Do you know, I’ve been back and forth with this list? I’d say the top half were pretty much rock-solid shoe-ins. The rest? Well, I’ve been agonising over who gets left out for days.
There are some big guns that haven’t made an appearance – I enjoyed the Giacometti, Modigliani, and Michelangelo and Sebastiano shows very much, but I couldn’t say they thrilled me. My anxiety hasn’t been helped by seeing other lists from art journalists with their favourites – Cezanne Portraits, Wolfgang Tillmans, David Hockney – not interesting me in the slightest. All this can really make a writer insecure!
But, you know what, I’ve also been shocked by some of the exclusions. Basquiat: Boom for Real, for example, I’ve not seen at all in any of the big lists, whereas Soul of a Nation has been criminally overlooked too. Staggering. And that’s really when I thought, you know what, this is my list and I’m going to celebrate those shows that really meant something to me. How did they excite me? Because they brought together artworks that had not been seen or had been overlooked for decades, or they took well-known names and asked us to look afresh at their work, or curated shows that caused us to examine unexpected themes and issues. Or, crucially, platformed artists or entire sections of art that had been overlooked entirely.
And this really is the crux for me. Art is still dominated by White men – both in the galleries and out. The art world really needs to take diversity and inclusion seriously. The fact that so many have reverted to type, celebrating works of these White men when so many alternatives – and often more thought-provoking work – could be seen elsewhere is a concern. And, therefore, that’s why I am now pretty comfortable with my top ten!
Fluorescent uteruses with their fallopian tubes twisted and contorted to give the viewer the middle finger, Femen-inspired paintings of nuns stripped to the waist with ‘In Gays We Trust’ emblazoned across their breasts, ballerina pumps with ‘No God in my Vagina’ scrawled into the insole… I mean, how could I possibly resist?? Avec et sans raisons was Annette’s first solo show since her 2009 Hayward Gallery exhibition, and it was a welcome return for this French artist – now in her seventies – who remains as fearless and provocative as ever.
Chances are you wouldn’t have heard of Fahrelnissa prior to this show, despite the fact that she was a larger-than-life character and a pioneer for Turkish artists, as well as a trailblazer for female artists generally. So, when you admired her vast canvases of vibrant kaleidoscopic colours, humming with influences from abstract, Byzantine and Islamic art, it was hard to believe that her work has been largely overlooked for so long. But such is the lot of a female artist, it seems. So, props to the Tate Modern for continuing their commitment to platforming women artists by putting on this exhibition, the first ever retrospective of Fahrelnissa’s work ever held in the UK. It was a dazzling, uplifting show.
Yes, the layout was chaotic; No, this exhibition on female artists was not as game-changing as 2016’s Feminist Avant Garde (whose wave this show was clearly trying to ride) but this was, nevertheless, ambitious and exciting. Its scope was monumental – over 180 works (painting, photography, sculpture, drawings, film, and objects) covering almost one hundred years, from the 1930s to the present day, all with the aim of exploring the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than fifty women artists. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the volume and variety, but it was a wonderful sensation, as if the very voices and ideas of those silenced for so long were finally breaking through the barriers, teeming all over you at once.
Matisse in the Studio represented the first attempt to directly link Matisse’s personal collection of objects, kick-knacks and bric-a-brac to his artworks, noting them both as direct subject matter in his final works as well as inspiration for them. It’s understandable why anyone would be pretty jaded and cynical about yet another Matisse show, however, all that was blown away as soon as you stepped inside this small show up in the Sackler Wing for you were instantly swept up by the riotous vibrancy of the colours – oranges, yellows, maroons and greens colliding together almost wherever you looked – and the cacophony of layered patterns and visual effects… This was a buoyant, exciting show.
With all the brashness, political statements and colour that dominated so many of the exhibitions in London this year, the solemnity and singularity in Rachel’s work made this quite an austere show in comparison. But it’s probably the show that I’ve thought most about since I saw it. Rachel’s focus, throughout her career, has been making permanent the transient, making visible the unseen. Whether she used plaster, resin or concrete, the method is the same: the spaces within and around everyday objects are filled, left to set, then the initial solid object removed. What is left is a physical replica of an intangible object – space. There is a melancholic weight to the show – that feeling of time passing, of everything we see and feel being so fleeting and temporary. This is a show that was challenging, and Its impact is not necessarily immediate but one that develops over time.
When it came to the big show on artists who revel in colour, it was the Hockney retrospective at the Tate which drew in the crowds, yet it was Howard’s work that I found more challenging and more creative. Ostensibly, the show was framed around the provocation, could abstract art ever be considered as a portrait? Many reviews (and visitors) found themselves caught up in the throes of that debate, but if we set this aside, what we were left with was the emotional weight and beauty of an artist capturing the memory of a person, rather than their physical form. Expunging the figure and instead reflecting their emotional impact through colour and abstract forms and lines. It was very affecting.
This show was an absolute joy. This first major retrospective of Vanessa’s work not only finally brought her out of the shadows of her sister, but was a terrific testament and demonstration of her radicalism and innovation. Whether it was her oil paintings, her fabrics, or her works on paper, Vanessa was a bold artist both dabbling with abstraction, and innovative in portraiture and landscapes. They show how deeply influenced she was by Post-Impressionism and new artists such as Matisse and Cezanne, but they also demonstrate how Vanessa took these influences and paved the way for change, for both British artists and female artists in particular. Wondrous.
Oh, how I loved this show, one that focused on American art during the Great Depression. The 1930s was a period of immense economic, political and social upheaval. The Wall Street Crash tied in with dust bowls that ravaged the Southern plains, devastating the country’s stability at a time of immense global change. This terrific show examined how American artists responded to this – and it showed an artistic scene full of conflict and developing styles – paintings of nostalgic rural scenes hung alongside others depicting lynchings, bustling urban scenes versus Hopper’s pained studies of urban isolation, the clean lines of the iconic American Gothic to the early signs of abstraction. A fascinating, revelatory show that brimmed with energy.
I simply cannot fathom why this exhibition is missing from so many ‘best of’ lists. I feel this show was a real game-changer. This platforming of Black art has been long overdue and considering the task the Tate set itself – to examine how Black artists in the USA responded to, and how their work was influenced by, the seismic events of the Civil Rights era – this was a remarkable show that covered photography and abstract art, as well as paintings that brimmed with anger and cultural observations. Indeed, the only reason it’s not at the top of my list is due to the inclusion of a couple of works from White artists (of Black icons) which I considered unnecessary and slightly undermined the importance of this show. Nevertheless, an extraordinary exhibition.
Probably the most anticipated art show of the year, and, after Hockney, the most popular. The pressure was on the Barbican to deliver on this – the first ever retrospective on Jean-Michel Basquiat – and, boy, did they. This is a dynamic exhibition, one that lifts Basquiat up from the condescension of being “just a graffiti artist” and places him squarely in the context in which he worked, examining the politics, culture and nods to art history that he weaved into his bold, fearless canvases. Boom for Real is still open, closing at the end of January. I urge you all to go, if you can. So many of his vibrant works collected together, many from private collections. We are unlikely to see such a comprehensive retrospective of the man again in our lifetime.