2015: The Year in Art

Artsy Editorial
Dec 16, 2015 5:11AM

As 2015 draws to a close, Artsy parsed the year’s art to determine which artists, exhibitions, and creative hubs wielded the greatest influence.

We scoured a vast cache of information: Using UBS’s art news app Planet Art, we scanned 146,000 articles, searching for artists mentioned, influential exhibitions, and hotly debated news. From Artsy, we culled pageviews, follows, and inquiries for over 50,000 artists. And from influential curators and collectors, we gathered input on creatives they believe are influencing the art landscape—and culture at large.

The artists, exhibitions, cities, and events gathered below reveal a year of boundaries being broken—of contemporary art becoming increasingly diverse and dispersed, and of artists asserting influence in the wider cultural and political sphere.

This year’s most influential living artists represent an expansive sweep of mediums, genders, nationalities, and even ages. While museum regulars and market darlings (many of them men) rightly remain on the list, some lesser-known names, bolstered by practices that integrate art with social critique, have risen to the surface.

A triumvirate of long-canonized names—Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Damien Hirst—returns to this list. Each pioneered new approaches to their favored mediums, and today their groundbreaking works are heralded in museums the world over, garner record prices on the auction block, and continue to influence emerging practices.

Illustrations by Rebecca Strickson for Artsy. Credits for original photographs in the full article.


But 2015 also saw a less expected duo of older painters, Frank Stella and Alex Katz, rise to the top. Stella’s hard-edged, wall-scale abstractions are honored in the first major retrospective to grace the Whitney’s new building, while Katz’s stylized figurative portraits have been the subject of several major museum exhibitions.

Offsetting the art world’s endemic gender imbalance, two octogenarian female artists cropped up high in our data: Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono. The 86-year-old Kusama’s dot-laden paintings and sculptures are currently gathered in a retrospective at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, and perhaps her most famous work, Infinity Mirrored Room, has headlined exhibitions across the globe. Ono joins the “top living artist” ranks for the first time in 2015. In the 1960s, her text-based works and performances helped pioneer a conceptual art movement that irrevocably expanded the definition of art. Then and now, she has boldly broached controversial topics like gender, identity, class, and war, and this year she was recognized with a major museum show—at the MoMA no less.

Promisingly, the art world turned increasing focus on socially and politically engaged work in 2015. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei continued to dominate discussion and was finally granted back his passport in time to attend the opening of his Royal Academy retrospective. Tania Bruguera also lost her passport after attempting to stage a participatory performance promoting free speech in Havana. And Theaster Gates, the youngest artist on the list at 42, opened a 17,000-square-foot nonprofit arts center in his struggling Chicago neighborhood after a much-regaled solo show at blue-chip gallery White Cube.

Protests at the Brooklyn Museum, photo by Isaac Kaplan; the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, photo by Alex John Beck.

Ai’s and Bruguera’s detentions, and subsequent releases, also earned spots amongst 2015’s top art news—a list that, in some ways, marched to a familiar, though by no means dull, rhythm. Auction house executives came and went, lawsuits were brought and settled, and the price of works at auction reached previously unimaginable heights. Yet, this year, the art world had to contend with broader political and social issues as ISIS, anti-Semitism, and labor disputes all made their impact felt.

Ai and Bruguera are among the artists who bridged the gap between art news and front page news—Anish Kapoor and Christoph Büchel joined them. When vandals attacked the former’s sculptures with anti-Semitic graffiti, Kapoor appealed for the slogans to stay put through the duration of his Versailles installation. It was an effort to remind the public of the lingering, pervasive prejudice in France—and the French court ruled against him.

During the Venice Biennale, artist Büchel transformed the city’s Santa Maria della Misericordia, a former church, into a functioning mosque. The intervention raised questions about European xenophobia and the historical treatment of Muslims in Italy, but these discussions were cut short less than a month after the exhibition opened when Venetian authorities shuttered the project. It was read by some as a closed-minded blow to the Biennale, a city-wide exhibition that’s gathered the world’s best boundary-pushing artwork for 120 years.

As it adds pavilions for more countries each year, the Biennale’s growth, perhaps more than any other single art event, has mirrored the expansion of the art world—and of cultural globalization. Above, we’ve mapped the migrations of the art world over the course of 2015, as artists, curators, dealers, and collectors traveled to art fairs, auctions, exhibitions, and biennials. It’s a winding route that spans the globe, and converges around major cities, but not without a few surprises. Between big bubbles that represent high concentrations of activity in hubs like New York and London, traffic to cities like São Paulo, Singapore, and Istanbul indicates that we’re in a moment of expansion and regionalization, as much as we are in one of condensation around the global financial capitals.

In any given city, cultural health can be measured, in part, by its number of museums, and, of course, the strength of their exhibitions. While this year’s standout museum shows are admittedly concentrated in the Western world (and many in major cities), they reveal a positive trend in the recognition of underrepresented facets of the art world—women and artists of color, in particular.

Laurie Anderson’s “Habeas Corpus” at the Park Avenue Armory, October 2–4, 2015. Photo by James Ewing, courtesy of the Park Avenue Armory.


Laurie Anderson’s three-day show, “Habeas Corpus,” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, probed the very nature of political and cultural borders. As a disco ball threw glittering shards of light across the immense space, a vast projection of a seated man, four times the size of any visitor, spoke softly to the audience. Anderson had telecast former Guantánamo Bay inmate Mohammed el Gharani into the room from his home in West Africa. Over the static, el Gharani discussed the tortures of prison and his eventual release, after being deemed innocent more than seven years after he entered.

A similar fusion of art, technology, and social commentary underscored other influential shows this year, if more subtly. Anicka Yi, employing bacteria and manufactured smells as materials, brought her alchemical meditations on memory to Kunsthalle Basel, while Rachel Rose’s kaleidoscopic videos made waves at the Whitney. “Inhuman,” at Kassel’s Fridericianum museum, showcased a generation of emerging artists whose works plumb the evolving human body and mind in the context of internet culture, life-hacking, and genetic engineering. And PS1’s “Greater New York” took a slightly different tack—looking back. For the first time, the quinquennial survey presented work made by breakout bright young things alongside their predecessors, older and under-known artists whose practices are being rediscovered. 

Portrait of Eric N. Mack by Alex John Beck for Artsy; Portrait of Juliana Huxtable by Alex John Beck for Artsy; Portrait of Mira Dancy by Emily Johnston for Artsy.

Which brings us to the future of art. This year’s most influential emerging artists think expansively, and represent a broad sweep of mediums and interests—from painting to virtual reality, gender elasticity to surveillance. Yi and Rose show up here too, and are joined by other artists who bake science and technology into progressive practices. Jon Rafman immerses viewers in environments where gaming landscapes and physical reality fuse as dark, hypnotizing hybrids; Yves Scherer probes celebrity culture and popular media in works that toe the line between critique, satire, and celebration; and Simon Denny examines surveillance and digital subcultures by plumbing the depths of images, information, and communication stored on the internet. 

Ibrahim Mahama and Eric N. Mack use everyday materials and urban detritus to build tactile abstractions that question capital and labor, in Mahama’s case, and identity and community, in Mack’s. Mira Dancy’s paintings of languid, muscular nudes mine the pop-cultural and historical depictions of women. While Juliana Huxtable’s genre- and gender-defying practice moves fluidly between performance, poetry, pop music, and photography; it’s no wonder that the artist has become a figurehead for a millennial, internet-savvy generation that celebrates gender and identity nonconformism.

It’s a group that, while interested in formal concerns and engaged with art history, allows contemporary culture to seep in—and, in numerous cases, doesn’t shy away from politically charged content.

2015 was, in many ways, a trying year for the world—stories of enduring inequalities and attendant protests filled front pages, while terrorism-induced tragedies continued their proliferation across the globe. But there was progress as well, with the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. and universal agreement on climate change at the 2015 United Nations climate change conference in Paris. In art, too, advances are being made.

As the year comes to a close, who will carry on the torch? Looking ahead to 2016, a group of young artists who embody this shifting cultural landscape emerge.

They make art that, in many cases, approaches difficult topics with optimism and a level of accessibility not often associated with conceptual art. They remind us, like all of this year’s most influential artists, that art is a way of thinking about the world; that the process of artmaking is expansive and unending, keeping pace with our progress and our failures and, ultimately, helping us gaze forward, into 2016 and beyond.

Artsy Editorial