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10 Brilliant U.S. Art Exhibitions Worth Traveling for This Summer

By Allison C. Meier

Jun 27, 2018

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Lucy Raven, “Curtains” (2014)

Courtesy of the artist, © Lucy Raven

Lucy Raven, “Curtains” (2014)

Combine your next trip with some world-class art.

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In sprawling retrospectives and intimate installations, U.S. museums are hosting summer exhibitions that reexamine art history and highlight the vibrancy of contemporary art. Two ambitious citywide exhibitions are also raising the cultural profile of the Midwest and Southwest.

Here are 10 shows to make a part of your summer plans.

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, “Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz” (1983–84)
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night

July 13—September 30, 2018; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

Buffalo tumbling from a cliff; a young boy’s face surrounded by text on the violence and oppression of gay men: These are some of the bristling visuals left behind by the late David Wojnarowicz. “I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder, and I’m amazed that we’re not running amok in the streets and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this,” the New York artist wrote in his 1991 book Close to the Knives, published just before his death in 1992 from AIDS-related complications.

This major retrospective at the Whitney features over 100 works that demonstrate the range of his art, including performance, sculpture, film, painting, photography, writing, and music. Whether painting the walls of the abandoned Hudson River piers, or photographing his dying friends, Wojnarowicz in his art united startling beauty and activist spirit. 

SITElines.2018: Casa tomada

August 3, 2018—January 6, 2019; SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe

The participating artists in SITElines.2018 were announced in the form of a song by Stephanie Taylor, horns punctuating the litany of 23 names from eight countries. It was the first project of this year’s edition of the newly reimagined biennial from SITE Santa Fe, which is bringing a diversity of new art from the Americas to the Southwest. Inspired by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s 1946 short story “Casa tomada,” or “House Taken Over,” its theme is a timely exploration of borders, immigration, and who controls this movement.

New commissions include weavings by Melissa Cody, who infuses traditional Navajo techniques with contemporary sources such as video game pixelation, Edgar Heap of Birds’s Surviving Active Shooter Custer with red monoprints recalling the 1868 Washita Massacre and recent military invasions, and sculptures by Tania Pérez Córdova that meditate on processes of exchange and who is absent from these actions.

Susan Meiselas, “Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, ‘Molotov Man,’ Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979” (1979)
Susan Meiselas: Mediations

July 21—October 21, 2018; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), San Francisco

In her influential photography career, Susan Meiselas has considered the personal resonance of an image and has collected sound, video, and oral accounts to evoke this context. This West Coast retrospective of her work includes 1970s portraits of carnival strippers—accompanied by interviews with the women and their New England clients—and runs right up to her recent multimedia project on the 1990s Kurdish genocide.


Each series asks who exactly photography serves, whether that’s her 1991-92 “Archives of Abuse” that involves handwritten police reports and forensic photographs of domestic violence in San Francisco, or her impactful 1980s color shots of Central American conflicts. Experienced together, they show a leading American photographer’s ability to create relationships with her subjects, which are then evocatively shared with the viewer.

3D: Double Vision

July 15, 2018—March 31, 2019; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles

In the 1830s, 3D imagery emerged with the invention of the stereoscope, a double-lensed scientific instrument that soon made its way into popular culture. Victorians could observe battlegrounds, exotic lands, and humorous tableaux, all in three dimensions due to the optical process that turns the information received by each eye into one image. This new exhibition on this form of representation invites attendees to interact with 175 years of 3D media, with over 60 objects showing how art and technology have merged over the years.

In Simone Forti’s holographic “Striding” (1975-78), a figure’s motion is activated as a viewer walks around a cylinder, while Lucy Raven’s “Curtains” (2014) has visitors don 3D glasses to witness the assembly line workers behind the labor-intensive visual effects of 21st-century cinema.

Charles White, “Our Land” (1951)
Charles White: A Retrospective

June 8—September 3, 2018; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

As a child, Charles White spent many hours in the Art Institute of Chicago, and when he later graduated from the Institute’s art school in 1938, he devoted his career to amplifying the histories that were missing in U.S. art. This retrospective at his former haunt chronicles four decades of his paintings, drawings, and prints that portray African American people and history with dignity.

“Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent,” White once stated. Works like Our Land (1951), with a sharecropper posed in her home gazing at the place of her endless toil, and The Trenton Six (1949), with the wrongfully incarcerated black defendants standing in a swirl of graphite behind barbed wire, show how White used his masterful art as activism.

Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson


June 14—September 9, 2018; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle

To mark 150 years since the birth of U.S. photographer Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle Art Museum didn’t want simply to revisit his now iconic early 1900s photographs of Native American life. Instead, the institution is contextualizing his complex legacy of romanticizing and staging his subjects as a “vanishing race” with the work of three contemporary indigenous artists.

Marianne Nicolson’s light box installation has Pacific Northwest–style scenes illuminated on the walls, Tracy Rector’s multimedia work shares indigenous stories through film, and Will Wilson employs 19th-century photographic techniques to insert a lacking representation into this sepia-toned past.

Mike + Doug Starn, “Big Bambú” installation view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú

June 10—September 3, 2018; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


In previous iterations of Mike and Doug Starn’s Big Bambú, viewers ascended the sweeping lattices of bamboo from the ground; in Houston, thanks to the project’s first indoor installation, visitors can descend from the second floor of the museum’s lobby into the tumult of organic material. There they can discover how the seemingly chaotic construction of 3,000 lashed together bamboo poles has been shaped into a stable form and get ever-changing perspectives on the luminous Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed space.

Complementing the installation are large-scale photographs of other bamboo structures by the Starn brothers, including Big Bambú’s first public installation in 2010 on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A Spectacle in Motion: The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World

July 14 — October 8, 2018; Kilburn Mill, New Bedford, Massachusetts

For the first time in decades, the longest American painting is going on view in its entirety. The New Bedford Whaling Museum is organizing this display of the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World (1848) in New Bedford’s historic Kilburn Mill. Recently conserved, the 1,275-foot painting (longer than the height of the Empire State Building) is a rare example of a moving panorama, which were literal moving pictures in a pre-cinema age.

The narrative follows a ship as it departs New Bedford, hunts the colossal whales, and travels the world where blasting volcanoes and indigenous island communities provide an immersive visual of 19th-century maritime life. The panorama itself won’t be shown in a moving format at Spectacle in Motion: The Experience. There will be a digital installation that allows visitors to witness it as its 19th-century creators intended, in a theater setting.

FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

July 14—September 30, 2018; Cleveland

This inaugural edition of Cleveland’s triennial is a massive event aimed at promoting the city as a major cultural hub. Over 50 international artists are responding to the theme “An American City,” and all the social, environmental, and cultural issues that entails.

In the Cleveland Public Library, Yinka Shonibare is installing some 6,000 books covered with batik cloth and adorned with the names of immigrants who impacted American culture; at the Oberlin Weltzheimer/Johnson House, new paintings by Juan Araujo will respond to the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed architecture. And in one of the most monumental projects, a 1973 mural by Julian Stanczak will be recreated on a 12-story building, the first step in the revival of the city’s mural program, a series that will continue beyond the triennial.

Howard Finster, “Take My Yoke Upon You and Learn of Me, Saith Jesus, #1,060” (1977-78)
Outliers and American Vanguard Art

June 24—September 30, 2018; High Museum of Art, Atlanta

The High Museum of Art was one of the first U.S. institutions to devote serious attention to self-taught and folk art, so it’s fitting that this sweeping exhibition, which debuted earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., makes a stop in Atlanta. Rather than sequester the over 80 artists of more than 250 works as “outsider artists,” the exhibition highlights their influence on and participation in the mainstream of 20th-century art.

For the Atlanta show, pieces from the High Museum of Art’s collection will be added, including the visionary messages of environment builder Howard Finster and Mary Lee Bendolph’s vibrant quilts with geometric abstractions.

>> Next: Celebrate LGBTQ Pride at These Powerful U.S. Art Exhibits

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