Top 11 Museum Shows & Biennials of 2014

At the end of 2013 through the beginning of this year, took over the Guggenheim’s central rotunda with his iconic word paintings, in a show that traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago. Coming of age in the ’70s and making a name for himself in the ’80s, Wool experimented with the potential of painting—often using commercial tools or techniques—at a time when it was fast becoming outmoded. Probing the very nature of image-production, Wool explored the possibilities of photography, silkscreen, reproduction, and modes of erasure, all in relation to his trademark graphic painting style.

Representing a hodgepodge of 82 artists from around Southeast Asia, organized by 27 curators from the region, the Singapore Biennial—which began in late 2013 and wound up in 2014—was reportedly a very mixed bag, or “Flawed but Fresh,” as one review called it. Titled “If the World Changed,” the event asked artists to address the shifting sociopolitics of their respective home countries as well as to ponder the future. Highlights included ’s exploration of labor in the form of a thousand diamonds cast from sugar; and ’s unsettling installation featuring a field of dolls’ heads retrieved from a Manila landfill.
Carrying the banner for female , invented the soak-stain technique, applying thin washes of paint to unprimed canvases—and her stunning compositions influenced numerous other painters of the ’60s. “My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates,” she once said. “They’re not nature per se, but a feeling.” In spring 2014, Turner Contemporary brought the pioneering painter together with the sublime canvases of the institution’s namesake, the British painter , in a surprising, but enlivening pairing.
Best known for her seminal work that has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party (1974–79)—which takes a revisionist approach to the male-dominated history of Western civilization, literally placing some 1038 women at the dinner table— has been challenging gender bias in the arts for four decades. This past summer, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a presentation of the early work she produced while in L.A., including painting, sculpture, and Chicago’s love affair with pyrotechnics.
The 2014 Biennale of Sydney opened amid considerable controversy—including the announcement that five artists were pulling out in protest against one of the event’s sponsors—and to mixed reviews. The biennial nonetheless launched with a bang, including large-scale installations on Cockatoo Island from and , and an interactive piece from Callum Morton, who sent biennial visitors through a giant rendering of a Google search page on a miniature train.
The 10th edition of the Gwangju Biennial, considered one of the most important biennials in the world, with visitors to the event coming out in six-figure droves, was curated by Jessica Morgan. Described as “a solid, diverse, and uncommonly aggressive exhibition” by The Guardian, the presentation featured a sobering installation from Korean artist , for which she worked with the victims and widows of several Korean War-related massacres.
One of ’s icons, is perhaps best known for his bowler hat motif and declaring a pipe not a pipe, or “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition of his work—which originated at MoMA—featuring over 100 paintings, collages, drawings, and objects, spans 12 of the artist’s most creative years, in which he met other titans of the Surrealist movement, including , Dalí, and .
The Hammer’s biennial survey of L.A.’s brightest up-and-comers was as strong as ever this year, with a museum-wide presentation of painting, sculpture, performance, installation—and plenty of exciting new video work. Highlights included a video installation from featuring Boychild, large-scale compositions and animated works from , and Alice Konitz’s experimental exhibition venue, The Los Angeles Museum of Art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art stepped into the now this past winter with a blockbuster show of contemporary Chinese art interspersed within its traditional Chinese galleries, allowing intriguing relationships to emerge and drawing a continuous line between traditional and the medium’s use today. “‘Ink Art’ is something of a landmark in the way it places recent Chinese art against the backdrop of the vaunted brush and ink traditions,” noted Roberta Smith in The New York Times.
Amid the proliferating flurry of biennials around the world, the Museum of Arts & Design entered into the fray this year with its inaugural edition of “NYC Makers,” the brainchild of its new director Glenn Adamson, presenting the work of 100 New York makers—including artists, artisans, and designers—nominated by over 300 NYC-based cultural leaders and civic figures. Among the eclectic roster of contributors were , Laurie Anderson, and .  

Continuing his global presence in the art world, despite his effective detainment in China (the government has denied the return of his passport), made headlines this year with a sprawling site-specific installation of work at California’s famous former penitentiary Alcatraz. Organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation, this show was the most-viewed of all museum shows on Artsy this year, proving Ai’s ability to transcend borders with his powerful message of resistance in the face of oppression. 
Tess Thackara