We witness the insane prices that billionaires pay for art, and imagine it decorating their yachts. We stand in line to see exhibitions of the usual suspects—Impressionists, girls with pearl earrings, high-end fashion designers—and feel as though we’re in line for a Hollywood blockbuster. These days, it’s easy to imagine that art has joined the world of the superficial and consumable. All the old claims that art is good for the soul, and for society, can seem either overblown or out of date. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find that, in the huge roster of shows coming to art museums in 2014, a good number number seem likely to wake us up to the state of our world today and to the problems we’re facing. Here are 20 exhibitions that look set to shake us out of our consumerist complacency.
Readykeulous by Ridykeulous: This is What Liberation Feels Like™
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
January 24–April 13
The artists A.L. Steiner and Nicole Eisenman have come together in a curatorial collective called Ridykeulous, and they’ve organized this show of “emotionally charged works by over forty artists and activists” who are “primarily concerned with queer and feminist art.” We are also promised “angry letters and diatribes” by the likes of Tracey Emin, Donald Judd, Carolee Schneeman, Kara Walker, and David Wojnarowicz.
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video
Guggenheim, New York City
January 24–May 14
This is a major retrospective of Carrie Mae Weems, one of the leading African American artists of the last few decades. Her photo-based work has always confronted problems of race, gender and class, but this show promises to include more recent issues of global injustice.
Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art
February 1–May 19
For something like the last 80 years, artists have made art about—and with—food. This exhibition, originally put together by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, surveys the history of “artist-orchestrated meals” that offer “a radical form of hospitality that punctures everyday experience,” and that breed new kinds of social engagement. Italian Futurists Gordon Matta-Clark, Marina Abramović, and Rirkrit Tiravanija are among the gastronomes surveyed.
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
February 9–May 18
Mark Dion, Barbara Kruger and Fred Wilson are a few of the artists brought together at the Hammer to show the links between artworks that appropriate the images of others and works that are all about “institutional critique”—the institutions they critique being the very ones that show the critiquers’ art.
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
February 12–August 17
Kara Walker, whose famous silhouettes poke at the issues of race that still bedevil the U.S., has organized this group show of contemporary works that “respond aggressively to social inequities.”
Steve Mumford’s War Journals, 2003-2013
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville
February 28–June 8
Mumford uses the apparently tame, traditional media of watercolors and pencil sketches, all done from life, to confront the troubled situations Americans have bred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay.
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties
March 7–July 6
This show honors the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which came into force on July 2, 1964. It will include around 75 images created during the era by the likes of Richard Avedon, Elizabeth Catlett, Philip Guston, Norman Lewis, and Andy Warhol.
Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves”
The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
March 19–July 6
Antin is one of the greats in Feminist and political art. This show looks at the various personas she’s adopted and portrayed while taking on the social issues of our time.
In Focus: Ansel Adams
Getty Museum, Los Angeles
March 18–July 20
This is a survey of the photos that Adams himself most prized. His gorgeous images of nature may seem the opposite of political, but it’s worth remembering that Adams was one of this country’s earliest and most ardent conservationists. Also, as I’ve argued, his pictures hint at the industrialization that he leaves out of them.
Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
April 6–July 27
This show bills itself as being about nothing more than the color and design of the quilts in this great collection. But any art form made by women—often black women—and then collected by two gay men has unavoidable political undertones.
Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men and the 1964 World’s Fair
Queens Museum, NY & Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
April 20–September 7 (Queens); September 27–January 5 (Pittsburgh)
Warhol is not often seen as a deeply political artist, but I believe he was more socially conscious than we think. Fifty years ago, he was asked to make a huge mural for the New York State pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens, and produced a Warholian grid of mugshots of New York City’s “13 Most Wanted Men.” This made such a clear reference to gay desire and issues of crime, class, and ethnicity in America that within days the fair’s officials had forced him to paint the whole thing over. He chose silver paint, of course, to act as a kind of mirror in which viewers can see themselves.
Beyond the Super Square
Bronx Museum of the Arts
May 1–January 11
This show explores Modernism in Latin America and the Caribbean, and how the movement had especially strong political and social implications in lands south of the U.S.
David Hartt: Stray Light
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
May 17–August 11
In an exhibition opening in May in Pittsburgh, Hartt’s video and photographs are all about the Johnson publishing empire in Chicago, which produced Ebony and Jet and other magazines crucial to Black identity in the U.S.
Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede
Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
May 18–August 24
The great artist and famous designer, who were close comrades in the 1970s and ‘80s, may seem like perfect symbols of a particularly superficial moment in our culture. But they were also vital to the opening up of gay identity, and its acceptance in mainstream American life. This show surveys their work and interactions.
The Scandalous Art of James Ensor
Getty Museum, Los Angeles
June 10–August 31
Ensor’s most famous painting was a scathing—and gorgeous—allegorical attack on Belgian society at the end of the 19th century.
Jeff Koons: A Retrospective
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
June 27–October 19
In this giant, museum-spanning show that will survey Koons’s career, the market darling and popular artist will hold a mirror (or mirrored balloon dog) up to our society’s obsession with sales and popularity.
Ernest Cole: Photographer
Grey Art Gallery of NYU, New York City
September 3–December 6
Ernest Cole, who died at the age of 50 in 1990, was one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists. He had the courage to document the oppressions of apartheid, and that system’s dire effects on the lives of its Black citizens.
Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain
Yale Center for British Art
October 2–December 14
We think of England’s great era of portraiture as being all about genteel social and artistic display. This show will reveal its darker side.
Art and Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence
Menil Collection, Houston
October 3–January 11
The Menil Collection will stage the first show to look at the relationship between Gandhi’s ideals and politics and the art of the cultures he came out of, and then contributed to.
Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
November 22–May 10
“In 2030, the world’s population will be a staggering eight billion people. Of these, two-thirds will live in cities. Most will be poor.” So says the blurb for this MoMA show opening at the end of 2014, which will look at how we’ll have to deal with those facts.