Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014 Credit: COURTESY THE ARTIST AND DAVID ZWIRNER

The natural inclination for anyone writing about 2016 is to frame the year around Donald Trump and the presidential election. Yet even given a circus as noisy, unsettling, and dreadful as Trumpmania, my views on the year that was are relatively ambivalent, since I experienced so much else, materially and emotionally, particularly with regard to visual arts.

Political vehemence seemed distant early in the year, as most of the city’s major institutions put on shows that were engineered to reinforce staid interpretations of the Western art canon. The Art Institute flaunted “The New Contemporary,” 44 artworks gifted to the museum by Stefan Edlis and his wife, Gael Neeson—most prominent among the bunch was Andy Warhol’s Liz #3 [Early Colored Liz]—while the MCA showcased its own pop art collection in “The Street, the Store, and the Silver Screen”—with plenty more Warhol!

Then there was “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” the title of which says everything, both about its content and its thoughtfulness. As Dmitry Samarov wrote of the Art Institute exhibit: “[A]fter countless blockbuster exhibitions and images reproduced on place mats, umbrellas, clothing, wallpaper, and any other surface that might yield a few bucks, it’s become increasingly difficult to judge these paintings divorced of their cultural domination.” All of the aforementioned exhibitions had their virtues, but they were also telling their audiences things they knew already.

One exception from the first quarter of 2016 was the Block Museum’s “A Feast of Astonishments,” a retrospective of the avant-garde multidisciplinary artist Charlotte Moorman. Despite not being explicitly political, the exhibit nevertheless posed a challenge to widely held stances on contemporary art. Sasha Geffen wrote at the time that Moorman’s “commentary on her work—printed on walls throughout the museum—casts the question of agency in performance in a new and still radical light.” Moorman was based in New York City, and the Block followed “A Feast of Astonishments” with a show in the fall about another Big Apple artist: “Performing for the Camera” focused on Hong Kong-born photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Tseng’s work would probably be categorized as pop art, but he isn’t particularly well-known, and his output, mostly pictures of himself dressed in a Maoist uniform, is far more radical than what was in the Art Institute or MCA surveys.

It might sound like I’m being hard on Chicago’s most famous museums, but in fact both the Art Institute and the MCA this year hosted their most daring and superb shows in recent memory. This past fall, the former exhibited “Future Present,” a wide-ranging retrospective of the work of Laszló Moholy­Nagy, who founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago, while the MCA put on “Mastry,” a powerful overview of Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall’s oeuvre that’s likely to be numbered among the institution’s most significant productions. “Mastry” in particular felt like a timely, overt response to the country’s racial conflict. As Geffen wrote in her review, “Marshall’s work acknowledges the systemic violence that has killed black Americans for decades, yet it subverts the ways in which the black body is identified as an object marked for death.”

As the year progressed, each show I saw seemed to be more political and unorthodox than the one before it. The peak of this progression was “Art AIDS America Chicago,” a free, monumental showcase of work about the virus that opened only three weeks ago at Alphawood Gallery. Rarely do exhibits this large (nearly 175 works) address race, sexuality, class, and gender so frankly and politically, and even fewer feature such a diverse mix of artists—from Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe to lesser-known locals like Patric McCoy and Oli Rodriguez.

I experienced dissonance in 2016: the exhibits I attended during the year reflected progress, which seemed obstructed on the news, on social media, or even in conversation. Based on the art I saw in 2016, there’s still work to do—but the future, foreboding as it may appear, is brighter than it seems.  v