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Exhibitions Ride Winds of Change

Still in recovery from Covid lockdown, art museums in 2022 tried hard to pull traffic through the door. This meant a season heavily weighted, on the marquee side, toward an Old Normal: familiar, low-risk fare. At the same time, even our big, conservative institutions have started to come to grips with the fact that they need to appeal to new, demographically diverse audiences if they’re going to have a future. And this impulse seems to lie behind some of the most stimulating shows of the year.

‘New York: 1962-1964’ at the Jewish Museum
This startler of a show gave a sense of what an art world New Normal looked and felt like when it hit more than half a century ago. The early 1960s were a manic hinge moment in American culture, between the Cold War and the Vietnam War, civil rights and Black power, old repressions and burgeoning liberations. Art, shifting from Ab-Ex to Pop, felt the tremors from all of this, and they run through the exhibition’s art-and-artifact mix. Culturally, New York was perched on the edge of something and leaning forward, a teetering condition, really a New Abnormal, that we can learn a lot from. 

Just Above Midtown at the Museum of Modern Art
When is a time capsule a treasure chest? When does a scrapbook read like a utopian syllabus? When does an art archive achieve its own form of art? When a historical survey like this one comes our way. The gallery named Just Above Midtown debuted in Manhattan in 1974 and was the first African-American-owned commercial art space to plant a flag inside the gated community that was (and still is) a white New York art world. Sustained on hard work and maxed-out credit cards, JAM introduced an amazing array of new talent; by the time it closed in 1986 it had changed the texture of American art, and set a risk-tolerant, can-do model for experimental ventures that have followed.

Water Memories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
This poetically faceted pocket-size show about the material and symbolic role of water in Native American life includes a transfixing 2016 video of political demonstrators — “water protectors” — at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in the Dakotas. On cue, they lift sun-reflecting mirrored panels above their heads and begin an eddying, light-glinting processional dance of protest and preservation. In a year when climate change activism finally got the culture world’s full attention through (as of this writing) nonviolent shock-tactic assaults by young protesters on high-profile works of art, this nuanced show about elemental preciousness stood out.

–Holland Cotter

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