The story of the election dominates all others as the year comes to a close, but it’s still worth considering 2016’s top ten art exhibitions because in many ways, they touched upon the broader cultural issues that may have contributed to the outcome. Race, misogyny, violence, illusion, self-delusion, vulgarity and the inescapability of our omnipresent popular culture were just some of the themes to be found in the various shows this year at MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum, The Guggenheim and elsewhere. Besides excellence, each of these show offered a testament to art’s unique power to reflect the currents of history and humanity’s place within them.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best of 2016
Top art exhibitions of 2016
The Met Breuer
The Met Breuer’s brilliant survey of African-American artist Kerry James Marshall made a convincing case for Marshall being, perhaps, the most important American painter of his generation—if, for no other reason than his determination to challenge the Caucasian character of Western art. Picking apart the conventions of both Modernism and the Old Masters, Marshall imbues his work with the richness of tradition while wielding a hammer against it.
Photograph: Tony De Camillo; Yale University Art Gallery; © Kerry James Marshall
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
MoMA’s fantastic retrospective brought order out of Picabia’s fractious career, revealing him to be the great-granddaddy of bad-boy art: A restive genius, stylistic shape-shifter and check-writing machine for later artists who cashed in on his accomplishments.
Photograph: © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS); New York/ADAGP; Paris
Whitney Museum of American Art
The emergence of America art during 20th-century art has often been treated as a version of Clark Kent turning into Superman—a tale of mild-mannered cultural backwater transformed into the invincible art capital of the world following World War II. The Whitney offered a different view with its retrospective of Stuart Davis, The Jazz Age American Modernist whose work turns out to be as important as anything produced after 1945. With their references to street signage, cigarette packaging and other artifacts of popular cultural, Davis’s brightly colored paintings anticipated Pop Art, but more importantly, they captured the spirit, energy and chaos of life during the first half of what would become known as the American Century.
Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York; © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA; New York; NY
In what was probably the strongest showing of her chameleonlike self-portraits in years, Cindy Sherman returned to the film-still photos that made her an art star while adding poignant twist: Instead of beguiling ingénues, the 62-year-old Sherman transformed herself into aging movie stars at a point in their lives when time had passed them by and agents stopped returning their calls. Evoking the studio system of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s Sherman channeled the likes of Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo, the show was Sherman’s most self-referential, a meditation on her own aging and status as an icon.
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
The New Museum’s mid-career survey Nicole Eisenman’s work reacquainted viewers with the artist’s gimlet eye for political and human foibles. An inveterate borrower from art history, Eisenman melds Expressionism, Surrealism, pop culture and feminism to consider the hypocritical dream state of contemporary American life, depicting it as a grosteque comedy of errors. This show was mounted before the 2016 election, but given the result, it seemed almost prophetic.
Photograph: Courtesy EPW STUDIO
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
It’s hard to say whether Diane Arbus’s photographs essay man’s inhumanity to man or just her own. What is certain is that The Met Breuer’s stunning overview of her nascent career showed how her dark sensibility formed early on. From the start, Arbus populated her images with freaks, as she described them, though this often meant rendering otherwise ordinary people as freakish or at least hollowed out. Susan Sontag condemned Arbus’s photos for their harsh voyeurism, but without them, there would have been here would be no Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe or Larry Clark.
Photograph: © The Estate of Diane Arbus; LLC. All Rights Reserved
Minter had already been working in New York for 30 years before her career breakout in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, and in the ensuing decade, she dialed up her exploration of how women are objectified by fashion and the media to a Nigel Tufnel–worthy 11. Focusing on various details of the female anatomy, Minter’s photos and hyper-realist paintings demolish our notions of beauty and femininity with increasingly garish élan. Her success has been hard won, but as the Brooklyn Museum’s provocative retrospective of her work showed, richly deserved.
Photograph: Collection of Danielle and David Ganek; Tom Powel Imaging Inc.
David Hammons is legendary for declining retrospective offers from museums, so this pocket survey at Mnuchin Gallery’s Upper East Side townhouse space was both rare and welcomed. Spanning the artist’s career from the late ’60s to the present, the show’s eloquently concise selection of works affirmed Hammons singular talent for evoking the intractability of race in American life.
Photograph: David Hammons
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim’s survey of the renowned Swiss artistic duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss revealed that their work was far greater than the sum of its prankster parts. Employing photography, sculpture and video, Fischli and Weiss built on Marcel Duchamp’s readymade legacy to ruminate on the everyday and how we deal with it, framing experience as a dialectic of minor epiphanies and incidental absurdities. This look at their career was one of the best shows at the Gugg in recent memory.
Photograph: Jumex Collection; Mexico City; © Peter Fischli and David Weiss
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Crime may or may not pay, but it sure knows how to grab your attention. That much was made clear by The Met’s intriguing “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” a small show big on gory details. Presenting a rogues’ gallery of mug shots, crime-scene photos, tabloid images and works of art illustrating the criminal act’s hold on the imagination, the exhibit presented a history of photography’s relationship with law enforcement—and demonstrated just how much the medium enables our prurient fascination with murder and mayhem.
Photograph: Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art