Since 2016, the American artist Zoe Leonard has taken hundreds of photographs at the border of Mexico and the U.S., following the route of a body of water that divides the two countries for twelve thousand miles, known alternately as the Río Bravo and the Rio Grande (and by at least five ancestral names, in Pueblo and Navajo). The exquisitely installed exhibition “Excerpts from ‘Al río / To the River,’ ” on view at Hauser & Wirth through Oct. 29, offers only a glimpse of Leonard’s epic project—ten works consisting of fifty-six black-and-white pictures, hanging singly and in sequences on the walls—but it conveys her rare balancing act of poetics and politics. You might call Leonard’s approach concerned conceptualism, as seen in a quartet of near-abstractions portraying lines raked in dirt, a tactic used by ice to capture the footprints of migrants. These striations are echoed in five views of irrigation canals, attended by flocks of birds (above, in an untitled detail, dated 2020/2022). Leonard’s quiet vistas run counter to sensationalist media coverage of borderland conflict. Her camera lingers on landscape, not people, who appear in only six images here, as distant figures enjoying a day at the beach on a riverbank in Ciudad Juárez, under the omnipresent eye of surveillance apparatus.
Sept. 14-Oct. 22
537 W. 20th St.
Fifty years ago, a posthumous retrospective of a New York photographer broke attendance records for a one-person show at moma. Crowds lined up around the block to see a hundred and thirteen black-and-white pictures by Diane Arbus, a relative unknown whose brilliance was already an open secret among her peers. (Before she took her own life, in 1971, at the age of forty-eight, Arbus had few collectors, but they included Richard Avedon, Jasper Johns, and Mike Nichols.) The exhibition generated both rave reviews and hot takes; dissecting Susan Sontag’s scathing essay “Freak Show,” published in 1973, is now almost an academic subgenre unto itself. On Sept. 14, the Zwirner gallery, in collaboration with Fraenkel, in San Francisco, opens “Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited,” reuniting all the images from the exhibition (“Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C. 1968,” above, among them). It’s accompanied by the new publication “Diane Arbus: Documents,” a doorstop scrapbook that reproduces a half century’s worth of writing about an artist who, as Avedon once observed, “made the act of looking an act of such intelligence, that to look at so-called ordinary things is to become responsible for what you see.”
The Lakota expression mní wičóni—“water is life”—was heard around the world during the Standing Rock protests. Now it echoes through the halls of the Met, thanks to a small but momentous exhibition on view through April 2. Titled “Water Memories,” the show was organized by Patricia Marroquin Norby, the museum’s first curator of Native American art; as a woman of Purépecha heritage, Norby is also the first full-time Indigenous curator in its American Wing. The show traverses six centuries in a scant forty art works and artifacts by both Native and non-Native creators. An exquisite oil of a foamy wave by the American modernist Arthur Dove, from 1929, assumes a mournful edge in the company of a shimmering sculptural installation by the Shinnecock ceramicist Courtney M. Leonard, from 2021, that eulogizes the decimation of the sperm-whale population off Long Island’s East End, where Dove made his painting. Poetry and protest are inseparable in all of the contemporary pieces here, including the Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero’s oneiric 2015 scene (pictured above) of Pueblo corn dancers reckoning with a collective water memory: the flooding of thousands of acres of tribal land by the construction of the Parker Dam.
May. 13-Jun. 18
87 Franklin St.
In 2016, when the photographer Sam Contis was ending the project for which she’s best known—a five-year study of the all-male student body and the cattle-ranch campus of Deep Springs College, in California—a chance encounter on a trip to Berlin led her art in a new direction. Watching the mezzo-soprano Inbal Hever rehearse an otherworldly solo by the composer Chaya Czernowin, Contis became fascinated by the subtle demands that the exertion of breath placed on the vocalist’s body. Contis went on to photograph Hever, off and on, for the next six years, always in small practice rooms with natural light. The superbly restrained results are on view at the Klaus von Nichtsaggend gallery’s new location, in Tribeca, through June 18. The format of the portraits shifts virtuosically: color, black-and-white, intimate diptychs, large prints, documentary, nearly abstract. In the process, Contis establishes her project’s lineage, from Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies and the spirit photographers of the nineteenth century (an allusion seen above in “Inbal July 18, 2018”) to Alfred Stieglitz’s decades-long composite portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe and “The Sound I Saw,” Roy DeCarava’s exaltation of jazz. Audio of Hever’s rendition of Czernowin’s piece animates the exhibition; on May 26, at 7, she performs live, surrounded by pictures of windows—Contis’s record of the spaces in which the two women met to create this stunning, expansive duet.
May. 6-Jun. 11
520 W. 20th St.
The most exciting exhibition in the city right now is the New York solo début of Lauren Halsey, at the David Kordansky gallery (through June 11). It’s a sculptural love letter to the historically Black neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, where the artist’s family has lived for a century. The fourteen pieces on view shift in form from hard-edged to biomorphic, and in tone from public monument to secret sanctuary, but their primary materials are the language and the life of the street, with its small-business signage (the Braid Shack, Watts Coffee House) and larger-than-life heroes (Kobe Bryant, Nipsey Hussle). In the densely collaged, billboard-size “LODA,” a cartoon image of a Black astronaut reading Jet magazine underscores that Halsey is building both a time capsule and a long-range plan, the latter realized here, to exuberantly funked-up effect, in “My Hope,” an eighteen-foot-long model of a teeming block (a detail is pictured above), in which low-rider cars cruise a South Central dreamscape of golden palm trees and Nubian pyramids. Think of it as a preview of a future blockbuster: next summer, the artist will scale up her remarkable vision on the roof of the Met.
Oct. 1-Jul. 22
200 Eastern Parkway
Baseera Khan contains multitudes. They are a queer Indian-Afghani-East African American, a Muslim woman, a Texas native, and the winner of the 2021 UOVO Prize, awarded annually to an emerging Brooklyn-based artist. In this related exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the ambitious artist moves through mediums like a snake shedding skins, using performance, sculpture, installation, collage, textile, drawing, and photography—and that is an incomplete list—to confront colonial histories. In “Law of Antiquities,” a spirited series of ink-jet prints, Khan digitally layers still-life and self-portraiture, performing a conceptual sleight of hand with objects from the museum’s Arts of the Islamic World collection. In one image, the artist appears with a fourteenth-century enamelled-glass mosque lamp, from present-day Syria or Egypt, and a reproduction of an early-seventeenth-century Iranian prayer carpet too fragile to handle—a displaced artifact that Khan transforms into a sort of sanctuary.