2017 proved to be an exciting if not bewildering year in art across the globe. As the art market waned in places like Dubai it remained strong in the usual centers, particularly as auction records soared. Large-scale art events aimed at drawing crowds, and generating revenue, were similarly hit or miss. Documenta went broke when it traveled to Greece. The Venice Biennale attempted to get political but missed the mark—although its emphasis on form and craftsmanship made for tantalizing displays. Art Basel Hong Kong drew over 70,000 visitors, confirming the rise of Chinese collectors, not to mention government patronage, as forces to be reckoned with in the international art market.
In the Arab world spectacle generating events like the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the questionable 450 million dollar purchase of a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci made headlines and were met with mixed reviews. This year’s lineup of exhibitions in regional art hubs, however, was the strongest in recent memory with long overdue retrospectives and superb solo exhibitions that enlivened local art scenes by reminding viewers of the wealth of creativity that has sprung from every corner of the region. Notable 2017 shows included: the muscular sculptures and geometric abstractions of Mona Saudi at Saleh Barakat Gallery in Beirut; the largest survey to date of Thuraya al-Baqsami’s vibrant, symbolist (and often women-centered) work at the Sharjah Art Museum; and the retrospective of conceptual shape-shifter Hassan Sharif organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation. Smaller shows like Hani Zurob’s debut of tar paintings at Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait and Jumana Emil Abboud’s multimedia display at Darat el Funun were also impressive.
In New York City, where I am based, there was no shortage of museum retrospectives and survey shows, although the status quo was still in place, that which privileges the perspectives of white male artists and the curators and critics who ensure they are not dethroned. In other parts of the United States, leading institutions organized a number of exhibitions that worked against this in subtle and not so subtle ways. Below is my wholly subjective but thoroughly informed list of the top five exhibitions I saw in the U.S. this year. Stay tuned for an end of the year post on Jadaliyya’s Culture page that includes the best in art according to nearly a dozen cultural practitioners.
1. Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950
Philadelphia Museum of Art
25 October 2016 – 8 January 2017
This sprawling survey exhibition gathered some of Mexico’s modernist heavy-hitters, including Los Tres Grandes (the three great muralists) and more enigmatic figures like Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo, among others. The show’s robust selection was supported by a treasure trove of archival materials and complemented by lithographs and broadside prints in addition to the photographs of documentarians such as Tina Mondotti and Paul Strand. Kahlo’s Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932)—a tiny oil painting on metal that can hold its own next to any mural—was one of several highlights, as were the pregnant landscapes of early twentieth-century artist and mentor Gerardo Murillo Cornado, also known as Dr. Atl. Although most visitors were probably attracted by big names, the inclusion of mannerist painter Manuel Rodriguez Lozano was particularly meaningful given that he is rarely shown outside Mexico, and has been a personal favorite since I first saw his work at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in the late 1980s.
Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, Paint the Revolution was advertised as a landmark exhibition, and surpassed all expectations.
2. Revelations: Art from the African American South
de Young Museum, San Francisco
3 June 2017 – 1 April 2018
This show lived up to its title, highlighting sixty-two works by artists who are often unfairly, and foolishly, left out of mainstream American art history. A corrective of sorts, Revelations debuted a major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which will expand the reach of the de Young and the Legion of Honor, San Francisco’s fairly conservative fine art museums. Included alongside visionary self-taught artists were striking examples of Gee’s Bend quilts, made by three generations of female quilt-makers in rural Alabama. The masterful geometric abstraction of these pieces predates the mid-century movement that reinvigorated American painting and sculpture, a fact that overturns what we are normally taught in art history classes.
3. Nick Cave: Until
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts
15 October 2016 – 4 September 2017
Installed in one of MASS MoCA’s cavernous galleries, Nick Cave’s Until was as much a delightful experiment in sensory overload as it was a potent assessment of the current U.S. political climate. Hung from the ceiling of the museum’s football field-sized space were 16,000 mirrored wind spinners (some containing gun motifs) that reflected light in a dizzying display at the entrance of the exhibition. Next came a floating cloud that was packed with blackface lawn statues and ceramic figurines scattered among metal floral decorations in a thicket of found objects. The underside of this floating mass, which viewers were encouraged to approach with industrial ladders, was covered with miles of crystals and ornate chandeliers. Upon closer examination, one discovered a world of beauty and violence, of wonder and racism—a manmade environment loaded with contradictions that seemed impossible to sort out. At the end of this immersive installation was a canopy made from brightly colored fibers, a web that resembled some of the tactile features of the artist’s signature sound suits, performative sculptures that also comment on the pervasive social tensions of a country founded on violence and exploitation.
4. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern
Brooklyn Museum of Art
3 March – 23 July
Much like Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe’s popularity grew in the 1980s at a time when U.S. institutions still lacked a thorough reading of feminist art history but the masses were clamoring for feminist icons. To this day, intelligent, nuanced readings of O’Keeffe’s work are rarely supplied when she is featured in exhibitions, leaving her without proper formal analysis that might otherwise rightfully situate her as America’s greatest modernist. This exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum did not remedy the situation but instead aimed to examine the mystique that she built around her public persona, particularly when she left behind the male-driven New York art scene and moved out west to a secluded part of New Mexico. There she built her own desert empire where she retreated into nature and assembled an androgynous wardrobe that was equal parts cowboy, nineteenth-century prairie girl, and late Frank Lloyd Wright. These clothes were displayed alongside superb examples of her landscapes and still lifes; dramatic portraits of the artist by big-name photographers completed the picture. The only downside to the exhibition is that it seemed to encourage Brooklyn hipsters to look to the American Southwest for inspiration.
5. Ruth Asawa
David Zwirner Gallery, New York
13 September – 21 October
Ruth Asawa has long been known and loved in California, where she lived and worked for much of her life. Asawa was born to a Japanese family in the southern part of the state, in a rural town where her father worked in the agricultural industry. In 1942, she and her parents and siblings were interned with other Japanese-American families first on a racetrack nearby and later out of state. When she was released a few years later she went to art school in Minnesota and then found her way to North Carolina's Black Mountain College, which was known for its influential instructors, including Josef Albers, and students who went on to become leading innovators like Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Asawa was drawn to the analytical nature of Albers theories on abstraction, which paired well with the wire basket-making techniques she learned from local craftspeople on a trip to Mexico in 1947.
This exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery included a range of Asawa’s sculptures, drawings, and paintings, in addition to photographs and documents from her estate, and was the first New York exhibition to give her work serious attention. Asawa is one of many female artists of color who were working alongside their white male counterparts but never received recognition for their equal, if not greater, achievements in directing the development of American art. Asawa’s hanging futuristic creatures appeared ready to float away, as if in defiance of a society that has yet to catch up.
*Shown above, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano's El Holocausto (1944), photographed by the author at Paint the Revolution.