Empress Dowager Chongqing at the Age of Eighty by artists Ignatius Sichelbarth (Ai Qimeng; Bohemia, 1708-1780), Yi Lantai (active about 1748-86) and Wang Ruxue (active 18th century), Qianlong period, 1777, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk) in the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

This year, our contributors and staff found exhibitions across the country that excited, amazed, and enlightened us. The majority of the shows we selected for this list break down into two main categories: exhibitions that impelled us to think deeply and differently about an historical epoch by using innovative curatorial approaches and penetrating scholarship, and those shows that gathered together a comprehensive selection of an artist’s work to convey a fuller sense of the breadth and depth of their practice than was previously known. This list also contains a few shows of artists who are now coming into the apex of their powers. And all these exhibitions remind us of how critically important our public institutions are for making these experiences possible.

1. Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War 1965 – 1975 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

Courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum (photo by Libby Weiler)

March 15–August 18

Organized by Melissa Ho

The first exhibition mounted by any Smithsonian institution on the topic of the Vietnam War and the most far-reaching exhibition devoted to the war’s impact on American artists, Artists Respond was challenging and expansive, an example of the kind of ambitious and groundbreaking work our national museums should be doing. —Blair Murphy

2. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time at the Block Museum, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

Tent poles, Wood, H 136.8 cm W 16.5 cm D 2.8 cm, (©The Field Museum, photograph by John Weinsteinimage No. A115335d_004A, Cat. No. 279194.1-.2)

January 26–July 21

Curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock

The exhibition was carefully well researched, collaborative, and timely in making the ambitious claim that the medieval epoch should not primarily be envisioned through a European lens, but instead can be more fully understood by seeing the African continent as the fulcrum of worldwide development by it impelling cultural advance, and socioeconomic change. Through an exhaustive assembly of fragments and artifacts, supported by reams of scholarship (including the story of the richest man who ever lived) one sees that the 14th-century trade routes that crossed the Sahara Desert drove the movement of people, goods, and culture in that epoch. Museums should take on these kinds of insightful historical correctives more often. —Seph Rodney

3. Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY

Helen Frankenthaler, “Flood” (1967), acrylic on canvas, 124 1/4 x 140 1/2 inches (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

August 4–October 27

Curated by Lise Motherwell and Elizabeth Smith

The exhibition compiles works created in or inspired by Provincetown, along with old photographs, postcards, letters, and other ephemera. It’s a crucial show because it demonstrates how Frankenthaler’s ability to capture the light there became a defining achievement during her time in the Cape Cod art colony, where she found new ways to translate her experience into an aesthetic. It was here that Frankenthaler learned to strip down the content of her paintings, pushing more non-objective forms to the center of otherwise unpainted canvases, and then later on in her process release her abstractions from these spatial restraints. —Billy Anania

4. Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), Cincinnati, OH

Robert Colescott, “Susanna and the Elders (Novelty Hotel)” (1980) (photo by Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic)

September 20, 2019–January 12, 2020

Curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley

Robert Colescott is an unwieldy character to build an exhibition around. His work plays with the motifs of sexism verging on complete objectification, all manner of racist Black stereotypes, and generalized prejudice. What makes him deserving of the first comprehensive retrospective of his work is that he was an earnest trickster; he meant to make the vapid emptiness of bourgeois standards palpable to the viewer. He was also a marvelous painter, whose formal innovations come through clearly, finally here in this show. This exhibition was an opportunity to delve into the worldview of a complicated man whose paintings make the hypocrisies of the United States visible in a way only someone who lived them could. —Seph Rodney

5. In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Installation view of a butaque chair designed by Clara Porset and a Scarlatti rug designed by Cynthia Sargent (photo by Ksenya Gurshtein)

Sep 6, 2019–Jan 12, 2020

Curated by Zoë Ryan

This compact show is an exemplar of how to relate new narratives of 20th century modernism in engaging and inventive ways. It manages to depart from familiar framings in three different ways: it deliberately blurs the lines between design and “fine” art, showcasing Ruth Asawa’s sculptures, which were inspired by utilitarian Mexican wire baskets, alongside chair design by Clara Porset and fiber works by Cynthia Sargent and Sheila Hicks; it focuses on work by women, several of them migrants, expatriates, or members of minorities whose identity crossed borders as much as their work defied disciplines; and it treats Mexico as a vibrant cultural center rather than the periphery. The resulting show offers genuinely new knowledge and insight, spectacular work on view, and an inspired exhibition design that does justice to the brilliant artists/designers who are the subjects of the show.           —Ksenya Gurshtein

6. Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth at the Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ

Installation view, Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth , the Newark Museum of Art (photo by Richard Goodbody)

February 23–June 16

Curated by Nadiah Rivera Fellah and Tricia Lauglin Bloom

The mid-career survey of the Apsáalooke (Crow) artist, whose contributions to the New York scene this year included authoring a series of scrutinizing interpretative labels for a selection of work representing Indigenous peoples in the Met’s American Wing, demonstrated that Indigenous photographers and multi-media artists have no trouble moving past the legacy of Edward Curtis to inscribe and recast the photograph as a site of intimate cultural and familial knowledge. —Chris Green

7. The Body Electric at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN

Sidsel Meineche Hansen, “SECOND SEX WAR ZONE” (2016) Dickgirl 3D(x) in VR format, gaming PC, Oculus Rift headset, headphones, vegan leather beanbag (courtesy the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London/Piraeus)

Mar 30–Jul 21

Curated by Pavel Pyś with Jadine Collingwood

The Body Electric mined 50 years of computer and digital transformation, and explored ways that the human body and its gestures approach and in some ways commingle with scientific advances, mechanical engineering, and the world’s trajectory toward a cyborg world. Works by Shigeko Kubota, Sondra Perry, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, and others illustrated the connection between artists creating work in the latter half of the 20th century to those shaping artistic innovation in our current digital landscape. Pavel Pyś’s curation revealed the charged tension between artists and their technological tools, especially as they thrust the delicate human body — often their own — into the experiment. —Sheila Regan

8. Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912 at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC

March 30–June 23

Curated by Daisy Yiyou Wang and Jan Stuart

This exhibition will be referenced in Chinese art history for generations. Despite being an abundantly researched dynasty, little was known or published about the women of the Qing court. The collections of five empresses left Beijing for the first time to tell the stories of women who shaped China for 268 years. —Kealey Boyd

9. Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts, San Francisco, CA

Suzanne Lacy, “Three Weeks in May” (1977) (detail); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (© Suzanne Lacy; photo by Grant Mumford)

April 20–August 4

Curated by Rudolf Frieling, Lucía Sanromán, and Dominic Willsdon

A sprawling retrospective across two venues, Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here showcased the work of a pioneering artist whose socially engaged work has never been more timely. Consistent in quality, protean in practice, SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts showcased five decades of productivity that included photographs, video, installation, texts, maps, recordings, sculpture, actions, and more, much of it done in collaboration with others. Such abundance might have proved overwhelming, but the show more than demonstrated how over all those years and collaborations, Lacy’s art always has an essential, recognizable core. From mapping rapes in Los Angeles in the 1970s to engaging marginalized teenagers in the Oakland Projects in the 1990s and onward, Lacy confronts gender, violence, race, aging, capitalism and more in work that is socially vital and visually striking. —Bridget Quinn

10.  Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions: Printmaking in the Renaissance at the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX

Albrecht Dürer, “Madonna with the Pear” (1511), engraving, 6 1/4 x 4 3/16 in. (Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1980)

March 23–June 16

Curated by Holly Borham

Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions: Printmaking in the Renaissance examines the relationship between various Renaissance artists and their copyists, as well as emphasizing that each print on display has a unique, material life all of its own: some of the prints are copies, some are forgeries, but nothing is a duplicate.  The exhibition tackles tricky questions of authenticity, fakery, and how history and context shape our thinking about the moral judgments we make about between originals and their copies. —Lydia Pine

11. Tara Donovan: Fieldwork at the Smart Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Tara Donovan, “Transplanted” (2001/2018), tar paper, (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery)

June 14–September 22

Curated by Nora Burnett Abrams

Hyperobjects are invisible to humans, despite the fact we are surrounded by them (such as plastic straws, rubber bands, paper). If making is a form of thinking then building monumental art with materials from our social environment means art is becoming its own hyperobject. —KB

12. Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th-Century Mexico at the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX

Unknown Artist, Atengo and Misquiahuala Mexico (1580) 30.3 x 22 inches, tempera on deerskin Benson Latin American collection, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, the University of Texas at Austin)

June 29–August 25

Organized by Rosario I. Granados

Europeans living in the 16th century were not the only people to create representations of geographies and map spaces of the Americas — and their mathematically based cartography was not the only way 16th-century landscapes were recorded. Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th-Century Mexico features 19 maps drawn by Indigenous artists at the behest of the Spanish between 1579 and 1581. These maps illustrate the amalgamation of visual, aesthetic traditions during the early years of contact between Indigenous groups and colonizers. —LP

13. Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), North Adams, MA

Installation view, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass (photo by Tony Luong)

March 9–November 3

Curated by Denise Markonish

Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Mind of the Mound at Mass MoCA up here in North Adams. I thought the show was a breakthrough for an artist working in a huge range of media — painting, comics, installation, video — to really expand and explore the unique universe he’s created (the ever-evolving “Moundverse”) and its mythology and ontology. It was one of my favorite things in years. —Christopher Marcisz

14. Maia Cruz Palileo at the Katzen Arts Center, American University Museum, Washington, DC

Maia Cruz Palileo, “The Visitors” (2014), oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches (courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne)

September 3–October 20

Curated by Isabel Manalo

Maia Cruz Palileo untethers Filipino history from American exceptionalism in her vivid paintings, inspired by colonial-era public archives and family photographs from their immigration. Eschewing Western narratives, she recontextualizes the diaspora on its own terms, pulling customs from imperial clutches and realigning them in robust color palettes. Broad brushstrokes and thickly applied paints result in expressive scenes that exist somewhere between representation and abstraction, as if drawn from memory. In highlighting a history widely omitted from US textbooks, Palileo’s work challenges a collective ignorance, instead honoring the resilience of ordinary people and setting the stage for greater discussions of postcolonial heritage. —BA

15. Jonathan Herrera Soto: In Between/Underneath (Entremedio/Por Debajo) at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN

Jonathan Herrera Soto, “In Between / Underneath” (2018-2019) stencil prints incorporating residue of unfired clay, measurements vary, (25 x 40” each) (photo by Hector Roberts)

July 19–November 3

A panel of Minnesota artists selected Soto’s show proposal as part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP). The curator who helped coordinate installation was Nicole Soukup.

Jonathan Herrera Soto’s staggering installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art featured etched portraits on the floor of 50 missing and murdered Mexican journalists, created using a mud mixture made from unfired clay, charcoal, soil, and ash. Designed to be stepped on, the portraits faded as the exhibition progressed, and Soto scrubbed them completely in a performance on the last day. The exhibition also included the poignant text-based “Love Poem” monoprints, made of charcoal rubbings, written in the Spanish language. —Sheila Regan

16. Ebony G. Patterson . . . while the dew is still on the roses . . . at the Perez Museum, Miami, FL

Image of the Ebony Patterson installation at the Perez Art Museum Miami (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Nov. 9, 2018–May 5, 2019

Curated by Tobias Ostrander

Ebony G. Patterson … while the dew is still on the roses … was an immersive experience that continues to stay with me. The three-part video presentation was incredible as footage of three men in floral garments undressing is played slowly backward. Accompanied by large floral arrangements and black patterned wallpaper, as well as drawings and other art, the gallery appeared solemn but magical, like everything had grown in place, akin to a midnight garden of the imagination. Some of the objects appeared to be somewhat weathered, and flowers appear frozen for eternity. Patterson’s art tills curious notions of time and passage without the usual pretensions that accompany this sort of subject matter. I still remember the experience today, even as the details of the art has slowly faded away. It was brilliant. —Hrag Vartanian

17. Glenn Ligon: To be a Negro in this country is really never to be looked at at the Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery, Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Glenn Ligon, “Grey Hands #2, #3, #4, #5, #6,” (1996) silkscreen on canvas, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; facsimile of Washington Monument Wallpaper created by Andy Warhol in 1974, refabricated by the Andy Warhol Museum. (photo by Kuna Malik Hamad for Georgetown University Art Galleries)

January 24–April 7

Curated by Al Miner

For this collaboration at Georgetown University, artist Glenn Ligon presented a selection of works from his Hands series focused on images from The Million Man March. The works were installed on top of a reproduction of Andy Warhol’s rarely seen Washington Monument Wallpaper. The exhibition was a strong presentation of the artist’s work, strengthened by its smart engagement with Washington, DC as a site. —BM

18. Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite at Kadist, San Francisco, CA

Pio Abad (made in collaboration with Frances Wadsworth Jones), “Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite” (2019), cast concrete, dimensions variable (photo by Jeff Warrin and courtesy Kadist San Francisco)

June 5–August 10

Curated by Kadist 

Artist Pio Abad grew up under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, which lasted from 1965–1986. In his show Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite at Kadist in San Francisco, there’s a letter from Nancy Reagan to Imelda Marcos,  engraved on marble, which assures the first lady of the Philippines she can access the benefits of the legal system. In another piece, Abad and his wife, jewelry designer Frances Wadsworth Jones, made a 10-foot concrete reproduction of a pearl, ruby and diamond bracelet, like one Marcos tried to smuggle into Hawaii after she and her husband were given exile there by the Reagans. When the truth seems fluid and changing, Abad has tried to monumentalize it using concrete and marble. —Emily Wilson

19. Early Rubens at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA

Peter Paul Rubens “The Massacre of the Innocents” (ca. 1610) oil on panel, 55 7/8 × 72 1/16 inches, he Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (photograph by Sean Weaver, Art Gallery of Ontario image provided courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

April 6–September 8

Curated by Kirk Nickel and Alexandra “Sasha” Suda

A rare chance to witness monumental Baroque painting in the Bay Area, Early Rubens was an opportunity to see important work of the past, as well as to appreciate how strikingly current Rubens feels right now, unflinching in holding our gaze on brutality, sex, and sorrow. His “The Massacre of the Innocents” (ca. 1611–1612), for example, is as scary as a horror movie, with graphic depictions of dead and dying children, and their mothers under assault, a scene that feels all too familiar. You want to look away, but palpable human anguish draws you in. Rubens’s riveting details of unthinkable violence — blue skin, a bloody pool, hair-tearing grief — feel less like dramatic indulgence than a sincere willingness to witness the terrible. —Bridget Quinn

20. Where the Oceans Meet at the Museum of Art and Design, Miami Dade College, Miami, FL

Installation view of Where the Oceans Meet at the Museum of Art and Design,from left to right: works by Kader Attia, Jack Whitten, Glenn Ligon and Theaster Gates (photo by Oriol Tarridas)

May 26, 2019–January 12, 2020

Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Asad Raza, Gabriela Rangel, and Rina Carvajal

Variants of this group exhibition took place in New York City and Europe, but it reached its full maturity in Miami.  Conceived in dialogue with the writings of lesbian Cuban anthropologist Lydia Cabrera and the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, it illustrates the relationality of different cultures without reducing artworks to categories of nationality. The exhibition balances theory with artistic practice as well — a tricky thing to do. —Alpesh Patel

Honorable Mentions

Michael Jang’s California at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

(Caption: Michael Jang, “Aunts and Uncles” from his series The Jangs, (1973) gelatin silver print (courtesy the artist / © Michael Jang)

Sep 27, 2019 – Jan 18, 2020

Curated by Sandra S. Phillips

Discovering the work of Michael Jang at the MFA was this year’s most unexpected gift, four decades of exhilarating, rarely seen photographs spanning street photography in San Francisco, celebrity shots in Beverly Hills (accessed via faked press credentials), documents of Bay Area punk and garage band scenes across the years, and fabulous family portraits. Jang’s photographs of his own extended Chinese-American family, suburban Californians as familiar and wonderfully strange as all families, are evocative time capsules of seventies America, complete with lively-printed pantsuits, MAD magazine, and misshapen soda bottles alongside an electric rice cooker and “Chong Imports” wall calendar. In other words, America as it really is and always was. —BQ

Stonewall 50 at Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM) Houston, Houston, TX

Installation view of Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s “Political Gestures” (2018), five-channel video installation (photo by Dessane Lopez Cassell for Hyperallergic)

April 27–July 28

Organized by Dean Daderko based on an exhibition proposed by Bill Arning

This summer, amid the outpouring on Stonewall anniversary exhibitions mounted across the country, CAM Houston’s Stonewall 50 presented a uniquely hybrid approach to commemorating the decades of art and activism that have emerged since that fateful evening. The exhibition present a cross section of established and emerging queer artists and allies from around the world, yet most striking was the way it grounded the fight for queer liberation in a local context, presenting gems such as a poignant five-channel video installation by Houston artists Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin, which featured a rotating cast of drag performers reenacting speeches by queer activists such as Sylvia Rivera and Florynce Kennedy, interspersed with musical performances. Equally tender was the inclusion of old bar tops from Houston’s now-shuttered queer nightlife hub, Mary’s Naturally. Mounted on the wall, these salvaged bits of festive nights gone by preserved images of a lively community outpost and remind visitors that the fight to take up space as a queer person continues and is always worth continuing. —Dessane Lopez Cassell

Tanabe Chikuunsai IV: Connection at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA

Tanabe Chikuunsai IV, “Connection: Origin” (2017), by. Installation at Pierre Marie Giraud Gallery, Brussels, Belgium (photograph by Tadayuki Minamoto, courtesy Tanabe Chikuunsai IV)

May 31–August 25

The fourth generation in a family of bamboo artists, Tanabe Chikuunsai IV makes traditional Japanese baskets like his father and grandfather did, but he also makes huge, soaring works out of bamboo, cleaning and recycling the pieces for his next work. Connection, a floor-to-ceiling installation and his largest piece to date, was at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum in the summer, using bamboo from previous works in Paris, New York and Sao Paulo. —EW

6 replies on “Best of 2019: Our Top 20 United States Art Shows”

  1. T.C. Cannon show organized by Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA? And dozens of other exhibitions at large and small museums throughout the U.S., most featuring lesser known regional artists deserving of wider attention.

  2. Agnes Pelton : Desert Transcendentalist On Display October 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020 New Mexico Museum of Art. Organized by Phoenix Art Museum, is the first survey of the obscure American modernist painter in more than 23 years. From there, it goes to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York | March 13–June 28, 2020

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