Exhibitions come and go, but their resonance lingers. The list below surveys 25 shows essential shows from the past decade that have had lasting impact. They have shifted how art history is conceived, and shown what can happen when diverse voices are afforded new prominence and deep consideration.
25. “A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, Ghosts, Rebels. SARS, Leslie, and the Hong Kong Story”
Venues: Para Site and Sheung Wan Civic Centre Exhibition Hall (both Hong Kong, 2013); TheCube Project Space, Taipei City, Taiwan (2014)
Staged a decade after the SARS epidemic and the death of pop star Leslie Cheung rocked Hong Kong, this quirky, idiosyncratic group show, curated by Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero, set out with the ambitious goal of disentangling harmful stereotypes about the territory and its relationship to mainland China. With new and recent works by Samson Young, Ai Weiwei, Lee Kit, Ming Wong, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as well as a restaged work from the 1960s by Lygia Pape, “A Journal of the Plague Year” historicized a lineage of art dealing with spirituality, death, and violence in contemporary Hong Kong that is still being seen at international biennials.
24. Venice Biennale—2013
Venues: Various, Venice, Italy (2013)
For this edition of the world’s oldest and most closely watched biennial, curator Massimiliano Gioni chose as his theme “The Encyclopedic Palace,” and he brought together some 158 artists in the biennale’s two main venues. Gioni’s exhibition was notable for the way it placed works by self-taught artists on equal footing with major players in the mainline art world. Hilma af Klint, Jack Whitten, Ed Atkins, Camille Henrot, Geta Bratescu, Ragnar Kjartansson, Maria Lassnig, Steve McQueen, Marisa Merz, Carol Rama, Hito Steyerl, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye were among those included; many rose to fame in the years afterward. But the exhibition wasn’t only important because it was prescient—it also marked the first time the Golden Lion for National Pavilion, the biennale’s top prize, went to an African nation, with the award going to the Angolan Pavilion for its presentation of Edson Chagas’s lush photographs comprising the series “Luanda, Encyclopedic City.”
23. Net Art Anthology
Venue: Rhizome (2017–19)
Only rarely has net art been given serious consideration in mainstream institutions, but now museums are beginning to recognize pioneering digital work from the 1990s and 2000s for the ways it predicted how new technologies would bring change to our lives. The Net Art Anthology—an exhibition presented on the website of the art-and-technology organization Rhizome and at the New Museum in New York, and overseen by Michael Connor and Aria Dean—re-created works that had been lost or no longer existed in their original forms because of obsolescence, making available all kinds of work that might have otherwise been lost. Among its notable works were VNS Matrix’s A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991), Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Black Net.Art Actions” (2001–03), Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM (2007), and Eduardo Kac’s Reabracadabra (1985).
22. Sharjah Biennial
Venues: Various, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (2017)
This 13th edition of the Sharjah Biennial was the most ambitious to date. The foundation that runs the biennial, led by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, tapped Beirut-based Christine Tohmé to lead the curatorial team, and she expanded the show’s purview beyond the United Arab Emirates, with a series of conversations over the course of a year in four cities, each with its own theme. Splitting up the programming was intended as a way to build solidarity between the artistic communities in disparate locales—with a focus on water in Dakar, Senegal; earth in Ramallah, Palestine; crops in Istanbul; and culinary culture in Beirut—as a way to combat an increasingly global world. Among the artists who mounted notable projects for the exhibition were Uriel Orlow, Jonathas de Andrade, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Hind Mezaina, Vikram Divecha, and Khalil Rabah.
21. “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011”
Venue: MoMA PS1, New York (2019–20)
The expansive Gulf War–inspired exhibition “Theater of Operations” is a recent addition to the calendar, but the show—curated by Peter Eleey and Ruba Katrib with Jocelyn Miller, Josephine Graf, and Oliver Shultz—has cemented itself as an important and radical revision of a particularly dark moment in American history. On view until March 2020, the show explores how U.S. intervention in Iraq shaped art-making there and beyond, juxtaposing works made by Middle Eastern artists such as Dia al-Azzawi and Afifa Aleiby with others by Westerners like Louise Lawler, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Richard Serra.
20. “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World”
Venue: Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014–15)
Before “The Forever Now,” the Museum of Modern Art hadn’t staged a contemporary painting survey in three decades. That in itself would have made it significant, but curator Laura Hoptman’s commitment to a provocative thesis—that painting wasn’t dead and could in fact deal with strange new technologies and odd political dynamics—established the exhibition as truly important. Though some critics blasted the show, calling it out of touch with recent trends, works by Julie Mehretu, Kerstin Brätsch, and others in “The Forever Now” have had staying power.
19. “Women of Abstract Expressionism”
Venues: Denver Art Museum, Colorado (2016); Mint Museum, Charlotte, Virginia (2016–17); Palm Springs Art Museum, California (2017)
Abstract Expressionism has long been defined as the art movement of the American male—full of macho energy and rage. But at the time it was flourishing, women were essential participants. “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” curated by Gwen Chanzit, reevaulated the careers of 12 female artists, many of whom had been relegated to relative obscurity—including Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher. The show contributed to a larger enthusiasm that reached a fever pitch with the release of Mary Gabriel’s 2018 book Ninth Street Women, which counts among one of the best books published this decade.
18. Berlin Biennale
Venues: Various, Berlin (2018)
There have been many, many shows about political resistance of late, but perhaps none as lauded as the 2018 Berlin Biennale, which was curated by a team led by Gabi Ngcobo that also included Moses Serubiri, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba. It broached knotty issues related to decolonization, in the process introducing artists of African and Latin American descent who were at the time not very well known, such as Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Cinthia Marcelle, and Firelei Báez. Its centerpiece—a video by Mario Pfeifer about a brutal attack on an Iraqi refugee in Germany—is still traveling the world today.
17. “Art Post-Internet”
Venue: UCCA Center for Contemporary Art Beijing (2014)
In the later part of the decade, a number of institutions staged surveys of art after the internet—and few of them would have been possible without this show. Curated by Karen Archey and Robin Peckham, “Art Post-Internet” convened a group of younger artists, many of them not yet 40, who deal with issues like networks, image circulation, and the cross-pollination of ideas online. With works included by then-emerging artists like Bunny Rogers, Katja Novitskova, Jon Rafman, Artie Vierkant, and Jordan Wolfson, the show pinpointed a style that is still being debated today.
16. Documenta 13
Venues: Various, Kassel, Germany; Kabul, Afghanistan; Banff, Canada; Alexandria, Egypt (2013)
Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev embraced the notion of an exhibition as a sprawling, intercontinental adventure, spreading work by 200 artists across venues in Kassel with an additional exhibition in Kabul and events in Banff and Alexandria. To view it all was nearly impossible, and the exhibition’s manifold points of inquiry—quantum physics, speculative realism, conflict in the Middle East—reflected truly chaotic times. The curatorial conceit would have been enough to cement this Documenta’s place in art history, but the breadth of its work—which included objects that had been damaged during the Lebanese Civil War alongside works by Adriana Lara, Zanele Muholi, Anna Boghiguian, and many others now considered important—was also formidable.
15. “Made in L.A.: a, the, though, only”
Venue: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016)
Though this wasn’t the first iteration of the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial, it was the one that proved to the art world what many Angelenos have known for years—that Los Angeles is a city with an arts community that cannot be ignored. Curated by Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker, the 2016 show included many of the city’s most interesting artists—some of whom, just three years later, have become among the most closely watched anywhere in the world. After appearing here, Arthur Jafa won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Gala Porras-Kim, Martine Syms, Todd Gray, and rafa esparaza showed in Whitney Biennials. And Huguette Caland, who died earlier this year, had a major survey exhibition at Tate St. Ives in England. The exhibition’s most memorable work came from esparza, who installed a series of adobe bricks he had made with his father on the Hammer’s terrace as a harbinger of the great art he would produce in the years to come.
14. “Greater New York”
Venue: MoMA PS1, New York (2015)
The 2015 edition of Greater New York, a once-every-five-years survey of city-based artists at MoMA PS1 in Queens, was a font of discoveries. Curated by Peter Eleey, Thomas J. Lax, Mia Locks, and Douglas Crimp (the pioneering art historian who died earlier this year), this exhibition was where the now-celebrated abstract painter Howardena Pindell became the subject of renewed attention, and it was where many found out about Alvin Baltrop, the photographer of ’70s-era queer culture around New York’s West Side piers. It also turned many on to some of today’s most important emerging artists, including Cameron Rowland, Eric N. Mack, Ajay Kurian, Raúl de Nieves, and Park McArthur (who all went on to appear in an edition of the Whitney Biennial after).
13. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”
Venues: Guggenheim Museum, New York (2017–18); Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (2018); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2018–19)
The history of contemporary Chinese art was rewritten by this survey, which included the usual suspects—Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Huang Yong Ping, and others—alongside some who are rarely shown in American institutions but have altered their country’s scene no less, like Zhang Peili, Lin Tianmao, and the Tactile Sensation Group. (An all-star curatorial team including Alexandra Munroe, Hou Hanru, and Philip Tinari was behind the exhibition.) From its start, it was plagued by controversy—works by Huang, Xu, and the duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu were removed or altered after an outcry by animal rights activists. But the show’s incisive exploration of the incursion of Western capitalism into mainland China and the ways artists rebelled against it have affirmed the show’s place in art history.
12. The Grand Tour
Venues: Venice Biennale, Italy; Documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany, and Athens, Greece; Skulptur Projekte Münster in Münster, Germany, all 2017
A once-in-decade convergence of three of the world’s top art events in 2017 trotted out pioneering artworks of all kinds from noted artists across the globe. Under what might have seemed like a tepid theme of “Viva Arte Viva,” Venice Biennale curator Christine Macel assembled an all-star line-up that included Franz Erhard Walther, Nancy Shaver, Judith Scott, Sheila Hicks, Zilia Sánchez, and Huguette Caland. Documenta 14 took as its title “Learning from Athens,” in an attempt to create a bridge between its traditional home in Germany and a satellite site in Athens, and brought together key works by Beau Dick, Maria Eichhorn, Olu Oguibe, Lorenza Böttner, Pope.L, and Roee Rosen. And the once-a-decade show Skulptur Projekte Münster, which took over that German city with massive art, resulted in some of the most important works of the decade, including sculptures and installations by Pierre Huyghe and Nicole Eisenman.
11. “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985”
Venues: Brooklyn Museum, New York (2017); Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (2018)
Several pioneering shows have surveyed the art of the Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but this show stood alone as a platform to look at the confluence between the two in ways made possible by what is now known as intersectional feminism. “We Wanted a Revolution,” which was curated by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, highlighted how women’s activism influenced their artistic production and vice-versa, with outré avant-garde strategies combining with radical politics in work by artists like Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Ming Smith, Linda Goode Bryant, Beverly Buchanan, Emma Amos, and Carrie Mae Weems.