organized by Stephen Brown with consulting curators Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, highlighted what Soutine did best: visually interpret that transition for fish, chickens, cows, rabbits, that once were full of life and vibrancy and have been made inert listless fodder. Soutine captures that alien grace that lingers in the blood and in the bone. —SR
10. Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil at the Museum of Modern Art
February 11–June 3
This first survey of the great modernist Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral was organized by Stephanie D’Alessandro and Luis Pérez-Oramas, originating at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition focused on the artist’s work from the 1920s, when she radically painted local Brazilian subjects (fauna, the favelas, folklore) in a bold, modernist style. This compact yet thoughtful show illuminated through artworks, letters, and publications how Tarsila (as she is known in Brazil) sought to redefine Brazil’s image, leaving a lasting impact on Brazilians to this day. —Elisa Wouk Almino
11. Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
July 20, 2018–April 21, 2019
Opulence in Ancient Egypt may have had its heyday in the late Ptolemaic Kingdom, a critical transition period between the pharaonic kingdom’s Hellenistic rulers and their subsequent Roman conquerors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art once had a critical gap in its otherwise incomparable collection of artifacts detailing Egyptian historian until it recently acquired the illustriously gilded coffin of Nedjemankh, a high-ranking priest of the ram-god Heryshef of Nen-nisut. It’s exceptionally rare for any museum to acquire an Egyptian coffin in such pristine condition. Attracting visitors with this glittering title item, Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin, organized by Diana Craig Patch, Janice Kamrin, and Niv Allon, outlined how the polytheistic ancient Egyptian religion survived three centuries of foreign rule before fusing its formal traditions with the aesthetics of Coptic Christianity. — ZS
12. Simone Leigh at Luhring Augustine
September 8–October 20
Simone Leigh synthesizes craft, cultural symbolism, and sculpture to construct totemic objects of Black female subjectivity that are conditioned by Afrodiasporic visual traditions. These ceramic vessels — busts melded with water jugs, and raffia skirts topped by female likenesses that also resemble houses — interrogate notions of labor and gender performativity, particularly those collective expectations of servitude that plague Black women. Those figures’ emotionless, featureless faces incur anonymity, though their postures are regal, which yields a body that is objectified. In this objectification of the Black woman’s body, Leigh calls into question what kind of autonomy and self-possession is available to Black women. —JW
13. Shakedown at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
September 16–October 21
Leilah Weinraub’s masterful documentary, Shakedown, is a scintillating ode to Los Angeles Black lesbian culture and the city’s infamous “Shakedown sessions” — club nights where women danced for an audience of predominately Black, gay women. Weinraub stitched together the film using over fifteen years of footage, starting in 2002 when she became the in-house Shakedown filmographer, and long after the club night was officially shuttered by authorities in 2004. Weinraub’s perspective is intimate and familiar, resulting in a film that gives an immersive, celebratory depiction of queer Black lives. —JW
14. Curtains, Stages and Shadows Act 1 at James Fuentes gallery, and Curtains, Stages, and Shadows, Act 2 at Anna Zorina gallery
October 10–November 25 (at James Fuentes) and October 11–November 24 (at Anna Zorina)
The artist Didier William took on the very ambitious task of simultaneously mounting two shows in New York City in two different parts of town. He also took on a very hefty subject for his work: devising strategies for bodies of color to escape what he calls “the curious gaze,” (you can hear him talk about it in detail on our podcast). This concern turned out to generate work that was more than large enough for both installations. What is fascinating as well is how he approaches the idea of revolution from an unexpected angle. He used the Hatian Revolution as a springboard into a painterly style that makes his figures into all-seeing agents that give up none of that agency as they morph into forms and shapes that defy easy identification. —SR
15. Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016 at the Museum of Modern Art
March 31–July 22
I originally misread A Synthesis of Intuitions as A Synthesis of Institutions, but like the revealing mistake of seeing this incredible exhibition backwards, it’s an error I’d like to stick with. Adrian Piper’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective, organized by Christophe Cherix, Connie Butler, David Platzker, with Tessa Ferreyros, was a stunning display of creative and critical interplay between the micro/personal (intuition) and the macro/shared (institution). It was a celebration that an artist can be brainy, challenging, and a woman of color — and never need to change. —Chloë Bass
16. Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University
October 24, 2018–February 10, 2019
Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today traces the lineage of the Black female figure in modern art since Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1865) through the 21st century. The exhibition, curated by Denise Murrell, scrutinizes the shifting modes of art historical representation afforded to Black women as they develop through tropes of servants, nannies, and entertainers throughout the 20th century. Murrell focuses especially on the positioning of Black women in French artistic representation in the 20th century, starting with the works of Manet and Matisse. In the early 1900s, Paris underwent a curious cultural shift as Parisians became perversely enthralled with the jazz music and dance styles of Black performers, and many Black Americans emigrated to the European nation to escape Jim Crow’s clutches. With thoroughly written wall texts that contextualize the work, the exhibition feels academic but still refreshingly legible to wide audiences. —JW
17. Bodys Isek Kingelez: City of Dreams at the Museum of Modern Art
May 26, 2018–January 1, 2019
It took nearly a century for the Museum of Modern Art to produce a solo exhibition for an African artist. Better late than never. Congolese visionary Bodys Isek Kingelez deserves so much more credit than he’s received from Western art history textbooks. A visionary of a decolonized Africa, the artist was a magicien de la terre of urban landscapes and an agglomerator of world capitals. Constructing intricate cities of riotous color and recycled materials, Kingelez refused the allure of pessimism — even as his country and hometown of Kinshasa declined into corruption following their independence from Belgium. Faced with the heinous realities of contemporary world politics, Kingelez reminds MoMA visitors that they truly have the power to construct new social realities to replace our present ones. This exhibition was organized by Sarah Suzuki and Hillary Reder. —ZS
18. Chloë Bass: The Book of Everyday Instruction at the Knockdown Center
April 21–June 17
My review of this exhibition earlier this year captured some of the emotional nuance that artist Chloë Bass does so well. Complex and invigorating, expansive yet personal, it’s many things for many people and that inclusiveness is what lingers with you as you engage with the work. Bass doesn’t tell you what to think; don’t expect the preachiness of other artists engaged with social practice. But she gives you the prompts to examine your own relationships — for better or worse. I left this exhibition drained, like I had a major workout, but the memory of that emotional exercise has remained with me ever since. The exhibition was organized by Alexis Wilkinson. —HV
19. Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound at the National Museum of the American Indian
November 10, 2017–January 6, 2019
Readers of Hyperallergic won’t need to be told that Native American, Alaska Native, and Inuit contemporary art can be as diverse as any other contemporary art. But this exhibition, which focused on 10 artists who “use light, digital projection, and experimental media to reflect on their place in and between traditional and dominant cultures,” did a wonderful job of bridging the history of Native American light- and sound-based art with contemporary practice in a way that made it all seem so obvious. Writing about the show, critic Paddy Johnson said it well:
Entering the exhibition feels a bit like entering the welcome room of a large spaceship designed by Native Americans. The show’s entrance is dimly lit with a corridor that leads to separate light-based installations that bleed green and blue light. It’s all feels very 21st century until you enter the rooms. Then, time slows down.
It is in that sense of time, helped by the pace of Kathleen Ash-Milby and David Garneau’s curation, that we find moments that help us to see that technology isn’t only designed to help us to connect to other people, but also to nature, history, the future, and the world at large. —HV
20. Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930s at the Neue Galerie
March 8–May 28
Neue Galerie’s spectacular Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930s was certainly among the strangest and most fascinating exhibitions of the year. Curated by Olaf Peters, a scholar on Weimar-era art, it offered a rare opportunity to see blockbuster artworks — Max Beckmann’s magnificently grotesque “Birds Hell” (1938) chief among them — in an intimate setting. Most revelatory, however, were works by such lesser known artists as Rudolf Wacker, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, and Felix Nussbaum, whose uncanny and haunting artworks provide a window into a period of 20th-century trauma that still affects us today. —Natalie Haddad
The Let Go at the Park Avenue Armory
June 7–July 1
The Let Go by Nick Cave was a performance that bridged the gap between the sacred and profane. It caused viewers to weep, to dance, to plumb the parts of themselves that too often wither away because they don’t get hauled out to see sunlight. It dealt with the issues of the day: Black bodies under threat, but it didn’t stay there. The work found reasons to celebrate together, singing, hands clapping, bodies moving in rhythms that we always know, but at times forget. —SR
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