The best American art of 2016

Njideka Akunyili Crosby mapped the route to somewhere brave and important, while Manus Machina intertwined the art and science of dressmaking

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Norton Museum of Art

No more play. If 2016 endures in American history as a year of epochal disaster, then it will be fair to ask, in the grim years to come: how on earth could artists have joked around so much while the darkness gathered? But in a year whose most debated exhibition came from a quartet of dim New York fashion dropouts who laugh about fascism, one painter, 33 years old, born in Nigeria and working in Los Angeles, has been mapping the route to somewhere braver and more important. Njideka Akunyili Crosbys crowded but deeply assured paintings absorb wholly different styles of image-making into exquisite, syncretic artworks, and though her scenes are hushed, her ambition is blazing. When too many young artists go small, she plays the long game putting western art history in the service of a new, transcultural imagination with herself at its nucleus.

I Refuse to Be Invisible was the apt title for this poised exhibition, her first proper museum retrospective, and indeed almost all of Akunyili Crosbys paintings are autobiographical. The artist appears with her family at kitchen tables or on overstuffed couches, in an easy, unruffled manner that recalls the work of her teacher at Yale, the great figurative painter Catherine Murphy. Painted passages jostle with photo transfers and collage: bodies are framed by wax-printed fabrics, and overlaid with pictures of Lagos soap stars or the fedora-wearing former president Goodluck Jonathan. Her husband, who is white and American, frequently appears alongside her, and several of the most beautiful paintings here depicted their bodies intertwined, dancing or making love. But it is so much more than romance; the affection and the domesticity are what gives her art such political force. Manet and the Harlem Renaissance, Velzquez and the comedies of Nollywood: they are all hers, to be chopped and screwed at will, and redeployed in the creation of images that dont exist yet, and must.

Njideka Akunyili Crosbys I Still Face You. Photograph: Joshua White/JWPicture/Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

The art world has wrestled mightily with matters of identity in the last few years, with varying degrees of subtlety. What Akunyili Crosby knows (and what she shares with Kerry James Marshall, whose fine retrospective continues at the Met Breuer) is that an engaged commitment to black or African visibility has to work through art history, not against it, and that the most powerful way to redress its injustices is to stake your claim, proudly, confidently, at its very center. I would call that commitment to seriousness, to what her fellow African virtuoso JM Coetzee called an imperative uniting the aesthetic and the ethical the most important for any artist, only more urgent in this alarming era of new apartheids. And I would call Akunyili Crosby the most important painter of her generation.

Manus Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Manus x Machina. Photograph: Courtesy of CHANEL Patrimoine Collection/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Its become a reliable spectacle: on the first Monday in May the A-listers and aspirants
swan up the steps of 1000 Fifth Avenue for their one visit each year to the worlds greatest museum, while put-upon social media interns broadcast their gowns worldwide. But the Mets Costume Institute took a bolder tack this year with this muscular, centuries-spanning investigation of the intertwined workings of artisanal and mechanical methods of dressmaking. The old distinction between haute couture and ready-to-wear no longer seemed so clear when looking at Iris van Herpens 3D-printed frock and Karl Lagerfelds digitally embossed wedding gown, which made use of both the latest gizmos and techniques dating to before the French Revolution. Exquisitely designed by the architect Shohei Shigematsu, it was the single best fashion exhibition the Met has mounted in a decade the very model of a hard-thinking blockbuster.

Cao Fei, MoMA PS1

My future is not a dream, insist the young laborers in Cao Feis masterful Whose Utopia, an aching video portrait of the daily lives and fantasies of migrant workers in a lightbulb factory. Born in Guangzhou, the beating heart of the special economic zone, Cao has matured into a mordant critic of Chinas headlong economic development and environmental squalor; gleaming apartment blocks are haunted by zombies, and even the most intimate relations are governed by the almighty renminbi. This was a great, gothic show, and a welcome return to form for the curator Klaus Biesenbach after last years Bjrk debacle.

Anri Sala, New Museum

When I visited Tirana this autumn, the Albanian capital felt like a place I knew from dreams; in fact, I had discovered it through Salas classic Dammi i colori, a nighttime portrait of the citys brightly painted tower blocks. His museum-filling retrospective confirmed him as our shrewdest tour guide through the ruins of the last centurys utopias as well as a brilliant student of music, from Schoenberg to The Clash.

William N Copley, Menil Collection

In what must be the worlds most beautiful museum building, this long-awaited first retrospective of one of the funniest American painters looked winningly strange. Copleys faux-nave images of buxom babes and demented boys are a very American response to Surrealism, and the disquieting absurdity of his vision was compounded by seething colors and thick black outlines, somewhere between Gauguin and pulp fiction. (The show is now on view at the Fondazione Prada, in Milan.)

Joan Jonas, The Kitchen


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Joan Jonas at The Kitchen. Photograph: Paula Court

80 years old and cooler than Ill ever be, Jonas last year presented a triumphant, ecologically imperative exhibition at the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale. This year, the pioneer of performance and video art reworked that exhibition into a poignant stage work, in collaboration with the jazz pianist Jason Moran and a cast of adorable children. Against Morans sinuous improvisations, Jonas drew prehistoric fish, donned hand-painted paper masks, and detailed the degradation of local landscapes and her fearsome ecological vision became all the more powerful through its tender delivery.


h2>Kemang Wa Lehulere, Art Institute of Chicago


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The young, dauntless South African artist aced his first American museum show, an allusive, melancholy infilling of the erasures of history. Chalk drawings, wall carvings, and beautifully delicate works on paper intercede in time through sly allusions to overshadowed artists and writers, such as Sol Plaatje, the ANC organizer who translated Shakespeare into Tswana. Already freighted with historical significance, his sculptures made of discarded school desks took on new, fortuitous meaning amid the ongoing upheaval at South Africas universities.

Marcel Broodthaers, Museum of Modern Art

Marcel Broodthaers Photograph: Martin Seck/ 2016 The Museum of Modern Art
No major European postwar artist has had as much influence, and yet as little public recognition, as the Belgian trickster who turned from poetry to fine art in the early 1960s. This difficult but important show united Broodthaerss plaster-shellacked books, assemblages of mussels and eggshells, and above all his
Muse dart moderne, dpartement des aigles, a fictional museum that revealed how real ones do their dirty work. (The show is currently on view at the Museo Reina Sofa, in Madrid.)

Tacita Dean, Marian Goodman Gallery

Tacita Dean Photograph: Alex Yudzon/Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
In Sydney in 2014, the British artist presented her first theater piece, a monologue for the actor Stephen Dillane on death, families, and the nature of performance; in New York two years later, she transformed it into Event for a Stage, a moving and dizzyingly intricate 50-minute film. (Dean is a celluloid holdout, and it was screened in an ad-hoc movie theater with a real live projectionist.) As Dillane shuttles from autobiographical reflection to passages from The Tempest, his hairstyle suddenly changes or a wig appears from nowhere; Event for a Stage turns out to be a montage of multiple events, and the formal marriage of theater and film enfolds a profounder union of actor and artist.

Lszl Moholy-Nagy, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago

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