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12 Trends Defining This Season’s Art-Museum Shows

Where to find the major retrospectives, provocative theme shows, and dazzling art-selfie destinations of the spring 2014 season

The 2014 season has begun. While popular shows of artists like Magritte, Hopper, and Carrie Mae Weems continue their travels, dozens of new exhibitions devoted to modern and contemporary art are opening across the country. Here are some observations:

You say you want a revolution? It’s an explosion of Early Modernism

The season starts with a bang at the Guggenheim, where “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe” tells the fast-paced story of the brash Italian vanguard. Cubism is in the spotlight at the MFA Houston, the only U.S. stop for a huge Braque survey. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum of Art showcases the revolutionary spirit of German Expressionism, MoMA unveils Gauguin’s rare prints and transfer drawings, and Matisse is at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.

Click through each image for more information.

U.S. museums are going (more) global

With Braque, MoMA’s massive Sigmar Polke retrospective, and the Whitney’s upcoming Koons show, some Big Boys of Western art are in the limelight.

And so are Venice Biennale standouts Laure Prouvost, Pawel Althamer, Camille Henrot, Roberto Cuoghi, and Ragnar Kjartansson (all at the New Museum), Austrian nonagenarian self-portraitist Maria Lassnig (MoMA PS1), Jesper Just (Des Moines Art Center), along with other major international figures including Lygia Clark, who’s getting a retrospective at MoMA, Mithu Sen and Imran Qureshi (both showing at the Broad Art Museum at MSU), Nalini Malani (Asia Society), Rirkrit Tiravanija (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), Ernesto Neto (Aspen Art Museum), Michael Snow (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Robin Rhode (Neuberger Museum).

Museums of all kinds are pushing into global territory. In its first commission since Matisse finished The Dance in 1933, the Barnes Foundation has invited Yinka Shonibare to create work for its galleries, engaging with the interests of founder Albert Barnes in educating diverse audiences and collecting tribal art.

The Jewish Museum is mining its own history too. Using “Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors,” its influential 1966 show of Minimalist sculpture, as a model (both literally and curatorially), Jens Hoffmann has assembled “Other Primary Structures.” The two-part show features abstract, geometric sculptures made by (mostly male) artists in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America at the same time that Judd, LeWitt, and the rest were making their names in New York.

Meanwhile, the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore has a show of graphic novels by contemporary Jewish artists (telling stories about Jews). The Oakland Museum of California celebrates “Giant Robot,” the punk zine devoted to Asian American pop and alternative culture. “Black in the Abstract, Part 2: Hard Edges/Soft Curves,” second in a pair of shows exploring black abstraction from the ’60s to the present, is part of  “Outside the Lines,” a six-part series on contemporary abstraction at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Does all this mean that multiculturalism has grown up?

Sur thing: Curators look deeper into Latin America

The Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, culminates its four-year Via Brasil initiative with the show “Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil.” “Beyond the Supersquare,” at the Bronx Museum, looks at the influence of Modernism and urbanism on the work of artists from Latin America, Portugal, and Canada. Meanwhile, “Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art,” a (bilingually titled) selection of works from the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, arrives at Boston’s MFA.

In July, SITE Santa Fe looks beyond conventional borders as it begins an ambitious new program called “SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas.” The six-year series of linked exhibitions is devoted to art and cultural production across the Americas, from Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego.

Dynamic Duos: Artistic BFFs

With three curators, each organizing a separate installation on its own floor, the Whitney Biennial ricochets trends in many directions. But it does include more artist collectives and collaboratives than ever.

Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt,” at the Blanton, examines how the close friends, post-Minimalists in different ways, inspired and influenced one another. The dynamics of another artistic friendship are the subject of “Degas/Cassatt” at the National Gallery of Art. “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle,” arriving at the Grey Art Gallery, looks at intertwined sensibilities among a larger group of Northern California artists.

Legends in their own minds: Where artist is anthropologist

The subject of Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue, the Silver Lion-winner at last year’s Biennale, is nothing less than the origins of life and myth. The piece, shot partly in the American Museum of Natural History, will appear at the Baltimore Museum of Art before it arrives in New York, where it is in the New Museum’s overview of Henrot’s work from the last several years. (The artist has another show at the New Orleans Museum of Art exploring the evolution of oral cultures in Brittany and Southern Louisiana.)

In “Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas,” at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, artist interpret divine beings in Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, and the United States—among them New Orleans’ “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau and the Native American deity known as Coyote. At the Hammer, Nathaniel Mellors has an interview with an apparently real Neanderthal.

And “DIRGE: Reflections on [Life and] Death,” at MOCA Cleveland, looks at different ways artists make sense of mortality.

Society of the Spectacle: Sports as Metaphor

At LACMA, “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game” uses works by Robin Rhode, Philippe Parreno, Douglas Gordon, and more to explore how the culture of soccer connects with nationalism and mass spectacle. The rituals and crafts of baseball are the focus of “Bull City Summer,” at the North Carolina Museum of Art, where artists including Alec Soth and Hank Willis Thomas chronicle their experience at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Even the Metropolitan Museum is getting into the game at Superbowl time with “Gridiron Greats,” a selection of vintage football cards. Meanwhile, at the Ringling, R. Luke DuBois considers the circus as collective performance art.

Immersive installations: Art Selfie Time!

You just have to be there to experience these site-specific installations—but take an art selfie anyway.

In New York, the Asia Society has Nalini Malani’s Transgressions II (2009), a multimedia installation where folkloric traditional shadow play meets new technology. At LACMA, Helen Pashgian, a pioneer of the light and space movement, is creating an environment around 12 molded-acrylic columns. At MASS MoCA, Teresita Fernández will use reflective gold-colored materials in an immersive installation, while Darren Waterston recreates Whistler’s Peacock Room as a sumptuous ruin. At the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at MSU, Imran Qureshi will create a mountainous landscape out of crumbled papers printed with images of his earlier work. In the New Museum’s Lobby Gallery, Laure Prouvost presents For Forgetting (2013), a new, immersive multichannel video installation that explores slippages in memory. Swoon is building a large installation in the fifth-floor rotunda of the Brooklyn Museum. At LA MOCA’s Pacific Design Center, Jacob Hashimoto will create a new version of his Gas Giant, a kaleidoscopic installation of kite boxes and paper.

We All Want to Change the World

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” a major show at the Brookyn Museum, examines the wide range of strategies artists used in the fight for racial justice. The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the High Museum of Art are all showing Civil Rights photographs as well.

The New Orleans Museum of Art traces the career of Mel Chin, a pioneer in social practice whose projects include removing contaminants from soil. At the Queens Museum, “Do you want the cosmetic version or do you want the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department (1986-2013),” is the first museum survey of the Los Angeles-based performance group made up principally of homeless or formerly homeless people.

Artist as Muse, Visionary, and Ghost

Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo,” at the MCA Chicago, tracks the artist’s transgressive spirit in the work of figures including Sanford Biggers, Louise Bourgeois, Wangechi Mutu, Shirin Neshat, Hélio Oiticica, Catherine Opie, and Yang Fudong.

James Lee Byars, whose “1/2 an Autobiography” (now at the Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City) travels to MoMA PS1, is the subject of a different kind of tribute, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. “James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death” is a show of plays, actions, and performances that are not actually on view. That’s because it’s curated by the shape-shifting crew known as Triple Candie.

Inspired by the balance of improvisation and control in William J. O’Brien’s resplendent, surrealist ceramics, drawings, and more, curator Naomi Beckwith has organized the first survey of his work, at the MCA Chicago, in the form of a poem.

The Writing on the Wall

Mel Bochner mines Roget’s Thesaurus for his “Strong Language,” opening at the Jewish Museum. “Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art” arrives at the Broad in Michigan. Print journalism lives on as art material in the work of Fred Tomaselli, whose “New York Times” series is in his show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. See also Robert Gober in the Hammer’s “Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology,” billed as the first major show to explore strategies of appropriation and institutional critique in the work of American artists.

The artist is curator

Along with Michelle Grabner, the Whitney Biennial co-curator whose own artwork is on view at MoCA Cleveland, a number of artists are organizing shows this season. In “Ruffneck Constructivists,” at Philadelphia’s ICA, curator Kara Walker unites artists who share a defiant, confrontational attitude toward cultural injustice. Nicole Eisenman, whose mid-career survey opens at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, curates a concurrent show there with artist A.L. Steiner. The exhibition, “Readykeulous by Ridykeulous: This is What Liberation Feels Like™,” features emotionally charged works by more than 40 artists and activists.  Jessica Jackson Hutchins (and later Trevor Paglen) is curating a theme-based show from the permanent collection of the Broad in Michigan. At the Menil, Haim Steinbach will help organize an installation of his own work, works from the collection, and objects from stores and beyond that evoke Duchamp’s readymades.

…And so are you

While “Art of Its Own Making,” at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, examines the role of the audience in perceiving artworks that change over time, other museums are putting the viewer in the curators’ chair.

Voting is currently underway for “Boston Loves Impressionism,” the MFA Boston’s first crowdsourced exhibition. The Chrysler Museum, which reopens in its expanded and renovated building in Norfolk, Virginia, in May, has also opened voting for a crowdsourcing of objects from its collection. Here’s your chance, the museum advises, “to save one of your favorites from languishing in a vault.”

Check back at for more previews of upcoming shows.

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