The 5 Best Art Exhibitions of 2016

Artwork: Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009. Acrylic on PVC panel. 61 1/8 x 72 7/8 x 3 7/8 in. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund and a gift from Jacqueline L. Bradley, B.A. 1979.

In retrospect, it is virtually impossible to think of 2016 without thinking of the impact of media in our lives. Short of living on top of a mountain without Wifi, it is virtually impossible to escape the onslaught of images, text, and video that streams in and out of our daily lives. Invariably, its inescapability renders it significant, worthy of contemplation outside the quotidian spaces where we first consume them.

Also: The 5 Best Art Books of 2016

With New Documents, the Bronx Documentary Center created one of the most powerful exhibitions of the year, showcasing a harrowing selection of photography and videos made between 1900 and the present, that reveal how ordinary people have put themselves at risk order to expose injustice, crime, and the abuse of power. From missionary Alice Seeley Harris’s photographs taken in the Congo Free State showing the genocidal abuses under King Leopold of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule to Diamond Reynolds’s livestream of the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer on July 6, 2016, New Documents charts an extraordinary series of events that were made visible due to the advancements in technology. The exhibition demands we bare witness to the horrors of state-sanctioned abuse to come to terms with the fact that we must speak on behalf of those who have been silenced. Read the full review for more photographs and insights.

Ndongo District, Congo Free State, c. 1904, Alice Seeley Harris, Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP.

Described as “zombie properties,” abandoned houses quickly become a blight on once thriving neighborhoods as they slowly begin to decay before our very eyes. They become health hazards, lowering property values and inviting crime, making things harder for those who are left behind. Breathing Lights, a new public art project, was created in response, with the aim to restore the feeling of life to Albany, Schenechtady, and Troy in New York State. Using a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, Breathing Lights set up lights to run in abandoned homes, as well as arranged walking and trolley tours, seminars, workshops, films, installations, and performances to restore a sense of community to these tattered neighborhoods. Bringing people together is the first step in reversing the damage that has been done, sparking new ideas and possibilities for the people most invested in the health of their neighborhoods. Read the full review for more photographs and insights.

Schenectady Breathing Lights. ©Breathing Lights.

But then there are times when the neighborhood cannot be saved, when things have gone too far and it is much, much too late. This happened across great swaths of the American South in the Jim Crow era that followed the Reconstruction period. As apartheid laws were passed and acts of homegrown terrorism took shape in the form of lynchings, murder, and church burnings, six million African Americans left the South, headed for the Northeast, Midwest, and West over a period of six decades in what is known as the Great Migration.

The Great Migration as one of the largest, most rapid movements in history, seminal to changing the demographics of the United States. As the first wave took hold, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was compelled to create The Migration Series, a collection of 60 tempera paintings that captured the African-American experience in 1941. The paintings were divided between the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. They have been reunited after 60 years for People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, on view at the Phillips Collection. now through January 8, 2017. Read the full review for more images and insights.

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 52: “One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis.” 1941. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

For artist Kerry James Marshall, Jim Crow laws hit too close to home, and like six million others, he and his family were forced to leave their roots in the Deep South. In 1963, when Marshall was just eight years old, his family moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to South Central Los Angeles. As the Civil Rights and Black Power movements took hold, Marshall embraced Black Pride in his work, creating a body of work that places African American experience where it belongs: in the canon of Western art.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, the first major museum retrospective of his work, is currently on view The Met Breuer, New York, through January 29, 2017, before traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (March 12–July 2, 2017). Beyond the scenes of Black America, Marshall gives us the black body as one that shows no traces of European DNA. The skin is rich as mahogany, a dense, rich luxurious blackness that becomes, in Marshall’s words, “an emblem of power” unto itself. Check out the full review for more images and insights.

Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994. Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from Polly and Mark Addison, the Alliance for Contemporary Art, Caroline Morgan, and Colorado Contemporary Collectors: Suzanne Farver, Linda and Ken Heller, Jan and Frederick Mayer, Beverly and Bernard Rosen, Annalee and Wagner Schorr, and anonymous donors. © Kerry James Marshall. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

Art can save your life. That’s one of the wondrous messages to be found in 87-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s body of work. Using the polka dot as her central motif, Kusama will blow your mind with her visions of infinity. Yayoi Kusama: In Infinity, currently on view at the HAM Helsinki Art Museum, Finland, through January 22, 2017, is a major retrospective showcasing more than 200 works of painting, drawing, sculpture, video, installation, and performance, while highlighting her relationship with fashion and design.

The exhibition takes us inside Kusama’s magnificent mind, into a landscape that is pure energy manifest as art, simultaneously invoking the horror that has plagued her inner world. She explains, “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.” And because she lives, she can share the beauty, the madness, and the glory of it all. Check out the full review for more images and insights.

© Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/ Singapore; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; David Zwirner, New York, © Yayoi Kusama

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.