Year in Review: 2023
December 31, 2023
With almost a year of reviewing behind us, we asked our editorial board what exhibitions stood out to them in 2023. Here's what they reported back.
Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
A particularly memorable exhibition in 2023 was the extraordinary Martin Wong survey at KW in Berlin. Subsequently travelling to Camden Arts Centre (London) and currently on view at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the exhibition offered a comprehensive overview of Martin Wong’s oeuvre, which has been marginalized in histories of American Art—perhaps due to its eccentric pictorial language as well as its blatant queerness and Chinese Americanness. The exhibition traced the full arc of Wong’s art practice, from his artistic beginnings in West Coast countercultural communities of San Francisco and Eureka in the 1960s and 1970s, to the consolidation of his painterly style in response to the urban landscape of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, and through his final fantastical paintings of American Chinatown scenes before his death from AIDS-related illness.
Martin Wong, Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (Eureka), 1978–81. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York © Martin Wong Foundation
Anna Uddenberg, Continental Breakfast, Meredith Rosen Gallery
I’m on my way to meet a date at the Met for their late-night hours. He’s running late, so I text him to meet me across the street at the opening performance of Anna Uddenberg’s Continental Breakfast at Meredith Rosen Gallery. The space has been transformed into a sterile waiting room, complete with fluorescent lighting, wall-to-wall blue carpeting, and red-belted stanchions for queuing. Behind the stanchions are three sculptures that evoke items and devices one might find at an airport, a hotel, or a gynecologist’s office—metal detectors, lounge seating, stirrups. Two female performers wearing flight-attendant-like uniforms direct the movement of the crowd. They stare down the crowd with such intensity that I feel deeply unsettled. Every few minutes they let some people pass behind the rope, allowing a different perspective of the installation. The room is completely silent the entire time; the performers don’t speak but communicate with blunt body language—gesturing at visitors to obey them. They take turns activating the sculptures throughout the gallery. One straps herself tightly into a seat-like contraption, which forces her back to arch, her legs to splay open, and her arms to constrict. The spectacle is at once disturbing and arousing. This affective juxtaposition is distinctive to Uddenberg’s practice: She connects the power dynamics of BDSM to our collective submission to the technocapitalist objects we interact with daily. My date arrives to meet me, and I realize I forgot to warn him about what he’s about to encounter. I watch from the other side of the room as he apprehensively submits to the performers’ orders. A sense of both pleasure and unease runs through my body. These twin desires of control and submission feel acutely familiar and linger with me for the rest of the night.
Anna Uddenberg, Continental Breakfast, 2023. Installation view, Meredith Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.
Delcy Morelos, El abrazo, Dia Chelsea
Delcy Morelos’s exhibition consists of two installations, each taking up its own gallery. For Cielo terrenal, the first work that viewers encounter at Dia, Morelos lined the room with soil from the Black Dirt Region of the Hudson Valley. The dark, textured material stretches across the floor and up the walls of the room, sharply abbreviated at the high-water mark from flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Barely lit, the array of objects on the ground—debris from past Dia exhibitions as well as ceramics from the Amazonas and Tolima departments in Colombia—is hard to make out. While those assemblages closest to the path leading viewers into Morelos’s obsidian field are visible, as one stares out into her constructed environment these objects become silhouettes, then disappear altogether.
Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023. © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York
Delcy Morelos, El abrazo (The Embrace), 2023. © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, Karen O’Connor, Miri Navatsky, and Maeve O’Boyle
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise excavates the inner life of its subject: singer, songwriter, activist, and folk legend Joan Baez. The film, originally intended to follow Baez on her farewell tour as she prepared for retirement, drastically changed course once she set the filmmakers loose upon a personal archive previously locked up in a storage unit—material Baez herself had largely avoided perusing. This staggering archive turned out to contain everything from recordings of family therapy sessions to decades of illustrated diaries. Karen O’Connor, Miri Navatsky, and Maeve O’Boyle combed through this material with discernable care in order to produce a film that feels almost unreal—such an intimate glimpse into the mind and heart of an icon like Baez shouldn’t be possible. At the center of the film is trauma; it contends with Baez’s nearly life-long struggles with mental health and the childhood sexual abuse that Baez and her sisters began to try and understand well into their adulthood. The details of this past trauma remain blurry and uncertain, not entirely resolved. And though that might frustrate viewers, it also seems an earnest extension of the film’s interest, first and foremost, in the crowded mind of its subject. Much of the film’s narrative is told not through talking heads in the present but by voices from the past, preserved in audio tapes and home movies, letters and journal entries. Baez’s drawings, made over the course of her life, are set into motion by animation studio Eat the Danger, and they allow Baez’s thoughts and feelings to become visual, at moments when words fail. Though the filmmakers incorporate ample other footage from Baez’s long and storied life as well, the most moving moments in the movie come from the personal material. Because, though the film covers the basic events of Baez’s career, it is much more attuned to her own experiences than to the events she lived through.
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, 2023. A Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Investigating the resonances between the social and political experiences of the Great Depression in the United States and those of our current moment, Art for the Millions brought together an impressive range of artworks and objects—drawn heavily from the Met’s own collection—that visualized the nation in crisis.
—Genevieve Lipinsky de Orlov
Ida York Abelman, Man and Machine, ca. 1939. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.