Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2016

It’s time again for my annual roundup of the best art I saw this year. Or put another way, here are a bunch of things I should have already written about, but I’m making myself do it now. These are listed in the order in which I saw them.

1. Carlos Bunga, Theaster Gates, and The Black Monks of Mississippi, “Under The Skin” at Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago

Under The Skin

Theaster Gates opened the The Stony Island Arts Bank in the fall of 2015, it’s an art gallery, community center, and mind-bogglingly beautiful library. He invited Carlos Bunga to create a temporary cardboard installation in the vaulted lobby of the space. Bunga erected pillars of cardboard and painted sections with washy white paint. In January of 2016, for the close of the exhibition, Bunga, Gates, and The Black Monks of Mississippi performed an improvisational ballad/funeral march/ritual of creative destruction to uninstall the piece. The musicians walked among the crowd as they sang, and Bunga eventually cut and tore down his installation in a moving crescendo. Hard to describe, but I’ll never forget it.

2. The Propeller Group, “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” at The Speed Museum, Louisville

Propeller Group

I actually saw this video twice this year, first at the re-opening of the Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and later at MCA Chicago. The Propeller Group created this 21 minute film for Prospect 3 in New Orleans in 2014. It’s a music video style blending of scenes of performers, brass bands, and funeral processions from both New Orleans and Vietnam. The spiritual, ritualistic, and environmental elements of these two places blur in to one manic, hallucinogenic experience. It’s wild.

3. Agnes Martin Retrospective at LACMA, Los Angeles

Agnes Martin

Writing about Agnes Martin is almost as almost as hard trying to get a good photo of an Agnes Martin painting. In April I went to Los Angeles for one day and I happened to catch this show on its first day, as well as the very last day of Random International’s “The Rain Room.” At some point in the future I’d like to write about how these two artists took the idea of the grid so far in opposite directions that they end up meeting again in some other dimension. But I’m still mulling that over.

4. “Non-Fiction” curated by Noah Davis at The Underground Museum, Los Angeles

non fiction

Noah Davis was a promising young artist who died of a rare form of cancer last year at the age of 32. Before his untimely passing, he established The Underground Museum in Arlington Heights, a working class neighborhood of Los Angeles. Despite his death, the museum continues through the support of his family, friends, and LA MOCA. Davis conceived of many exhibitions on paper, imagining provocative combinations of work, and these records are being used to continue his vision. In the photo above, Wife of a Lynch Victim, 1949, by Marion Palfi hangs atop a wallpaper by Robert Gober titled Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989. In this simple layering, he combines two decades-old works by white artists to communicate a sense of terror and anxiety that perfectly sums up the year 2016–a year Noah Davis did not live to see. Months later, I am still absolutely floored by this show.

5. Andy Warhol, “Silver Clouds” at The Dennos Museum Center, Traverse City, Michigan

Silver Clouds

The Dennos Museum is a fine place to see art in Traverse City. If you’re up that way, you should go see their mind-bending collection of Inuit art. For their silver anniversary, they decided to install Warhol’s famous early example of interactive installation art, Silver Clouds from 1966. Several pillow-shaped mylar bags of helium slowly float around the room, nudged by the wind of a reticulating fan. Visitors can use a foam wand to bat them about as well. I saw a toddler run in there and go buck wild. It’s such a simple and beautiful idea, and one that spawned so much of the interactive and experiential artwork we see today. Dennos wasn’t really on my map before this, but they pulled off this installation flawlessly. I’ll be back.

6. Kerry James Marshall, “Mastry” at MCA Chicago


This retrospective of Marshall’s work is at the Met Breuer in New York now, but I caught the very end of its run at MCA Chicago. I always liked his work, but this show blew me away. Marshall reclaims and reanimates all the power of figurative historical painting, while critiquing painting’s exclusion and subversion of black bodies. It’s at once an adoring love letter and a blistering take-down of the history of Western painting. It’s stunning. The show also includes his legendary, tiny self portrait, Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, which is up there with Barnett Newman’s Onement 1, 1948 in the category of best mustard seed painting, a small picture that represents a turning point of epochal change.

7. Marylin Minter, “Pretty Dirty” at The Brooklyn Museum


Minter’s work falls into the OMG-I-can’t-believe-that’s-a-PAINTING school of painting, which normally I’m not very excited about. But Minter’s exhibition of skill is in full service to the lush, overwhelming power of these images.

8. Zoe Leonard, “I want a president” at The High Line, New York City

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard wrote this manifesto during the presidential election of 1992 (click here for a more readable version). It was circulated in various zines at the time. The High Line installed this large print version in October, on the occasion of the 2016 presidential election. It was installed when many people, myself and polling aggregators included, figured we were on the verge of electing our first female president. I saw the work in November, about a week after that historic milestone failed to happen. The curators couldn’t have known for sure the kind of blistering, antagonistic punch the work would acquire on November 8. We need these words now more than ever: “I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that the president is always a clown, always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.”

9. Mark Rothko, “Dark Palette” at Pace Gallery, New York City


This is another exhibition I saw on the trip I took to New York right after the election. And like Zoe Leonard, this show seemed to gain strange power in the wake of November 8. Rothko’s blocks of color manage to shimmer and vibrate and roil against each other, even as they approach black. It’s hard to describe the despair and rage that these pictures embodied for me in the wake of the election. Jerry Saltz posted something on Facebook, not related to this Rothko show, that nevertheless seemed to sum up the way these paintings felt in that moment. It’s a quote for D.H. Lawrence:

Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!
Doom of what?
Doom of our white day. We are doomed doomed doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

10. Julio Le Parc, “Form into Action” at the Perez Art Museum, Miami


I’ll end on a high note. I was delighted to experience the gleeful and frenetic experimentation in this survey of Le Parc, an artist I did not know previously. His career began in somewhat familiar territory of minimalism, op-art, and light and space, then evolved into a kaleidoscope of swirling funhouse mirrors, blinding light installations, and manic challenges to the viewer’s perception and sanity. A wild career that was somehow excluded from the art historical narrative I was taught.

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