The Top Ten Shows in the United States in 2023

From a retrospective of Josh Kline in New York to the ‘Made in LA’ biennial, here are the best stateside exhibitions of the year

BY Lisa Yin Zhang in Critic's Guides | 22 DEC 23

The times feel bleak – that much is clear from the range of subjects explored in this year’s list. At the Whitney Museum in New York, Josh Kline explores a dystopic future, while Sable Elyse Smith tracks the machinations of our so-called justice system in her show at Regen Projects, Los Angeles. But there are, as always, pockets of loveliness and hope: Pacita Abad’s hand-embroidered tapestries at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, are a joy to behold, while the ‘Made in LA’ biennial at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, envisages the city as a tapestry of tender interactions. In no order, here are the top shows of 2023.

Matthew Barney

Artist's studio in Long Island City, New York

Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023
Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © Matthew Barney; photograph: Julieta Cervantes

This past summer, if you hooked west on a certain unassuming block in Queens, passed a series of parking lots and followed the bend of a restaurant along the river, you’d have found ‘Secondary’, on view at Matthew Barney’s Long Island City studio. The filmmaker, perhaps best known for The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002), here drew inspiration from an infamous incident in the NFL: in a preseason game in the summer of 1978, the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum hurtled into Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots with so much force that Stingley’s vertebrae shattered, paralyzing him. The cement floors of the studio were clad with colourful astroturf, and a four-headed jumbotron played the film, whose score and choreography telegraph the exertion of athletic drills and industrial production. ‘I felt continuously anxious that something sudden and violent might occur wherever I wasn’t looking,’ wrote Brecht Wright Gander in his review in our October issue, ‘the feeling, I gather, of being a receiver staring up at a lofted ball, listening peripherally for an impending tackle.’

‘Drum Listens to Heart’ 

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco

Theaster Gates, Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014
Theaster Gates, Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014, film still. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London

Beginning in September of 2022 and concluding this past March, the Wattis Institute at California College of the Arts presented a mammoth three-part exhibition that gathered an international roster of artists to explore music and its relationship to freedom and cultural history. Though the exhibition list included some big names – Theaster Gates, David Hammons and Haegue Yang among them – the ultimate emphasis was on polyvocality. Tausif Noor, in a double-length review for the October issue, pointed out that ‘rhythm’ is an expansive remit: Francis Alÿs’s Guards (2004) reminds us that the ‘enforced maintenance of regular patterns marks the disproportionate power of a state.’ But there is power too, Noor observed, in the co-created rhythm of an ensemble. ‘I felt [London-based sound artist and DJ Nkisi] create an atmosphere in real time,’ he wrote, ‘a sonic environment that held together an otherwise motley audience for an hour before they spilled back into the regular tempo of their lives.’

Darrel Ellis

The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York

Allen Frame, Darrel Ellis in José Rafael Arango’s Apartment, 1981, chromogenic print, 28 × 36 cm. Courtesy: Allen Frame Collection

Last spring, the Bronx Museum of Art offered a scholarly survey of the late Bronx native Darrel Ellis. He was a renaissance man – ‘dreamer… painter … philosopher … poet… raconteur’, as John Keene wrote in his feature, hovering between elegy and apostrophe, in our May issue. Ellis’s works combine painting, printmaking and photography and many blends therein: he rephotographed the works of a father who passed early in his life, made an ink painting of a picture the artist Peter Hujar had taken of him, made collages of family members and covered them with ink. ‘I sense you searching for a new way to represent reality and experience, the self and the world, as multiplicity,’ Keene continued, ‘to construct a personal and unanticipated archive.’

Ignacio Gatica

von ammon co, Washington, DC

Ignacio Gatica, Stones Above Diamonds (detail), 2023
Ignacio Gatica, Stones Above Diamonds (detail), 2023, stock ticker, live financial data, LED screens, steel frame, printed credit cards, card reader, aluminum shelves, 2.5 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: the artist

‘Santiago is like a mini Manhattan’, artist Ignacio Gatica told Ian Bourland in a review for our summer issue. Under the Augusto Pinochet regime (1973–90), the Chilean city became, Bourland writes, ‘an eerily distorted mirror image in which [the] worst lessons [of neoliberalism] – consumerism, debt, financialization of daily life – are gospel.’ Gatica trades in the aesthetics of such structures: an LED ticker, assembled and programmed with an algorithm designed by the artist himself, streaming GDP data; a credit card reader whirling through desolate street scenes after mass protests; credit cards printed with those same images. Good art makes us see the world differently. ‘It was newly upsetting to walk out of the gallery into displays of luxury,’ Bourland writes. ‘Beneath shimmering surfaces is a Potemkin village of shoddy construction and demand-side precarity.’

Sarah Sze

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Sarah Sze, Timekeeper, 2016
Sarah Sze, Timekeeper, 2016, installation view. Courtesy: © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; photograph: David Heald

More and more, the artworld tracks the collapse between the digital and the analogue, the image and the object. ‘Timelapse’ at the Guggenheim Museum, Sze told Erika Balsom in a column for our October issue, ‘traces that explosion in my work.’ The exhibition ranges from Sze’s earliest works in the late ’90s to her most recent, Timekeeper (2016), a cacophonous amalgam of screens, lights and armature, as well as a number of site-specific installations. Together, Sze’s work seems to argue for a sense of time as accreted, indexed and marked by experience. ‘The idea is to create a situation in which you feel that you’re in the midst of a precarious experience,’ Sze says. ‘You recognize that you’re in this very pointed moment, in an arc that will end.’

Sable Elyse Smith

Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Sable Elyse Smith, Coloring Book 135, 2023
Sable Elyse Smith, Coloring Book 135, 2023, screen printing ink, oil pastel, and oil stick on paper, 1.5 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: © Sable Elyse Smith; Regen Projects, Los Angeles

‘Fair Grounds’, the title of Sable Elyse Smith’s exhibition at Regen Projects, reviewed in our upcoming January/ February issue by Claudia Ross, is a double entendre, referring both to the site of a carnival and to the legal basis upon which someone may be put on trial. The exhibition traded in both, revealing the carceral as carnivalesque. A pair of giant jacks made from prison stools, almost a metre and a half on each side, dominated the gallery space. Works from Smith’s ‘Colouring Book’ series repurposed playful pages from a children’s book to grim effect: in one, beside the words ‘PEOPLE HAVE TO SEE THE JUDGE WHEN THEY BREAK THE LAW’, a figure with Black skin has been marked with a massive target centred on their abdomen. ‘Smith’s multimedia artworks transform the detritus of the carceral state into contemporary spectacle,’ Ross writes, ‘exploring the ways the American legal system morphs oppression into arcade.’

Josh Kline

The Whitney 
Museum of American Art, New York

Josh Kline, Desperation Dilation, 2016
Josh Kline, Desperation Dilation, 2016, cast silicone, shopping cart, polyethylene bags, rubber, plexiglass, LEDs, and power cord, 117 × 74 × 102 cm. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York © Josh Kline; photograph: Joerg Lohse

Josh Kline is, as Brian Droitcour wrote in a feature for our May issue, ‘perhaps the art world’s most prominent purveyor of dystopia.’ In ‘Project for a New American Century’, the first US survey of the artist’s work, at the Whitney Museum, the artist combined video, sculpture, photography and design – but also more amorphous techniques such as data collection, digital manipulation and advertising – to construct works that unsettle the role of technology in contemporary life. But as Danielle Wu pointed out in her critic’s guide to Frieze New York, Kline also ‘distils unexpected poetry from life’s humiliating daily grind.’ In Adaptation (2019–22), for instance, a group adrift in a post-apocalyptic world share candy bars and unzip each other’s hazmat suits.

‘Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living’

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Esteban Ramón Pérez, Chimalli de Mis Ojos, 2022
Esteban Ramón Pérez, Chimalli de Mis Ojos, 2022, Necalli leather boxing gloves, peacock blade and eyelet tail feathers, chile de arbol, chile Cora, wood, copper, jute, 122 × 61 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Elon Shoenholz.

‘Acts of Living’, the sixth edition of the ‘Made in LA’ biennial at the Hammer Museum, features 39 artists, offering tender reflection on the tapestry of life in the city. Curators Diana Nawi and Pablo José Ramírez sourced the phrase from a California landmark: the words were inscribed by artist Noah Purifoy upon Sabato Robia’s folk-art sculptures, The Watts Towers (1921–54). ‘Creativity can be an act of living,’ Purifoy wrote, ‘a way of life and a formula for doing the right thing.’ Highlights for Armando Pulido, who reviewed the exhibition for our upcoming January/ February issue, include the paintings of Paige Jiyoung Moon. Nap time with Mia (2022), he writes, ‘contemporizes the iconography of the Madonna and Child – littered toys, picture books and exercise equipment’, exemplifying the affection for everyday life that the exhibition espouses.

Ligia Lewis 

CARA, New York

Ligia Lewis, study now steady, 2023
Ligia Lewis, study now steady, 2023, documentation of performance at CARA, New York. Courtesy: the artist and CARA, New York

For a show that’ll still be open when you read this, head to the Center for Art, Research and Alliances in New York, where ‘study now steady’, the first solo exhibition of Ligia Lewis is currently taking place. You’ll see the artist there – along with dancers Mame Diarra Speis, Miguel Angel Guzmán and Corey Scott-Gilbert – at times climbing the radiator, at others atop the windowsill, collapsed in a pile upon each other. If you follow Lewis’s work, you’ll see the return of certain motifs or actions common in her oeuvre: a smile that slips into a frown, flickering eyes. It feels like ‘Lewis choreographing her own retrospective,’ Mariana Fernández writes in the upcoming Jan/Feb issue, ‘if only the term didn’t defeat the nonlinearity of her entire body of work.’

Main image:  Em’kal Eyongakpa, batu kɛnɔŋ XII-rh/ babhi-bɛrat XII-r [babhi-manyɛp/ babhi-bawɛt, (mbaŋ)], 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Impart Photography

Lisa Yin Zhang is assistant editor at frieze.