Top 10 Modern and Contemporary Art Exhibitions of 2011 Worth Visiting

For many of us, the new year invites thoughts of new beginnings, new adventures, and new resolutions. For me, the new year also invites plans of travel and an entire year of new art exhibitions to research and visit, and for several years now I have made concerted efforts to coordinate personal and business trips around upcoming shows at favourite modern and contemporary galleries around North America and Europe. Seeing Marina Abramovic at MoMA last spring was a true highlight of 2010. This year is no different, and with a research trip planned to Europe over the summer, a late spring trip to New York and a fall visit to Washington D.C. and/or Chicago, I am already thinking about how to work in a good schedule of museum and gallery going.

Over the holiday break, I began the process of planning ahead, and have picked ten modern and contemporary art exhibitions that I think are more than worth a visit. Because many galleries can only announce upcoming events into the late summer, keep in mind that this list represents mainly the best of 2011 through the early fall. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that I can find my way to more than a few of the following:

Ken Lum, Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1990)
10. Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver: Ken Lum (February 12- September 25)

I am starting with an exhibition close to home, and one that surveys the work of Vancouver-based artist Ken Lum who has played an important and influential role in the development of contemporary conceptual art discourse both locally and globally. Lum has both represented Canada at Documenta and helped train and guide new generations of Canadian visual artists through his work and writings. He was also a professor in my department while I was a graduate student at UBC—so happy to see VAG producing this show!  

Eadweard Muybridge, Phases of a Stride (1879)
9. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco: Helios Eadward Muybridge in a Time of Change (February 27- June 11)

I have already blogged about this fantastic exhibition and its history, but I am placing it on my list since it will be happening so close to home and only a quick plane ride away.

8. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna: Direct Art—Viennese Actionism in an International Context (November 12- May 29)

The Viennese actionists are an avant-garde performance art group originating in the 1960s that have always both intrigued and repelled me at the same time. Where better to learn about the controversial movement and its international contexts than in Vienna (at one of my favourite modern art gallery spaces)? This show is technically from 2010, but since it will be running into late spring, I wanted to include it on my list.

Alexander McQueen, late fashion designer
7. Metropolitan Museum of New York, New York: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty (May 4- July 31)

Normally I am not a big fan of fashion retrospectives at art museums, but I am making an exception for the work of Alexander McQueen, a true conceptual artist and creative designer who pushed the envelope of what constitutes fashion in the contemporary moment. His tragic death last year sparked many calls for commemoration, and I think this exhibition will begin this much needed process.

My area of special interest remains the fin de siècle period of modern art and visual culture up until the First World War, so I am especially thrilled that the Guggenheim will feature many of its most important works from this period in a dedicated show. More than 100 works representing an international and radical collection of artists is promised, and the timing of the exhibition coincides beautifully with the MoMA exhibition on Hungarian Revolutionary posters of 1919.

5. Museum of Modern Art, New York: Staging Action, Performance in Photography since 1960 (January 28-May 9); Abstract Expressionism and Film (February 13- May 23)
Rong Rong, East Village Beijing No. 81 (1994)

As mentioned in the previous entry, MoMA is already on my list with its look at Hungarian graphic art, but I will also make a trip to check out the exhibition showcasing the role of photography in the documentation and creation of performace art, and the fascinating topic of abstract expressionism’s influence on the world of filmmaking.

This dedicated exhibition featuring the work of female artists in one of the highest profile modern and contemporary art galleries in the world has been part of an ongoing series of thematic exhibitions since mid-2009. Unfortunately I have yet to manage a visit to the Beaubourg to see how this curatorial idea pans out in the exhibition space—there are many critics who do not think this show succeeds at all, but I want to check it out and decide for myself.

As I continue to pursue research in the area of digital and new media art, I am increasingly interested in seeing how curators and art institutions deal with exhibiting and pushing the discourse forward in this arena. I think this particular approach by Berlin’s House of World Culture Museum is both refreshing and very timely. Too bad it is only a week long event!

Gerhard Richter, Woman Descending
the Staircase
For students who have taken contemporary art history classes with me and probed the question of what happens to painting after the demise of modernism, you know my admiration for Gerhard Richter. This first major retrospective of the German artist’s work is sure to be one of the highlights of the year for many art critics, art historians, and art enthusiasts alike.

As an art historian who spends a great deal of time introducing the concept of modernism and tracing the beginnings of modern art, I would both like to visit but also love to take an entire group of students to view and discuss this particular exhibition. Edouard Manet is of course a key artist in what is arguably a Franco-centered modern art discourse (one that I question and often challenge in my own work), but this exhibition promises to do more than simply celebrate the painter—it promises to consider the painter’s legacy and residual impact on the direction of art historical discourse writ large. This and the Richter show are tied as my first and second choice of the year, but I would always take a trip to Paris over a trip to London-- sorry my British friends!