What a year it’s been. All over New York, new spaces have opened, beloved ones have closed or changed shape, and through it all, the city’s museums, galleries, cinema houses, and artist-run spaces have mounted stunning presentations of art which have pushed us to think deeply and critically about whose voices we elevate and which narratives we privilege. This year, our favorites were exhibitions, film series, and the occasional performance that celebrated the under-recognized, maligned, or forgotten, or otherwise shed new light on topics and subjects more familiar.
This year, our favorites included the Guggenheim’s record-breaking Hilma af Klint exhibition — a highlight for us last year, so much so that it takes the top slot this year after many more months of deliberation — along with deep dives into the work of under-celebrated artists such as Alvin Baltrop at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and T.C. Cannon at the National Museum of the American Indian. Interdisciplinary, collaborative presentations of recent work by artists like Kevin Beasley at the Whitney Museum, and Kia LaBeija at Performance Space New York were also particularly memorable, along with many others. Here are our favorite exhibitions, film series, and more from 2019, brought to you by the writers and editors of Hyperallergic.
1. Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum
October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019
Organized by Tracey Bashkoff, with David Horowitz
Paintings for the Future made and fulfilled the rare promise to bring new insight into our understanding of 20th century art and particularly the origins of Western abstraction, which in the last decade were very thoroughly explored in MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction. This was not the first exhibition to point to the connections between modernism, spiritual seeking, and such esoteric practices as theosophy (the 2008 show, Traces du Sacré, for example, did that) but the sustained examination of Hilma af Klint’s life, work, and ideas — all revelations in themselves — made a particularly compelling case for the broader possibilities of thinking about abstraction as metaphysical mapping. —Ksenya Gurshtein
2. The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
August 7, 2019–February 9, 2020
Organized by Antonio Sergio Bessa
Months after the sizzle of summer and World Pride, many of the exhibitions organized in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots remain on view — and worth seeing. One of these is the Bronx Museum’s The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop, which honors the ongoing legacy of the photographer through February 9, 2020. The exhibition is loosely organized, following Baltrop’s practice of not including dates or titles for his photographs. This structure imbues a queer fluidity to the space and encourages a multiplicity of connections. This presentation at the Bronx Museum finally shines a light on a rich archive and does justice to Baltrop’s deep contributions to photography. —Danilo Machado
3. T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America at the National Museum of the American Indian
April 6–September 16, 2019
Organized by Karen Kramer for the Peabody Essex Museum
TC Cannon’s solo exhibition was yet another demonstration that there are many histories in modern and contemporary art that still don’t fit into our truncated Art History 101 narratives. An enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe, Cannon would not only embrace the emerging modernity that characterized Native American art in the 1960s and 70s, but he would innovate, particularly in his self portraits, giving us new images to understand Native American experiences in the United States. Informed by his experience as a Vietnam vet, Cannon would depict the anxieties of his age (atomic mushrooms, the fraying of Enlightenment individualism, assimilation, and much more) with the brashness of a Pop artist, a taste for color that incorporates the lessons of European Modernism, and the influence of his contemporaries who continued to record, document, and illuminate the stories of their age (Fritz Scholder was his professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM). Overall the exhibition was an ode to an artist who was omnivorous in his artistic appetite and incorporated the world around him at every turn. This solo show was a breath of fresh air. —Hrag Vartanian
4. Kevin Beasley: A View of a Landscape at the Whitney Museum
December 15, 2018–March 10, 2019
Organized by Christopher Y. Lew with Ambika Trasi
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, Kevin Beasley is no stranger to the American South, and his recent solo show at the Whitney Museum highlighted his consideration of that particular landscape’s history to trenchant ends. Curated by Christopher Y. Lew with Ambika Trasi, the exhibition was succinct in scope and brilliantly focused, featuring Beasley’s knock-out work “A view of a Landscape: A cotton gin motor” (2012-2018), alongside a group of the artist’s layered, resin-encased sculptures and a scintillating performance program that included the likes of Jlin, Eli Keszler, and Taja Cheek. Yet it was Beasley’s titular work that made the exhibition a true tour de force. Comprised of a cotton gin motor encased in a sound-proof display case — the former of which he purchased on ebay and later rebuilt after a revelatory trip back to Virginia — “A view of a landscape” acts as a potent vehicle for exploring the legacy of enslavement in the US, and particularly the way the institution reduced human beings to property, no more than the sum of backbreaking, forced labor. The repurposing of such a loaded symbolic object could have easily appeared obvious to the point of artlessness, but in Beasley’s hands the machine becomes something more instructive. In separating the whirring motor from its sonics — funneling them instead into a nearby listening room — Beasley creates an opportunity for reflection rooted in the aural, reminding visitors of the violent separations inherent to enslavement, and thus crucial to the founding of this nation. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
5. Kia LaBeija, (Untitled) The Black Act at Performance Space New York
November 7–9, 2019
Choreographed by Kia LaBeija, with Assistant Movement Director and Creative Producer, Taína Larot; co-commissioned by Performa 19 and Performance Space New York, co-produced with The Josie Club
A co-commission by Performa 2019 and Performance Space New York, Kia LaBeija’s (Untitled) The Black Act (2019), successfully sparred with the legacy of its Bauhaus forebear. It was a read in both senses: a close and methodical look at Oskar Shlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922) — specifically the third series or act, The Black Act — and an almost indistinguishable riff on its shortcomings which simultaneously points to them and spectacularly upends them. Yet, the strength in (Untitled) The Black Act came from LaBeija’s ability to use Shlemmer’s work as an outline for a story about Black femininity, liberation, and creativity, which was even more successful for the way it organically combined the talents of people in her community. —Rachell Morillo
6. Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done at the Museum of Modern Art
September 16, 2018–February 3, 2019
Organized by Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax, with Martha Joseph
In a review of the first Judson Dance Theater concert in 1962, poet Diane di Prima writes “David Gordon stands still a lot … The receiving & giving out one operation, no dichotomy there… somehow terribly moving.” That fluidity and verve was all preserved in Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, an illuminating but keenly concise exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art on this group of choreographers, visual artists, composers, and filmmakers that redefined dance by bringing in the mundane and revealing its poignancy. Scores, poetry, and photographs lined the galleries and projected video documentation cut across the rooms — allowing viewers to weave through this early 1960s moment of interdisciplinary excitement and experimentation. Perhaps the best part was seeing and learning how work by Yvonne Rainier or Trisha Brown connected with that of their sometimes overly lauded painting and sculpture counterparts through bracingly reimagined live performances that brought MoMA to life each week. —Alex Jen
7. Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror at MoMA PS1
March 31–June 23, 2019
Organized by Julie Ault
Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror, on view this summer at MoMA PS1, was about as perfect an exhibition as you could imagine: setting, installation, and selection. Curated by Julie Ault, an artist and co-founder of the activist collective Group Material, Paper Mirror did not necessarily shed new light on the artist, who was born in Cleveland in 1926 and died in New York in 2009; rather, it displayed her work to consummate advantage, conveying above all the singularity of her practice and the searing beauty of her sublime rage. —Thomas Micchelli
8. Barbara Hammer, Superdyke at the Museum of the Moving Image
July 19–28, 2019
Organized by KJ Relth and Mark Toscano, co-presented by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and UCLA Film and Television Archive
“Barbara Hammer was one of those people who, even if you didn’t see her work, you knew she was important, because of what she represented as a cultural figure,” Mark Toscano told me when we first met at S(8) Cinema Periférico, an experimental film festival in Spain. A preservationist at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, Toscano has been responsible for restoring Hammer’s vast body of work. Together with KJ Relth, a programmer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Toscano also curated Barbara Hammer: Superdyke, a retrospective of Hammer’s work, which ran in Los Angeles in 2018, while the filmmaker was still alive. In the wake of Hammer’s recent death, Superdyke traveled to the Museum of the Moving Image, and for two weeks, its seven programs showcased Hammer as both a committed gay activist and an exhilarating, multifaceted avant-garde artist. —Ela Bittencourt
9. Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx at the New York Botanical Garden
June 8–September 29, 2019
Landscape design by Raymond Jungles; gallery exhibition organized by Edward J. Sullivan
Landscape design is a living art. The artist Roberto Burle Marx painted on canvas, wove tapestries, and crafted jewelry, but he is inscribed in Brazil’s history as the country’s most influential landscape designer. “I hate formulas and repetition but I believe in principles. All experience is important but not all expression is the same,” Burle Marx declared in a 1989 interview, five years before his death. Appropriately, none of the gardens in the NYBG exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, are modeled directly on his plans. Instead, the design was overseen by his (aptly named) protégé, the Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles. Adhering to the principles of Burle Marx’s designs, Jungles created what the NYBG calls a “horticultural tribute.” His work shows that landscape design is not just about creating beauty, but also forging community and, on a larger scale, shaping a national identity. Appointed to the Federal Council of Culture in Brazil in the 1960s, Burle Marx used his post to advocate for environmental conservation. His politics were in the plants, and he is noted as one of the first Brazilians to speak out against deforestation. With the Amazon fires commanding US headlines for so many months this year, this exhibition was in dialogue with prolonged crisis that’s now reaching a fever pitch. —Layla Fassa
10. On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum
September 28, 2019 – January 19, 2020
Organized by Alexis Heller
Emerging against the heated backdrop of a global push for sex work decriminalization and Trump’s recent (and controversial) FOSTA/SESTA bill, On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum presents art made by or about queer sex workers. Declaring a pro-sex, pro-porn stance off the bat, the exhibition takes its title from a lesbian porn magazine launched during the Reagan-era culture wars. Mirroring porn, On Our Backs incorporates sets as arenas for the curator, and viewers, to play. Entering these enclosed spaces feels deliciously transgressive. Elsewhere the exhibition included an instance of nakedness so strikingly vulnerable that it stayed with me long after I exited the show. —Cassie Packard
11. Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee at The Met Breuer
June 4–September 29, 2019
Organized by Shanay Jhaveri
In 1972, a young Mrinalini Mukherjee began making sculpture with fiber in New Delhi, India. At the time, fiber and similar textiles were mostly unrecognized as materials possessing artistic merit by her Indian contemporaries. In the Western hemisphere, however, a few artists had taken up fiber as a medium for non-representational or abstract art in the ‘60s and ‘70s, though Mukherjee did not identify with Western trends either. Nonetheless, the artist created a colossal oeuvre of artwork over the next four decades, probing into fiber and later ceramic and metal as art forms that can represent intangible ideas and tradition simultaneously and resist typical artistic categorization. The Met Breuer’s Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee offered a jaw-dropping retrospective of the artist’s career that investigated her transitions between modern and traditional forms, and redefined boundaries between figuration and abstraction. —Nageen Shaikh
12. Roy DeCarava: the sound I saw and Roy DeCarava: Light Break at David Zwirner
September 5—October 26, 2019
Light Break, and the sound i saw were two exhibitions of the photography of Roy De Carava that ran concurrently at David Zwirner and allowed the viewer to see the many kinds of photographer he was: urban documentarian, street photographer, meticulous formalist, celebrity photojournalist, chronicler of the jazz age. The work that focuses on the Jazz scene is especially poignant in its reminiscence of a time now past. —Seph Rodney
13. Vivian Suter at Gladstone Gallery
April 11–June 8, 2019
Stepping out of the crisp spring air into Vivian Suter’s first exhibition at Gladstone Gallery offered something similar to encountering a lush, hidden landscape for the first time. Colorful raw canvases, unstretched and pulsing with shapes and palettes that conjure Abstract Expressionism, color theory, and verdant terrain all at once, floated throughout the room. A feast for the eyes, the exhibition featured canvases hung from the walls, rafters, and even draped across the floor in Suter’s trademark installation style. It should come as no surprise that the Swiss-Argentine artist, who at 69 is finally gaining some international recognition, has spent the last 30-odd years of her life living and working in the leafy countryside of Guatemala. One can only hope that more excursions into the international art scene are on the horizon for her and her work. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
14. MOOD: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018–19 at MoMA PS1
June 9–September 8, 2019
Organized by Hallie Ringle and Legacy Russell, with Josephine Graf
Founded in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem is known for its long-running Artists in Residence Program. But with the museum recently razed for a major renovation of its 125th home, for the first time its annual exhibition of Artists in Residence was presented at Long Island City’s MoMA PS1, with remarkable results. MOOD, inspired by the omnipresent social media hashtag #mood, is an exhibition I returned to again and again in 2019. Tschabalala Self’s Street Scenes stitched together striking and poignant scenes of Harlem in her signature style, while Sable Elyse Smith’s conceptual sculptures and accompanying sound essay (the latter made in collaboration with Henry Murphy) explore the ways state violence is enacted through mass incarceration and class stratification. Allison Janae Hamilton’s multitudinous, mythic installation is intoxicating; it gorgeously envelops you in Southern landscape while simultaneously bringing to the surface the history of racial and classed exploitation in the region. —Jasmine Weber
15.Victoria Cabezas and Priscilla Monge: Give Me What You Ask For at Americas Society
February 13–May 4, 2019
Organized by Miguel A. López
Victoria Cabezas and Priscilla Monge: Give Me What You Ask For, curated by Miguel A. López, originated at TEOR/éTica in San José and opened at the Americas Society last spring. The exhibition traversed media, generations, and conceptual concerns in order to place Cabezas and Monge, two of Costa Rica’s most powerful voices, into a fluid and open-ended dialogue. Together, the artists challenge dominant notions of nationalism, consumerism, neocolonialism, and masculinist tropes through a shared language of femininity, domesticity, bodies, fiction, and the everyday. —Joseph Shaikewitz
16. SHITAMACHI: Tales of Downtown Tokyo at Film Forum
October 18–November 7, 2019
Organized by Aiko Masubuchi
Aiko Masubuchi’s inspired curatorial concept linking films produced in Tokyo’s low-lying eastern region associated with working class life cut across postwar golden era titles most recognizable to New Yorkers, while including numerous rare works with newly created subtitles. This geographical approach brought a materialist depth to the exhibition of Japanese cinema — so often overdetermined by cultural assumptions internationally and domestically — bringing the viewer to experience a range of human experiences through the diversity of film culture in a dynamic urban space. —Joel Neville Anderson
17. Simone Fattal: Work and Days at MoMA PS1
March 31–September 2, 2019
Organized by Ruba Katrib with Josephine Graf
While MoMA PS1’s exhibition dedicated to the Lebanese artist Simone Fattal is titled after Hesiod’s poem and depicts humanity’s deepest tragedies and fiercest heroes in an epic of war and suffering, it was also imbued with undying poetry and hope in the face of history. Fattal, who was born in 1942 and began to sculpt after leaving war-torn Beirut for California with her partner Etel Adnan, found in clay the life that she was desperately seeking after a brutal exile. The urge towards abstraction which runs through the artist’s work transforms these vestiges into monuments, memorials, temples, and totems. The bold exhibition design of Syrian-American curator Ruba Katrib — who organized the show with Josephine Graf — emphasized this archeology by grouping sculptures together on ziggurat-like steps, columns, and pedestals. They also juxtaposed them with the artist’s paintings and collages, creating a semi-mystical movement of calligraphic lines, fluid forms, and radiant colors. Now, after decades of toiling and hardship, Fattal is experiencing a renaissance as the world finally rediscovers and recognizes the importance of her work — a feminine expression of pure modernity from an ever-conflicted Beirut. “We have seen absolute horrors, but we kept working,” said Fattal. —Shirine Saad
18. Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 at the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
February 14th, 2019 – July 13th, 2019
Organized by Jason Baumann
Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 established Stonewall as one event of many through which barriers started to break down, forcing so many LGBTQ+ people to reposition themselves, while also showing how so many people during that time — and after — have been able to live more wholly integrated lives. Because of the NYPL’s historical dedication to preserving and presenting queer history in New York, Love & Resistance included materials both donated and independently acquired by the library. The NYPL has the most extensive collection of LGBTQ+ publications, photographs, and historical ephemera in the United States, much of it contributed by LGBTQ+ organizations and individuals over the years. Under the previous curator, Mimi Bowling, the NYPL was at the forefront of preserving queer history, getting a significant head start on other venerable institutions here in the US, in part because New York was at the center of so much LGBTQ+ activism in the early years the exhibition covers. The curator of this collection, Jason Baumann, told me that donations came early, drawn by the NYPL’s institutional strength: this was a place where documents were all but guaranteed to survive, and where sympathetic staff members were known to the local queer community. —Jeanna Kadlec
19. Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 30, 2019–January 18, 2021
Organized by Kim Benzel and Clare Davies
Artist Rayyane Tabet has been working through the issues of “Middle Eastern” archeology for years now, focused often on a rug passed down from his great-grandfather — who was a fixer for Western archeologists — to his family members. In this version of that expansive project, Tabet focuses on the Tell Halaf dig in Syria, where his great-grandfather worked, and even brings the Neo-Hittite “Venus” from a museum in Berlin for the display. Installed in the Metropolitan’s Assyrian room — a great choice — the Venus, which was shattered during the bombing of Berlin in World World II, Alien Property demonstrates that Western museums are not the safe spaces they pretend to be, a myth propagated by governments and imperial scholars as a way to ensure that stolen items are never returned, while playing up the idea that the “natives” can’t take care of their own heritage. What makes this exhibition really special is the personal history woven into the tale, demonstrating that history from Syria, and elsewhere, is often treated as a detached form of knowledge gathering by foreigners, but the realities are more complicated, sometimes sinister, and almost always less philanthropic than they’re presented to be. —Hrag Vartanian
20. Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman, The Shape of Shape at the Museum of Modern Art
October 21, 2019–April 12, 2020
Organized by Amy Sillman with Michelle Kuo and Jenny Harris
It’s always thrilling to get a glimpse of the wondrous artworks tucked away in a museum’s collection, especially when you consider the fact that most institutions — the monumental new MoMA included — can only ever display a fraction of their holdings at one time. MoMA’s most recent iteration of its long-running Artist’s Choice series invited painter Amy Sillman to plumb its expansive collection as she continued to explore her fascination with shape. As Sillman queries, “I wonder if, in fact, shape got left behind when modern art turned to systems, series, grids, and all things calculable in the 20th century. Was shape too personal, too subjective, to be considered rigorously modern? Or is it just too indefinite, too big, to systematize?” Conceptually broad and exquisitely unpretentious, Sillman’s exhibition — organized with MoMA’s Michelle Kuo and Jenny Harris — offers divergent responses to such questions, bringing together a plurality of objects that highlight the wide range of works in the museum’s collection to delightful, idiosyncratic ends. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
Wangechi Mutu: The NewOnes, will free us at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 9, 2019–June 8, 2020
Commission organized by Kelly Baum
The installation of Mutu’s The NewOnes, will free Us (2019) marks the first time in 177 years that the sculpture niches of the Met’s Richard Morris Hunt-designed façade have been occupied. The deftness and nuance of Mutu’s project, taken in this light, becomes particularly provocative. The works do something else too, which is perhaps the most powerful aspect of this commission. Their heft and intensity, particularly in the blast of morning light, makes the limestone façade fade into a shimmer. While many have noted that these figures are reminiscent of the famed Erechtheion caryatids at the Acropolis in Athens, the coiled bronze garments of The NewOnes take both the fluted robes of the Erechtheion caryatids and the exteriors of the flanking Corinthian columns and turn them inside out. Further, Mutu’s figures are seated, where caryatids must stand, typically supporting architecture with their heads. Mutu’s choice reads as a distinct defiance this norm. Formal references hew more closely to Yoruba and Congolese iconography but are not replications of these either. Wangechi Mutu’s four figures on the Met’s façade come from a different spirit; these seated figures hold their own strength within. —Laura Raicovich
God Made my Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin at David Zwirner
January 10—February 16, 2019
Organized by Hilton Als
“Troubled times get the tyrants and prophets they deserve.” So begins Hilton Als’s introduction to God Made my Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, the exhibition he curated for David Zwirner earlier this year. In our particularly troubled age, it feels fitting that Als would revisit the titular author, artist, and queer icon, who among his many indelible marks on twentieth-century culture, radically reshaped discourses around power and identity. God Made my Face pays tribute to Baldwin — whose work has rightly witnessed a resurgence — through a presentation of artworks marked by his image, politics, and intellectual legacy. Yet what was most important about the exhibition was that it moved beyond elegy, offering instead a complex and thoroughly contemporary portrait of a figure whose words and ideas continue to resonate. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
Leonardo Drew at Galerie Lelong
May 16–August 2, 2019
Leonardo Drew’s first solo exhibition at Galerie Lelong was one of the most successful examples this year of an “all-over” installation. The entire back half of the gallery looked like the eruption of a wild, animistic force come to reclaim the land back from its colonization by modernity. There were branches, wood shards, and painted surfaces that together looked like a ruction suddenly, surprisingly manifested in the austere provinces of an A-list gallery in Chelsea. —Seph Rodney
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