Our list of 15 New York City gallery exhibitions that changed the city’s history and the culture’s relationship with art begins 80 years ago. Before then, New York’s art scene was widely seen as parochial compared to that of Paris. The center of gravity shifted in the 1940s with the rise of American painters like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and with it a run of adventurous New York galleries that has continued to this day.
Museums, with their healthy budgets and curatorial teams, as well as alternative spaces and other nonprofits unencumbered, at least, by the commercial pressures of running a business in New York City, have arguably played a larger role in shaping the public’s conception of the canon. But the miracle of the best galleries is the way they manage to transcend such pressures and embrace the untested and unfamiliar. As a result, they are the places where many viewers discover new art and artists. That many of the galleries on this list no longer exist, or exist now in very different forms, underscores the precariousness of the gallery model. And yet galleries are still free to enter — unlike most major museums, many of which have lately raised admission fees — a fact that only adds to their importance.
Clearly, this exercise was subjective. (For further proof, see the alternative list produced by asking different subjects about their favorite New York City gallery shows.) The below is not a definitive history, then, but one view of how contemporary art has developed in New York since the onset of World War II. It also emphasizes that, for many decades, women and especially people of color had little hope of having their work exhibited — with battles for representation continuing to this day — and that the exceptions to this rule have often amounted to the most vital shows of all.
1. “Jackson Pollock: First Exhibition — Paintings and Drawings” at Art of This Century, 1943
In the 1930s and early ’40s, “the New York gallery scene was a very somber situation,” says Mary Gabriel, the author of “Ninth Street Women” (2018). “Then Peggy Guggenheim came in, almost like an artist herself, and blew it wide open.” After the heiress’s plans to establish a museum in London were stymied by the Nazis, she returned to New York and in 1942 opened Art of This Century, a multipurpose space with three galleries for her collection and a fourth filled with contemporary and often American work for sale. The space was short-lived — she closed it in 1947 and moved to Europe — but she focused routinely on Jackson Pollock, who would become the pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist, giving him a solo show in 1943, and again in 1945, ’46 and ’47. (She also gave him a stipend, buoying other artists’ hopes of making a living from their art.) Pollock’s first solo show led the critic Robert Coates to deem him “an authentic discovery,” and included “The She-Wolf” (1943); it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art the following year.
2. “Jasper Johns — Paintings” at Leo Castelli Gallery, 1958
New York’s 1950s art scene was largely defined by artist-run spaces and undertakings, one major example being the Ninth Street Show of 1951. It featured mostly Abstract Expressionist work by Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler and 58 others. The then-fledgling dealer Leo Castelli put up a little money for the rental of a storefront and helped hang the show. He’d become one of the most influential art dealers in the city’s history soon after opening his own shop, in the living room of his Upper East Side home, in 1957. On a visit to Robert Rauschenberg’s Pearl Street loft, Castelli went downstairs and saw works by Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg’s neighbor and lover, and offered him a show then and there. It took place 10 months later and consisted of paintings with which the familiar iconography of American flags, targets and numbers was made aggressively and thrillingly new.
The critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote that, in painting the flag, Johns “ended modern art.” At the least, he punctured the primacy of Abstract Expressionism and made room for what followed, including Pop. Several years after Johns’s debut, Castelli advanced the career of Andy Warhol by showing his vibrant “Flowers” paintings.
3. “Don Judd” at the Green Gallery, 1963
While the world went Pop, a more quietly confrontational and self-consciously cerebral movement arrived in the form of minimalism, whose practitioners sought to reduce art to its basic tenets of shape, material and color. Donald Judd displayed his three-dimensional work at the Green Gallery — its director, Richard Bellamy, was known for his openness to the avant-garde — in two group exhibitions and one solo show, all in 1963. A pair of ridged-wood wall reliefs, painted cadmium red and framed on two sides by pieces of galvanized iron, along with several free-standing rectangular prisms, were on view at the solo show. The curator James Meyer has described that show as “a declaration of fundamental principles,” not that everyone quite knew what to make of it: “Not this time, Green Gallery, not this time,” the critic Brian O’Doherty wrote in his review. Nevertheless, Judd, a critic himself, would convince a legion of artists, designers and architects to adopt his preoccupations as their own, becoming the leading figure of minimalism even as he resisted the term.
4. “Eccentric Abstraction” at Fischbach Gallery, 1966
Strict minimalists aimed to make works that were self-evident, meaning, to paraphrase Frank Stella, there was nothing to them you couldn’t see. But what about formal objects that were referential — to their own making and maybe even to the body? That was a question posed by “Eccentric Abstraction,” held at the Fischbach Gallery in 1966 and curated by Lucy Lippard. Louise Bourgeois’s lumpy latex molds made an appearance and, in a work by Alice Adams that hung from the ceiling, one end of a sleeve of woven chicken wire sat inside a larger sleeve fashioned from chain-link fencing. There was a Keith Sonnier sculpture incorporating a vinyl bag that inflated and deflated as if breathing, and an Eva Hesse piece made of two phallic forms wrapped in cord and connected with a length of surgical hose, resembling a jump-rope with giant sausages for handles.
Here were objects with curved lines, soft or flexible surfaces and a tone that leaned wryly toward erotic warmth. “Eccentric Abstraction,” which, according to the curator Alexandra Schwartz, “has been reimagined multiple times,” is now considered a landmark show for early feminist art, even though Lippard says she wasn’t yet aware of such a thing. “I suppose,” she says, “I might have been doing it unconsciously.”
5. “Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam” at Paula Cooper Gallery, 1968
Paula Cooper was the first dealer to open a gallery in SoHo. “I wanted to be near the artists, who lived downtown, and I wanted more freedom,” she says. It was 1968, and she christened her loft space at 96 Prince Street with a show of minimalist works doubling as protest art. The pieces themselves — a diptych of white canvases thinly outlined in lilac and black by Jo Baer, a row of red bricks by Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt’s first wall drawing — weren’t overtly political, but as Lippard, who curated the show with Robert Huot and Ron Wolin, says, “the artists didn’t want to just have their work out there. They wanted to be sure people knew where they stood.” Half the proceeds went to the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The show proclaimed that art and politics could and would mix, while also announcing the birth of a new arts district.
6. “Synthesis” at Just Above Midtown, 1974
Linda Goode Bryant founded Just Above Midtown in 1974, at a time when many Black American artists faced an almost entirely white and actively exclusionary art world establishment. Artists of color had by then cultivated a tradition of fighting back via collectives, campaigns and off-the-grid shows, but JAM, as it was known, was something different: a full-fledged contemporary gallery, located among the old guard on 57th Street. And while JAM did not only feature work by Black artists, it certainly centered them, fostering a community of talents young and old, known and not and working in a diverse range of modes.
The inaugural show at JAM was “Synthesis” — “Both words are allusions to mixtures,” Thomas (T.) Jean Lax, the lead curator of MoMA’s collaboratively organized 2022 exhibition on the gallery, points out, “the idea [being] to show that what looks to be an antagonism is actually part of a greater whole” — and it paired abstract and figurative work, from a black canvas with thin white lines by Norman Lewis to a painting depicting two floating figures by Suzanne Jackson. The actors Brock Peters and Melvin Van Peebles were among the crowd at the lively opening night party. Looking at photos of that evening, says Lax, “you can almost smell the energy and excitement.” JAM would go on to host many other openings, and often the gallery showcased now-canonical conceptual work, including David Hammons’s pieces made from grease-stained brown paper bags and Senga Nengudi’s sculptures of sand-filled nylons.
7. “Cindy Sherman” at Metro Pictures, 1981
Some dealers know they want to have their own space, and then they start building their roster. Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer of Metro Pictures went about it the other way. “There was a group of young artists we felt strongly about, so we decided to open a gallery,” says Reiring. That group came to be called the Pictures Generation because its members, having grown up inundated by images from movies and television, were making photographic art that borrowed from the media-saturated zeitgeist. The gallery’s first show, in 1980, featured work by Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman.
In the years prior, Sherman had occasionally gone to parties or her day job dressed as someone other than herself. Then she started showing staged black-and-white portraits of her imagined characters — a librarian reaching for a book, a traveler awaiting a bus. Reiring and Winer would share a three-ring binder of these images, “Untitled Film Stills,” with curators and collectors. Many others came to the artist’s work via her breakout “Centerfolds” pictures, a series that debuted at Metro Pictures in 1981. The two-by-four-feet color photos, which imitate the content of men’s magazines — Sherman’s heroines are often lying down and look by turns pensive and vacant — were considered explosive explorations of how female identity is constructed and consumed.
8. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres” at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 1990
Andrea Rosen opened her SoHo gallery in 1990 with a deceptively simple show of boxy stacks of paper by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The pages of one stack were printed with the words “Nowhere better than this place”; another with “Somewhere better than this place.” Visitors were encouraged to take the sheets home with them — a subversive comment on the fact, which had been cemented during the decadent 1980s, of art’s bloated commercial value. But as much as the works alluded to depletion (an impression later amplified by Gonzalez-Torres’s death, of complications from AIDS, in 1996), they were also about renewal — gallery staff would replace the sheets to maintain the sculptures’ ideal heights. Artists of the period were “questioning art itself and whether there was much of anything left to say, or if art might simply end,” says Rosen. Here was someone who offered a new way, trudging forward, while still embracing a kind of ambivalence. “With Felix,” says Rosen, “the meaning was always within the complexity, and the capacity for both or many things to be true.”
9. “Carrie Mae Weems” at PPOW Gallery, 1990
Soon after mounting a 1990 group show of photography that featured Carrie Mae Weems, the founders of PPOW Gallery, Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington, drove up to Amherst, Mass., for a studio visit with the artist. While there, they asked about some boxes stashed under her work table. Inside were the contents of “The Kitchen Table Series,” which became the focus of an exhibition of their own. In the images, Weems acts out intimate, everyday moments alongside friends, children and lovers — and then by herself — at a kitchen table set beneath a gleaming pendant lamp. Alongside the 20 gelatin silver prints are 14 panels of text. Separately and together, the parts tell the story of a self in evolution. No doubt, as the author bell hooks wrote, the fact that that self belonged to a Black woman challenged certain viewers to “shift their paradigms.” At the same time, as the art historian Sarah Lewis notes, “at the heart of the series is one urgent question that relates to all of our lives: How do we find our power?”
The gallery was on the third floor, and Olsoff remembers people spilling out of the elevators to see the show. And though it took a couple of decades for Weems to receive her full due, word traveled. “People get cynical and say, ‘Art doesn’t really change things,’” says Olsoff. “Well, I think Carrie proves that it can.”
10. “Barbara Kruger” at Mary Boone Gallery, 1991
If Jasper Johns’s Delphic flag might be said to allude to American imperialism during the Cold War, the one Barbara Kruger had painted onto the rolling security gate of Mary Boone’s SoHo gallery in 1991, around the start of the Persian Gulf war, left less room for interpretation. The stripes were lines of white-on-red text posing questions like “Who salutes longest?” and “Who dies first?” In place of stars was a single directive: “Look for the moment when pride becomes contempt.” Inside the gallery, nearly every surface was covered with more large-scale text that pulled from (and undermined) the smooth, cheerful language of advertising, as well as with black-and-white photographs. The show was the first of Kruger’s so-called room wraps and, on account of its style and sheer relentlessness, the critic Roberta Smith rightly predicted that it would prove the start of “a new chapter in the history of both political art and installation art.”
11. David Hammons’s “Concerto in Black and Blue” at Ace Gallery, 2002
David Hammons makes art about art and race — always, as he says in an archival clip included in the 2022 documentary “The Melt Goes On Forever,” with a view to outmaneuvering the oppressor. One of the ways he does that is by ensuring that his work is shown and sold on his own terms. In 2002, he chose not to make anyone rich by filling the Ace Gallery with covetable objects.
Upon entering the ample space, visitors were each provided with a small flashlight that emitted a blue beam into otherwise dark and empty rooms, leaving them to encounter only one another. Hammons called it “Concerto in Black and Blue,” perhaps in a nod to the Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks song “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” or to the artist Yves Klein, known for his particular shade of blue, who in 1958 presented an empty Paris gallery and called it “Le Vide.” Hammons’s void inspired amusement and anxiety, but mostly awe. “It was just this incredible, mysterious piece,” says Tom Finkelpearl, the writer and the city’s former cultural affairs commissioner, who’d curated the artist’s retrospective at PS 1 in Queens just over a decade earlier. Lewis mentions that “Concerto in Black and Blue” took place in the wake of Sept. 11, and not far from ground zero. “I think it offered new ways of being in a society that, after that tragedy, was really grasping in the dark,” she says.
12. Marina Abramović’s “The House With the Ocean View” at Sean Kelly Gallery, 2002
The premise of Marina Abramović’s 2002 performance piece “The House With the Ocean View” was simple: She would live at Sean Kelly Gallery, ingesting nothing but water for 12 days. Executing it, of course, was less straightforward. Abramović trained for the feat before taking up temporary residence on the set she’d designed, a raised platform divided into areas for sleeping, sitting and bathing. Three ladders with upturned butcher knives for rungs led to the ground. This show, too, happened just over a year after Sept. 11, and Abramović saw it as her way of giving back to New York. It was also a time, according to Kelly, when public interest in performance art “was maturing in a profound way.” There was a chance, he says, “to make a statement.”
Abramović definitely did, vaulting the mode to the mainstream. “It was an intellectual and in many respects esoteric exhibition,” Kelly notes. “And it was on ‘Sex and the City’ within 10 months.” (While viewing “The House With the Ocean View,” Carrie Bradshaw lays eyes on her future artist boyfriend.) But Kelly thinks the piece did more than change the landscape — “it changed something in our consciousness in terms of art viewing,” he says. Many visitors lingered and made return visits; Susan Sontag started coming every day. “To some,” says Kelly, “it became a quasi-religious experience.”
13. Yayoi Kusama’s “I Who Have Arrived In Heaven” at David Zwirner, 2013
Yayoi Kusama moved to New York in 1958 and stayed for 15 years. She showed her “Infinity Net” paintings — repetitive expanses of interconnected white semicircles — at the Brata Gallery in 1959, and was already quite famous, at the apex of a storied career, when David Zwirner began representing her in 2013. The previous year, she’d had a retrospective at the Whitney, and released her first collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
Still, no one predicted the fervor that would greet Zwirner’s inaugural show with the artist, “I Who Have Arrived In Heaven.” First, the gallery held a press conference at which Kusama sang and recited poetry. Then came members of the public, probably more than any gallery had ever seen, and, as Hanna Schouwink, a senior partner at Zwirner, says, they came “with their phones.” The show contained paintings and a video installation, but it was the light-filled Infinity Room, and a second mirrored chamber appointed with polka-dot tentacles, that launched a gazillion selfies and heralded a new way of seeing art — on Instagram. On the last day, the wait to get into the Infinity Room stretched to eight hours.
14. Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, 2016
Every gallery-going New Yorker seems to have vivid memories of at least one show organized by Gavin Brown, who in the early ’90s exhibited drawings by Elizabeth Peyton at the Chelsea Hotel and helped Rirkrit Tiravanija stage a performance piece at 303 Gallery in which the artist cooked rice and curry for visitors. Others recall spelunking in the hole that Urs Fischer dug in Brown’s gallery floor in 2007 or seeing LaToya Ruby Frazier’s portraits of the victims of the Flint, Mich., water crisis in 2018.
Or they talk about going to Brown’s Harlem location in the days after Donald Trump was elected and watching Arthur Jafa’s video collage “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” (2016) on loop. A seven-and-a-half-minute compilation of scenes from Black American life set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” it swings from devastating violence (Walter Scott being shot and killed by a policeman in North Charleston, S.C.) to evidence of stunning victories (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen embracing on the court) to quotidian expressions of resistance and joy (a young woman dancing on a balcony). Brown can still remember “the physical sensation of being carried along by it, and also trying to keep up with it” when he saw it for the first time. For the broadcaster and collector Alvin Hall, “There are parts of that video that are like being back in church. It’s about ecstasy, about how people find emotional release from the pressures of the day, and it captured a cultural moment in a way that’s so rare.”
15. “Philip Guston, 1969-1979” at Hauser & Wirth, 2021
Philip Guston was no stranger to controversy in his lifetime. A 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery signaled his dramatic and initially unpopular break from Abstract Expressionism, which he’d decided was a sham. “What kind of man am I,” goes his famous quote, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.” From then on, he made representational works about his life and the turmoil in the world, externalizing his doubts and fears about humanity’s worst impulses in the form of recurring images of hooded figures redolent of Klansmen.
In 2020, four museums postponed a traveling Guston retrospective because they feared these enigmatic figures would offend or incite unwanted criticism. In response, more than 2,000 people co-signed an open letter challenging the museums to reinstate the show and instead reflect on how they could encourage dialogue and effect change, not least within their own institutions. The opening date was moved up but, in the meantime, Hauser & Wirth, working in collaboration with the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer, pushed back against the art world’s tendency to self-censor with an exhibition devoted to Guston’s later years. It included six paintings of the cartoonlike hooded figures, as well as a number of self-portraits — and reiterated that the museums had underestimated their audience.