The subject matter, the medium, the context: the best exhibitions bring everything together, turning art into a “here and now” experience. In simpler terms, you have to be there to feel it.
And there’s plenty to feel at museums across the country in 2023. Whether you want to rekindle a sense of wonder, trace the career of a distinguished artist, learn about something new or all of the above, this selection of exhibitions offers myriad opportunities to be inspired.
From rarely seen old-master works to thrillingly scary predator fossils to a fully functioning roller coaster in a museum, these are the 10 best exhibitions to see in the USA in the new year.
1. Edward Hopper’s New York
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
On view: now through March 5, 2023
Sometimes solemn yet never cold, Edward Hopper’s vivid paintings of solitude in the city are currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show highlights New York through the eyes of Hopper, a New Yorker for nearly six decades. The exhibit explores seven different themes from Hopper’s New York City era, including Automat, 1927, an oil portrait of a lone woman staring into a cup of coffee in an Automat diner; many of his stunningly dramatic theater scenes; and panoramic views of the city’s ever-changing architecture. After taking in the exhibition’s 200 or so Hopper works, walk to one of the Whitney’s several terraces for your own views of the Meatpacking District and cityscape beyond.
2. Mold-A-Rama: Molded for the Future
Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago
On view: now through fall 2023
Part nostalgia trip, part engineering wonder, this exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry is a quirky look at the joys of melting and shaping plastic. The show explores the history of this plastic-molding machine, which debuted at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle – courtesy of inventor J.H. “Tike” Miller, who was inspired to build the device to replace missing pieces in his nativity set. On display, you’ll see the decades of innovation and fun that have come from the machine, starting with one of its first commercial figurines: a replica of the World’s Fair monorail. The best part of the exhibit is the opportunity to make your own custom plastic novelty, something that brings joy to creators of all ages.
American Museum of Natural History, New York City
On view: now through September 4, 2023
As you stand face to face with a replica of a megalodon, the biggest predatory fish of all time, it's a shock to realize how easily you could fit into the prehistoric shark’s mouth. Luckily, at this American Museum of Natural History exhibit you’re not in danger of being any ocean predator’s lunch – nor are you going to witness any live sharks taunting their own prey. The new show is a fascinating, up-close look at the predators that rule the ocean, complete with dozens of life-sized model replicas, fossils and interactive exhibits. Once you’ve had your share of the apex predators, head to the calming Hall of Ocean Life to stand under the world-famous, full-size replica of a blue whale that famously dangles from the atrium.
4. Senga Nengudi
Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York
On view: for the long term, starting February 17, 2023
As part of its occasional rotation of large-format installations and exhibitions, Dia:Beacon will debut a retrospective on artist Senga Nengudi’s five-decade-plus career as a multidisciplinary artist. Expect a wide-ranging presentation of the artist’s sculptures, fine art, performance art and writing along with occasional live-performance art events and readings. Negundi is known for her use of everyday materials like vinyl, water, nylon and sand to create sculptures and room-sized installations that are often meant to evoke and honor cultural rituals from around the world.
5. EJ Hill Brake Run Helix
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts
On view: now through January 2024
A roller coaster in a modern art museum? When it’s as beautifully engineered and as much of a spectacle as EJ’s Hill Brake Run Helix, there’s no question that art’s emotional thrills can also be physical. Built with the capacity of one lucky rider per run, Brake Run Helix is a custom single-rail coaster that serves as the stunning centerpiece of the artist’s first solo museum show, and which thrillingly fills MASS MoCA’s largest gallery. Hill argues that he sees roller coasters as “public monuments to the possibility of attaining joy” – which is “a critical component of social equity.” The exhibit caters to both the guest who gets to ride the coaster, as well to the spectators who observe each rider’s joy (and perhaps terror). Reservations to ride the coaster sell out almost as soon as they are made available; check back regularly here for openings in the months ahead.
6. Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
On view: May 5–July 16, 2023
This year’s exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute promises to be a showstopper: the first major retrospective of the work of designer, Chanel creative director and aesthete Karl Lagerfeld. Expect an immerse, in-depth look at the legend’s singular sense of style. Expect to get up close to more than 150 dresses designed by Lagerfeld, along with a fascinating narrative of his storied career, his unique work methods and the many famous people he styled through the decades. The Met gala 2023 will mark the opening of the exhibit on May 1 in a starry way; the public is welcome starting four days later. Plan your visit ahead of time, as demand to access these galleries will likely be high indeed.
7. Henry Taylor: B Side
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
On view: now through April 30, 2023
The largest museum showing to date for the celebrated Los Angeles painter, Henry Taylor: B Side is a retrospective of the artist’s 30 years of portraits, self-portraits and still lifes depicting Black life in America. The large-scale exhibition at Downtown LA’s MOCA includes over 150 works, including paintings on canvas, drawings and installations – plus more…unusual sculpture mediums like cigarette packs, cereal boxes and other found objects that express his point of view in playful and approachable ways.
8. Nick Cave: Forothermore
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
On view: now through April 10, 2023
Colorful faux flowers, mythical creatures, stunning murals: Nick Cave’s one-of-a-kind, multidisciplinary output is currently on display at the Guggenheim. The exhibition’s many highlights include Cave’s renowned “Soundsuits”: wearable sculptures, often crafted from found objects, that shimmer and bounce. A highlight of the show is Cave’s Spinner Forest, a large array of metallic wind spinners radiating color and perpetually in motion. The exhibition continues the artist’s commitment to creating a space for those who feel marginalized, particularly working-class communities and queer people of color.
9. Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
On view: November 19, 2023–March 31, 2024
Best known for his large-scale canvases that explore color and shape, Rothko created over 1000 paintings on paper throughout his storied career. This new exhibition at the National Gallery will highlight more than a hundred of his most celebrated paper paintings, some never before seen – ranging from some of the artist’s early figurative subjects to surrealist studies as well as his famous abstractions in color. Expect an illuminating look at the artist’s variety and wide-ranging scope.
10. Matisse in the 1930s
Philadelphia Museum of Art
On view: now through January 29, 2023
In collaboration with the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Musée Matisse Nice, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents a major exhibition dedicated to what is arguably Henri Matisse’s most pivotal creative decade. This major show brings together 140 works of art from the US and Europe, including both renowned and rarely seen paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. The 1930s is when Matisse had a late-career artistic renewal, with inspirational sojourns to the US – in particular a mural commission he created for Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation. That commission was a turning point for Matisse’s return to easel painting, to which he brought a new outlook on colors and shapes. This can’t-miss exhibition vividly documents his creative watershed.