As part of T’s 2023 Art issue, we compiled a list of 15 New York City gallery shows that changed art history. We attempted to be as objective as possible but were also aware that there are countless other exhibitions that, whatever their contributions to the culture at large, live on in individual consciousnesses. And so we asked a group of artists, curators and writers, as well as one collector, about the shows held in a New York City gallery or alternative art space that changed their lives. Here, they each speak about an exhibition (or two) that transformed how they thought about art — or simply blew them away.
Alex Katz, artist: “Marisol” at Leo Castelli Gallery, 1957, and Red Grooms’s “The Burning Building” at the Delancey Street Museum, 1959
Marisol was doing a lot of carving, and she started to put wood together with painting; she was doing anything that came into her head. There was nothing like it before, nothing like it after. Edwin Denby said, “Castelli should quit now. He’ll never top it.” The other show was Red Grooms’s “The Burning Building” at the Delancey Street Museum. It was the beginning of the Happenings, and Red was dancing behind a curtain that was backlit, so what you saw was a shadow. It was pretty violent with emotion. He had a sensational audience: Denby, John Cage, [Robert] Rauschenberg and [Jasper] Johns. Red was the hottest thing on the planet at that time, and they were all chasing him. He was the Pied Piper.
Laurie Simmons, artist and filmmaker: Jan Dibbets’s “Structure Panoramas 1977-78” at Leo Castelli Gallery, 1978
This show changed the course of my work. On the walls were all these artworks each made up of about a dozen of small photographs. I asked the guy at the front desk how they were made, and he told me that Dibbets had shot film and sent it to be developed at the corner drugstore. I thought, “OK, I can do this, too.” I was still pretty intimidated by photography, which I’d avoided studying at art school. My roommate, Jimmy DeSana, was teaching me to print black and white, but what I really wanted was to shoot and print color film. This drugstore option was my gateway drug to making color photos.
Brinda Kumar, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States” at A.I.R. Gallery, 1980
The show was co-curated by Ana Mendieta, Kazuko Miyamoto and Zarina. Even within the context of feminist art — because there’s a kind of double marginalization that takes place with women of color — it was a statement of solidarity and, while I didn’t have a chance to see it in person, I’ve revisited it over the past few years in different capacities. For instance, in 2019 we featured Zarina in an exhibition called “Home Is a Foreign Place,” which took its title from one of her works and also included a piece by Kazuko. It was as if these women, who had found each other at a different time and were claiming spaces for their work in an art world that was not necessarily receptive to them, had found each other again.
Alvin Hall, broadcaster, financial educator, author and collector: Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” at Aperture, 1986
One day I walked into Aperture with no idea of what I was going to see, and there was a slide show set to music. It was Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1981-2023). The first song I heard was Petula Clark’s “Downtown”: “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go downtown.” Pictures of Nan, of Cookie Mueller, of Nan’s boyfriend, of all these people clicked by. I’d walked through the East Village a hundred times. I’d go to clubs and see people like these but had never thought of them as being a world, somebody’s world, and Nan captured it brilliantly. I sat there, mesmerized and on the verge of tears, until I was asked to leave.
Alanna Heiss, founder of MoMA PS1 and director of the Arts Nonprofit Clocktower Productions: “Matthew Barney” at Gladstone Gallery, 1991
A few months ago, I went to see Matthew Barney’s video installation “Secondary” (2023), which was very calm, very summarizing, very weird. It was the last event at his [former] Long Island City studio before he moved. He wasn’t there, but then I could never quite locate the man within the work — he used to be a male model, you know. Anyway, it reminded me of seeing Barney’s solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery in 1991. Everything was being thrown at you in that show — S&M, tangled body parts — and it set us up for [his 1994-2002 film series] “The Cremaster Cycle.” Some of it was appalling. And that video of him climbing around on the ceiling? Oh my god. But at the same time glorious, powerful and significant.
Prudence Peiffer, director of content at MoMA and the author of “The Slip” (2023): “Coenties Slip” at Pace Gallery, 1993, and “Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle, Crossing Lines” at Pace Gallery, 2017
I was too young to see the writer and art historian Mildred Glimcher’s “Coenties Slip” show — with work by Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Jack Youngerman — but it became foundational for me in looking at how this unique and obscure place [a three-block street in Lower Manhattan] ingrained itself in an unexpected group of artists’ work, forever changing art history. The gallery’s later exhibition of work by Agnes Martin and Richard Tuttle helped me further think about different models for how one artist’s work can affect another’s. Both shows unlocked a way of understanding that is central to my book.
Lumi Tan, curator, writer and curatorial director of the art amusement park Luna Luna: Mike Kelley’s “Day Is Done” at Gagosian, 2005
The exhibition was a massive video installation — there were 31 video chapters in total — set among sculptures created from the set pieces used in the videos, so that the visitors became performers within the gallery. Kelley’s work is so effective because it situates you in a highly familiar context and then expands those tropes and rituals into a transgressive, carnivalesque experience that swallows you whole. I’d moved to the city two years earlier, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what a blue-chip gallery is supposed to do.” Galleries build trust with their artists in order to support their work in ways that other institutions often don’t have the resources for. It’s the only gallery show that I have merch from — a tiny bright pink muscle tee that was given to me many years after the show.
Natalie Frank, artist: “Lisa Yuskavage” at David Zwirner, 2011
Her painting “Fireplace” (2010) killed me. It has all these citrus colors, which I loved, and it gives the impression of a feminist fairy tale realm gone awry. I’d seen her work before, but this felt like the most immediate and powerful example of it. It seemed very Veronese- and Titian-inspired, too. For me, there’s no woman — or man, for that matter — making paintings that are so luscious and confrontational, with a degree of reverence for tradition. She’s updating the Venetians and creating her own magical world.
Alexandra Schwartz, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design: Saya Woolfalk’s “Chimera” at Third Streaming, 2013
I’d just worked with Saya on her first solo museum show and went to see her performance at Third Streaming, which used to have this raw loft space in SoHo — it was right out of the ’60s or ’70s. The performance had to do with a science-fiction narrative that runs throughout her work about a society of women who experience a kind of nirvana and can then empathize with anyone. It was such a cool moment that felt like a throwback to the era of experimental, artist-run galleries. I recently mentioned that performance to Saya and we reminisced about how that sort of space doesn’t really exist in Manhattan anymore, though that’s why we both came to New York.
Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, curator at the Museum of Modern Art: Park McArthur’s “Ramps” at Essex Street, 2014
To make her work “Ramps,” Park borrowed a dozen-and-a-half wooden and metal ramps mostly from galleries, exhibition spaces, residencies, schools and studio programs she had attended. When she arrived at the gallery, she placed them several inches apart from one another in a deceptively unadorned arrangement, leaving a pathway on one side. The exhibition contributed to a shared artistic language that was at once about and not about disability, much like the work of the then-recently deceased writer-activist Marta Russell — the author of “Beyond Ramps” (1998) — whose Wikipedia link was printed on one wall of the show, which drew attention to the ubiquity of dependence in daily life. How had you gotten to the exhibition? Who had texted you about it? How long would you be able to stay?
Marcela Guerrero, the DeMartini Family curator at the Whitney Museum: “Blackness in Abstraction” at Pace Gallery, 2016
My now-colleague Adrienne Edwards guest curated the show, which looked at the color black in abstract painting, sculpture, photography and video from the 1940s to the present day. The premise was seemingly simple — how blackness operates in modern and contemporary art — yet the question of how Blackness is and has been represented was understudied until the exhibition. The show made me think about what a curator can do, even in a commercial setting. The piece I remember most is Pope.L’s “Blind (Donut Version) 2016,” a black rectangle cut into the gallery wall. You looked through and either didn’t see anything or, as your vision adjusted in the dark, you’d begin to see things — or at least want to see them.
Elizabeth Colomba, artist: “Simone Leigh” at Luhring Augustine, 2018
Leigh’s pieces are very feminine, very strong, and there were three — I’m going to use the word “monuments” because they were very tall — of female figures. They were so graceful and anchored, and they were wearing what looked to be crinoline dresses and skirts made of raffia. Maybe I gravitated to them because of the echoes with my own work, which gives space to women who change notions of beauty. These did that, too. She’d found such an interesting way of embodying women throughout history while still embracing the diaspora and African moods. They bridge many worlds, those monuments.
G. Peter Jemison, artist: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s “Woman in Landscape” at Garth Greenan Gallery, 2021
She’d made these cutout figures [“Paper Dolls for a Post-Columbian World,” 2021] — paper with metal backings that she and her son, Neil, fabricated themselves — that resembled paper dolls. They covered [much of] a large wall but, at the same time, you focused on individual figures and their clothes. Some were of the outfits that our people [Native Americans] make. Others related to disease and other things that impacted our people. For example, there was one with red dots all over, to illustrate the devastating effect of smallpox. I continued to think about those works long after the show, and I realized they reminded me of Matisse’s figurative cutouts.
Oscar yi Hou, artist: Sasha Gordon’s “Hands of Others” at Jeffrey Deitch, 2022
Sasha is a dear friend of mine, but I’d never seen a full body of her work at once. A solo show is a more holistic way to look at an artist’s practice than fairs or group shows because the artist is able to generate their own context. You enter their universe. Sasha’s work unsettles the viewer, but it also enthralls them — I’m especially thinking of one painting she did of two figures with intertwined nipples. She’s also just incredibly gifted technically and, as a painter myself, that’s something I look out for. I also take a long time to make works, but she is intense with it: Tiny brushes, minuscule strokes.
Ayana V. Jackson, artist: Richard Avedon’s “Avedon 100” at Gagosian, 2023
This show was like taking a trip through the 20th century. You could see Avedon as more of a sociologist because of the different communities he was engaging with — the jazz community, the basketball community. I first got into him when I discovered his 1964 collaboration with James Baldwin, which spoke to photography’s ability to effect social change. And at an event hosted by Gagosian, the scholar Dr. Sarah Lewis spoke about how Avedon’s career intersected with the civil rights movement. There’s that beautiful image of Martin Luther King Jr. with his father and son, and you’ve got Malcolm X. All of Avedon’s portraits strike me as incredibly truthful in the way they telegraph the subjects’ power and their vulnerability.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn, artist: Liu Xiaodong’s “Shaanbei” at Lisson Gallery, 2023
When I finally finished the work for my solo exhibition with Gagosian Paris earlier this year, I went to Chelsea, walked around and came across Xiaodong’s exhibition. It was a lovely surprise because he’s one of my favorite painters. He portrays the lives of everyday people and is exceptionally fluent with his material — it’s as though he takes actual flesh and articles of clothing and lays them on the canvas, a bit like Lucian Freud. This was the first time I’d seen an entire body of his work at once, and I was awe-struck.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.