And now, the top 10…
10. “Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989”
Venues: Grey Art Gallery and Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York (2019); Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, Miami, Florida (2019–20); Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio (2020)
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, which is often considered the inciting event of the gay liberation movement, this exhibition presented a sweeping historical survey of queer art made in the first 20 years after the fact. The show—curated by Jonathan Weinberg, Tyler Cann, and Drew Sawyer for the Columbus Museum of Art but shown first in New York—is incisive and informative, and it highlights how Stonewall’s impact has been felt by queer artists and straight-identified ones as well. The works ranged from riotously funny (The Cockettes’ re-enactment of first daughter Tricia Nixon’s wedding) to heart-wrenching (David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled [One Day This Kid…]) to boundary-pushing (Lyle Ashton Harris’s “Constructs”) and to medium-defying (Harmony Hammond’s painted soft sculptures that lean against a wall).
9. “Outliers and American Vanguard Art”
Venues: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2018); High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2018); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2018–19)
Curator Lynne Cooke spent five years researching this groundbreaking show, a major event in the larger push this decade to undo and rethink the condescending and inadequate label “outsider art.” Instead, Cooke opted for the term “outlier,” in reference to how many of the 80 artists in the show had been shut out of art history because they don’t comply with certain conventions of their day. Cooke’s bold presentation situated artists such as Martín Ramírez, Bill Traylor, and Sister Gertrude Morgan alongside well-known figures like Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker, destabilizing traditional notions about what it means to be a professional artist in the process.
8. “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art”
Venue: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2013)
Historically, many leaders of white mainstream institutions have envisioned Indigenous peoples as vanished, disappeared, and frozen in time. This show flipped that logic and focused instead on the practices of contemporary Indigenous artists while providing an expansive look at what constitutes indigeneity. The exhibition’s title means “to light [a fire]” in the language of the Algonquin people, whose traditional lands include parts of Quebec and Ontario in Canada. (When the exhibition opened, the museum’s then director acknowledged that it sits on un-ceded Algonquin lands.) For the show, curators Greg A. Hill, Christine Lalonde, and Candice Hopkins brought together the work of some 80 artists from 16 countries around the world, including Japan, India, and Finland as well as Canada, Australia, the U.S., and Mexico. Among the artists included were Brian Jungen, Maria Thereza Alves, Rebecca Belmore, Annie Pootoogook, and Teresa Margolles.
7. “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968”
Venues: Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia (2010); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2010–11)
Pop art has long been rendered as a male movement (in no small part thanks to the work of male critics and historians). This show exploded that notion, focusing on the women who also pioneered the style. The exhibition included a number of breakouts, including Rosalyn Drexler, Marisol, and Marjorie Strider, and its revisionist spirit was picked up several years later by the traveling survey “International Pop,” which offered insurmountable evidence (in stops at the Walker Art Center, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art) that the movement wasn’t just centered on New York. Both shows offered examples for how art historians could dramatically alter the perceptions of well-known movements by presenting more diverse showings.
6. “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon”
Venue: New Museum, New York (2017)
No show this decade better exemplified how the ways that we talk about gender and sexuality are constantly in flux. Curated by Johanna Burton with Sara O’Keeffe and Natalie Bell, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” looked at different ways that artists have taken up gender in their work, probing it as a binary construct that is often oppressive and then looking for spaces that exist outside its confines. Key to the show was an emphasis on intersectionality and how gender issues must be looked at from a broader perspective that takes into account race, class, sexuality, and ability. The exhibition was complex and confounding—with work by the likes of Nayland Blake, Mickalene Thomas, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Tuesday Smillie, Sable Elyse Smith, Chris E. Vargas, Candice Lin, and Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel—and it’s sure to be discussed as a barrier-breaking bit of history that set forth a new path.
5. “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”
Venues: Tate Modern, London (2017); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas (2018); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2018–19); the Broad, Los Angeles (2019); de Young Museum, San Francisco (2019–20)
“Soul of a Nation” opened the eyes of many in the art world to how the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s effectively changed art as we know it today. Curated at Tate by Zoé Whitley and Mark Godfrey, the show affirmed the careers of many in it, effectively helping launch figures like Frank Bowling and Barkley L. Hendricks to widespread market success. “Soul of a Nation” also offered its viewers a valuable lesson in how artistic innovations can be synthesized with the politics of the day to achieve new styles.
4. “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” / “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse”
Venues: Wallach Art Gallery, New York (2018–19) / Musée d’Orsay, Paris (2019)
The study of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) long focused on its white subject—a supine, nude courtesan—at its center. But this groundbreaking show spotlighted the black maid in the background: Laure, who posed as a model for Manet and other French painters of the era. Denise Murrell based the show on her dissertation, which traveled to Paris in an expanded form, opening new areas of art-historical study. After the show, Murrell was hired as an associate curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3. “Histórias Afro-Atlanticas”
Venue: Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo (2018)
When curator Adriano Pedrosa arrived at MASP as artistic director in 2014, he transformed a sleepy institution into what is now “the most progressive and dynamic museum in the world,” as art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson recently told ARTnews. Among his major changes was bringing his collaborative exhibition series “Histórias” to MASP as a way to look at multiple art histories, many of which have been excluded from a mainstream canon that has historically privileged white heterosexual cisgender men. The most important such exhibition—and the largest, with some 400 works spanning multiple venues—has been “Histórias Afro-Atlánticas” which looked at the Transatlantic Slave Trade, with Brazil at its center, as a way to engage work by artists from the African diaspora. In a country where more than half of the population identifies as black or mixed-race, it became a moment when many visitors saw themselves accurately represented in a museum space for the first time.
2. “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965”
Venue: Haus der Kunst, Munich (2016–17)
As curators, historians, and critics think through ways to redefine the canon, “Postwar” stands as both an example and a call for increased art-historical open-mindedness. It may have been just one of late curator Okwui Enwezor’s many pioneering ways of bringing globalism into Western museums, but “Postwar” thoroughly transformed the way the history of art in the postwar era has been told. The show upended the Eurocentric notion that postwar art was a series of chronological movements—that Abstract Expressionism was succeeded by Pop, then Minimalism, then Conceptualism, and so on—and brought well-known artists into conversation with under-studied figures from the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Hervé Télémaque, the masterful Haitian-born painter, figured in the same gallery as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg; Saloua Raouda Choucair, the late Lebanese painter and sculptor, appeared in the same context as Robert Morris and Hélio Oiticica. The exhibition’s dramatic splintering of art history has already been impactful, with the new rethinking of art history at the Museum of Modern Art taking many cues from “Postwar.”
1. Pacific Standard Time
Venues: Various, Los Angeles (2011, 2017)
Because of its outsize ambitions, Pacific Standard Time—a wide-ranging initiative focused on spotlighting Southern California art—could have been one of the art world’s biggest flops. Instead, it has already altered art history many times over. The Getty Foundation–funded initiative began as an archival project and soon blossomed into a multimillion-dollar years-long research project that aims to advocate for historically under-recognized work. The first two editions—about art from 1945 to 1980 in 2011, and about Latin American and Latinx art in 2017—have brought to the fore long-overlooked artists and the stories they have to tell. The first edition featured such exhibitions as “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980,” “Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building,” “Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1971–1987,” and “Under the Big Black Sun: 1974–1981.” The second had “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985,” “Home—So Different, So Appealing,” “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.,” “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas,” and important solo shows for Judith F. Baca, David Lamelas, Martín Ramírez, Valeska Soares, Anna Maria Maiolino, and the late Laura Aguilar. Between the two of them, new lines for thinking about art from different perspectives were drawn in ways that continue to linger.