Top Ten London Art Shows 2016


Ah, the obligatory end-of-year ‘best of’. Yes, it’s reductive. And, of course, very personal. And this year it has not been easy. Shows that I just ‘knew’ would be amazing didn’t turn out that way, and unexpected delights coming in from leftfield means this list isn’t, possibly, what I thought it would be at the start of the year.

For example, I thought all you had to do to create the ‘best show ever’ was to stick some Picassos in a room. Turns out that’s not the case, as Picasso Portraits at National Portrait Gallery sadly proved. And conversely, a talented curating team can pull together an extraordinary retrospective with works from across an artist’s career, but if not all of those artworks hit the high notes, the resulting show can be a bit lopsided (hello, Georgia O’Keeffe.)

And when I look at my final list, I’ll admit it does hurt that there are no exhibitions from the National Gallery there. Painters’ Paintings was a terrific show, dense with masterpieces. And a thrill to see the NG take its much-coveted steps towards more contemporary work with its incorporation of Freud.

From Gagosian Gallery

And same for the Impressionists show at the Royal Academy at the start of the year, and same again for Avedon Warhol at the Gagosian. All of them superb shows. Glorious. Brilliantly curated and exciting to visit with so much to admire. So why aren’t they placed? It hurts, I swear it hurts. But it’s been a good year and I did want to acknowledge those galleries that took a risk, platforming less-familiar names to perfection, or shedding new light on those we know so well.

And then there were those that I battled over long and hard but just didn’t squeeze in…. How is it I could finally lay my eyes upon the masterpiece that is Caravaggio’s St. John and yet somehow that doesn’t make the list? And, please, please visit the Paul Nash retrospective at Tate Britain as not only is it affecting, it is a great testament to the development of Nash’s creative style.

So, know that I know no Top Ten list can be complete and perfect, and certainly mine isn’t. But I truly believe that each of the shows listed below was terrific and, for me, really challenged my view of the world, or my view of an artist. Or just so utterly swept me up, I found it hard to come down.

1571-1610 Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio Lombard Painting European Painting and Sculpture Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust Italian Unframed: 68 x 52 inches (172.72 x 132.08 cm) Framed: 77 ¼ x 60 7/8 x 4 inches (196.22 x 154.62 x 10.16 cm) 1604-1605 Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness

Hopefully many of you got to catch, well, as many of these as you could. (And, as a note, my top four are still open btw.) But if you didn’t or couldn’t, never mind. Stay close by my side next year and I’ll steer you towards the best shows of 2017 so come December you will have seen the best and will be in a great place to say, ‘Vics, you’re talking shit. Your top ten is way wrong’.

And I look forward to those who have been here all of 2016 and are just warming up their fingers to type just that.

Until then, here’s my top ten for 2016 – plus a very special star at the top of the tree!

V x

10. Georg Baselitz, White Cube Bermondsey

Baselitz 2

I’ve no doubt whatsoever that if I met Georg Baselitz I’d consider him a prick. After all, this was the man who eloquently stated that women artists “simply don’t pass the test”. And where misogyny is so explicit I’m rarely inclined to look favourably ever again on the artist (I am increasingly intolerant of being asked to separate art from the artist). However, his new work on show at White Cube earlier this year was profoundly moving in its exploration of ageing and mortality. Beautiful.

9. Russia and the Arts, National Portrait Gallery

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This show was the result of an unprecedented cultural exchange between the National Portrait Gallery and the State Tretyakov Gallery, which saw London lend out portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, and in return we saw a stunning collection of portraits from a period of immense upheaval in Russia’s history.

The portraits focused on leading figures in Russia’s cultural scene in the dying days of Imperial Russia, where oppression and corruption was endemic, and both war and revolution loomed on the horizon. The sitters – Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Anna Akhmatova, amongst others – are icons but these portraits also reflected the radical and exciting artistic styles that were burgeoning at the time. And more than this, they captured the turbulence of the era and the internal battles Russia’s creatives faced with responsibility and participation in these protests against the Tsar.

8. Yayoi Kusama, Victoria Miro

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For me, a surprising omission in many top ten lists out there – are we getting flippant and tired of Kusama’s distinctive style? If so, shame on us as this was easily London’s most Instagrammed art show this year. Queues were out the door and down the road to see her trademark pumpkins and to be immersed in her installations. Where art excites this much, it should be acknowledged. And the memory of my time in her Chandelier of Grief installation, where grief manifests itself as a dazzling chandelier echoing into eternity, will stay with me.

7. Mona Hatoum, Tate Modern

Hot Spot III Agostino Osio Courtesy Fondazione Querini Stampalia-2 2 (853x1280)

The Tate Modern has rightly been applauded for its continuing commitment to platforming female artists and its survey of Palestinian-born Mona Hatoum showcased an artist confronting big ideas head on. Powerful, confrontational works infused with themes of confrontation, war, separation and refugees, as well as an examination on the role of women and the spectre of gender expectations and oppression. Given the state of the world, it’s hard to think how this show could have been more timely. There was a real sense of defiance in these works that I couldn’t get enough of.

6. Etel Adnan, Serpentine Gallery

Etel Adnan 2

Well, this show just came out of nowhere for me. It was glorious. My, my, it was just utterly wonderful. I was unfamiliar with Etel’s work prior to this but, afterwards, I was completely converted. She was born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and a Syrian father and, in her work, she has been determined to capture and reflect all the multiculturalism and beauty in the world, whether that be in nature or language. Etel’s range of output is extraordinary, from radically abstract works to film, from illustrated notebooks to poetry and tapestry. You can feel the heartbeat of the world and all the colours of its landscapes in her pieces. Works to lift the soul.

5. The Infinite Mix, 180 The Strand


Who could have thought that a show comprised solely of video installations could ever make the ‘best of’ list? The Hayward Gallery showed just how much they’ve been missed with this, their only offsite show whilst their Gallery is refurbished. What a risk and what a show. Film and video installations are usually given a wide berth at galleries but this show was so good I went twice.

From the visual poetry and social commentary of Kahlil Joseph’s ode to Compton, to Jeremy Deller and Cecilia Bengolea’s trippy documentary of a Japanese dancehall champion as she twerks her way through Jamaica’s dance competitions. Then we had floating apparitions of Maria Callas, Crystal Gayle as a fictional funeral mourner, Martin Creed making joyous theatre of ordinary folks crossing a road in New York, and beat poet John Giorno reflecting on life, death and regrets. A hell of a show.

4. Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Modern


Tate Modern has had a busy year, what with the opening of its huge (and expensive) Switch House extension. And it saved its best exhibition of the year till the last. How on earth Tate managed to persuade and cajole international institutions to lend out their fragile Rauschenberg works and combines, I will never know, but the result is an exhilarating exhibition that showcases how radical Rauschenberg was, and how his vision for art knew no boundaries. There is creativity and innovation here, for sure, but also such joy and celebration of art’s ability to cross divides.

3. Anselm Kiefer: Walhalla, White Cube Bermondsey


There’s nothing small-scale about Anselm Kiefer’s ideas and this display of his latest works shows a great artist, maybe the best working today, at the top of his game. Death and the afterlife, valour and demise, glory and oblivion… The emotional weight of the show is so immense, so profound, it’s as if you can feel it being pressed into your chest directly. And the vast, vast size of the works… His paintings, his vitrines tower over you. And, here, we even have a stairway to Valhalla that looms above you, rising up to the Gods. How a show, how artworks, can deliberately and effectively make you feel so small, to somehow give you a sense of your own insignificance in contrast with the vast expanse of time and space… I don’t know. The guy’s on a whole other level.

2. Feminist Avant-Garde in the 1970s, The Photographers Gallery


If we can all agree on one thing it’s that 2016 has been, truly, a shit year. So, thank god for this terrific show on the Feminist Avant-Garde as, I swear, this brought life back to my veins. The most galvanising show of the year and one that was not only full of energy and passion, but one that also reflected the innovation and creativity of female artists in the 1970s, which was an era that saw a wave of new female artists use art as a means of investigating gender roles, sexual identity, commercialisation, and even political resistance. We need another wave of this.

1. Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy of Arts


It’s hard to believe that this blockbuster show at the Royal Academy is the first ever exhibition on this influential genre for almost sixty years, but it is. There is such energy, such drama whichever way you look. It is heady and exhilarating. Yet for all the violent strokes and bold brushwork in Franz Kline’s monochrome canvases, and the mania in Pollock’s paintings, there are also works of immense beauty, such as those from Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. I can’t imagine we will ever see a show this good on this subject again in our lifetime. Breathtaking. Really.

And the star at the top of my tree…

Frank Auerbach, Tate Britain

I wish I could explain sometimes how affecting art can be for me without sounding like a bit of an idiot. Maybe I’m just not that great with words (and maybe that is the point of visual art!). But sometimes, just sometimes, art can move me to my core, whether that be moved to tears or moved to rapturous joy. Not necessarily at the time, maybe, but just meditating on it. It’s a wonder to me when I connect with an artist’s work which ‘speaks to me’. Glib, I know. But it’s an incredible thing.

Auerbach half length nude

I’ve only had that a few times in my life. Picasso’s work has been heroic to me for as long as I can remember. And the Agnes Martin and Marlene Dumas shows last year had a similar effect.

And so did this Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain. Now, a bit of a cheat, I know, as, strictly, this is a 2015 show as it opened at the tail end of last year. Only I didn’t get to visit until January and it made such an impression on me that I felt I had to reflect this somehow in this list.

Auerbach’s work you don’t see in public galleries very often, and when I have seen them it has mostly been his landscapes. Prior to this show, I had not seen many of his portraits or his figurative work. Which is why this show spun me right round and just… It just hit me very deep.

Auerback Head of JYM II (1187x1280)

There is such darkness in his work, such psychological battles. I can’t help feeling his work (much like Picasso’s portraits, I guess) revealed more about the artist and the sitter. There’s so much projecting going on. Yet it worked for me. The deep, thick slicks of oil paint betray an artist battling to find the right lines, and the hues of blacks and greys, occasionally shot through with vivid yellows and reds… I guess I am just a tormented soul looking to see that reflected back at me.

What a show. What works… Incredible. Just startling and extraordinary.

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