The Most Influential Artists of 2018

Artsy Editors
Dec 17, 2018 7:32PM
Whether they were experimenting with floating sculptures, investigating war zones, or pushing painting forward in bold new directions, artists in 2018 made exciting and eclectic contributions to the world. There are so many creative accomplishments to celebrate this year that narrowing our focus to the year’s 20 most influential artists was no easy task. The talents you’ll find here have undeniably changed our culture and have touched and inspired countless others who have followed their examples. In many cases, they’ve caused us to reconsider the very definitions of what art can look like, and what it can achieve.

Kerry James Marshall

B. 1955, Birmingham, Alabama

Lives and works in Chicago

Portrait of Kerry James Marshall by Peter Hoffman for Artsy.


Since Kerry James Marshall’s stellar retrospective at MCA Chicago, the Met Breuer, and MOCA Los Angeles in 2016–17—an epic tour through some 35 years of his oeuvre, which places black Americans on the scale of history painting, conjuring transcendent scenes in barber shops and housing projects that vibrate with poetry, nuance, and magic—the artist has continued his ascension to become one of the most admired and influential artists living today. This year, Marshall became the most expensive living African-American artist at auction; in early 2018, his painting Past Times (1997) sold at Sotheby’s for $21.1 million, smashing his previous record of $5 million.

Marshall’s latest work shows he’s in his prime and not afraid to move in new directions; he debuted new paintings at David Zwirner’s London gallery, for a buzzy show that opened during the week of Frieze. The works summoned the whole of art history, alluding to the deep structural biases against black artists and the nature of the art market, while also experimenting with pure abstraction and paintings of quietly otherworldly scenes of everyday people doing everyday things, like a woman walking a dog.

Additional accolades this year came with presentations at Cleveland’s FRONT Triennial and the Carnegie International. Marshall also mounted his first public sculpture: a pair of stacked brick cylinders installed in Des Moines, Iowa, that pay tribute to the 12 African-American lawyers who founded the National Bar Association in Des Moines in 1925 after they were denied membership to the American Bar Association. Though he’s already cemented his place in the contemporary art canon, Marshall continues to experiment, take risks, and push his painting forward. “The structure of my practice as an artist makes me feel like I’m completely free,” he said during the opening of his London exhibition with David Zwirner. “I’m totally free. I’m not restrained by anything or anybody—I don’t have a lack of knowledge, a lack of ability, to do any of the things that I want to do.”

Adrian Piper

B. 1948, New York, New York

Lives and works in Berlin

Portrait of Adrian Piper by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.


Adrian Piper’s art can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience—perhaps intentionally so. Over the course of several decades, Piper has needled, prodded at, and brought definition to the essence of American racism, class divisions, and misogyny through provocative performances, installations, and two-dimensional works, as well as with her writings and teachings. She is also a highly accomplished philosopher, with Eastern philosophies and the work of Kant looming large across her practice.

This year, Piper was the first living artist in the Museum of Modern Art’s history to receive the institution’s entire sixth floor for a sprawling retrospective. The show included her best-known works, like performance documentation of The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear (1975), in which she assumed the stereotype of an angry black man, donning an afro and fake mustache and engaging people in the street in aggressive, confrontational behavior, and even staging a mugging. But it also highlighted her lesser-known abstract compositions and recordings of her guerilla dance performances in public spaces, which underline the received notions of propriety and order inscribed into the built environment.

Piper was given the prestigious Golden Lion award at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Her retrospective has since left MoMA, and a version of it is on view at the Hammer Museum in L.A.; it will travel to the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2019. “I was told by a friend during the opening that after this exhibition, it will no longer be possible to tell the story of the art of our times without Piper,” asserted Christophe Cherix, Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints at MoMA. “I can only hope that’s true.”

Maurizio Cattelan

B. 1960, Padua, Italy

Lives and works in New York

Portrait of Maurizio Cattelan by Pierpaolo Ferrari. Courtesy of Maurizio Cattelan.

Since “retiring” from the art world in 2011, following his retrospective-cum-spectacle at the Guggenheim that year, Maurizio Cattelan has been busy dissolving the boundaries between art and commerce, fusing his high-concept chicanery with fashion and photography. Toiletpaper, the magazine he founded in 2010 with photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari, has garnered a cult following—and has also attracted commissions from companies, like OKCupid and Kenzo, seeking to give their brands a facelift with the Italian duo’s saturated, surrealistic aesthetic.

In the past couple of years, Toiletpaper has moved into selling collectable objects and environments—but Cattelan has still kept a foot in the world of galleries and museums. In 2018, he and Gucci creative director and fashion icon Alessandro Michele opened “The Artist Is Present,” an immersive blockbuster exhibition at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai. The extravaganza features work by more than 30 high-profile artists, including Kapwani Kiwanga, Superflex, Xu Zhen, Sturtevant, Lawrence Weiner, Josh Kline, and Reena Spaulings—each of whom tests the limits of artistic authorship. And despite technically being out of the game, Cattelan has still been making work. For Art Basel Cities in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this year, he conceived Eternity. Enlisting help from locals, he built a graveyard full of memorials in honor of people who are not yet dead.

“As an Italian, I am used to seeing plenty of ‘fake retirees,’” said Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum and a longtime friend of the artist. “It’s a national sport and a serious financial plague: people feigning disabilities in order to collect pensions or retiring for the sole purpose of getting paid while still working illegally. As always, Maurizio plays with Italian stereotypes and exacerbates them. I have always thought he is a very rare example of a lazy overachiever, so he has managed to be somewhat busier since he has gone into retirement.…To borrow the title of a recent study by Elena Filipovic on Duchamp, ‘the apparently marginal activities’ of Maurizio Cattelan will turn out to be as important a part of his career as all the work he had done before his retirement.”

Judy Chicago

B. 1939, Chicago, Illinois

Lives and works in Belen, New Mexico

Portrait of Judy Chicago © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of the artist.

Over her nearly 60-year career, Judy Chicago has contended with women’s disenfranchisement, both in the art world and beyond it. Her major projects—ambitious series gathered for the first time in the survey “Judy Chicago: A Reckoning,” now at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami—anticipate questions of power and erasure that are now central to the #MeToo movement.

As a young artist in the 1960s, Chicago struggled to squeeze herself—and her work—into the narrow confines of the male-dominated art scene centered around Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery. Chicago’s experiences of misogynistic exclusion from this circle incentivized her to create a new art world that reflected women’s struggles and contributions.

In 1970, she divested herself of her married name, choosing Chicago—her hometown—as a representation of that newfound emancipation. Soon after, she co-founded, with Miriam Schapiro, the pioneering Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, encouraging her students through consciousness-raising sessions to create works inspired by their gendered experiences. This helped lead, in 1972, to the groundbreaking Womanhouse project, in which Chicago and Schapiro, along with their students and local artists, overtook a dilapidated house with site-specific installations that probed the often-confining combination of artmaking and domestic labor present in so many female artists’ practices.

Women’s exclusion from public discourse features in Chicago’s best-known work, The Dinner Party (1974–79), a triangular banquet table set to honor centuries of important women, from Sappho to Georgia O’Keeffe. Although it now enjoys a permanent home in a temple-like gallery at the Brooklyn Museum, it was, for many years, regarded as little more than kitsch.

At her core, Chicago has endeavored to understand if the female experience can “be a pathway to the universal in the way male experience has been,” as she said in a recent interview. Though she long struggled for her own recognition and critical acceptance, the fruits of Chicago’s feminist labor can be clearly seen throughout our current culture, from Petra Collins’s menstruating vagina shirts to Carmen Winant’s sensational My Birth (2018)—a clear homage to Chicago’s “The Birth Project” (1980–85)—and even the pink “pussy hats” worn at recent women’s marches. There’s a new world coming, indeed, and Chicago helped make it possible.

Alex Da Corte

B. 1980, Camden, New Jersey

Lives and works in Philadelphia

Portrait of Alex Da Corte by Matthew Leifheit. Courtesy of Gió Marconi.

Alex Da Corte’s stunning installations incorporate elements of design, architecture, film, and sculpture to create Day-Glo fantasylands. The Philadelphia-based artist started 2018 off strong with a winter show at New York’s Karma gallery. Even the exhibition title, “C-A-T Spells Murder,” promised plenty of irreverent fun. The exhibition was something of an oxymoron: thoughtful Instagram bait. In the middle of a room drenched in pink light, Da Corte turned a massive, orange foam-and-velvet cat on its head. This feline centerpiece was offset by a series of sculptures in neon and vinyl siding that turned simple motifs—a pie on a window sill, a spider’s web—into seductive signage. Across town, the artist’s film Slow Graffiti (2017) got its New York City debut in a summer group show at David Zwirner, “This Is Not a Prop.” And at Art Basel Cities in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this past September, Da Corte mounted a giant, inflatable Kermit the Frog in the middle of an old studio.

Da Corte also produced one of the most-loved artworks at this year’s Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, where curator Ingrid Schaffner devoted an entire gallery to his exuberant work. At the center of the gallery, he erected a neon structure that resembled a cottage. Window boxes filled with neon flowers and jack-o-lanterns added sweet, illuminated touches. Inside, 57 of Da Corte’s films played on loop. It was surreal cinema: In one video, a platinum blonde played with knives as she chatted on the phone. In others, Da Corte dressed up in costumes that made him look like Mr. Rogers or the apple from Fruit of the Loom commercials. “His neon house positively glows with a love of music, movies, Mr. Rogers, muppets, Saturday morning cartoons, holiday schmalz, and works of contemporary art. At the same time it stands skeletal and alone,” Schaffner said, calling the work an “emotional and intense experience of American culture.”

It’s no surprise that Da Corte’s playful, campy style has captivated an audience that extends well beyond the art world (the musician St. Vincent is a fan, as well, tapping him to direct a vibrant music video last year). Though the artist makes immersive, alluring eye candy, its strangeness saves it from becoming twee. His weird riffs on pop culture (he once dressed up as Eminem for a video) and old fables (he’s also impersonated Frankenstein) ask viewers to reconsider the media they consume daily and the characters who are part of the cultural lexicon.

Bruce Nauman

B. 1941, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Lives and works in Galisteo, New Mexico

Portrait of Bruce Nauman by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy of Jason Schmidt.

How can an artist reshape our perceptions of the world and fundamentally reimagine the limits of art at the same time? Bruce Nauman’s extraordinarily restless and wide-ranging 50-year practice offers some clues. From the beginning of his career, Nauman has grounded his artistic inquiries in the big questions: What does it mean to be a human being? Where is truth? Who holds power?

With the smallest of gestures—painting a picture of his spilled morning coffee, leaving a camera running in his studio for 24 hours, or forging a flashing neon sign that rotates between commonplace words—the artist has captured the ecstasy, pain, and deep existential dread of being alive. The artist’s two-part, widely-raved-about retrospective that opened at the Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland, earlier this year, and then traveled to the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York, has further canonized Nauman’s reputation as one of the most influential contemporary artists of all time.

As the exhibition’s lead curator, Kathy Halbreich, told Artsy, “If you’re interested in language, you can’t avoid Bruce; if you’re interested in video—and he was one of the first to use a Portapak—you can’t avoid Bruce. Bruce knew about performance before we even had a word for it. If you’re interested in any new technology, he was there early, if not first.” Indeed, Nauman’s explorations into and reinventions of performance, sculpture, new media, and everything in between have opened up so many new avenues for contemporary art that any one moment in his oeuvre could lead to a lifetime of experimentation for another artist. (Nauman cast the negative space under his seat in the mid-1960s, for example, and today, Rachel Whiteread has made a career out of casting the negative spaces of houses, staircases, and smaller objects.) His influence is myriad, and it continues to ripple.

Cao Fei

B. 1978, Guangzhou, China

Lives and works in Beijing

Portrait of Cao Fei by Myrzik und Jarisch. © BMW. Courtesy of the artist.

For at least a decade, Cao Fei has been considered one of the most important young voices to come out of China—an artist able to combine a macro view of the seismic shifts in the country since the Cultural Revolution with her personal experiences growing up in the city of Guangzhou, northwest of Hong Kong. Across appearances at the Serpentine Galleries in London, the Venice Biennale, MoMA PS1 in New York, the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, K21 in Dusseldorf, and numerous other international venues over the years, Cao has received acclaim for her videos and multimedia installations that feature surreal, absurdist, or grotesque narratives set in post-industrial China.

In her work, we see factory workers acting out their fantasies in the corridors and workstations at a warehouse; cosplayers assuming the roles of digital avatars amid gray, apocalyptic landscapes; or a relationship that plays out between the only two humans in the world’s first automated sorting plant (in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province)—as in her video Asia One (2018), which was on view in a group exhibition this year at the Guggenheim, and was acquired by the museum.

Another recent film, Prison Architect (2018), tells the fictional story of an architect charged with turning an arts center into a prison. It is the centerpiece of Cao’s first major retrospective in greater China, which opened earlier this year at Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun art center, cementing her wide-ranging influence in her home country, as well as abroad. It’s an ambitious, cinematic meditation on creative freedom and incarceration; it reverses the narrative behind Tai Kwun itself, which is an arts center renovated from a former police station. In 2020, Cao will enjoy a larger retrospective—her first in her current home of Beijing—at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Simone Leigh

B. 1967, Chicago, Illinois

Lives and works in Brooklyn

Portrait of Simone Leigh by Paul Mpagi Sepuya. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine, Bushwick.

Plenty of art purports to change your perspective on the world, but Simone Leigh actually hopes to heal. The multidisciplinary artist—who may be best known for her innovative ceramics and sculptures—once created a free clinic for Brooklyn residents (with yoga, pilates, and HIV screenings) and offered acupuncture and a guided meditation for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum. Leigh’s work, by design, is not for everyone: She consciously makes art with a black, female viewer in mind. American institutions have catered their language and displays to white men for most of history; Leigh’s work bravely undermines the status quo.

Ironically, the spaces she critiques throughout her practice are gradually enhancing her mainstream popularity. This past October, the Guggenheim awarded Leigh its prestigious Hugo Boss Prize. The month before, she opened her first solo exhibition at Luhring Augustine, a blue-chip New York gallery. Cupboard VIII (2018), one of the show’s most impressive sculptures, stands over 10 feet tall. The piece resembles a monumental woman, comprising a brown stoneware torso, hands, and neck; a head that resembles an open pot; and a layered raffia skirt that fans out 10 feet in diameter. In the show, the figure demanded her own private space—viewers could walk around the massive, hooping form, but never peer inside. Leigh often incorporates disconcerting female heads into her work: Faces are missing eyes or replaced entirely with gaping holes. As a result, the pieces sacrifice specificity as they address larger ideas about identity; if her figures are more mythological than real, they are clearly black women.

Next year, Leigh’s work will get a further spotlight in the public sphere when she mounts a massive, 16-foot-tall bronze bust on the High Line park in New York. Leigh is an increasingly formidable presence in contemporary art, making the large-scale work apt for her outsize, revolutionary ambitions. “I’ve come to see her mute ceramic female figures as sentinels holding space for a culture that is very much in the making,” curator Helen Molesworth recently wrote, “a culture in which whiteness is neither the center nor the frame.”

David Hockney

B. 1937, Bradford, United Kingdom

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Portrait of David Hockney by Julien Jourdes for Artsy.

It’s official: David Hockney has surpassed Jeff Koons to become the most expensive living artist in the world, after his iconic Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) sold at Christie’s this past November for $90.3 million, with fees. Hockney created the painting after the end of a relationship, and there are competing interpretations about who the two figures in the painting are—whether the jacketed figure is Hockney looking down through the ripples of a swimming pool at his former lover swimming below, or his former lover gazing down at a new romantic partner, or nothing to do with their breakup at all (as his former lover has posited). Regardless of what it depicts, the painting represents two of Hockney’s most celebrated genres: his crystalline swimming pools and his double portraits, the latter capturing casual yet bold representations of individuals that vibrate with psychological connection.

The British painter has continued to build on his record-breaking 2017 traveling retrospective—which made stops at London’s Tate Britain, Paris’s Centre Pompidou, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—by persistently moving his work in new directions. The dynamic, reverse perspectives and unusually shaped canvases he’s been experimenting with in recent years, as well as his explorations into manipulated photography, were on full view at London’s Royal Academy of Arts this past summer, where he presented monumental collaged photographs showing miniature representations of his own paintings in the institution’s uproarious Summer Exhibition, organized by fellow British artist Grayson Perry.

Two of Hockey’s large-scale composite photographs, which explode single-point perspective, also went on view this spring at New York’s Pace Gallery, alongside a series of riotously colored hexagonal canvases showing landscapes around his Hollywood and Yorkshire homes, as well as his now-familiar blue deck. Meanwhile, another circulating survey exhibition (focusing on his paintings of people), “82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life,” made a final stop at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art earlier this year, coming home to the sun-drenched city that has inspired Hockney’s irresistibly youthful palette over the years.

Wu Tsang

B. 1982, Worcester, Massachusetts

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Portrait of Wu Tsang. Courtesy of Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Wu Tsang’s magical realist–inflected films place a fantastical lens over histories that have been neglected: the communities that take root in underground clubs and bars; queer love stories; and narratives of performers striving to maintain creative freedom amid oppression. In her best-known, breakout film, Wildness (2012), Tsang gives voice (literally) to the historic Los Angeles gay bar Silver Platter in MacArthur Park, long a gathering point for Latinos and, more recently, LGBT artists. (The artist herself ran a night at the club called “Wildness.”) In narrations, the bar itself recounts its life as a refuge for marginalized peoples. She also invited some of the Silver Platter’s trans clientele to perform in her film Damelo Todo/Odot Olemad (2010–15)—shown at the U.K.’s Nottingham Contemporary last year—in which they staged the story of a Salvadorian teenager who leaves the country amid civil war and winds up in L.A.

Tsang has become a consistently strong and influential figure in contemporary art and activism, earning a prestigious MacArthur Genius award this year. She is recognized as much for being an innovator in the medium of documentary film—where she blurs the borders between fact and fiction—as she is for being a powerful, searing voice among non-binary artists. Her films not only spotlight gender-nonconforming communities, they also bend time and genre. In Into a Space of Love (2018), an experimental documentary for which she partnered with Gucci this year (and which debuted at Frieze New York in May), Tsang explores the history of 1980s and ’90s house music in New York, touching on issues of gentrification and the cultural appropriation of queer communities; in it, she imagines iconic club performers from different eras coexisting in the film’s experimental present.

Her film Girl Talk (2015) also featured prominently in the New Museum’s exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” which closed earlier this year. It depicts the revered poet and theorist Fred Moten wearing a crystal-encrusted gown and spinning dreamily in a garden to the soulful jazz singing of Josiah Wise. Tsang’s most frequent collaborator, though, is the artist boychild, who creates otherworldly, sci-fi-inflected performances in which her muscular, gender-ambiguous body is often the center. The pair performed just this past month at Faena Forum in Art Basel in Miami Beach—Tsang playing the piano and singing, while boychild performed a rendition of “Carmen” from the famous opera of the same name.

Tomás Saraceno

B. 1973, San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina

Lives and works in Berlin

Portrait of Tomás Saraceno © Alfred Weidinger.

As Tomás Saraceno’s solar-powered balloons rise, so the ambitions of his work continue to expand. The Argentina-born artist has been experimenting with floating sculptures and forms of flight for years—one example of which he installed in Vienna’s Baroque Karlskirche earlier this year. Two air-filled spheres are currently floating above the central axis of the opulent 18th-century church, reflecting its ornate surfaces back at onlookers. The sky-bound inflatables are part of his Aerocene project, initiated in 2015—an ongoing collaboration between Saraceno and other artists and scientists. His goal is advancing fossil fuel-free flight and reducing humanity’s footprint on the planet by “[collaborating] with the atmosphere,” as he puts it, and harnessing the sun’s energy.

But Saraceno’s biggest moment this year came with his carte-blanche exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where he created a giant web of string for visitors to navigate; the material registers their movements as vibrations, some of which are audible to the human ear; some can only be felt by lying on the ground. He also enlisted a team of hundreds of spiders to cast silk webs around the space—with the insects prompted to mobilize, in theory, by a vibrational frequency produced from gravitational waves. He also showed new work at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery that offered visitors the chance to imagine environmentally symbiotic travel, such as the Aerocene Float Predictor, which employs wind-forecast data to enable visitors to create wind-propelled flight trajectories.

More recently, at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Saraceno planted a series of upturned, solar-power-capturing umbrellas along the beach that fueled a giant air-filled kite into the air. In Saraceno’s ongoing invitation to tread lightly on the Earth, and to feel a closer bond to our fellow terrestrial species, his work feels achingly urgent. In January, the artist will make his debut in a part of the world that is already feeling the effects of our widespread exploitation of the environment—Los Angeles, where Tanya Bonakdar has a newly opened space.

Takashi Murakami

B. 1962, Tokyo, Japan

Lives and works in Tokyo

Portrait of Takashi Murakami by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images.

Towards the end of 2018—a year in which Takashi Murakami had solo shows in New York, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, and collaborated with fashion designer Virgil Abloh on three more shows at Gagosian outlets in London, Paris, and Beverly Hills—the artist invited his friend Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian, to visit his studio in the suburbs of Tokyo. Murakami posted an image of the three of them on Instagram, and suddenly, it was an international news story.

Is there any other fine artist in recent memory who has the immediate pop-culture pull of Murakami? The high-low, photo-ready aesthetic he has been peddling for more than two decades has now meshed perfectly with our life-on-Instagram moment; with over 1 million followers on the platform, the artist has built an audience for himself that exceeds what any gallery could provide. And while plenty of artists collaborate with fashion lines, Murakami takes the cake: 15 years after Marc Jacobs recruited him to design what became a hugely popular and influential Louis Vuitton bag, Murakami is more ubiquitous than ever, designing low-priced duds for Uniqlo and T-shirts for Abloh’s Off-White line that now sell to hypebeasts on Grailed for $650. The artist, quite simply, is everywhere—even in the recent Drake collaboration with former foe Meek Mill, in which Drake raps about having “a lot of Murakami in the hallway.”

But the busy Murakami is just as active in the white cube. He had so many gallery shows in 2018, it was as if the sun never set on one of his exhibitions. The collaborations with Abloh may have garnered a mixed critical response, to say the least, but a solo show at Perrotin’s New York outpost this spring was ambitious enough to fill multiple floors of the Lower East Side building that the Paris-born gallery took over in 2017. The most wowing works were gigantic diptychs that nodded to the work of Francis Bacon. They were impressive in person, sure, but they also looked really great on Instagram.

Joan Mitchell

B. 1925, Chicago, Illinois

D. 1992, Paris

Portrait of Joan Mitchell by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

Decades after her 1992 death, Joan Mitchell remains a major subject of art world awe for both her lush Abstract Expressionist canvases and her legendarily difficult personality. This year, Mitchell’s market exploded: She made news in May when her 1969 painting Blueberry achieved $16.6 million at auction (with fees) and set a new auction record for her estate. The canvas features splotchy yellow and blue shapes, floating in a creamy field. Highly textured with intricately built-up layers, the composition is both cheery and infinitely complex: Each brushstroke possesses its own character.

Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell advocated for the unlimited potential of gestural abstraction. This past fall, New York gallery Cheim & Read mounted an exhibition of her work spanning 1953 to 1962. From the beginning of her career, the show posited, the virtuosic Mitchell had already landed on her signature style: energetic oil brushstrokes and delicate drips; swirling centers that calm toward the canvas edges; and abstracted natural motifs that suggest fields, flowers, and bodies of water.

Mitchell’s biography itself reached mainstream readers when writer Mary Gabriel published Ninth Street Women this past fall. The artist’s precocious success (she was a competitive figure skating champion as a teenager, and a published poet by age 10) and her expletive-ridden conversational habits made her a vibrant stand-out personality in Gabriel’s definitive volume on the women of Abstract Expressionism.

Throughout her career, Mitchell abstracted sunflowers, took inspiration from poetry (Frank O’Hara was a friend), and explored the diptych form in artworks that vaguely evoke Rorschach blots (Mitchell was in psychoanalysis for decades). She painted from New York and the outskirts of Paris until the year of her death.

In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will mount a major retrospective of her work. “I think if you spoke to the majority of scholars, [they’d say she’s] the most significant gestural painter, along with [Willem] de Kooning, during the post-war period,” said Christopher Bedford, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of the BMA. “She’s a titan.” Stay tuned—the Mitchell hype is just beginning.

Forensic Architecture

Founded in 2010

Based in London

Portrait of the Forensic Architecture team. Courtesy of Forensic Architecture.

At Documenta in 2017, an installation in the corner of the Neue Neue Galerie in Kassel, Germany, drew a constant, rapt crowd. Visitors watched a video that recreated the scene of a crime—the racist killing of a man named Halit Yozgat, who was murdered by a member of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground in an internet café in Kassel on April 6, 2006. Collaborating with the Society of Friends of Halit and using a combination of research, simulations, and architectural renderings, a collective known as Forensic Architecture had been piecing together the events that took place the day he was shot. What does the path toward justice have to do with art, one might ask?

Bringing together a team of artists, designers, architects, filmmakers, coders, journalists, lawyers, and scientists to investigate instances of state violence, the collective—based at London’s Goldsmiths College—has indeed pushed the boundaries of art to encompass reportage, data, and science. Forensic Architecture has proved that artists’ truth-seeking and ability to think outside of the box, combined with an interdisciplinary approach, can yield results in the real world. The evidence the collective has amassed on human rights abuses has been used in court cases around the world.

Forensic Architecture has researched drone strikes carried out in the Middle East and worked with Amnesty International to determine the presence of a secret prison in Syria administered by the Bashar al-Assad regime, among other investigations. The art world apparently has seen the value in this expansion of the field: This year, the collective, founded by Eyal Weizman in 2010, received one of the art world’s greatest accolades—a nomination for the Turner Prize.

The collective received the honor for their participation in Documenta 14, as well as for recent exhibitions at MUAC in Mexico City; MACBA in Barcelona; and London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. At the latter institution, they presented evidence of the existence of the Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the Negev/Naqab Desert before Israeli settlers arrived in the territory after World War II. (The Israeli state has claimed that it did not exist.) Forensic Architecture’s work around this—produced in large part through analysis of aerial photographs from 1945—is being prepared for use in a land-claim trial advanced by the al-Turi family of al-Araqib. While the collective may not have ultimately snagged the Turner Prize itself (that honor went to Charlotte Prodger), Forensic Architecture continues to push the boundaries of what we consider art.

Wolfgang Tillmans

B. 1968, Remscheid, Germany

Lives and works in Berlin and London

Portrait of Wolfgang Tillmans by Karl Kolbitz. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin, and Maureen Paley, London.

One of the greatest visual poets of a generation, Wolfgang Tillmans employs the camera to weave lyrical, life-affirming vignettes in photographs that he displays in intuitive arrangements. Some of these can seem mundane—a weed taking root between two paving stones, a pair of men making out, a cresting wave—but they render simple moments and details in the built environment searingly poignant, even transcendent.

Building on his major survey exhibitions at the Tate Modern and Fondation Beyeler last year, in 2018, Tillmans unveiled solo presentations in Hong Kong (at David Zwirner’s new Asian outpost) and at the Musée d’Art Contemporain et Multimédias in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (his first show in Africa). He also won Germany’s Goslar art prize, released an EP with electronic musician Powell (Tillmans is a veteran DJ), enjoyed a solo exhibition at Zwirner’s New York space, and found himself the subject of a glowing New Yorker profile.

As if that wasn’t enough, Tillmans designed a set for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at the English National Opera in London, programmed to mark the centenary of the armistice. His backdrops featured vastly blown-up versions of his images—giant projections of apocalyptic clouds, atmospheric monochromes, fields of grass, and close-ups of swamps. Tillmans makes a fitting contributor to an opera that reflects on global conflict and old national divisions; the artist has been one of Europe’s most outspoken critics against Brexit and the rise of the right wing across the continent and further afield. His concern with the issue instigated him to embark on a research project about our so-called post-truth world; his book What Is Different?—a collection of interviews with journalists, politicians, social workers, and scientists about the human response to falsehoods—was published this year by David Zwirner Books. Tillmans’s star will surely continue to rise with another retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, scheduled for 2021.

Charline von Heyl

B. 1960, Mainz, Germany

Lives and works in New York and Marfa, Texas

Portrait of Charline von Heyl by Ralph Mecke. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

The most remarkable aspect of Charline von Heyl’s paintings is how eclectic and contrary they can be, as a masterful solo show at Petzel Gallery in New York this year attested to. The German artist, who now splits her time between New York and Marfa, Texas, has spent the last three decades of her career consciously avoiding a consistent, recognizable style. And yet, “when you see a Charline von Heyl, you know it’s her work,” said Evelyn C. Hankins, co-curator of the artist’s mid-career survey “Snake Eyes” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., which is up through January 27, 2019.

In spellbinding, chaotic, near-abstract paintings layered with wonderfully contrasting styles and techniques, von Heyl draws together influences from disparate sources including art history, pop culture, literature, and her own life—a tantalizingly allusive array that challenges conventions about taste, as well as what belongs in a painting. Many contemporary painters look to her, Hankins said, because “she is fearless in both her formal vocabulary and in the things she’s looking at.”

Coming up in Hamburg in the 1980s, von Heyl joined a raucous, punk-inflected scene of (mostly male) artists—including Albert Oehlen, Sigmar Polke, and Martin Kippenberger—who embraced a firmly ironic stance toward the medium. The comic undertones of von Heyl’s work, by contrast, largely take the guise of formalist jokes, but offer little irony.

With “Snake Eyes,” the largest survey of von Heyl’s work in the United States (the show traveled from the Deichtorhallen Hamburg in the artist’s home country), Hankins hopes to reorient the narrative of von Heyl as an artist without a style. Although she doesn’t follow a chronological or linear narrative in the way she makes her paintings, “there is a consistency in her work,” Hankins contended. “Every painting is a unique challenge to tackle when standing in front of the canvas.” This openness also makes von Heyl appealing to artists, she continued, especially “the idea that you can have a cohesive body of work that at the same time challenges how we conventionally talk about the arc of an artist’s career.”

Charles White

B. 1918, Chicago, Illinois

D. 1979, Los Angeles, California

Portrait of Charles White at home in Altadena, California, 1971. Courtesy of The Charles White Archive.

A virtuosic draftsman, printmaker, and painter, Charles White lent his meticulous style to powerfully dignified representations of historical and living African-Americans. His most vocal—and famous—advocate might be the venerated painter Kerry James Marshall, who studied with the artist at the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County in the 1970s. “He was a kind of spiritual father for many of us,” Marshall opined in “A Black Artist Named White,” a personal essay included in the catalogue for the late artist’s largest exhibition to date: a retrospective that traveled from the Art Institute of Chicago (his hometown) to the Museum of Modern Art, where it is on view through January 13, 2019. (The show arrives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next February.)

White inspired an entire generation of black artists, including acclaimed contemporary figures like David Hammons and Timothy Washington. Nearly 40 years after his death, this retrospective puts White firmly in the spotlight. “Life Model: Charles White and His Students,” opening at LACMA this February as a supplement to the retrospective, looks specifically at the influence he wielded as a beloved educator.

White endeavored with his socially engaged work to present the too-often-ignored narratives of black history, once insisting that “an artist must bear a special responsibility. He must be accountable for the content of his work. And that work should reflect a deep, abiding concern for humanity.” To that end, White consciously avoided artistic trends to achieve a more timeless effect. Throughout his life, he remained committed to representational art, even as its popularity waned during the Abstract Expressionist years of the 1940s and ’50s and as multidisciplinary Conceptualism took over in the 1970s.

Today, figuration is back in vogue, as is the imperative for young artists to occupy themselves with issues of identity, community, and social justice. White has become recognized not only as one of the 20th century’s most influential teachers, but as the exemplar artist who married skill with conviction.

Andrea Fraser

B. 1965, Billings, Montana

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Portrait of Andrea Fraser by Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images.

For centuries, culture has been patronized by wealthy elites, some of whose fortunes have been built from ethically questionable industries—but at what cost? At a time of deep political division in America, such relationships have increasingly been scrutinized, most recently with the Whitney Museum’s board vice-chairman Warren B. Kanders coming under fire for his connection to the tear gas being fired at asylum seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border. (Kanders owns Safariland, a company that produces munitions, including tear gas.)

So the release this year of Andrea Fraser’s tome-sized exploration of institutional board members’ political donations in the 2016 presidential election, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, is particularly timely and urgent. In it, the artist brings to light the political contributions of over 5,000 board members at more than 125 art institutions across the United States. Among her discoveries was the frequency with which board members have donated to Republican causes—underlining the tension between the progressive values generally upheld by the art world (freedom of speech, equality, and human rights) and those of a political party whose establishment is increasingly moving towards the far right, driving forward a hardline immigration agenda, privileging corporations over individuals and the environment, and supporting a president who has called the press “the enemy of the American people.”

In addition to creating a powerful resource that surfaces the fraught relationship between culture and money, Fraser—who has been a crucial proponent of institutional critique throughout her career—herself joined the board of an institution this year: the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. And in addition to her ongoing teaching at UCLA, where she is an influential voice on the faculty, she has on view a graphic representation of her research from 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics at this year’s Shanghai Biennale. Fraser remains one of the most cogent and insightful voices challenging the art world from within.

John Bock

B. 1965, Schenefeld, Germany

Lives and works in Berlin

Portrait of John Bock. Courtesy of Anton Kern Gallery.

With a flair for the grotesque, John Bock undertakes intense, multi-year projects that combine film, performance, drawing, and sculpture. His horror-comedy aesthetic shares a kinship with artists like Paul McCarthy or the late Mike Kelley. Yet he’s also a stylistic chameleon, eager to quote from various genres and moments in cinema history, from German Expressionism to Quentin Tarantino to the stereotypical American western. It wouldn’t be wrong to think of Bock as a kind of B-movie Matthew Barney, creating similarly hermetic, wild universes that cross media (but with considerably more of a sense of humor).

2018 brought a suite of exhibitions for the artist, including “Dead + Juicy” at Anton Kern Gallery in New York, which opened, very appropriately, on Halloween. Bock gave the gallery’s elegant Midtown townhouse a campy makeover, installing a decrepit shed in its front space and building a bizarro bar area decorated with misshapen, hanging sculptures. The show’s centerpiece was a film by the same name, shot in Austin, Texas. Much of its action unfolds in a barbershop; a particularly indelible scene features one of the protagonists slowly shaving a taxidermied rat.

The Fondazione Prada in Milan, Italy, also hosted Bock’s “The Next Quasi-Complex” this year, an exhibition of over-the-top installations and sculptures that coincided with a tongue-in-cheek “lecture” dubbed When I’m Looking into the Goat Cheese Baiser (2001). And in November, at Sprüth Magers in Berlin, the artist debuted Unheil (Mischief) (2018), a new, dread-soaked, feature-length film set in the Dark Ages.

Perhaps Bock’s most salient achievement is bringing a Hollywood-style level of production to bear on themes that are decidedly esoteric. His exhibitions, with all their glorious mess and sprawl, provide a peek into the artist’s process—and brain—with film sets and props repurposed as sculptural environments meant to be wandered through and marveled over.

Kehinde Wiley

B. 1977, Los Angeles, California

Lives and works in New York

Portrait of Kehinde Wiley by Brad Ogbonna. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York.

When the artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald unveiled official portraits of the Obamas earlier this year, they received a rapturous, emotional reception. Rarely, if ever, has a presidential portrait received quite so much fanfare. It was the first time African-American artists had been selected for the honor of representing the president and first lady, and both artists moved the dial. Breaking from the more stiff, dull convention of portraiture that typifies presidential portraits of old, Wiley rendered Barack Obama against a hyperreal, abundant backdrop of vines and flowers.

The artist has, for some 17 years, proudly placed ordinary black Americans into the history of art—often “street casting” subjects and placing them in what have been referred to as “power portraits” that evoke the lavish style and tradition of canonizing aristocrats and politicians in European portraiture. For this intensely high-profile commission, Wiley depicted Barack Obama leaning forward slightly in a wooden chair, arms crossed, and surrounded—almost consumed—by a thicket of encroaching vines. He is engaged and alert, as though ruminating on a brief or intently listening to the words of his advisors.

This is the president not as a monument of poise and power, but one who is active, bringing all of his intellect and energy to the task of grappling with the country’s challenges. The flowers that emerge from the greenery are symbolic—African blue lilies a nod to Barack’s Kenyan roots, chrysanthemums for the Obamas’ longtime home of Chicago, and jasmine to represent Hawaii, the former president’s birthplace—but they also disrupt the masculine tropes of power, suggesting the softer model of leadership that President Obama often cultivated.

The portraits received so much interest that they helped the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., smash its attendance records this year, drawing in over 2 million visitors in the last fiscal year, a large proportion of them millennials and Gen Z-ers. And Wiley was bestowed with the W.E.B. Du Bois medal, one of Harvard University’s most esteemed honors, alongside other black luminaries: comedian Dave Chappelle, art collector Pamela Joyner, and NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick. Wiley also unveiled new, regal portraits of everyday black St. Louisans at the Saint Louis Art Museum later in the year. Now, he will leverage his considerable influence to place a spotlight on the Nigerian art scene; he has plans to open a studio in Lagos.

Visual design by Wax Studios.

Artsy Editors