This spring, U.S. museums are exploring the rise of the machine, sculptural attempts to replicate the human body, and unsung voices in contemporary art. Here are 10 shows (including a new permanent installation) worth a trip, including stimulating stops in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Philadelphia.
Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas
February 15—May 13, 2018; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
This exhibition unites three African American artists from three generations who have very distinct styles but directly confront dominant perspectives in art history through their work. The late Robert Colescott’s satirical paintings take critical looks at racist imagery and the appropriation of African art by Western artists, while Kerry James Marshall’s dynamic scenes of everyday life are embedded with the visual culture of black activism and art historical nods. The youngest artist—Mickalene Thomas—transforms the traditionally passive poses of women in art into portraits of power, with rhinestone-adorned black women lounging in interiors layered with textiles and texture.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
March 4—May 28, 2018; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Bristling with beauty and horror, Sally Mann’s 40 years of photography explores the historic wounds of the American South. With over 100 works, many on public view for the first time, this exhibition examines her provocative portraits of people and landscapes. These often involve antique lenses and 19th-century processes, such as her tintypes of the Great Dismal Swamp, once a haven for fugitive slaves, and the blurred and fragmented collodion wet plate photographs of Civil War battlefields and the site of Emmett Till’s murder.
Cult of the Machine
March 24—August 12, 2018; de Young, San Francisco, California
American art in the 1920s and ’30s interpreted the industrialization of the country through highly structured pieces with a streamlined aesthetic. Through over 100 of these precisionist works, this exhibition explores the optimism and anxiety over rapidly advancing technology between the two World Wars. Georgia O’Keeffe’s depictions of skyscrapers rising like totems and Charles Sheeler’s detailed studies of trains and airplanes are juxtaposed with Clarence Carter’s “War Bride,” in which a woman in white approaches the foreboding mechanics of a hulking machine.
Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)
March 21—July 22, 2018; Met Breuer, New York City
This exhibition is guaranteed to throw viewers into the uncanny valley, whether it’s witnessing a lecture of muddled quotes from sources like Einstein and Ayn Rand delivered by an android created by Goshka Macuga or examining the innards of the eerily realistic anatomical Venus molded from wax in the 1780s. The 700 years of sculpture represented by 120 works all reflect how artists have tried to make their own Pygmalions, and give humanlike life to their crafted bodies. A showstopper is Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher who died in 1832. He’s traveled from London to New York for the first time—his skeleton is dressed in his old clothes (although his head is wax).
Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin”
Permanent exhibition; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin
A few months before his death in 2015, abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly gifted the design concept for his sole building to the Blanton. This February, “Austin,” named for the city in which it was built, opened to the public. Kelly said that he hoped visitors would experience the stone structure as “a place of calm and light,” with its kaleidoscopic glass windows filling the interior with a spectrum of hues that contrast to black and white marble panels. An accompanying exhibition on view through April 29 illuminates how “Austin” embodies Kelly’s prolific experimentation with geometry and color.
Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth
February 10 —May 13, 2018; The Broad, Los Angeles, California
Jasper Johns’s midcentury paintings of American flags are so familiar now it’s easy to forget how radical they were when the young artist embraced this figurative subject in an age of abstract expressionism. Johns, whose career has spanned six decades, has since employed a diversity of motifs, from targets to numbers to maps, in his paintings, prints, sculptures, and drawings. This survey includes over 130 pieces, all mingled together thematically rather than chronologically, to consider the breadth of one of the most influential living artists.
Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968–2018
March 17—July 29, 2018; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
From “Al’s Café,” which opened in 1969 Los Angeles (a homey diner that served such inedible meals as toast and leaves) to the large-scale “Singing Posters” installation in 2003 that transformed Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” into phonetic posters, Allen Ruppersberg has spent decades warping the American vernacular. This major retrospective highlights half a century of his conceptual art, including installations, books, films, drawings, and posters. In each medium, Ruppersberg has instilled his wry humor in what he calls the “vocabulary of the ordinary.”
The Whole Drum Will Sound: Women in Southern Abstraction
March 22—July 22, 2018; Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, Louisiana
While the focus of this exhibition is narrow—the abstract art of women working in the American South—it’s aesthetically diverse as it crosses decades of experimentation in expression and form through the 20th to 21st centuries. Women’s contributions in abstract art tend to be overlooked—only in 2016 did the first major exhibition on women in abstract expressionism open at the Denver Art Museum. From Dusti Bongé’s 1940s canvases with murky palettes and titles like “Swamp at Midnight” to Sherri Owens’s 2017 sculpture of crepe myrtle and bailing wire, there’s a Southern flavor in this gestural and geometric work.
Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer
May 13—August 12, 2018; Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
Jeffrey Gibson’s beaded punching bags are emblazoned with statements such as “OUR FREEDOM IS WORTH MORE THAN OUR PAIN”; the materials and messages reflect both strength and rage. Drawing on his subculture experiences of the 1980s and ’90s, the Choctaw and Cherokee artist subverts expectations for what Native American art should be, particularly in an art world still rooted in colonialism. This exhibition, his first major museum show, covers a relatively brief yet vibrant period starting in 2011, from his abstract paintings on rawhide to sculptural figures decked out in beads, jingles, and a rainbow of fibers that look like Afrofuture kachina dolls.
Renoir: Father and Son / Painting and Cinema
May 6—September 3, 2018; The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Before Jean Renoir directed films like Grand Illusion (1937) that considered humanity in the face of war, he appeared as a tousle-haired baby in his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings. Featuring work by the two men, encompassing paintings, drawings, and films, this exhibition considers the dialogue between the two French artists. Jean Renoir’s ceramic art before his cinematic career further shows how his Impressionist father influenced his style, while in his films there’s an echo of the elder Renoir’s visual legacy.