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.
9. “Carrie Mae Weems" at P·P·O·W Gallery, 1990
Soon after mounting a 1990 group show of photography that featured Carrie Mae Weems, the founders of P·P·O·W 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.”