The Most Influential Artists of 2019

Artsy Editors
Dec 11, 2019 3:11PM

The year’s most influential artists drove unprecedented crowds to museums, incited heated debates, spurred Instagram sensations, and set splashy auction records. Some harnessed innovative digital technologies, while others took centuries-old craft techniques to new heights. These artists reminded us of the spiritual power of art and the biases we keep; they shed light on the divisive times we live in and showed us the power of solidarity. The artists on this list—some household names, some relatively unheard-of, some inspiring us from the grave—represent a tiny fraction of the art we witnessed in 2019, though together, they give us a picture of the past 12 months, and a taste of what’s to come.

Kara Walker

B. 1969, Stockton, California. Lives and works in New York.


Kara Walker does not disappoint when it comes to major commissions, and her installation at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is no exception. Always transformative and urgent, Walker never hesitates to push and reinvent herself in order to arrive at the most prescient modes of expression. The Tate commission, titled Fons Americanus (2019), features a 40-foot-tall fountain that consumes the cavernous space. As Alina Cohen wrote for Artsy, Fons Americanus “reaffirms Walker’s position as one of the boldest, most ambitious artists working today—and acknowledges a fraught relationship between artist, spectacle, and viewer.”

The work, which is on view until April 5, 2020, references the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the legacy of racism it left behind. Walker imbued it with art-historical nods to such figures as Winslow Homer and Sandro Botticelli, while turning our guts with its ghastly, heartbreaking depictions. Many are comparing this to her mammoth 2014 installation A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby at Brooklyn’s former Domino Sugar Factory. And, because there’s nothing she can’t do, a show of Walker’s films, organized by the brilliant Hilton Als, opened at Sprüth Magers in London during Frieze Week. Walker will have a solo show with her New York gallery Sikkema Jenkins in spring 2020.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Kara Walker by Ari Marcopoulos. Right: Installation view of Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission, Fons Americanus, at the Tate Modern, London, 2019. © Kara Walker. Photo © Ben Fisher. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Olafur Eliasson

B. 1967, Copenhagen, Denmark. Lives and works in Copenhagen and Berlin.


During the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, Olafur Eliasson was appointed as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. The Danish-Icelandic artist is renowned for his work concerning the environment, and in this newly created position, he will be an advocate for climate action and an ambassador to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. On top of this, Eliasson was busy this year mounting major exhibitions and new work around the world—plus, he starred in an episode of the Netflix series Abstract.

Eliasson’s blockbuster show at Tate Modern, titled “In real life,” opened in July and has averaged some 2,500 visitors per day. After it leaves the Tate in January 2020, the show will open at the Guggenheim Bilbao in February. Eliasson also held solo shows at the Tanks—the Tate’s satellite space—and at the Serralves Foundation in Porto, Portugal. All of this comes in addition to two new major public commissions unveiled this year: Seeing spheres (2019)at the Chase Center in San Francisco and Northwest Passage (2019) at MIT’s campus in Boston, both of which are permanent installations.

Header images: Left: Still from Abstract. Courtesy of Radial Media. Right: Portrait of Olafur Eliasson by Brigitte Lacombe, 2016. © Olafur Eliasson.

Abu Hamdan / Cammock / Murillo / Shani

Founded 2019, United Kingdom.

In 2019, a single British artist did not win the Turner Prize. Ahead of the award ceremony, the shortlisted artists—Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, and Tai Shani—formed a collective, called Abu Hamdan / Cammock / Murillo / Shani. Together, they asked the judges not to pick one winner. “At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world,” the artists wrote in a letter, “when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the Prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity—in art as in society.” The jury unanimously agreed.

While some critics were exasperated by the move, others were supportive. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle wrote that “subverting the game is something artists are supposed to do.” Searle noted that in a similar spirit, Helen Marten shared her Turner winnings in 2016, following the lead of Theaster Gates, who split his 2015 Artes Mundi prize with fellow shortlisted artists. This latest, high-profile display throws into question the relevance of contemporary art prizes, suggesting that perhaps such funds and exposure should support many artists, rather than a chosen few. More importantly, it calls for a more united, empathetic art world.

Header images: Left: Tai Shani, installation view of DC Semiramis, 2019, at Turner Contemporary. Photo by Stephen White. Courtesy of the artist and Turner Contemporary. Right: Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, and Oscar Murillo. Photo by Stuart Wilson, via Getty Images.

Hilma af Klint

B. 1862, Stockholm, Sweden. D. 1944, Djursholm, Sweden.

In 2019, an exhibition of work by a reclusive, early 20th-century, Swedish female mystic broke attendance records at the Guggenheim. Over 600,000 visitors swarmed “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” not just because of the artist’s unusual story, but because of her singular practice.

Before Wassily Kandinsky and his contemporaries “invented” abstraction, af Klint was making giant canvases that explored color, scale, and balance in brilliant new ways. One of the most celebrated works in the show, Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth (1907), features a bold tangerine background nearly bouncing with spiraling lines, wheels, ovals, and organic shapes in rainbow hues. Throughout af Klint’s work, feminine symbols and lush pastels abound.

The artist initially created these works to communicate with a higher power, envisioning their final home as a temple; Frank Lloyd Wright’s sloping, twisting exhibition space was an ideal locale. Though af Klint died in 1944, she remained relatively unknown until the Los Angeles County Museum of Art included her paintings in a 1986 group show. Audiences are hungry for art by previously underrecognized female artists, and the Guggenheim’s presentation—af Klint’s first comprehensive solo presentation in the United States—certainly delivered.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Hilma af Klint at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm, ca. 1880. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. Right: Installation view of “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo by David Heald. © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Arthur Jafa

B. 1960, Tupelo, Mississippi. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

If the Venice Biennale is the art world’s Olympics, then Arthur Jafa took home a gold medal. He was awarded the Golden Lion—the biennale’s highest honor—for his film The White Album (2018). The piece was a highlight of the central exhibition, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” curated by Ralph Rugoff.

In an Artsy article from late 2018, writer Antwaun Sargent described the piece as a “roughly half-hour collage of appropriated music videos, CCTV and cellphone footage, viral clips, and documentary snippets—all edited into a kind of essay-film, to considerable narrative effect—[that] presents whiteness as the enfant terrible in a wild, mercurial collection of bad dreams about race and power.”

As Jafa explained in an interview with Sargent, the artist is “trying to make a more complex embodiment of my relationship to these things, as opposed to just saying something that’s true or false about whiteness. I’m not interested in true or false, I’m interested in: this is how I’m feeling in relationship to it.”

Many see the The White Album as the next step following Jafa’s 2016 video Love is the Message, the Message is Death: a work that artfully spliced together everything from black athletes at the heights of their powers to horrific acts of police brutality. The piece was recently featured at Turin’s Palazzo Madama and landed the artist the 2019 Prix International d’Art Contemporain, an $83,000 cash prize. Jafa also had a solo exhibition this year at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and 2020 will see another at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Header images: Left: Arthur Jafa, installation view of The White Album, 2018. Photo by Francesco Galli. Right: Portrait of Arthur Jafa by Robert Hamacher. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York / Rome.

Luchita Hurtado

B. 1920, Maiquetía, Venezuela. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

The 99-year-old Venezuelan painter Luchita Hurtado is proof positive that art-world success can come to those who wait, and 2019 was her belated breakout year. While she has been making work in earnest for decades, Hurtado’s professional résumé lists a single 1974 solo exhibition in Los Angeles prior to her overdue rediscovery in 2016, with a show at Park View/Paul Soto gallery. From there, the sky was the limit, with institutions and blue-chip galleries clamoring to belatedly catch up to the nonagenarian.

This year saw a wave of major career milestones for Hurtado. Hauser & Wirth (which announced representation of the artist late in 2018) staged an elegant survey in New York, “Dark Years,” featuring Hurtado’s early figurative and abstract works. And the Serpentine Galleries in London gave the artist her long-overdue U.K. debut—and her first institutional retrospective in Europe—with “I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn,” which paired older pieces with paintings that the artist had just completed. Lest anyone think Hurtado’s age is slowing her down, she’s still spry, charming, and avidly working out of her home in Santa Monica, California.

“Some of Hurtado’s most powerful works offer a vision of the human body as a part of the world, not separate from nature, while others focus on the language that we use to bridge the gap between ourselves and others,” said Serpentine curator Rebecca Lewin. “We’re only just beginning to appreciate how crucial this perspective is, and I have no doubt that it will continue to influence younger artists and audiences as more of her life’s work is seen and discovered.”

Header images: Left: Portrait of Luchita Hurtado by Oresti Tsonopoulos. © Luchita Hurtado. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Right: Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1969. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and the Serpentine Galleries.


Founded 2001, Tokyo. Based in Tokyo.

There may be no better case study of the present—and future—of contemporary art than the Tokyo-based collective teamLab, who, by 2019, have created a veritable empire. In August, news broke that the Japanese collective’s wildly popular museum at the Mori Building in Tokyo welcomed over 2 million visitors in its first year, becoming the most-visited museum devoted to a single artist. And in October, teamLab announced plans for two more spaces in Asia, in Shanghai and Macau.

The high-tech collective is at the vanguard of all things experiential, immersive, and spectacular, crafting believe-it-or-not installations that can make Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms” look staid in comparison. TeamLab’s business savvy and penchant for ticketed events put their trippy, light-filled works somewhere on a continuum that would include the Rain Room (2012) and the Museum of Ice Cream—but their practice also connects with foundational moments in art history. “While digital means are new, the concept of experiential art is not,” said Pace executive vice president Peter Boris, who connects teamLab’s projects to artists of the Light and Space movement, like James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Mary Corse. The collective’s approach is resolutely populist, though, engaging a broad public that may be allergic to traditional art institutions. “The meaning each of us gathers from that [teamLab] experience,” Boris added, “is our own, and as valid and correct as anyone else’s.”

While teamLab’s popularity as social-media backdrops is undeniable, the collective’s best installations are also marvels of technical ingenuity. Some, like The Sculpture of Time Distortion in a Mirror (2019), use simple materials—light and fog—to generate hallucinatory effects. Others incorporate smartphone apps to gamify the art experience, or touch-responsive orbs that create a kid-friendly, audiovisual wonderland.

Header images: Installation view of “Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless,” 2018, Odaiba, Tokyo. © teamLab. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Sterling Ruby

B. 1972, Bitburg, Germany. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Sterling Ruby vied for the title of Renaissance Man of the Year as he showed sculptures, paintings, ceramics, and a new fashion line across the U.S. and Europe. In February, Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center hosted a major presentation of Ruby’s mixed-media works—from giant ceramic basins to an outdoor stove to a giant cup dripping with blood-red urethane. That same month, in California, Ruby unveiled a gleaming red-orange sculpture in the Coachella Valley for Desert X; and opened a spooky show of skulls, fittingly titled “Damnation,” at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles. The eerie heads, made from resin, urethane, fiberglass, aluminum, and yarn, featured sharp canine teeth, colorful eyeballs, and neon hair.

In June, Ruby debuted a clothing line, S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA, at Pitti Uomo in Florence, which earned rave reviews. Avant-garde offerings ranged from $595 T-shirts to unique $45,000 ponchos. The line was a bold move for Ruby, taking his long-standing engagement with fashion to the next level, while also expanding his oeuvre—and market—as an artist.

During Frieze London in October, Gagosian’s fair booth featured Ruby’s sunny new paintings, while its Britannia Street gallery housed his “ACTS,” giant Formica plinths that hold clear urethane prisms with colored dye swirling within. (Ruby is also represented by Xavier Hufkens in Brussels.) Ruby closes 2019 with a bang with his first-ever museum retrospective, which opened in November at ICA Miami and was a major attraction during Art Basel in Miami Beach. The show will travel to ICA Boston in February 2020.

Header images: Left: Sterling Ruby, SPECTER, 2019 AT DESERT X, Coachella Valley, CA. © Sterling Ruby. Photo by Lance Gerber. Right: Portrait of Sterling Ruby by Bennet Perez.

Yoshitomo Nara

B. 1959, Hirosaki, Japan. Lives and works in Tochigi, Japan.

In terms of sheer art-market force, few artists this year were on the same level as Yoshitomo Nara, the Caravaggio of kawaii. In the month of October alone, his work appeared at auction 63 times. Some lots, like limited-edition merch—including toys, plates, and a portable radio—sold in the low quadruple digits. Meanwhile, his enormous painting Knife Behind Back (2000) eclipsed its pre-sale estimate of $6.4 million to sell for a whopping $24.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. That result more than quintupled Nara’s previous auction record, $4.4 million, which was set earlier this year at a Christie’s auction in May.

Beyond auction house salesrooms, Nara was no slouch this year. He presented a solo show at the Château la Coste in the South of France and a year-long project at the Japan Society in New York. But the show of institutional support that may have given his market a shot in the arm was the news that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is planning a 30-year survey of Nara’s work, slated to open in April 2020.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Yoshitomo Nara. Photo by Franke Tsang / South China Morning Post via Getty Images. Right: Installation view of Yoshitomo Nara, Knife Behind Back, 2000. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Mrinalini Mukherjee

B. 1949, Mumbai, India. D. 2015, New Delhi.

A summer survey of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s work at the Met Breuer introduced New York audiences to the late Indian artist’s phenomenal large-scale weavings. Even the most jaded critics rejoiced. Organized by Met assistant curator of South Asian art Shanay Jhaveri, it was the first major display of Mukherjee’s work in the United States.

Mukherjee attended Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda (now called Vadodara, located in Gujarat), and began experimenting with hemp yarn in 1971. The Met exhibition demonstrated her significant range, including works that conjured tapestries, theatrical costumes, and armor; a yonic floral sculpture rested on the floor. The works, with their larger-than-life presence and vibrant threads in shades of magenta and rust, commanded attention and presented weaving as a formidable, heroic exercise. Mukherjee’s creations are appropriately epic, given that they were inspired by mythology.

In October, Delhi-based gallery Nature Morte showed one of her fiber works at Frieze London, in addition to three bronze branch-like sculptures. Mukherjee worked in ceramics, as well, but her woven masterpieces always steal the show.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photo by Nemai Ghosh. Courtesy Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi. Right: Mrinalini Mukherjee, Vriksh Nata (Arboreal Enactment), 1991–92. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mickalene Thomas

B. 1971, Camden, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York.

In March, Mickalene Thomas’s photograph of path-breaking activists, artists, and intellectuals graced the cover of Out magazine. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Barbara Smith, Tourmaline, Alicia Garza, and Charlene Carruthers appeared in Thomas’s distinctively glamorous, colorful, and pattern-filled style. The image, created in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, fit perfectly into the artist’s iconography of elegant, nostalgic, empowering, and fabulous portraits of women of color. The Out cover was not Thomas’s only foray beyond the art world this year: She also shot tennis star Venus Williams for the cover of the New York Times Magazine; created a characteristically bejeweled and patterned handbag for Dior; and teamed up with designer Grace Wales Bonner to reimagine the fashion house’s famous Bar jacket.

Thomas continued to be a force within the art world, as well, with solo shows at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris during FIAC, at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and a striking survey, “Better Nights,” at The Bass, which opened the week of Art Basel in Miami Beach. She also unveiled a major site-specific installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and in May, her painting Just a Whisper Away (2008) went up for sale at Christie’s in New York. The work catapulted past its high estimate of $100,000 to sell for $495,000—a new auction record for Thomas’s work.

Header images: Left: Installation view of “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure“ at The Baltimore Museum of Art. © Mickalene Thomas. Photo by Mitro Hood. Right: Portrait of Mickalene Thomas by Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images for ICP.


B. 1974, Jersey City, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York.

While he cut his teeth as a street artist, KAWS (a.k.a. Brian Donnelly) has been slowly clawing his way to the upper echelons of white-cube respectability. There’s certainly the market narrative, in which KAWS is an increasingly hot commodity commanding astronomical prices: Earlier this year, a Simpsons-related canvas scored $14.8 million at auction, a record for the artist; and in May, a SpongeBob painting from 2012 earned almost $6 million (with fees) at Phillips. But 2019 has been good for KAWS’s career in ways that go beyond mere prices.

Though it’s still tempting for critics to disregard his vibrant, whimsical paintings—which often appropriate pop-cultural figures—a groundswell of institutional support has forced the art world to reevaluate KAWS’s practice. His blue-chip gallery Skarstedt makes sure that KAWS hangs next to weighty, serious peers, like German artist Albert Oehlen. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit gave the artist a solo spotlight this year. And yet KAWS still managed to straddle two worlds; all of this highbrow acclaim came at the same time that he was partnering with Uniqlo on a line of clothing whose release nearly caused riots.

KAWS’s global takeover continued apace with the late October opening of an exhibition in Qatar—his institutional debut in the Middle East, curated by esteemed art historian Germano Celant. Not traveling to Doha anytime soon? You can always vicariously experience the exhibition’s public art centerpiece as it blows up on Instagram: HOLIDAY (2019), a massive inflatable sculpture depicting KAWS’s ubiquitous “Companion” character—also seen in Hong Kong this year—is reclining in the city’s harbor through January 2020.

Header images: Left: KAWS, HOLIDAY, installed in Taipei, 2019. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the artist. Right: Portrait of KAWS by Nils Mueller.

Nan Goldin

B. 1953, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in New York.

Within the span of four days this fall, Nan Goldin was named the second-most powerful person in the art world by ArtReview, opened a moving new gallery show, and staged a “die-in” protest at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The artist has actively pursued the work of her anti-Sackler activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, since 2017, but in 2019, her voice only amplified.

Goldin debuted intense new work in her London solo show “Sirens,” her first exhibition with Marian Goodman Gallery, which began representing her in 2018. Highlights included the video Sirens (2019), which Charlotte Jansen described on Artsy as “a soaring, evocative exploration of what it’s like to get high”; and Memory Lost (2019), a slideshow of hundreds of intimate images that address the artist’s own experiences with addiction.

With PAIN, Goldin is on a mission to scrub the Sacklers—the family behind Purdue Pharma, the company charged with fueling the opioid epidemic by promoting Oxycontin—and their money from the world’s finest art institutions. And it appears to be helping, if not directly inciting change. As lawsuits against the family mounted this year, so did PAIN protests; one by one, museums including London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced they would no longer accept Sackler funds. On July 1st, Goldin led a PAIN protest at the Louvre, and just weeks later, the museum answered the activists’ call to “take down the Sackler name.” This past fall, Goldin took PAIN to the U.K. for first time, suggesting that she’s only getting started.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Nan Goldin. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery. Right: Photo by Stephane De Sakutin / Agence France-Presse via Getty Images.

Michael Rakowitz

B. 1973, Great Neck, New York. Lives and works in Chicago.

When Michael Rakowitz refused to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, he sparked a national debate about the ethics of private museum financing.

In November 2018, Hyperallergic reported that the tear gas used on migrants at the United States–Mexico border was produced by Safariland—the defense manufacturer led by CEO Warren Kanders, who was also the Whitney Museum’s vice chairman. Staff members began protesting soon after, and the activist group Decolonize This Place joined the fight in December. Tensions reached new heights in February 2019, when the New York Times reported that Rakowitz declined curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley’s invitation to participate in the Whitney Biennial.

In July, Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett wrote an op-ed in Artforum calling for Kanders’s removal from the board. A day later, four biennial artists—Nicole Eisenman, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, and Nicholas Galanin—penned an open letter, also published by Artforum, requesting the removal of their work as long as Kanders was still vice chairman. After four more artists announced that they, too, wished to withdraw, Kanders resigned.

Rakowitz (who’s represented by Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Jane Lombard Gallery, and Barbara Wien) has long maintained a socially engaged practice that often recreates or makes use of fraught antiquities. Even though his work wasn’t present at the biennial, his spirit pervaded the show.

In December, Rakowitz made headlines again, this time drawing attention to MoMA board members’ problematic business ties. He asked MoMA PS1 to pause his video Return (2004–present), which is included in the exhibition “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011.”

London’s Whitechapel Gallery gave Rakowitz a major solo presentation over the summer, and in September, the artist won the prestigious $100,000 Nasher Sculpture Prize. He ends the year with respect for both his practice and activism.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Michael Rakowitz. Photo by John Nguyen / PA Wire. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery. Right: Detail of “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Room G)” at Malmö Konsthall. Photo by Helene Toresdotter. Courtesy of Malmö Konsthall.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

B. ca. 1910, Soakage Bore, Australia. D. 1996, Alice Springs, Australia.

“Desert Painters of Australia,” a major non-selling exhibition of Aboriginal artwork at Gagosian, brought renewed attention to phenomenal abstract paintings from indigenous Australian communities. Emily Kame Kngwarreye may be the most lauded of these painters. Throughout her life (ca. 1910–1996), Kngwarreye filled her vibrant canvases with dots, swirls, and tangled lines that alternately evoke organic shapes, topographic maps, and the night sky.

This December, Sotheby’s is holding its first Aboriginal art sale in New York, conveying confidence in Americans’ interest in the genre (the auction house previously held the sale in London). Two Kngwarreye canvases will serve as top lots: Untitled (1990), with an estimate of $250,000–$300,000, and Summer Celebration (1991), with an estimate of $300,000–$500,000. A number of high-profile collectors, including Steve Martin and Dennis and Debra Scholl, have helped to build awareness of Kngwarreye and her cohort through traveling exhibitions that make their works accessible to the public nationwide.

Header images: Left: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Merne Akngerre, 1992. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye / Copyright Agency. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian. Right: Portrait of Emily Kame Kngwarreye by Christopher Hodges. Courtesy of Utopia Art Sydney.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė

B. 1983, Kaunas, Lithuania. Lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania; B. 1984, Kaunas. Lives and works in Vilnius; B. 1984, Kaunas. Lives and works in London and Vilnius.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė mounted an unusual opera at the Venice Biennale’s Lithuanian pavilion this year. The trio swiftly became the talk of the town—and the art world—as they clinched the ultimate prize, the Golden Lion. Culling together their collective expertise in art, filmmaking, theater, music, and writing, the trio staged Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019), a searing and humorous treatise on climate change.

Sun & Sea (Marina) took place on an artificial beach set within a former military building in Venice, with performers donning swimsuits and surrounded by the trappings of a day by the seaside. With cinematic production quality, talented vocalists, and a cheeky script, the artists tapped into the zeitgeist. In Venice, hours-long queues of eager art-goers formed as the piece became an Instagram sensation, reaching far beyond the biennale. While art about climate change is often depressingly bleak, Barzdžiukaitė, Grainytė, and Lapelytė showed that the dark, urgent subject matter can be deployed through generous, out-of-the-box means—in this case, a relatable performance that’s a sensory experience, complete with angelic melodies and the sweet scent of the ocean.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Lina Lapelytė, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, and Vaiva Grainytė by Andrej Vasilenko. Right: Installation view of “Sun & Sea (Marina),” 2019, for the Lithuania Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019. Photo © Andrej Vasilenko.

Doris Salcedo

B. 1958, Bogotá, Colombia. Lives and works in Bogotá.

In October, Doris Salcedo won the $1 million Nomura Art Award, the largest cash prize in the contemporary art world. The Colombian-born artist was chosen for her dynamic, heart-rending sculptures that surface the horrors of war and violence, but also for her dauntless approach. “Doris Salcedo does not shy away from change but rather is determined to be a game-changer,” said Hajime Ikeda, the senior managing director of Nomura, in a statement.

The artist plans to use the money to fund new installments of her ongoing series “Acts of Mourning” (1999–present), through which she tells the stories of victims and survivors of the Colombian civil war. In a major show of the same name, Salcedo presented some of this work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art this past spring.

Salcedo also made waves this year through her public artwork in Bogotá called Fragmentos (2018), an “anti-monument” to Colombia’s five-decades-long conflict. The installation of 1,296 steel tiles was made from melted-down rifles that once belonged to rebel forces and were confiscated after the 2016 peace agreement. The artist employed women who were war victims to create the pieces in a foundry. “I thought that it would be wonderful if the power that a man holds in a gun could be reversed, turned upside-down, and we could all stand on these weapons,” she told the New York Times. Controversy stirred around the significance of the piece this fall, as the war threatened to re-ensue, but Salcedo stood by her work, proposing that its message is now even more urgent.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Doris Salcedo by David Heald. Right: Doris Salcedo, Quebrantos, 2019. Photo by Juan Fernando Castro. Courtesy of White Cube.

Isaac Julien

B. 1960, London. Lives and works in London and Santa Cruz, California.

Few artists have done more to push video art forward in recent years than Isaac Julien, and in 2019, it seemed that all his efforts came to fruition. His 10-screen film installation Lessons of the Hour (2019)—which dramatizes events in the life of the 19th-century scholar and activist Frederick Douglass with lush details and cinematic grandeur—debuted at Metro Pictures in New York in March and went on to be shown in Rochester, New York, and Savannah, Georgia. The nine-channel film installation Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvelous Entanglement (2019), Julien’s homage to the titular Brazilian modernist architect, premiered at Victoria Miro in London in June and then made a splash stateside in December, when it was one of the standout works in Art Basel in Miami Beach’s new Meridians sector (where it was co-presented by the galleries Victoria Miro, Nara Roesler, and Jessica Silverman, in collaboration with Ron Mandos). This year also marked the 30th anniversary of Julien’s breakout work: his 1989 paean to the Harlem Renaissance, Looking for Langston, which was shown this year at Tate Britain and San Antonio’s new Ruby City museum, as well as a special screening during Performa in New York.

Beyond making and showing his own work, Julien also kept very busy this year supporting the work of other artists. In March, he was hired as a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’ll help develop the new Isaac Julien Lab (wherein students can gain experience by working on the artist’s projects). He is also serving on the jury for the Dream Commission, a new initiative by luxury automaker Rolls-Royce to support moving-image art by emerging and mid-career artists. And as the art world descended on London for Frieze in October, Victoria Miro opened “Rock My Soul,” a powerhouse exhibition of black female and non-binary artists curated by Julien. At the time of its opening, in an interview with the Evening Standard, he reflected on the evolution of his medium of choice: “Innovation in the moving image is taking place in the museums and galleries, not really the cinema.” This year, Julien continued to innovate in startling and powerful ways.

Header images: Left: Isaac Julien, J.P. Ball Salon 1867 (Lessons of The Hour), 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Right: Portrait of Isaac Julien by Thierry Bal.

Yayoi Kusama

B. 1929, Matsumoto, Japan. Lives and works in Tokyo.

Yayoi Kusama’s custom-designed balloon, aptly dubbed Love Flies Up to the Sky (2019), was poised to be a highlight of the 2019 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yet even though it did not fly, this was another banner year for Kusama.

In early November, her show “Every Day I Pray for Love” opened at David Zwirner’s West 20th Street gallery in New York, complete with a new “Infinity Mirror Room.” In light of her last Zwirner show seeing some 75,000 visitors, this one is expecting over 100,000 gallery-goers to brave long lines for 60 seconds of Instagrammable infinity.

Perpetually in demand, Kusama also made headlines this year as institutions across the U.S. put her “Infinity Mirror Rooms” on view. Love is Calling (2013) is currently on view at the ICA Boston; Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into the Universe (2018) went on permanent view at the Crystal Bridges Museum in October; and All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016), a piece that is owned by Saudi royalty, is being shown at ICA Miami.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Yayoi Kusama. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner. Right: Installation view of “Yayoi Kusama: Every Day I Pray for Love,” David Zwirner, New York, 2019. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

Jeff Koons

B. 1955, York, Pennsylvania. Lives and works in New York.

Jeff Koons became the world’s most expensive living artist—again—when his iconic sculpture Rabbit (1986) sold for $91 million at Christie’s in May. After briefly giving up the title to David Hockney, he reclaimed it upon the sale of that signature work. But Koons’s influence extended beyond the market this year, with the unveiling of his controversial sculpture Bouquet of Tulips (2016–19) in Paris. His permanent tribute to Franco-American camaraderie sparked debate, which has only added to its renown.

In addition to making splashes at auctions, art fairs, and on the bank of the Seine, Koons had two major museum exhibitions this year. He curated his own solo show at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, and a two-artist show pairing him with Marcel Duchamp became the best-attended in the history of Mexico City’s Museo Jumex. Like the inventor of the readymade, Koons—its most renowned contemporary practitioner—continues to be a global star.

Header images: Left: Portrait of Jeff Koons by Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images. Right: Jeff Koons, installation view of “Appearance Stripped Bare: Desire and the Object in the Work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, Even,” Museo Jumex, 2019. Photo by Moritz Bernoully. Courtesy of the artist and Museo Jumex.

Artsy Editors

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Nan Goldin’s PAIN as an anti-opioid activist group. PAIN’s activism is focused on the Sacklers, overdose, and toxic philanthropy.