New York City has tons of things going for it, from incredible buildings to breathtaking parks. But surely, the top of the list includes NYC’s vast array of museums, covering every field of culture and knowledge: There are quirky museums and interactive museums, free museums and world-beating art institutions like the Metropolitan Museum. Between them, they offer so many exhibitions, of every variety and taste, that it's hard to keep track of them. But if you’ve starting to suffer a sudden attack of FOMA, fear not! We've got you covered with our select list of the best museum exhibitions in NYC.
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Best museum exhibitions in NYC
This year has seen a series of Golden-Anniversary celebrations of seminal events (the moon landing, Woodstock), but none of them had a more profound long-term effect on society than the Stonewall Riots, which launched the modern gay rights movement five decades ago. To measure its continuing impact, 28 LGBTQ+ artists, born after 1969, look back on Stonewall’s legacy and the world—their world—to which it gave birth.
Marking the 500th Anniversary of the death of Maximilian I (1459–1519), The Metropolitan Museum goes medieval on your ass with a truly metal exhibition centered on his life and times as the Holy Roman Emperor who reigned over large swaths of Europe during the first decades of the 16th-century. Considering that Maximilian expanded his rule by waging war, armor came in especially handy, and the show presents stunning examples crafted by the continent’s A-list armorers, including one suit exquisitely filigreed in gold and copper. Rounding things out are manuscripts, paintings, sculpture, glass, tapestry and toys related to his rule.
A 1993 donation of some 200 works by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–89) jump-started the Guggenheim’s photography collection, so it’s only appropriate for the museum to mark the 30th anniversary of his death from AIDS with this institutional tribute. Mapplethorpe created some of the most beautiful and iconic photos (black-and-white nudes, portraits and flower studies, among them) of the 1970s and ’80s. A formal perfectionist, he was attacked by the religious right and its proxies for explicit depictions of gay sex—particularly of the S&M variety—as well as for pictures of naked children. He was also criticized from the other end of the ideological spectrum for his erotic photos of black men, which many deemed objectifying. This exhibition, the second part of a yearlong project, contrasts 16 of Mapplethorpe’s works with nearly two dozen pieces by six queer artists from succeeding generations. They include four gay African-American men, with the work of one, Glenn Ligon, directly critiquing Mapplethorpe. In his Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991–93), Ligon appropriates images from The Black Book, Mapplethorpe’s 1988 volume of photos of (often naked) black men and presents them alongside framed comments, ranging from academic to anecdotal to utterly personal. Quietly devastating, Ligon’s piece is now considered to be as important as the original itself. Envisioning the politics of race and sex more literally, Paul Mpagi Sepuya poses naked in front of the camera while usin
Space-Age fashion was never so space-y as it was in the hands of Cardin, whose bold, futuristic designs brought a Jetsonian aesthetic to the runway. Unisex bodysuits, vinyl miniskirts and visored headgear were just part of a mad, mod look that also extended to Cardin’s line of furnishings and accessories. A selection of 170 objects drawn from Cardin’s atelier and archive traces his career from the 1960s to today.
Édouard Manet (1832–1883) was arguably one of the most transformative figures in art history, a radical painter whose work touched off Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and maintained an impact well into the 20th-century. Loaned for this exhibit by the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, the three canvases here each represents a different key aspect of Manet’s oeuvre. Still Life with Fish and Shrimp (1864) demonstrates his mastery at using still life for painterly inventions that would later influence abstract artists. The Ragpicker (ca. 1865–71) reveals Manet the appropriationist, sampling and re-mixing art-historical references into bold new artistic statements. Madame Manet (ca. 1876), a portrait of his wife, shows the artist drawing upon elements from his own life that in sharp contrast to his revolutionary art was comfortably bourgeoisie.
Jason Moran, a composer and performer as well as artist, has long held a fascination for jazz which he’s expressed not only through his own music, but also through an artistic output that has included works on paper and sculpture (notably, his three dimensional tableaux that re-imagine shuttered jazz clubs of legend, such as the Savoy Ballroom and the Three Deuces). His projects have also involved collaborations with a wide range of noted visual artists—among them, Joan Jonas, Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson. This exhibition, his first solo museum show, surveys all aspects of a career that explores the extensive, if underappreciated, intersection of objects and sound.
For the first-ever facade commission at the Met, Mutu fills the niches flanking the museum’s entrance with four monumental bronzes that put an Afro-futuristic spin on a classical architectural feature known as a caryatid, a column or pillar that takes the form of an allegorical female figure.
Supposedly coined in Silicon Valley, the term life hack describes a quick, easy fix for increasing one’s productivity and efficiency, though a cynic might define it as a euphemism for willingly surrendering yourself to corporate soul-sucking. Since Rachel Harrison is no stranger to cynicism, it’s safe to assume she’s being ironic in selecting “Life Hack” as the title of her career survey at the Whitney. In fact, that choice seems to be less about committing to late capitalism’s empty promises than about the broader absurdity of thinking that life offers any kind of shortcut—especially for women, who, obviously, put up with monumental shit from men. Harrison, however, puts “monumental shit” in a physical context. Though she also works in drawing and video, her default mode is sculpture, a discipline with a rich history of erecting phallic shrines in metal and stone to male privilege. It’s no surprise, then, that Harrison has devoted herself to turning the genre’s gendered legacy on its head. Harrison emerged in the early 1990s, a period following the 1987 stock market crash that derailed the go-go ’80s art scene. Many galleries shut down, forcing artists and dealers alike to formulate some life hacks of their own. A prime example was Harrison’s first big splash: a 1996 installation at a Brooklyn apartment-slash-gallery that’s been remounted here at the exhibition’s entrance. (Oddly, the wall text omits the venue’s name, which was Renée Riccardo’s Arena Gallery.) Referencing
A New York-based Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River, Native American artist Alan Michelson has spent 30 years examining the historical, cultural, political and environmental context of indigenous life in the United States. His titular work, for example, comprises webcam footage of red wolves in the wild, transforming their status as an endangered species into a metaphor for the displacement of the Wolf tribe of the Lenape people, who were driven from their lands around the Delaware River in 1740. This piece and others realized through video, sound, print and augmented reality make up this striking show.
No artist channeled America’s Gilded Age with the same languorous sophistication as John Singer Sargent, the court painter and in-demand portraitist for the early 20th century’s one percent. The fluid, painterly quality that characterized his work is put to the service of smoky chiaroscuro for these charcoal studies of wealthy subjects.
The Guggenheim’s latest show is a high-concept affair with an elevator pitch that goes something like this: Ask six well-known artists (Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince and Carrie Mae Weems) who’ve previously exhibited at the museum to select works from its holdings, then give them each a level of the rotunda to mount a show according to their wishes. The result is a series of visual mixtapes, introduced by wall texts that lay out the various premises in portentous tones. Overall, the exhbition is based on the assumption that an artist’s perspective is sexier than a curator’s—or, at least, more of a draw for audiences. The latter may be true, though your mileage may vary on just how enlightened you’ll feel as you take in everything. In his section “Non-Brand,” Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang digs up pieces made by canonical figures before they developed their mature style—or, as Cai sees it, their brand. Mainly, his selection involves representational images by names associated with abstraction—for example, still lifes by Mondrian and Rothko and a figure study by Hilla Rebay. The point, perhaps, is that this sort of work is as valuable as the artists’ signature efforts, but who, exactly, argues otherwise? Cai muddles matters by hanging the work in an undifferentiated mass high on the wall, where it’s hard to see. With “Four Paintings Looking Right,” Richard Prince, who made his bones on intellectual property theft, meditates on the issue o
Kirchner, a founding member of the artist group, Die Brücke (The Bridge), was instrumental in the development of one of early Modern Art’s cornerstone movements: German Expressionism. Active as a painter, printmaker and sculptor, Kirchner is especially known for nude studies and scenes of Berlin street life in the years before World War I. His own experience during that conflict (he served in a German artillery unit) resulted in a nervous breakdown, but after a period of checking in and out of sanitariums for treatment of alcoholism and barbiturate dependency, he righted his life and by the 1920s, found some measure of success. Later, however, he was targeted by the Nazis as a “degenerate artist,” and committed suicide in 1938 as a result. This major overview of his oeuvre covers the period from 1907 to 1937.
Starting out as a pioneer of kinetic and environmental art in the 1960s, Hans Haacke proceeded to become a foundational figure of the conceptualist category known as Institutional Critique. As the name applies, Institutional Critique pulls the curtain back on the political and financial machinations that support culture. He became one of the first artists to make the connection between museums and the often dirty money behind them—most famously in a 1971 Guggenheim show from which he was ejected for submitting a piece that unmasked a board member’s dealings as a slumlord. These works and others are being revisited in this New Museum retrospective of Haacke’s career.
An artist who played a role in the transition from Impressionism to abstract art, Félix Vallotton isn’t as well known as contemporaries such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Seurat. Hailing from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Valloton was a founding member of Les Nabis, a collection of young Parisian artists who were the first to espouse the idea that a painting was first and foremost “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order,” as another member, Maurice Denis, wrote in 1890. Vallotton’s own work—landscapes, portraits, genre scenes—followed the flatness formula, especially in his stark, black and white woodcuts whose graphics remains surprisingly radical. Voloton’s most striking efforts, however, were his bourgeois interiors, in which domesticity plays out as a drama of existential unease.
Rube Goldberg (1883–1970) became synonymous with the idea of fixing a simply problem with convoluted means. His renderings of intricate machines took absurdly complicated paths to, say, closing a window or lighting a cigar. Reflecting his training as an engineer, as well as to his sideline as an actual inventor, these images took satirical aim at modern society, and its unshakable belief in progress. This exhibit takes stock of the man behind the meme with a selection of original drawings for cartoons that were widely syndicated in newspapers throughout the first half of the 20th century.
To observers of the time, New York City’s prewar art scene—small, provincial and enthralled by European Modernism—must have seemed an unlikely candidate to one day supplant Paris as the world’s art capital. But Edith Halpert saw potential in the local artists overshadowed by the Continent’s avant-garde. Born in Ukraine, Halpert (1900–1970) was one of the first female dealers in the U. S., and also one of the first to start a gallery in downtown Manhattan (Greenwich Village). Opened in 1926, the aptly named Downtown Gallery in New York City was located in a neighborhood where artists lived, worked and gathered, a move that became standard operating procedure for galleries that would later pop up in Soho, the East Village and Bushwick. More important was that Halpert chose to champion a cast of American artists that reflected the racial diversity of country, promoting African American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. In 1942, she mounted an exhibition by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, a Japanese-American artist who had been classified as an enemy alien after Pearl Harbor. Halpert’s support for these and other artists (Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Ben Shahn) marked her as a political progressive, but it also planted the seed for the eventual dominance of American art.
Nicholas Moufarrege (1947-1985) was born in Egypt to a Lebanese family, and lived in Beirut and Paris before coming to New York in 1981, where he died from AIDS four years later. In the interim, he plunged himself into the city’s unruly East Village club and gallery scene, which arguably represented a last wild and untamed hurrah for an art world that would soon become an adjunct of global finance. Moufarrege’s work certainly fit the tenor of the period with its surreal blend of appropriated imagery exquisitely embroidered onto needlepoint canvas. The results were both decidedly weird and stunningly beautiful as his considerable sewing skills yielded tapestried mash-ups of epigrams in Arabic, art-historical homages (to Picasso and Lichtenstein in particular) and pop-cultural references. Underappreciated in his time, Moufarrege is finally receiving institutional acknowledgement in this survey of his kitschy, energetic output.
With Turkey’s recent invasion of Kurdish-held Syria, this show, which delves into America’s apparently endless wars in the Middle East, seems especially timely. “Theater of Operations” focuses on the military campaigns against Iraq under the regime of Sadam Hussein, conflicts that eventually led to widespread destabilization across the region, and enabled the rise of ISIS. On view are paintings photos, sculptures and installations by more than 50 artists from Iraq and the U.S., all offering observations on geopolitical crises unleashed by the two Bush administrations. Besides contributions by familiar names such as Paul Chan, Harun Farocki, Thomas Hirschhorn and Guerrilla Girls, the exhibition offers a first exposure for many NYC viewers to artists such as Afifa Aleiby, Jamal Penjweny and Thuraya Al-Baqsami.
Since the mid-1990s, Rachel Feinstein has been primarily occupied with figurative sculptures centered on the female figure and its place in art history, religion, fantasy and fairy tales. Feinstein unpacks how women have been shaped through a public imagination that often reduces them to black-and-white binaries such as Madonna/whore, or more recently, working woman/stay-at-home mom. Her pieces, hybrids of painting and three-dimensional form, take their visual cues from Baroque art, kitsch, and other styles that lean in on theatricality or sentimentality. This show at the Jewish Museum represents her first in an institutional setting.