A Jenny Holzer “Truism”—Abuse of power comes as no surprise—was perhaps the most cited artwork of 2017. But not being surprised didn’t mean not taking action. In January, a day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, more than three million people in the United States staged a Women’s March to protest his Presidency. Their whimsical badge of honor, the pink “pussy hat,” has since found its way into the collections of some major museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, and the New-York Historical Society, in Manhattan. (I wish I’d seen one in MoMA’s superb exhibition of wearables, Items: Is Fashion Modern?) At year’s end, women are still speaking truth to power, as the #MeToo movement rages on. Below, a short list of women who made a strong showing in 2017.
Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space, at the Met Breuer
The Italian movement Arte Povera has long been considered a boys’ club. It was thrilling, then, to discover that the wife of one its key members, Mario Merz, was one of its greatest artists. Smaller exhibitions, at the Gladstone Gallery, in recent years, have hinted as much, but here was a floor-filling accumulation of marvels by a woman who spun the humdrum—paraffin, cardboard, aluminum—into the sublime.
Sara Berman’s Closet and Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, at the Met
Late in life, Berman, the mother of Maira Kalman, left her husband and moved to a studio apartment in the West Village, where she lived with a devotional tidiness and wore only white. The installation of her small closet—garments and linens folded with tender precision, a potato grater, a bottle of Chanel No. 19—amid the museum’s ornate period rooms was a shrine to humility and intention. The Costume Institute’s Kawakubo show was as wild as Berman’s closet was tranquil. For the Japanese designer, clothing is art of the highest order and bodies are just armatures on which to enact her radical experimentation.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, at the Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum may be the only encyclopedic museum in the world with a center dedicated to feminist art, but it comes with a caveat: each show it presents must connect thematically to Judy Chicago’s ceramic behemoth, The Dinner Party (1974-79), which is a permanent fixture. Chicago’s sculptural “herstory” may be iconic, but only one black person, Sojourner Truth, has a seat at its triangular table. The curators of We Wanted a Revolution, the museum’s astute Catherine Morris and the rising star Rujeko Hockley (who is now at the Whitney), reminded us that black women were at the front lines of second-wave feminism—as artists, activists, writers, and gallerists—in a show that was as vibrantly beautiful (notably the paintings of Emma Amos, Dindga McCannon, Faith Ringgold, and Howardena Pindell) as it was edifying.
Louise Lawler: Why Pictures Now and Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, at MoMA
Lawler’s photographs combine a lacerating eye for the absurd conditions in which works of art find themselves—from collectors’ homes to storage facilities—with an empathy for the frailty of the human condition. Marxist critique has never felt more like love. This retrospective was long overdue and well worth the wait. Even longer in coming was Bourgeois’s career: she didn’t have her first big museum show until 1982, at the age of seventy. It was also at MoMA, curated by Deborah Wye, now the museum’s chief curator emerita, who may understand the artist’s work better than anyone. Although it was judiciously seeded with a handful of sculptures, An Unfolding Portrait was a deep dive into the artist’s works on paper—her first, last, and, arguably, greatest medium.
Laura Owens at the Whitney
How should a painting be in the age of the exhausted image, when everyone with an iPhone has a portable studio? More to the point, should a painting even be in the digital age? Owens’s big, bodacious pictures answer the second question with a resounding, “Hell, yes!” She’s a conquering hero to a new generation of painters, who were weened on the Internet, and a thorn in the side of old fools who believe that painting has ever been pure.
Not long after a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold at Christie’s for a hundred and ten million dollars, news broke that Gund, an art collector and president emerita of MoMA, had privately sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting (to the hedge-fund honcho Steven A. Cohen) for fifty-five million dollars more than that. But, happily, the price tag wasn’t the story—it was that Gund had donated a hundred million dollars from the sale to establish the Art for Justice Fund, a five-year initiative dedicated to grappling with the national plague of mass incarceration. She also threw down a gauntlet to other collectors to do the same. Last month, the fund, which is partnered with the Ford Foundation, announced the thirty recipients of its first round of grants, totalling twenty-two million dollars. In the words of another Jenny Holzer “Truism”: It’s good to give extra money to charity.
– Andrea K. Scott