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The 10 Best Art Exhibitions of 2017

Artwork: Conceited (l.) and Keisha Johnson (r.) © Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith

The beauty of an exhibition is that you must go to it. You must be in its presence for a personal encounter in real time and space. You cannot scroll, swipe, or post your way through it: you must be there, in the moment, to experience it in the flesh and receive its understanding, knowledge, and wisdom though perhaps never a word will be said.

Also: The 10 Best Art Books of 2017

In celebration, Crave has compiled a list of the 10 best art exhibitions of 2017 that take us from the turn of the twentieth century right up to the present moment, with historic exhibitions of African American art on both sides of the pond, as well as long-awaited retrospectives from the likes of Rene Magritte and Raymond Pettibon.

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85

During the late twentieth-century, black women artists found themselves in their own space at the intersection between Civil Rights and the Women’s Rights Movements. There have been times it has seemed they were on their own, marginalized no matter what community they tried to claim as their own. And yet, they have known (97% no less) the truth of this nation and fought for the basic human rights they have been promised under the law.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art celebrated the radicals who told it like it was with the exhibition, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85. Featuring the works of Crave faves Ming Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorraine O’Grady, and Lorna Simpson as well as Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, and Faith Ringgold, among many others, the show hones in on the way African-American women have used their voices to craft and cultivate complex and compelling conversations a round race, gender, politics, art, and history.

The exhibition will be traveling around the country over the coming year, and can see it for yourself at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles (through January 14, 2018); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (February 17 – May 27, 2018); and at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (June 26 – September 30, 2018).

Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People–Bobby Seale), 1969. Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

On June 16, 1966, Stokely Carmichael stood before a crowd of 3,000 in a park in Greenwood, Mississippi, who had gathered to march in place of James Meredith, who had been wounded during his solitary “Walk Against Fear” in an effort to integrate the University of Mississippi. Carmichael, who had been arrested after setting up camp, took to the stage with fire in his gut. “We’ve been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years,” the newly appointed chairman of the SNCC announced, “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power!’”

With those words, Carmichael did more than change the paradigm for Civil Rights, he transformed the language of race itself. Carmichael embraced the word “Black” while simultaneously making the case that “Negro” was the oppressor’s term of diminution and disrespect. Malcolm X, who had had been killed a year earlier, was also a proponent for the word “Black.” By the decade’s end, Ebony was using it exclusively, helping to guide the group towards a self-chosen identity that the rest of the nation came to use.

Why does this matter? Because we think in words; the very terms we use to describe the world, and the connotations they hold, inform our beliefs and perceptions, whether we realize it or not. “Black Power” began in the very naming of the act. It was a means of transforming identity from one that was given to that which was claimed.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate, London, is a tour-de-force, showcasing more than 150 words by over 60 artists made between 1963 and 1983 including Romare Bearden, Dawoud Bey, Adger Cowans, Roy DeCarava, Emory Douglas, Louis Draper, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Archibald Motley, Alice Neel, Lorraine O’Grady, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Ming Smith, and Alma Thomas, among others.

The exhibition will travel to Crystal Bridges, Bentonville, AR (February 2–April 23, 2018) and the Brooklyn Museum, NY (September 7, 2018-February 2, 2019). The show is accompanied by a masterful catalogue published by the Tate/D.A.P., which features substantial essays that provide much-needed insights into this vastly underserved and broadly neglected period of art history. Read the full review.

Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith, Roll Safe.

Meme Show: A Solo Exhibition of Works by Yesterday Nite

Over the past few years, the meme has become one of the most prominent, popular, and evocative forms of visual culture. A slice of life is lifted from the pie and reinserted by the public however they desire. Distilling an emotion into its purest form, a meme captures a sentiment far better than words ever could; recontextualized as a response to a new situation, a meme tells you everything you need to know in a single glance.

By and large, the meme has been treated ad disposable; its creators are rarely recognized or known. They are the great anonymous artists of our era, their contributions unrecognized. Perhaps the meme is too new, too fresh, too raw—but this is what gives it its power and speaks to artist Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith, who has created a body of work inspired by the memes of Black Twitter.

Crying Jordan, Uncle Denzel, and Roll Safe are just a few of Smith’s spot-on portraits of your faves. While the memes are instantly recognizable, Smith has taken them to the next level by adding his signature touch: the hand of the artist and the eye of the Afro-Surrealist. In celebration of this incredible body of work, Meme Show: A Solo Exhibition of Works by Yesterday Nite went on view at the Chris White Gallery, Wilmington, DE.

In the spirit of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Smith will be selling prints—but not originals. Those, he plans to take on tour with the air of bringing them to a top museum, where they rightfully belong. Read the full review.

René Magritte, La trahison des images, 1935, © Photothèque R. Magritte / Banque d’Images de l’ADAGP, Paris, 2016

René Magritte: The Treachery of Images

La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est past une pipe) is one of Belgian painter René Magritte’s most famous works. In English, the painting is known as The treachery of images, which depicts a sleek brown pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” underneath in French.

Naturally, it stops one dead in their tracks. Clearly this is a pipe we are looking at. But no, Magritte smiles with a sly grin. This is a painting. A pipe is an entirely different thing. This hangs on a wall. It is simply to be gazed upon for the pleasure of looking. Whereas a pipe, you stuff it, you hold it in your hands, set it aflame, and then draw it to your lips. While it might be a handsome object, its most important aspect is its function, one that is a matter of smoke and lungs, nicotine and blood, and that curious boost of energetic calmness that the drug so graciously gives.

Indeed, this is not a pipe. This is a painting calling itself out. The year was 1929, and it was quite unlike high art to take such a pithy view of itself. But Magritte had other plans for his life behind the easel. He abandoned the sanctity of art to use it as a means to deconstruct itself, creating a myriad of quixotic, romantic, sentimental, amusing, or tragic imagery.

In celebration, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt presented Magritte: The Treachery of Images, a fresh look of the legendary artist’s work. The exhibition combines famous and lesser-known works to reconsider the life’s work of one of the finest Surrealist painters to wield a brush. The exhibition, a reformulated version of the Centre Pompidou’s show earlier this year, is brilliantly catalogued in a new book from Prestel by Didier Ottinger. Read the full review.

LeRoy Neiman. Round 2, February 25, 1964. Mixed media and collage on paper.. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.

Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing

Muhammad Ali and LeRoy Neiman were a match made in heaven. When the two met here on earth, they changed the art of boxing forever. The exhibition, Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing, at the New-York Historical Society celebrated their winning combination.

LeRoy Neiman (1921­–2012) began working as an illustrator for Playboy in 1954, just a year after the magazine launched, becoming a seminal contributor that gave the publication its look and feel outside of the seductive photographs. Neiman’s style, which could best be described as American Impressionism, was bold, rugged, and captivating, keeping painting and drawing fresh at a time when photography was replacing illustration in the print media.

Neiman regularly covered athletic events, and in 1964, he found himself at the World Heavyweight Championship between Sonny Liston, the title-holder, and Cassius Claw, the No. 1 Contender. In his seminal volume, LeRoy Neiman Sketchbook (powerHouse Books), Neiman writes, “The two black American prizefighters were about to play out their parts as only the times could have scripted them, a good guy and a bad guy. Only who was who?”

Neiman would soon find out, as he began a sketchbook to record all of the details of the march. Using pencil, charcoal, ink, marker, watercolor, and collage, Neiman compiled a singular portrait of the life of these two men as they prepared for the fight of their lives. Then, he captured the fight itself, in incredibly powerful images as Cassius Clay won the belt, making headlines around the world. Read the full review.

Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 8, Plate 256. Chief Joseph – Nez Perce, 1909, Photogravure.

Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian

American photographer Edward S. Curtis embodies the essence of heroism in a single word: sacrifice. He staked everything he had to create one of the most significant bodies of work, The North American Indian, ever made and died in obscurity for all that he gave. The Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan, presented Curtis’s full oeuvre—723 portfolio prints—for what may be the first time ever.

Recognized at the largest artistic collaboration and photographic achievement in the history of the medium, The North American Indian presents a body of work made between 1906 and 1930 documenting the indigenous peoples of the land at a time when they were being systematically wiped off the face of the earth by the United States government.

The project, financed by J.P. Morgan, then the richest man in the world, was celebrated by The New York Herald as “The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible.” In total, Curtis produced 20 volumes featuring a whopping 2,200 photogravures, that were sent to subscribers as they were published. Each portfolio contained 75 hand-pressed photogravures and 300 pages of text, which was accompanied by a corresponding portfolio containing at least 35 photogravures.

Unfortunately, by 1930, less than half of the intended 500 subscriptions were sold. By this time, Curtis had lost it all. He was broke and divorced. The public’s interest in the plight of the First Peoples had disappeared, and his work as a photographer was ignored and eventually forgotten. He died of a heart attack at the age of 84, at his daughter’s home in Los Angeles in 1952. Read the full review.

Photo: (left) Arthur Jafa, Jonathan, 2017, Wallpaper. Copyright Jim Kean/Marin Independent Journal. (Far wall) Arthur Jafa Mix 1 – 3 constantly evolving, 2017. Video installation, three screens.

Arthur Jafa: A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions

One of the first things taught in art class is the concept of “negative space”: that which is the ever-present reality in which all things exist. It is the air we breathe but cannot see, the atmosphere that fills the void and holds the most complex and compelling forms. It is what you see when you actually look, when you focus on the very idea that absence is a presence all its own.

“How do we imagine things that are lost? What kind of legacy can we imagine despite that loss and despite the absence of things that never were?” American filmmaker, cinematographer, artist Arthur Jafa asks in his new exhibition, A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London.

Featuring the work of Ming Smith, Frida Orupabo, and Missylanus, Jafa has transformed the gallery into an immersive, hallucinatory experience that is driven by the desire to visualize that which has been erased: the history of Black America from the Middle Passage though the present day. As his ancestors have done for hundreds of years, Jafa draws upon what remains to elucidate the hazy and horrific history of life in the United States.

Jafa, who has most recently worked with Jay-Z to direct the music video for “4:44,” with Solange for “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and with Beyoncé on parts of “Formation,” is the first-name in videography. But his work crafting images of Black life has been going on for decades, whether collaborating with Spike Lee on Crooklyn or with his ex-wife Julie Dash on Daughters of the Dust, which is said to have inspired the look of Lemonade. Read the full review.

Ming Smith

Ming Smith is the quiet storm, her photographs evoking the soul of Billie Holiday’s music in photographic form. She has lived as an artist all her life, creating a body of work that captures the mysterious beauty of eternal truth. “Images outlive us,” Smith observes, and at the same time, without them, things disappear and the moment is gone. In this way, photographs become not only a work of art or an artifact—they become part of the collective consciousness that defines human experience.

“Something flows through you,” Smith explains. The photographer becomes a channel open to the world, transforming three dimensions into two then delivering them so that we may feel and understand their point of view. Smith’s perspective is as singular as she is. The first African-American woman to have her work collected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Smith is a pioneer, an innovator, and a rebel imbued with ineffable elegance.

The freedom to create art on her own terms allowed Smith to create a style all her own, maintain her voice and vision, and preserve her artistic integrity. Her worldview can be seen in Ming Smith, an exhibition of 75 vintage photographs that span her entire career at Steven Kasher Gallery, New York. Here, there is a freedom of that which simply is: the freedom of existence as we draw breath. Smith does as she pleases, and what pleases her is the beauty of life in its delicate, eloquent, nuanced forms. Her photographs are timeless images of the ephemeral, the moments that hit us like a bolt of lightening from up above. Read the full review.

No Title (Lieutenant! There’s our), 2008. Pen, ink, and gouache on paper, 22 1/4 x 30 in (57.2 x 76.2 cm). Aishti Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon. Photography courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work

“I don’t make art with grandiose delusions. I do know there are limits to what art is capable of. That makes it all the more appealing to me. And I can do as I will whenever I choose,” American artist Raymond Pettibon has said, revealing the essence of the continuous appeal of his work. A populist without pretense who came up in the West Coast punk scene, Pettibon honed the D.I.Y. ethos of the era into a fine art career.

Now, in celebration of his phenomenal body of work, the New Museum, New York, presented Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, the first major museum retrospective of his work, currently on view through April 9, 2017. The exhibition takes America to task for its truths, providing a perspective that is equal parts poignant, witty, and subversive.

Pettibon, born in 1957, came of age as the idealistic impulses of the 1960s counterculture collapsed. In the void, punk came raging forth. Rejecting all systems of hierarchy, it posited the eternal truth: no one else is going to do it unless you do. Pettibon got his start playing bass in the group called Panis; he suggested they change their name to Black Flag and designed their iconic logo, featuring four black bars that combined the supermatist spirit of Kazmir Malevich with the graphic genius of Paul Rand.

From this prescient start, Pettibon’s work as an artist found its niche, creating zines and album covers that were so singular, Kim Gordon took to Artforum in the 1980s to sing his praises. Pettibon create a style that was entirely his own, one that evokes the mysticism of William Blake and with the raw nerve of Francisco de Goya, combined with the contemporary stylings of underground comix artists like Jay Lynch and Art Spiegelman. Read the full review.

Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery 2017. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.

Luke Willis Thompson: Autoportrait

July 6, 2016, had begun as so many other nights had for 32-year-old Philando Castile, a nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile had gone out for a haircut, then to dinner with his sister before picking up his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter. The family of three had gone food shopping and were heading home for the evening.

It was just after 9:00 p.m. when St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez spotted the white 1997 Oldsmobile on the road and radioed into a nearby squad car, saying, “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose. I couldn’t get a good look at the passenger.”

At 9:05 p.m. CDT, Yanez ordered Castile to pull over and approached the car. Forty seconds later, he shot Castile seven times at point blank range in an extrajudicial killing witnessed by millions on Facebook Live.

Reynolds had the presence of mind to film the incident from start to finish, showing the world the truth: what happens when a black man legally carries a firearm in the United States. Yanez asked for his license and registration. Castile informed Yanez that the information was in his wallet, and that he was carrying a firearm. He reached for his wallet to show the documents requested and Yanez freaked out. He became convinced that Castile was going to pull his gun, despite Castile’s dying words: he was following the law.

In November 2016, Australian artist Luke Willis Thompson reached out to Diamond Reynolds, with the assistance of Chisenhale Gallery, London, to begin a dialogue about creating a “sister-image” to Reynolds’ video broadcast. In April 2017, the work was completed: a silent portrait of Reynolds shot on 35m black and white film, presented in Autoportrait at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

The white cube of the gallery is painted black, while the film screens as a single image on the back wall. It is a simple, silent, poignant portrait of a woman the world has come to know as a heroine, a vision of courage, and a figure of composure that few possess within their soul. Read the full review.


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.