The Best Art of 2018
Posted December 6, 2018 8:16 p.m. EST
The art critics of The New York Times tell you what rocked their worlds this year: notable art events, works in museums and galleries, emerging artists and how they found beauty in unexpected places.
Winners and Losers
When the going gets rough, there’s always art. It can soothe and teach you, and arm you with new tools and perspectives with which to face the world. This year had some great winners and obvious losers.
Winner: Art History, Refigured
One of the most thrilling winners was European and American art history. Magnificent exhibitions at three museums advanced new research in areas that had seemed thoroughly explored. The Guggenheim Museum offers a revisionary chapter about the start of modern abstraction in its current headliner, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” introducing works that this Swedish artist and mystic made in 1906-07. Suddenly, the most sacred genesis tale of modernism — the invention of abstract painting — has acquired a female actor who actually got there several years ahead of the revered triumvirate of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. Af Klint’s joyous paintings, with their radical palette, scale and openness, push abstraction toward the future. (Through April 23.)
Another gauntlet landed with “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University. Partnering with the Musée d’Orsay, the Wallach has combined some great paintings (by Manet, Bazille, Degas, Matisse and Bearden) with fascinating ephemera, bringing new detail about the plight and presence of black women in late-19th-century Paris life and art, and following this theme through the Harlem Renaissance into the present. (Through Feb. 10.)
In Washington, the Smithsonian American Art Museum unveiled “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” a stunning retrospective of this once-unknown outsider genius (1853-1949), a former slave and tenant farmer who spent the last decade of his precarious life making drawings on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. Effortless in their fusion of narrative and form, Traylor’s images distill memories harsh and pleasant into taut silhouettes on found cardboard. They now count among the greatest works of 20th-century American art, and thanks to a magnificent catalog, the artist is obscure no more. The show will not travel, so plan a trip to Washington soon. (Through March 17.)
Loser: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Blinks, Twice
Everyone who likes art, except residents of New York state, lost when the Met persuaded New York City officials to replace “pay what you wish” with an egregious mandatory fee of $25. With this, the immensely wealthy Met sacrificed one of its most honorable features: the broad accessibility offered by libraries. The loser is visual literacy.
In the fall, financial anxiety led the Met to back out of the last three years of its eight-year lease of the Met Breuer and reabsorb its department of modern and contemporary art into its main building. The program at the Met Breuer has been surprisingly good and getting better, but attendance hasn’t been high enough. It certainly didn’t help that the Fifth Avenue museum remained the staging ground of big-draw contemporary shows like the David Hockney retrospective or the recent display of gifts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
Winner: Van Gogh Again
The year brought an outstanding movie about a painter: Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” an intimate, atmospheric treatment of the last days of Vincent van Gogh. Such endeavors rarely attain credibility, and yet this century now boasts two, the other being Mike Leigh’s lavish “Mr. Turner” (2014). “At Eternity’s Gate” is carried by its star, Willem Dafoe, whose gripping performance is aided by his uncanny resemblance to the artist. Schnabel’s stated goal was to desensationalize the story of van Gogh — usually depicted as a mad artist who killed himself and died in obscurity. The movie makes a good case against each of those points, starting with its plain, unsensational style. What we get is an impassioned, articulate artist who adored nature and painting it and had a touchingly codependent relationship with his younger brother Theo. Schnabel also sides with those who argue that van Gogh did not commit suicide and proposes that he was killed by two youths playing with a gun.
Winner: A Genre Revitalized
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama elevated a dreary academic ritual — the official White House portrait — making a routine post-presidential event an instance of change. Seeing advantage in the renewed liveliness of figure painting, the couple chose a well-known painter, Kehinde Wiley (for Barack Obama’s portrait), and a lesser-known artist, Amy Sherald (for Michelle Obama’s). The depictions at the National Portrait Gallery are more than good enough — and the better for being such distinctive, explicitly human departures from a fossilized tradition that, with luck, will never be the same.
Winners: The Citizens of Chicago
A much-loved public mural by the painter Kerry James Marshall is staying put. Called “Knowledge and Wonder,” it was commissioned in 1995 for the Chicago Public Library’s Legler branch, on the city’s West Side, and celebrates the library as a source of mystery and wonder for children. With Marshall’s profile and his prices on the rise, the city decided to sell it at Christie’s, hoping to raise $10 million to fund an expanded library and a new public-art program. But with rising prices come increased clout, and when Marshall objected to the sale of his 10-by-23-foot work, the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, reversed course.
Loser: An Auction Low
British street artist Banksy put up a work at Sotheby’s auction house that half-destructed as the gavel came down, thanks to a remote-control shredder built into its frame. (It sold for $1.4 million.) The audience seemed genuinely shocked; those behind the podium, not so much. Banksy’s clever trick is sure to earn him a footnote in auction history, which is no stranger to stunts (most involving chandelier pricing). Still, this one did give rise to a slender hope that if such tricks become an auction house staple, serious people might go back to buying art the old-fashioned way — from galleries. But not yet. Everyone was back at the madness the following week, bidding up a Hockney and a Hopper to record prices.
Best in Show
In 2018, a politically shuddersome year, the international art world was both out to lunch and on the alert. Art fairs and auctions continued to serve as conveyor belts for investment capital. Cheerleading and celebrity chat passed for discourse. At the same time, a spirit of resistance was building, and some critical projects came to pass.
1. ‘Histórias Afro-Atlânticas’ (‘Afro-Atlantic Histories’)
This immense exhibition, split between two Brazilian institutions, the São Paulo Museum of Art (known as MASP) and the Tomie Ohtake Foundation in the same city, was an eye-filling, mind-altering account of how a profound evil — slavery — revolutionized a hemisphere. The show closed just a week before Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, in the country’s most radical shift since the military dictatorship of decades ago. A second Ohtake Foundation show, organized by the young curator Paulo Miyada, documented that murderous earlier era and, in the charged postelection climate, felt like an act of courage.
2. ‘National Memorial for Peace and Justice’
Conceived by the Equal Justice Initiative and set on a hill overlooking Montgomery, Alabama, this memorial to racial violence is a giant Minimalist sculpture with maximalist emotional content: The hundreds of steel plates that make up its structure are inscribed with the names of many of the 4,000 African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. A second site downtown, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, brings the story of white supremacy into the present. Together, they pack a wallop. You come away changed.
3. ‘Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016’
This exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was one of the most un-MoMA shows I’ve ever seen there. A 50-year survey of an American artist who has taken racism, misogyny and xenophobia as her themes, while refusing to be defined by them, it made the museum feel like a life-engaged place, not the high-polish, content-muting one we’ve grown used to.
4. ‘Charles White: A Retrospective’
MoMA came through again with this survey of a painter and draftsman who made African America his theme, and formal beauty his means. White (1918-79) had the hand of an angel and the mind of a sage. Both warm this show, on view through Jan. 13. And both were evident in two other high points of the season: an exhibition of work, at the New Museum, by the contemporary Ghanaian-born British filmmaker John Akomfrah, and a career overview, at MoMA PS1, of the Iranian-born playwright, director and performer Reza Abdoh, who rocketed across the international theater before succumbing to AIDS in 1995, at 32.
5. ‘Zoe Leonard: Survey’
This show last spring at the Whitney Museum of American Art was a lesson in the power of visual understatement. I had wondered ahead of time if Leonard’s austere, allusive, intensely personal work would be able to cast its spell in the Whitney’s wide-open reaches. It did. (The show is now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through March 25.) A bit later in the year, the museum took another formal risk — and had another win — with “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art,” a show that mixed craft, architecture and performance in the work of seven young Latinx (a gender-neutral term for Latino) artists, and introduced a fine new Whitney curator, the Puerto Rican-born Marcela Guerrero.
6. ‘Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths’
This exhibition at the Fowler Museum of Art and Culture, University of California, Los Angeles, is the most beautiful sculpture show of the year. It touches on the myriad traditional uses of iron in Africa, and even the ordinary objects look magical: a sickle in the shape of a beast with a bristling mane; a hoe distilling the essence of elephant, all trunk and ears; an herbalist’s staff that trails a flock of tiny, tissue-thin iron birds. (Through Dec. 30.)
7. ‘In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art’
This show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was yet another rewarding gamble. Combining historical material with contemporary Iranian art, the exhibition was, in effect, a critical history of heroes — emperor, athlete, saint — although it never explained that theme. Indeed, it said little about its intentions or its works; the galleries were all but bare of labels. Ordinarily, I would find their absence annoying, but here, because the art was so strong, I was caught up in its drama. The show is still vivid in my mind months later.
8. ‘Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth’
The dreamiest Italian Renaissance painting in America, Fra Angelico’s “The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin,” is tucked away in a corner of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and easy to miss. But, for this show, it was put in the spotlight and surrounded by a dozen other pictures by the artist. The intention was to illuminate an overlooked aspect of his work: his skill as a reality-grounded storyteller. But what also came through in our distracted age was the radical nature of his spiritual composure.
9. A Daring New Wing
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently announced a renovation of its existing galleries of art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The renovation would present an opportunity to remap global history accurately by making transcultural connections among objects old and new, Western and non-Western. If the Met pursues this route with daring and commitment, it will do what no other encyclopedic museum in this country has done.
10. Toward a New Ethics
Last year, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced his intention to return African art objects in his nation’s museums to their countries of origin, temporarily or permanently. He commissioned the Savoy-Sarr report to determine the mechanics of restitution. Soon after its release, he announced that an initial group of 26 objects at the Quai Branly Museum would return to Benin (suggesting that others be made available to their home nations not only through restitutions but also through exhibitions, exchanges and loans). The implications for museums, collectors and markets, in and beyond the field of African art, are huge. Fireworks lie ahead. But, bottom line, restitution is right. It’s the hows and the whens that are up for debate.
After the wailing comes the work. If 2017 was art’s year of indignation, in 2018 artists and museums have hunkered down and gotten serious about the immense political, environmental and technological hazards that lie before us. I’ve spent much of the year in Europe, and there and here I’ve seen a new commitment to building a common future.
1. Fondazione Prada
This was the year the Italian nonprofit, created in 1993 by Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, arrived as one of the world’s pre-eminent institutions of modern art. At its Milan headquarters, it mounted the most important show of 2018: “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943,” a meticulous mapping of how fascism moves from the margins to the center of society, via 600 works of interwar Italian art by Morandi, De Chirico, Severini and far less familiar names.
Its current Baroque exhibition, curated by Luc Tuymans, puts Caravaggio alongside contemporary art, and a new slanting tower, by Rem Koolhaas, delivers acres of gallery space and the disco of my dreams. It turns out that money is not what the art world should fear most; what we should fear is inertia, and we should combat it with the tools Prada herself wields: discipline, rigor, gravity, style.
In a tumultuous year for the Metropolitan Museum of Art — which got a bright new director, Max Hollein; cut loose the Breuer, its underachieving satellite; and dishonored itself with new mandatory admission — this shadowy show of France’s champion Romantic made it all OK. (His first comprehensive retrospective in North America!) I might have preferred the Delacroix feast at the Musée du Louvre, its first stop; the Met has had to make do without most of his large works. But at both museums, Delacroix’s agitated scenes of passion and empire speak emphatically to contemporary appetites and anxieties. (Through Jan. 6.)
3. Cao Fei
In this Chinese artist’s video installation “Asia One,” a wrenching tragedy of love and economics at the Guggenheim last summer, we meet the two last humans in an automated factory — ostensibly from the “future,” but filmed at a real Shanghai factory where workers are already unnecessary. Their every move is recorded, logged and scored; they ache to connect but find human emotions beyond them. Recently, the Beijing municipal government announced that all the capital’s citizens will be tracked and assigned permanent ratings that could improve or impede their daily lives. Soon, we will all work in Asia One.
4. ‘Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts’
This two-part, all-media retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (through Feb. 18) and MoMA PS1 (through Feb. 25) offers a master class in the limits of the body, the limits of language and the artistic desire to push beyond them. It is also the finest of swan songs for its curator, Kathy Halbreich, MoMA’s former associate director, who did so much to revive the museum’s engagement with the art of today.
5. ‘Canova’s George Washington’
The Frick Collection finally got its long-wished-for approval for an expansion to the east, but this was the more immediate coup: a loan of Canova’s full-scale model for a lost marble statue of the first American president, wearing a Roman skirt and writing his farewell address in Italian. Imposing, adamant, the image of restraint, this plaster Washington came across as an act of subtle opposition by New York’s most old-school of museums.
6. Germany Goes Global
Even before the momentous Savoy-Sarr report raised the temperature in European museums with colonial holdings, an ambitious show in Hamburg boldly imagined a new, more just collection. It was “Mobile Worlds,” Roger Buergel’s delirious rethinking of applied arts, which mined the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe for Afro-Brazilian fabrics, Chinese porcelain with Arabic inscriptions, and other transcultural objects that evade the logic of imperial classification.
7. David Levine’s ‘Some of the People, All of the Time’
This summer,the Brooklyn Museum hosted one of the first great works of art of the Trump era, a requiem for democratic authenticity in an age of lies. Levine’s hourlong monologue, performed by professional actors in the galleries over six weeks, recounts the psychological toll of being a “fake person,” whether you’re writing a sock-puppet social media account or cheering a candidacy at Trump Tower. I sorely regret not reviewing it; buy the current issue of n+1 magazine, which has published the script.
8. The Chosen People
Two excellent shows timed to the Soviet Union’s centenary have explored the dreams and nightmares of Jewish artists of the left and what became of their utopianism after 1918. “Comrade. Jew. We Only Wanted Paradise on Earth,” at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, offered a hundred-year survey of the art and literature of Jewish Communists, from Moscow to the gulag and into exile. And “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich,” seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and currently at the Jewish Museum in New York (through Jan. 6), vibrantly restages debates about a new Communist art at one revolutionary academy in Vitebsk.
9. Ladies of the Laboratory
The American Folk Art Museum showed Orra White Hitchcock, a Massachusetts matron whose beguiling illustrations of mushrooms and mammoths were tied up with love for her husband, for God and for all earthly creation. And, through Feb. 17, the New York Public Library has a small firecracker in the form of Anna Atkins, the seaweed-loving Victorian who sewed cyanotypes of British algae into the world’s first photo books.
10. Kylian Mbappé
This prodigy footballer is only 19 and already the most polished French artist since Matisse. For what is art if not the junction of form and meaning? And what does Mbappé deliver, while blatherers scorn the new, plural Europe he incarnates, but renewed faith in the political power of beauty? When I watched Mbappé, so confident in blue, as he dashed and nutmegged to this year’s World Cup trophy, I felt what I too rarely feel: unalloyed hope for the generation to come.