This list of the year’s best art achievements is a story of artists rising to the occasion, from the emerging talents coming out of Chinatown art spaces to the artists behind the Obamas’ official portraits to a significant (and once unsung) Swedish visionary.
10. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald
Selected to execute the impossible commissions of the official Obama portraits, both of these artists stepped up and delivered big. Especially the almost totally unknown Baltimorean, Sherald, whose portrait of the former First Lady radiated elegance and intensity and instantly established her as an impeccable artist.
9. Cynthia Talmadge
This young artist’s obsession with the tony Upper East Side Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, painted in hyperpointillist style down to decorated frames and all installed in a hushed, wainscoted, and carpeted parlor-like room, showed a talent to be reckoned with in a teeny Chinatown gallery that just keeps uncovering excellent new artists.
8. Kai Althoff
In a warren of small glassed-in rooms in busy Chinatown mall, TRAMPS has been curating some of the best shows in New York. Kai Althoff’s paintings in this uncanny setting triggered waves of power that are often lost in so many clean white megaspaces.
7. Klara Lidén
The almost-animalistic intelligence of this artist has been taking viewers to the edge of the psychic abyss for years. In a simple video of Liden just walking around Wall Street, falling down, getting back up again, and falling down again conjured the walking nightmare and resilient strength being mustered to fight it by all of us.
6. “Mother,” Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
An exhibition on artists and motherhood curated by the great artist Laurel Nakadate. As part of a panel with Justine Kurland and pioneer Pictures artist Laurie Simmons, Nakadate noted that art and kids are very similar: You have to lug stuff around, your home is always a mess, you never know what’s coming next, you are horrified by what you’ve done, and then you’re redeemed by a burst of transformative love.
5. Maurizio Cattelan and Nancy Spector, Gold Toilet to Trump
When the Trump White House asked for a van Gogh for the private residence, the sly duo suggested Maurizio Cattelan’s solid-gold toilet. However you view this gesture, it felt great, apt, and went viral. More vividly, it demonstrated how much meaning a new context can give to a particular work.
4. Onyedika Chuke, The Untitled _5, “The Forever Museum,” Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space
This Nigerian-born emerging artist hit it out of the park twice this year. First at the Spring/Break Art Show with a pair of huge concrete feet. Then in a gallery in the middle of a busy public food market with a material-and-intellectual genius akin to Bruce Nauman’s. Chuke shines a searchlight into art’s future and current politics with ambition, ease, and love. Watch for this artist.
3. Robert Gober, “Treasure Chest & Waterfall,” 218 West 20th Street
An offsite installation of this great artist gave viewers a small treasure chest in the middle of an almost empty space; peering in further, there are other odd accoutrements. On the wall was a torso with a hole in its back; inside, more visions of elemental fates, fecundity, broken happily-ever-afters, wrong turns.
2. LaToya Ruby Frazier, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
This artist’s searingly honest, empathetic documentary of images of the water crisis in black working-class communities yanked back the curtain on the rotten social malignancy that perpetuates the entrenched racial discrimination inscribed into American laws.
1. Hilma af Klint, “Paintings for the Future,” the Guggenheim Museum
The most magnificent sight in New York this year was the drop-dead first gallery showing of kaleidoscopically colored, structurally complex, completely abstract paintings made in the first two decades of the 20th century by unacknowledged Swedish visionary Hilma af Klint. Part of a show of more than 160 of some of the most beguilingly uncanny imaginative works of the past century, this exhibition confirms that her biomorphic shapes, auras, algae blooms of color, and arabesque jellyfish tentacles coiling into geometric configurations make af Klint the first modernist painter of abstraction.
The Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art.”
Jane Kaplowitz at Fortnight Institute.
Erin Riley at P·P·O·W
Paul Bloodgood at White Columns.
Martha Edelheit’s “Flesh Walls: Tales From the 60s” at Eric Firestone Gallery.
Frank Walter at Hirschl & Adler.
Native American Ledger Drawings at Donald Ellis Gallery, Frieze New York.
Gavin Brown’s enterprise slowly redefining what a gallery might be and who it can serve — a gallery with a constituency more than half people of color.
Another year of great shows at the American Folk Art Museum under visionary director Dr. Valérie Rousseau.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s “The Beautiful Brain” at Grey Art Gallery.
Outsider Art Fair and Fountain House Gallery continuing great work breaking down the walls between insider art and so-called “outsider art.”
Jim Carrey for his drawing, word-text concoctions, and out-there activism on Twitter.
The bad optics of Met Admissions.
More bad optics: Laura Raicovich being allowed to leave the Queens Museum for apparent activism and Helen Molesworth being fired from LA MoCA, followed by LA MoCA letting go of Director Philippe Vergne, then hiring Klaus Biesenbach — which might just work.
Kudos to the Drawing Center’s hiring of Laura Hoptman, who might wake up this sleeping small giant.
Mathew Wong at Karma gallery.
Huma Bhabha’s multi-faced bronze sculpture We Come in Peace, a creating-destroying god on the roof of the Met.
Christoph Büchel; eight prototypes; Trump’s Border Walls as Monument to Racism and the Long American Night.
Cy Twombly Drawings 1951–2008 at Larry Gagosian.
David Wojnarowicz, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Charles White at MoMA.
Arthur Jafa at Gavin Brown’s enterprise.
“Nick Mauss: Transmissions” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe for countering the overheated myth of male suffering and mad genius in At Eternity’s Gate, which shows Vincent van Gogh was lucid, Gauguin was not an asshole, and van Gogh was a poor and famous artist whose every move was known in Paris and deeply appreciated.
RIP: Phyllis Kind; Malcolm Morley; Irving Sandler; Geoff Hendricks; Robert Morris; Paul Bloodgood; Dawn Clements; Ed Moses; Marcia Hafif; Kynaston McShine; Robert Pincus-Witten; Betty Woodman; Jack Witten; Ed Moses; Frederieke Taylor; James Luna; Laura Aguilar; Dennis Adrian; Eugene Thaw.
Finally: I Can’t Write If Writing Is Without You: Thank you Pulitzer; thank you readers; thank you New York Magazine; thank you all the artists I’ve ever known who made me think the way I think; thank you to my brilliant editor David Wallace-Wells and my former editor Chris Bonanos for making me readable at all. Finally, thank you to my wife Roberta Smith, who is the real deal and who I think — biased as I am — really deserves a Pulitzer. Now. Maybe the best art critic alive.