It’s become my own little tradition to round up my favorite exhibitions and artworks of the year. I know, I know… listicles. But the format is convenient, and it’s a way for me to reflect on what I saw and what stuck with me. This list is not meant to summarize the best exhibitions of the year overall, because I didn’t see nearly enough to pretend to make a definitive list. This list is personal, it’s the best of what I saw. It’s also not ranked, they’re listed in the order I saw them through the year.
1.Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions at The Getty Research Institute and Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us (1974) at Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Harald Szeemann was a Swiss curator who lived from 1933 to 2005. His method of exhibition-making, particularly in the 1970s, became incredibly influential. What we know now as conceptual, global, curator-driven exhibitions would not have been possible without his pioneering work, particularly in shows like Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and documenta 5 (1972). When I was in LA in February I had the chance to see two concurrent exhibitions about Szeemann, both organized by The Getty Research Institute, which houses Szeemann’s archives. Museum of Obsessions at The Getty Center was survey of objects, texts and artifacts relating to the breadth of Szeemann’s career, including a christmas-tree-like hanging sculpture assembled from hundreds of luggage tags from his extensive travels. Across town, at ICA LA, was Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, a full-scale replica of the interior space of Szeemann’s apartment in which he curated a dense exhibition of artifacts and photographs to tell the story of his late grandfather, Etienne Szeemann, a famous hairdresser.
It was a remarkable pair of exhibitions. One presented a survey of Szeemann’s influence and impact, showing that he was the originator of the auteur-curator archetype, and an artist in his own right. The recreated apartment show about his grandfather, on the other hand, was an example of how he could apply his particular craft to something incredibly personal.
2. Stories of Almost Everyone at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Stories of Almost Everyone was a group exhibition about the way objects and the stories we tell about them interact. Nearly every work appeared to be mundane, found, or otherwise unassuming. It was an odd collection of objects, each with its own story. A large wall held a recessed vitrine, behind its glass a diamond ring sat under crisp light. The ring was Jill Magid’s The Proposal (2016), where the artist retrieved the ashes of famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán and had them made into a 2.02 carat diamond and set into a ring. The ring was then offered to the current owner of Barragán’s archives, who is based in Switzerland, so that in exchange for the ring the archives could be repatriated to Mexico. The offer of exchange has not been accepted.
Nearby a large, cold war era globe glows from within. The label explains that the globe belonged to Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and architect of the Vietnam War. It was purchased and repurposed as a readymade artwork by the artist Danh Vo, whose family fled Vietnam for Denmark during the war.
While I was perusing one gallery I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a security guard was beginning to dance. I thought it was odd, but figured he was just moving a bit out of boredom. It quickly became clear it was something more. His moves were intense and skilled, and he began taking his clothes off. A small, stunned crowd gathered. He gyrated and stripped all the way down to a very small speedo then loudly declared, “Untitled, Tino Segal!” before collecting his uniform from the floor and exiting the gallery.
3. Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire at the Met, New York
The Course of Empire is a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole made between 1833 and 1836. Each canvas shows the same fictional river valley at different points in time. The scene is at first almost entirely wild and untamed, with a few primitive inhabitants. By the third picture a glorious city is celebrating with a triumphant parade among towering marble colonnades. Then destruction and war, followed by desolation and natural forces reclaiming the valley. There’s so much to love about these paintings. First of all, they’re essentially a comic strip, even though they were painted decades before anyone thought of making comic strips. These paintings are epic and allegorical. They’re about both the past and the future at once, they describe a cyclical reality at the core of all civilizations. We look to history–and its accounts of culture, politics, and religion–to tell us how empires run their course. But Cole seems to suggest we should learn from biology, meteorology, and geology as well. Course of Empire shows that we’re not above the cycles of nature, in fact we’re a part of them and entirely at their whim.
4. Danh Vo – Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim, New York
As mentioned above in the entry about Stories of Almost Everyone, Danh Vo is Danish Vietnamese artist whose family fled the Vietnam War. Vo collects objects and artifacts that relate to particular slices of religious and national identity. The Guggenheim show presented a lot of readymades, non-art objects represented as artworks, but he used this approach in a way that was personal, urgent, and finely calibrated. In his hands the readymade gesture felt nothing like a conceptual stunt. He presented the chandeliers that once hung in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic in Paris, under which the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending American involvement in Vietnam. Several large copper sculptures, supported by wooden armatures, were 1:1 scale replicas of fragments of the Statue of Liberty. There were broken pieces of ancient statuary, the Unabomber’s typewriter, and an ongoing series where the artist’s father repeatedly copies the text of a letter from a French missionary to Vietnam, written shortly before he was martyred. I love the Guggenheim because it has a way of slowly building the case for an exhibition by presenting the works in an unbroken line. Vo plays a lot with repetition, so gestures that seem mildly interesting at first compound their conceptual and emotion pressure as you descend the spiral of the gallery.
5. Dear Listener: Works by Nicholas Galanin at the Heard Museum, Phoenix
This was my first visit to the Heard Museum, whose mission it is to advance American Indian art. They have a remarkable collection, including an informative (and devastating) exhibition about the history of Indian boarding schools. They also show contemporary work, like this solo show by Nicholas Galanin. Galanin is an artist unbound by medium. He effortlessly floats from sculpture, to performance, to fashion design, to video, to textile. At one moment, Galanin dryly riffs on the role of contemporary indigenous identity in American culture, the next moment he’s deadly serious, reflecting on generations of genocide and displacement. This show dealt with incredibly heavy subjects, ghosts of history that continue to haunt us because dominant American culture still refuses to acknowledge the legacy of these traumas. Galanin works with this material in a way that avoids being austere or gloomy. I would almost call it playful, but that seems far too flippant. There was something punk about it. The anger was real, but so was the spirit of creativity and improvisation.
6. Cagnacci: Painting Beauty and Death at the Cincinnati Art Museum
I stumbled upon this small special exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum and it really knocked me back. Set in a dark gallery with sharp spots on the works, the show only featured four Italian Baroque paintings, three by Guido Cagnacci and one by Bernardo Strozzi. Two of the paintings depicted the death of Cleopatra, the other two showed David posing with the head of Goliath. I was completely unfamiliar with both Cagnacci and Strozzi, and apparently I never knew (or had forgotten) how Cleopatra died. Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp (an Egyptian viper) to bite her in the breast, rather than be paraded through Rome as a prisoner of Octavian. Of course I would like to know more about Baroque painting and ancient Roman and Egyptian history, but the fact that I don’t know much about either made this small exhibition so much more surprising. It felt like stumbling into Cleopatra’s chamber and discovering her there, limp and oddly peaceful, with the asp slithering away from her breast.
7. A Color Removed by Michael Rakowitz at Front International Triennial, Cleveland
This year I visited the inaugural editions of two contemporary art triennials in the midwest, Front International in Cleveland, and Opens Spaces in Kansas City. It’s exciting to see new, serious citywide exhibitions popping up. The first of the two was Front, which opened in July. Front was curated by Michelle Grabner, and while there were hiccups here and there, overall it was very good. The exhibition was spread out, occupying multiple neighborhoods in Cleveland, along with components in Akron and Oberlin. Because of that, the best parts of the exhibition felt discreet, and not necessarily like part of a larger whole, which wasn’t necessarily bad.
The standout work for me was Michael Rakowitz’s A Color Removed. This is a work that had been a proposal for a number of years, and it was finally realized at Front. The work consisted of donation boxes placed around Cleveland where people were asked to donate orange objects, in hopes of removing the color orange from the city of Cleveland. An installation of donated orange objects in a gallery served as a meeting place for community programming around safety and violence. The Sisyphean task of attempting to remove all orange objects from Cleveland was a response to the police killing of Tamir Rice, a 14 year old boy who was murdered in Cleveland in 2014 while playing with a toy gun that lacked an orange safety tip. I attended the opening reception, which felt very much like a wake. Rakowitz served Tamir’s favorite foods, community members and Tamir’s mother were in attendance. The goal of A Color Removed felt both urgent and impossible, inspiring and devastating, not unlike the fight for gun control, the fight for black lives, and the fight for more sensible policing.
8. Hy-Dyve by Nick Cave at Open Spaces, Kansas City
Another new citywide exhibition I visited this year was Open Spaces in Kansas City, curated by Dan Cameron. Like Front, Open Spaces was pretty spread out, and a few works rose above the rest. The first that really stood out was Nick Cave’s video installation Hy-Dyve. Sited in an empty chapel, kaleidoscopic videos were mapped to the interior walls and ceiling, while images of rushing water flowed over the floor. It was rhythmic, pulsing, and a little overwhelming, like seeing one of Cave’s sound suit dances through a prism and from the inside.
9. …called up by Ebony G. Patterson at Open Spaces, Kansas City
Another stand-out piece at Open Spaces was Ebony G. Patterson’s “…called up.” A portion of Open Spaces was sited in Swope Park, a huge park south of downtown Kansas City that includes steep hills covered in dense forest. Patterson’s installation was on top of a wooded hill, and it required a long trip from a confused Uber driver to access. Patterson and curator Dan Cameron found a long-abandoned swimming pool that was once used for therapy and recreation for children with disabilities. Patterson installed a false bottom in the pool and covered it with silk flowers and candles. It was a remarkably beautiful burst of color embedded in the ground, like a giant memorial to distant memories of play, compassion, and pain.
10. A Logo for America by Alfredo Jaar at Faena Festival, Miami Beach
A Logo for America is a 42-second video loop originally commissioned for Times Square by the Public Art Fund in 1987. Programmed for what now look like ancient LED jumbotrons, the animation cycles through images of the American flag, a map of North and South America, and the text “THIS IS NOT AMERICA.” In its original incarnation, it played on the Times Square screens between ads for unsuspecting tourists and shoppers. When I saw it this year it was playing on a small barge slowing tacking back and forth along Miami Beach in front of the Faena Hotel. I’d seen the boat a few years ago, trawling back and forth in front of South Beach playing ads for nightclubs and nail salons. Faena Festival, organized by the hotel, coincided with Art Basel Miami Beach and featured several public art commissions on the beach, film screenings, talks, and other events. I was skeptical about Faena Festival, thinking it might be a fluff project. It turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Miami this year. A Logo for America worked particularly well just off the coast of Miami, broasting its message back to South Florida, that weird, hyperactive nexus of North America, the Caribbean, and the world.