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Yes, yes, we know it’s customary, at this time of year, to round things up into nice, even groupings of 5 and 10. But there were too many strong museum shows to choose from in 2012, and we just couldn’t narrow down the list any further. So here, in no particular order, are the 12 museum exhibitions that stood out the most: shows that broke new ground, or got everyone talking, or just gave us some really great art. Maybe there will be a lucky 13 to single out next year.

1. Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945–1980 at various LA museums

Various Los Angeles museums, galleries, and spaces
October 2011–March 2012

Edward Kienholz, “Animal Trap” (1962), part of the Pasadena Museum of Art’s Pacific Standard show, “L.A. Raw” (image via

OK, we know this mega-show of shows started in the fall of 2011, but it carried over into this year, and it was too important to leave out. Pacific Standard Time wasn’t just an exhibition — it was more than 60 of them, at more than 60 institutions across Southern California. The collaboration chronicled the establishment and rise of the postwar LA art scene and, depending on how you view it, either taught or reminded (or chastised) us that New York didn’t go it alone in terms of making contemporary American art. Plus it gave us such gems as Now Dig This!, a revelatory show about the role of the black art community in LA in the 1960s and ’70s, currently on view at MoMA PS1.

2. Caribbean: Crossroads of the World at El Museo del Barrio, Queens Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem

El Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Avenue, New York), Queens Museum of Art (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, New York), Studio Museum in Harlem (144 West 125th Street, New York)
June 12, 2012–January 6, 2013; June 17, 2012–January 6, 2013; June 14–October 21

A work by Rigaud Benoit in the Queens Museum portion of the exhibition (image via

Speaking of collaborations, this show was another impressive one: three New York museums and nine scholars and curators working together for over seven years. The exhibition, which is still on view at two of the locations, examines the Caribbean region, exploring its social, historical, and political role through a perhaps overwhelming amount of art. We love this idea — focusing on a place not often associated with the art world or art history, and doing so through a rare, in-depth collaboration. We hope other museums have taken notice, and that there will be more of this to come in the future.

3. Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum

Tate Modern (Bankside, London), Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, New York)
February 9–June 5; July 12–September 30

Yayoi Kusama, “Fish” (1953) (© Yayoi Kusama, image courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; via

After a long, winding career that took her from Japan to New York and back, where she checked herself into a mental hospital and hasn’t left since, despite designing a lookbook for Louis Vuitton, Yayoi Kusama finally got her due this year, with a major retrospective that started at Tate Modern and then made its way to the Whitney Museum. If you thought Kusama was all overdone dots, you were proven wrong — the exhibition included incredible examples of dark, intricate early work from her private collection, as well as hilarious family photos, ads for her orgies, and artworks given to her as presents from Joseph Cornell (who was infatuated with her).

4. Cindy Sherman at the Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, New York)
February 26–June 11

Installation view, “Cindy Sherman” at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2012 Cindy Sherman)

First, there was the excitement surrounding this show, and then, once it opened, there were the criticisms — most notably that it lacked the depth and breadth of a proper retrospective, something we agree with entirely. (Our reviewer called it “sadly incomplete.”) Still, we were happy to have it — an overview of Sherman’s career that brought the force of her imagery to the fore. Plus the show riled up both sides of the debate over whether her first series, the Untitled Film Stills, is her best, and we love exhibitions that stoke the fire.

5. Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective at the Guggenheim

Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, New York)
June 29–October 8

Rineke Dijkstra, “Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994″ (1994) (courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery)

Call it the year of the woman — finally — but the Guggenheim had another knockout retrospective of a female artist, although Rineke Dijkstra is a lot more obscure to a lot more people than Kusama or Sherman. Interestingly, her exhibition might have been the best of the three, as it traced her chronology and development with very few weak moments. Dijkstra’s photographs and videos of children, teenagers, and others are somehow both stylized and natural, and the moments she captures are wonderfully disarming — her videos of teens dancing in night clubs especially.

6. The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial at the New Museum

New Museum (235 Bowery, New York)
February 15–April 22

Danh Vo’s “We the People (detail)” on view at the New Museum Triennial (image by Anthony Esposito, courtesy

The New Museum Triennial turned two this year — er, sort of. That’s confusing math. More importantly, it moved on from the self-involved Younger Than Jesus, its first edition, to focus on a decidedly more international and politically minded, if still firmly young, group of artists. The Ungovernables was hardly a flawless show — some critics found it too neat and lacking the edge it claimed to have — but it brought a good many artists to exhibit in the US for the first time and gave visitors some wonderful works to mull over. Hassam Khan’s looped film of two men dancing to Cairo street music was among them, as was Danh Vo’s “We the People (detail),” a disassembled installation of pieces of a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Vo’s wry and thought-provoking project is also currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, making it 6a on our museum exhibitions list.

7. Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art at the Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, New York)
September 14, 2012–February 17, 2013

The cover of Lippard’s book

This show stands out less for the story it tells than for the way it sets about telling it. The exhibition is based on a book, critic Lucy Lippard’s 1973 volume on the rise of conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. That, mind you, is the abbreviated title; Ken Johnson in the New York Times gives us the full one (also see the image at left), which is dense, just like its accompanying exhibition. Filled with artworks, ephemera, publications, periodicals, photos, and more, the Brooklyn Museum show tackles a well-worn subject from a novel and somewhat difficult point of view.  The result isn’t easy museumgoing, per se, but it’s well worth the effort.

8. Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard)
September 16, 2012–January 6, 2013

Ken Price, “Zizi” (2011) (© Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy LACMA)

Ken Price has often been labeled an “artist’s artist,” which is basically a nice way of saying that someone is talented and underrecognized. This year LACMA mounted a long overdue retrospective of his captivating, whimsical, and often biomorphic ceramic sculptures, with an exhibition design by Price’s longtime friend, architect Frank Gehry. The show has received uniformly high marks for being both thoughtful and engaging, and there’s a nice resonance with the aforementioned Lucy Lippard exhibition, as she apparently once said of the artist, “It is a fact rather than a value judgment that no one else, on the east or west coast, is working like Kenneth Price.” There’s also a sad note here: Price died this past February at the age of  77, making the show a fitting tribute.

9. The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th & F Streets, NW Washington, DC)
March 16–September 30

Pac-Man (image via

Art and video games have been overlapping and dancing around each other for a while, but we may look back on 2012 and say it was the year the relationship became official — or at least institutionalized. It was, after all, the year when a museum that’s part of the federally administered Smithsonian Institution mounted a comprehensive exhibition of one of the nation’s most popular but controversial pastimes. The Art of Video Games tracked the evolution of the medium through photos, footage, and consoles focusing on eighty different games — plus there were five playable ones, including Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers. Once MoMA announced last month that it had acquired its first classic video games, we knew that video games were officially dead losing their edge.

10. The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, New York)
February 28–June 3

Henri Matisse, “Sarah Stein” (1916) (© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York, image via

Yes, we know — there’s never a shortage of Picasso or Matisse exhibitions, and it’s not as though we really needed another. But the Met’s The Steins Collect was more than that: it combined history and art to evoke the feeling of a specific time and place. It’s not as though as Paris in the early 20th century is an understudied subject, but the exhibition was thorough and vivid, explaining the siblings’ purchases and tastes in art and detailing their relationships and quarrels. Wandering through, it was hard not to wish you could visit one of the Steins’ Saturday evening salons, where you’d talk and argue art and politics with the assembled guests and hopefully secure an invite to someone’s studio in the morning.

11. Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, New York)
November 18, 2012–February 25, 2013

Tomatsu Shomei. Untitled, from the series “Protest, Tokyo” (Purotesuto Tōkyō) (1969). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer. (© 2012 Tomatsu Shomei)

Like the three-museum Caribbean show, this newly opened exhibition at MoMA tries to shake our fidelity to the Western canon by bringing another part of the world into the mix. Tokyo 1955–1970  chronicles the Japanese capital’s rise to international postwar cultural prominence. Through hundreds of artworks and objects, plus a related film series, MoMA introduces an explosively creative and experimental art world that many of us may know very little about. A retrospective at the Guggenheim next year of Gutai, one of the best-known collectives working in Japan during this period, promises to be a thoughtful follow-up.

12. Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern

Tate Modern (Bankside, London)
June 28–October 14

Edvard Munch, “Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones” (1933-35) (image via London Review of Books)

We call all easily identify “The Scream,” but how much else do we know about that painting’s creator, Edvard Munch? The Norwegian painter has become renowned as something of an art one-hit wonder, a conception that the curators of this exhibition set out to change. In order to do that, they moved beyond 1893’s “The Scream and focused on his output during the 20th century, also including examples of Munch’s rarely seen film and photography. Not all of the works on view were masterpieces, but some were “tremendous epiphanies,” and together they traced an often overlooked trajectory of the artist.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

2 replies on “12 Standout Museum Shows of 2012”

  1. Right. You mean only “in New York, DC and LA” because there were plenty of other standout and more deserving shows in 2012 in some wonderful museums in the world that also show lots of great art. Might want to qualify that title a bit.

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