The Most Influential Museum Shows of 2015

Artsy Editorial
Dec 16, 2015 4:00AM

This year’s most talked-about and game-changing institutional shows have revisited overlooked artists, cemented the positions of two of 20th-century art’s profoundest painters, and brought overdue attention to one of Latin America’s most important artists. They have also catapulted two emerging artists to the mainstream, harnessed the power of technology, and asked: What is American art today?

“Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” at LACMA

Noah Purifoy’s idiosyncratic assemblages and sculptures don’t exactly lend themselves to a museum setting. Purifoy, the late L.A. artist-activist who co-founded the Watts Towers Art Center (and made art from the wreckage of the 1960s Watts riots), uprooted from the city and moved to the desert in 1989. There, he spent some 15 years creating large-scale works—dense facades embedded with scrap furniture parts, a roller-coaster form made of aluminum trays, makeshift dwellings, a scramble of metal chair legs reaching into the sky. The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, the home of this prolific, imaginative output, is now a pilgrimage site for tourists, art lovers, and desert rats alike.

In a show curated by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipschutz, LACMA gave Purifoy his second-ever survey (the first was in 1997 at the California African American Museum), and first high-profile retrospective this year, a crucial recontextualization that provided a window into the life and work of this important and overlooked outsider figure who did much to shape black consciousness on the West Coast.


Agnes Martin at Tate Modern

Installation view of “Agnes Martin” courtesy of Tate Modern.


One of American modernism’s truly enigmatic figures, Agnes Martin has never achieved recognition on the level of her male counterparts (a fact at least in part due to her rejection of the art world)—until now. The Tate’s stunning retrospective of her quietly intense and often impenetrable grid and stripe paintings, which is now on view at the Kunstsammlung NRW in Düsseldorf and will travel to LACMA and New York’s Guggenheim next year, confirms her place among the icons of midcentury Minimalists and Abstract Expressionists. Though her works contain the geometric formality and coolness of the former, she considered herself among the latter, presenting a challenge to the egocentric spirit of that movement.

Rather than spontaneous outpourings of visual expression, Martin’s version of Abstract Expressionism kept to rigid strictures. Within these, the occasional aberration or accidental slip of hand—a drop of paint here, an irregular line there—reveal the artist at work. Rather than using the canvas to assert her presence, Martin employed art as a ritualistic process where she removed herself from the canvas, to almost disappear as if in an act of erasure. Nonetheless, viewers that spend meditative time with Martin’s washed-out horizontal bands of color will find they hum subtly with the presence of their maker.

“Anicka Yi: 7,070,430K of Digital Spit” at Kunsthalle Basel

Following an acclaimed exhibition at The Kitchen (in which she turned the space into a dark, surrealist petri dish, featuring an oft-neglected artistic medium—scent—and including bacteria swabbed from 100 women), Anicka Yi took over the ground floor of Kunsthalle Basel this past June with “7,070,430K of Digital Spit.” The exhibition marked the culmination of five years of work—including transmutations of previous works and ideas—cleaved into themes of memory and the persistent presence of the past. It also confirmed the art establishment’s increasing embrace of science as a medium.

Yi’s fantastical Kunsthalle alchemy (involving ultrasonic gels, tempura-fried flowers, resin, and a scent she created that captures the experience of forgetting) impressed a rapt art-world crowd in Basel. It’s been a busy year for Yi, who also showed work at MIT List Visual Arts Center after a residency at the famous school and science lab—and it seems the art world is finally paying attention to the Korean artist, who burst onto the New York scene by way of her gallery, 47 Canal, some five years ago.

“Greater New York” at MoMA PS1

This year, MoMA PS1 put a twist on its quinquennial survey of emerging talent—to muted acclaim. Up-and-comers like Mira Dancy, Eric Mack, and Sondra Perry mingled with lesser-known artists of the late 20th century, as well as some of contemporary art’s most well-known figures, Glenn Ligon and David Hammons, among them. The age of artists in the show ranged from 20s to 80s. Like most ambitious, sweeping surveys, this multigenerational “Greater New York” wasn’t a runaway success, but it has nonetheless given a swath of the city’s young artists a serious career boost, and prompted calls for retrospectives of largely overlooked talent of older generations, such as Howardena Pindell. Perhaps most notably, 2015’s “Greater New York” heralded the art world’s return to figuration. At PS1, this came not only in the form of painting (including works by Gina Beavers and Greg Parma Smith), but also a magnificent room of human-body sculptures by the likes of Mary Beth Edelson, John Ahearn, Simone Leigh, and Ugo Rondinone.


Laurie Anderson’s “Habeas Corpus” at Park Avenue Armory

Laurie Anderson’s “Habeas Corpus” at the Park Avenue Armory, October 2–4, 2015. Photo by James Ewing, courtesy of the Park Avenue Armory.

Laurie Anderson produced the year’s most unique, moving, and politically charged art event, “Habeas Corpus.” A few days after President Obama’s motorcade raced through Manhattan’s East Side to deliver the U.S. Head of State to the UN General Assembly, Anderson used telepresence technology to beam Mohammed el Gharani from his home in West Africa into the Park Avenue Armory. A former Guantánamo inmate, el Gharani was one of the infamous prison’s youngest—wrongfully accused of terrorist allegiances and who is legally barred from setting foot in the U.S. despite being released.

Thousands of images were streamed through the internet and projected onto a model of el Gharani’s body, four times his true scale. Anderson has for decades pushed the envelope of the intersection between art and science. And Habeas Corpus once again demonstrated the power of technology as a tool for human expression and connectedness, as well as the ability of an ephemeral, performative event to make a powerful impact. Speaking to Artsy the day before the weekend-long project launched, Anderson said, “It’s about borders and about someone jumping across a border just a block away from where Putin and Obama were having their discussions about Syria.”

“Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of “Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern.” Photo by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García was a learned theorist and utopian symbologist. He remains a modernist icon in Latin America, credited with importing the groundbreaking ideas of the early-20th-century European avant-garde and fusing them with the rich folk-art traditions and pre-Hispanic visual cultures of his native South America. Despite these impressive credentials, Torres-García had not previously been granted the due he deserves in the United States until his MoMA retrospective this fall.

Torres-García was a close affiliate of Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and Theo van Doesburg in Paris. In those artists’ exploration of the grid, the Uruguayan found his first step toward creating a universal language capable of representing the entire cosmos. But Torres-García’s form of the grid was entirely his own—one infused with both ideas of the subconscious and references to the physical world. The artist famously drew a flipped map of South America, its southern tip at top and its northern regions at bottom—in effect advocating for inverting the continent’s previous artistic center of gravity. And he put those ideas into practice when he returned to Uruguay and founded his influential Taller Torres-Garcia.


“America Is Hard to See” at the Whitney Museum of American Art 

The launch of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s brand-new Renzo Piano-designed space in the spring of 2015 was received largely with effusive acclaim. The show enacted a deep and thoughtful exploration into the Whitney’s holdings, many of which had never been on public display before, and more still that had been warehoused for decades. By extension, it delved into what constitutes American art (and, really, America at large), challenging cynics that may claim art and museums are removed from the real world.

Setting aside the expansive, blockbuster galleries given over to America’s banner movements, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop, the real treats came in the form of explorations into the years of the Culture Wars (Nan Goldin and David Wojnarowicz, who will receive his own retrospective at the museum in 2016); the expressive potential of technologies (excellent works by Nam June Paik); and race in America (Fred Wilson, Jacob Lawrence, David Hammons, and Malcolm Bailey’s cross-section painting-cum-diagram of a slave ship).

“Rachel Rose: Palisades” at Serpentine Sackler Gallery

A Minute Ago, 2014
Serpentine Galleries

For her first London solo show, up-and-coming artist Rachel Rose turned two of her hypnotic video collages, A Minute Ago (2014) and Palisades in Palisades (2014), into a site-specific installation in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, taking heed of the venue’s architecture and acoustics and incorporating surrounding sounds and light. In Rose’s two films, time and place dissolve into a fluid, mesmerizing encounter with New York’s Palisades Interstate Park, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, a hailstorm in Siberia, and the very nature of human perception itself. Rose’s sensibility is one that channels a glitchy, millennial aesthetic and echoes elements of Hito Steyerl and Camille Henrot, two artists who in recent years have also put their finger on the pulse of a near-cyborg generation that digests images—via mediated technologies—at extraordinary pace. This exhibition marked a breakout year for the artist, who took center stage at Frieze London as the fair’s Artist Award winner, and opened a solo museum exhibition in late October at the Whitney to broad critical acclaim.

“Inhuman” at Fridericianum

Oliver Laric, The Hunter and His Dog, 2014.  Photo © Achim Hatzius, courtesy of Fridericianum.

“Inhuman” marked the final installation in a trilogy of exhibitions about post-internet art at the Fridericianum curated by Susanne Pfeffer, the institution's intrepid director who also put together the Swiss Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. And it got the art world talking. Featuring artists born between 1971 and 1993, including Dora Budor, Stewart Uoo, and Anicka Yi, the exhibition asked what it means to be human in a world increasingly permeated by technology, and gazed into the future to predict how that technology might proliferate.

The vision “Inhuman” presented wasn’t an entirely palatable one. Among the works, sculptures fused the biological and technical in grotesque, hybrid forms. Stewart Uoo’s hair-raising window grates—imbued with pieces of what looked like bruised human flesh and hair—greeted visitors in the exhibition’s first room, and Lu Yang’s animated film, UterusMan (2013), starred a gender-ambiguous anime hero whose powers, such as emitting “ovum light waves,” reference female sex organs. Expertly curated by Pfeffer, the show gave an unsettling snapshot of the uncanny valley.

“On Kawara—Silence” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Installation view of “On Kawara—Silence” courtesy of the Guggenheim. Photo by David Heald, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Transforming the Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda into a metaphor for the endless, cyclical, and unforgiving nature of time, the late Japanese artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective was more than just comprehensive; it was an elegy to his life and practice, cementing him as one of art’s true greats. On Kawara had dreamed of showing in the space during his lifetime, seeing in Wright’s coiling galleries the potential to underscore the themes in his serial works.

The exhibition marked the first major show of his work to capture the span of his oeuvre from the mid-’60s to his death in 2014, and imbued Kawara’s conceptual body of work—including the “date” paintings, postcards, telegrams, calendars, maps, lists of names, and his inventory of paintings—with philosophical gravitas and profundity. Furthermore, it simultaneously revealed Kawara as not only a father of conceptual art, but also a pioneer of art that reflects on the process of its own making.

Artsy Editorial