This year’s crop of art exhibitions were more diverse than ever, which made picking our top 15 favorites difficult (we added three honorable mentions), but we asked some staff members and contributors to offer their takes on what stood out this year.
From unique historical explorations of off-the-beaten-path modernism to comprehensive surveys of whole art scenes, the selections reflect the wide range that continues to be part of art today.
1. Five Bhobh – Painting At An End of an Era at Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, South Africa
September 12, 2018–May 31, 2019
Curated by Tandazani Dhlakama
I left this exhibition wondering why I didn’t know more about Zimbabwean painting, particularly considering the depth and diversity of this expansive exhibition that grappled with politics, sexual violence, identity, feminism, and most every topic relevant to contemporary life. Richard Mudariki’s large “Passover” painting of famous figures was one of the showstoppers, but Kufa Makwavarara, Troy Makaza, Janet Siringwani-Nyabeze, Portia Zvavahera, and others definitely held their own. The exhibition was able to capture not only the individual brilliance of each of the 29 artists, but it offered us insight into how their work clustered into relevant topics without feeling forced. The biggest disappointment with this exhibition is that it didn’t travel, but there’s hope it will ignite global interest in painting in a country that has continued to push the envelope in the field. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, then you might want to check out the audio tour on the Zeitz MOCAA website. —Hrag Vartanian
2. Unfolding: Fabric of Our Life at the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile(CHAT), The Mills, Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong
March 17–June 30
Curated by Takahashi Mizuki
The inaugural exhibition at the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) brought together seventeen artists and collectives from the Asia-Pacific region all of whose works dealt as much with the materiality of textiles (sometimes indirectly via related media) as much as the often-hidden colonialist capitalist exploitation embedded in their warp and weft.
Indeed, CHAT is a nonprofit art center situated in a revitalized building of the once-thriving Nan Fung Cotton Mills. One of the many standout works is Norberto Roldan’s “Incantations in the land of virgins monsters, sorcerers, and angry gods” (1999–2019), composed of assemblages of textiles incorporating patadyongs, a traditional woven textile, often muted in color, and worn by the women in the Visayas region of the Philippines against a backdrop of brightly colored floral mass-produced fabrics from China. The immersive installation is a partial commentary on the endangered textile production of the indigenous population. —Alpesh Kantilal Patel
3. Michael Rakowitz at Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK
June 4–August 25
Co-curated by Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, together with Habda Rashid at Whitechapel Gallery and Marianna Vecellio at Castello di Rivoli
“The absurdity of minor objects telling a major story is something I seek out,” Michael Rakowitz explains, “it creates tension without resolution.” This impulse was threaded through his first survey exhibition held at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in the summer of 2019. The creative tension between the monumental and the ephemeral animates the ongoing series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist where Rakowitz recreates lost treasures of Iraq’s ancient heritage looted during the US invasion of Iraq or destroyed by ISIS using date syrup cans, newspapers, or packaging from food labels. His sculptures are moving reminders that our shared outrage over destroyed antiquities is often accompanied by a collective neglect of those human beings whose lives have been torn asunder by war. This same impetus informed his project, “The Flesh is Yours, The Bones Are Ours,” originally exhibited at the 2015 Istanbul Biennial, which revisited the work of Armenian craftsmen who created ornamentation for the facades of Istanbul’s Art Nouveau buildings. Some losses are mourned; others erased into obscurity. Rakowitz’s art holds space in our collective memory for the stories that are embedded in objects. —Shiva Balaghi
4. Biennale Jogja XV in various venues around Yogjakarta, Indonesia
October 20–November 30
Curated by Akiq AW, Arham Rahman, and Penwadee NM
In 2019, the Jogja Biennale focused on art from Indonesia and Southeast Asia with curators Akiq AW and Arham Rahman from Indonesia, and Penwadee Nophaket Manont from Thailand at the helm. They delivered a complex, multi-layered exhibition that lives up to its claims of centering artists working “on the periphery,” inviting many artists who live outside Indonesia’s artistic hubs to spend time in Jogja (shorthand for Yogyakarta, often spelled Jogjakarta) to make work on-site in advance of the exhibition. This practical solution to the problem of limited shipping funds added to the Biennale’s sense of immediacy, with individual works confronting questions of how artists negotiate gender equity, labor and economic hardship, human rights violations, and religious and race-based discrimination. While discussions of centers and peripheries have long been part of discourses across the globe, this biennial, offers a fresh and urgent take, featuring 52 artists, and an array of working styles, materials, installation experiences, and performances across three main locations and additional sites throughout the city. —Laura Raicovich
5. Tracking Frank Stella at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
February 9–April 7
Organized by Stefanie De Winter
Tracking Frank Stella was both an exhibition and a science experiment. Organized by researcher Stefanie De Winter of KU Leuven, the display comprised two small galleries with original and reproduced Frank Stella paintings, and an additional control set of painted panels. De Winter, who has a background in painting conservation, came to this experiment wondering how degrading fluorescent paint would impact perception of Stella’s paintings. In Tracking Frank Stella, De Winter and team used eye-tracking glasses to record the eye movements of gallery visitor test subjects, in order to assess how humans register the organization of pigment on canvas through optical means.
When I participated in the symposium that accompanied this exhibition, I noted the project’s multifold stakes: How does original material (such as fluorescent paint) lend value or meaning to a work of art? How much of that value is “indicated” (to use a term from science) by how audiences see? Does an experiment like this perpetuate the premise that Modern painting is a primarily optical experience — furthering the “bureaucratization of the senses” that Caroline Jones interrogated in her biography of Clement Greenberg, Eyesight Alone? (And, if so: what assumptions are conveyed here about who needs to see culture, and how — could we imagine such experiments might expand to track optical reception for non-human viewers, such as dogs or robots?) During the symposium, I learned about other eye-tracking laboratory experiments that presented art in isolation; Tracking Frank Stella, however, experimented in situ, on some level acknowledging the role of the gallery in structuring the experience of art. Once the experimentation phase of the project was complete, the exhibition transformed to integrate eye-tracking video documentation, through which viewers could witness the galleries as seen through the eyes of other viewers. Despite its techniques and technologies of empirical investigation, the exhibition and experiment took the very subjective, individual, and personal activity of art viewing, and found a way to share that with others. —Rebecca Uchill
6. Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy
May 11–November 14
Curated by Nat Muller
Rarely do you encounter such a stunning display, and curator Nat Muller’s exhibition of the work of Larissa Sansour felt very much of the zeitgeist. Confronting issues of colonization, memory, and environmental degradation using speculative fiction as a way to confront the issues. The effect is dream-like. In the video, “Heirloom,” two women reflect on their lives and the line that has still remained with me is, “My own memories replaced by the memories of others,” which reads as a poetic line that battles against the anxiety of remembering. Adjacent to the video was a large spherical installation, that injected some surrealism into the mix, while tiles in the pavilion suggested another history that simmers under the surface. I watched the video twice, which I rarely do at a biennial event, but this felt urgent and compelling. Proving Sansour’s recent foray into sci-fi might be her most compelling and important work yet. —Hrag Vartanian
7. Rebecca Horn: Theatre of Metamorphoses at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, France, and Rebecca Horn: Body Fantasies at the Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland
Rebecca Horn. Body Fantaisies was at the Museum Tinguely June 5–September 22, and Rebecca Horn: Theatre of Metamorphoses at the Centre Pompidou-Metz from June 5, 2019 until January 13, 2020.
Centre Pompidou-Metz and Museum Tingly joined together to present a remarkably diverse and prolific two-part exhibition devoted to the German artist Rebecca Horn.
Horn’s stimulating body of work, begun in the late-1960s, consists of conceptually-based process-oriented prosthetic performances, numerous films, feathery and kinetic metal sculptures, vast installations, intense loose drawings, self-documentary performance photographs, and petulant painting machines; often literally or metaphorically inhibiting or extending the body (usually female) into space.
In Basel, turning the corner and discovering the black oily-looking ink with pink champagne painting-machine/painting “The Lovers” (1991) — and approaching its techno-lovers in flagrante delicto — lifts both sex and painting preconceptions out of their superfluous state of solipsistic sluggishness. Seeing both shows the same day made it clear that the mental energies behind Horn’s work is informed by fragile insights into the limitations of the body and her strong desire for circulating energies to open and feel and spread that body further and further. —Joseph Nechvatal
8. At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance at the Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon
October 17, 2019–March 1, 2020
Curated by Carla Chammas and Rachel Dedman
Lebanese modernism was unique for such a high proportion of female artists working in the local art community, so the story of the period (told through the personal relationships of one prominent figure, Helen Khal) ends up being a very feminist story about a strain of modernism that flourished in this small Mediterranean nation. Curators Chammas and Dedman were able to put together this complicated story with the use of archives, art, and other materials (artist-designed furniture, for instance) to bring this period, which has largely been overlooked because of the Civil War that followed, but is now emerging into the spotlight. The reemergence of Dorothy Salhab-Kazemi’s ceramic works from the 1970s alone are worth seeing this exhibition, but that’s just one of many rich finds in this show.
You can also listen to my podcast conversation with the exhibition’s curators, where we explore some of the unique features of the Lebanese art world at the time. —Hrag Vartanian
9. Outlands, Survival Kit organized by the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art, Riga, Latvia
April 20–August 4
Curated by Solvita Krese, Inga Lāce and Àngels Miralda
The center/periphery binary seemed to be on the minds of many artists and curators in 2019. Perhaps due to rising inequality, the ongoing gentrification of international art centers like New York, London, and Berlin, or just general malcontent and malaise with these major art hubs, artists and curators seemed interested in dissolving geographical centralities in 2019.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Outlands, an exhibition curated by Solvita Krese, Inga Lāce, and Àngels Miralda. Part of an annual contemporary art event organized by Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in Riga, the exhibition was housed in the former building of physics, mathematics and optometry at the University of Latvia. It featured over 30 artists from as far away as Iran, Turkey, Sudan, South Korea, Poland, Bolivia, Chile and Russia.
One of them, Onejoon Che, displayed a thought-provoking video that laid bare stories of monuments made by North Korean laborers in Africa, driving home the ethos behind the exhibition itself, unmasking the complexities around identity and the relationships that are formed between history, geography, culture and migration. —Dorian Batycka
10. An Opera for Animals at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China
June 22–August 25
Curated by Cosmin Costinas, Hsieh Feng-Rong, Claire Shea, and Billy Tang
Installed on five floors of a compact building, An Opera for Animals, a collaboration between Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai and Para Site, Hong Kong, lures the visitor in like immersive theater. Works by Jes Fan, Chitra Ganesh, Haegue Yang, and 50 others together reinvestigate the medium of opera, an art form whose flourishing in the West was rooted in colonial vision and history. Through mythical figures, ceremonies, performances and other forms, the exhibition challenges the Eurocentric narrative of modernity by restaging the fabrication of narratives — be it gendered, spiritual or historical — and questioning how these narratives come to represent cultures, histories and civilizations.
Bringing together spiritual healers, researchers, activists, filmmakers and so on, this interdisciplinary exhibition highlights the hierarchy between knowledge systems that continues to shape, sometimes by marginalization and erasure, what is considered art today. By conducting a chorus of unsung voices from the margins, An Opera for Animals leaves its visitors pondering the possibilities of cultural heterogeneity and deep diversity in the (post-)colonial context that the gallery is situated in. —Tina Shan
11. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Sunset, Sunrise at the Al Hamriyah Studios, Sharjah, UAE
October 12–December 28
Co-curated by Rachel Thomas and Hoor Al Qasimi
Monir told me a story. On their evening walks, she and her husband Abol would pass the Guggenheim Museum in New York as it was being built. She dared dream that some day her art would be exhibited in the museum. In 2015, at the age of 93, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian became the first Iranian artist and one of a handful of women artists to receive a solo exhibit at the Guggenheim. Sunset, Sunrise, organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Sharjah Art Foundation became a moving posthumous tribute to the iconic artist, who passed away in April 2019. Her signature mirror mosaics — inspired by Iran’s Shiite shrines and the principles of Islamic geometry that reflect a cosmic order — form the core of the exhibition. “These geometric forms are miracles,” Monir once said. “One can create so much art based on these forms. They offer infinite possibilities.” A ball covered in thousands of pieces of reverse painted glass in hues of blue and earth tones anchors a central gallery of the exhibit. As the sculpture catches the light, it creates the effect of fluid abstraction across its surface. At once playful and profound, the globe manifests the cultural flows that marked Monir’s art. —Shiva Balaghi
11. Magda Campos Pons’s Rios Intermitentes in Matanzas during the Havana Biennial, Matanzas, Cuba
April 12–May 12
Curated by Magda Campos Pons
Located between the major tourist destinations of Havana and Varadero, the port city of Matanzas, Cuba, has a rich and complex cultural history, spanning a 19th-century sugar economy based on enslaved labor to a present-day contemporary art boom. On the occasion of the VIII Havana Biennial, Matanzas-born artist María Magdalena Campos Pons produced a wildly ambitious exhibition celebrating the cultural richness of her hometown. Noting that Matanzas, known as the “Athens of Cuba,” is Cuba’s “center of black culture,” Campos Pons included 30 artists of the African diaspora (of 64 artists total). The exhibition occupied the former Palacio de Justicia and other venues around the city, including riverbanks and the town square.
The 2019 Havana Biennale was prominently boycotted and protested by artists objecting to Decree 349, a restrictive national law strictly legislating cultural activities. Away from the focal point of this affair in the capital city, Campos Pons forged an exhibition concerned with intersections and connections, titling her exhibition after the unique landscape of Matanzas, with its convergence of three rivers. She looked at the biennial as an opportunity to bring the work of over 20 artists and collectives who live and work in Matanzas into dialogue with dozens of artists invited from international locations, from the US to Pakistan.
Matanzas artist Ernesto Millán’s “Sábanas blancas: Transparencia, 2018–2019” filled the central courtyard of the main venue with screenprinted sheets, which he previously placed throughout Matanzas streets, homes, and businesses and documented in a video that screened during the exhibition. These colorful sheets were suspended overhead, perpetually surrounded by onlookers from the always lively Bar Matanzas, created for the exhibition by Campos Pons and used as a local meeting point and hang out spot. Nearby, Olu Oguibe undertook a short residency at a steel factory, creating a new installation using industrial refuse. An active event roster included talks, performances, processions, and ecological conservation activities (e.g. a reforestation tree-planting effort), organized by Campos Pons with family members assisting. Ríos Intermitentes was a true feat, all-hands-on-deck barn raising affair in which the designations of participants, staff, artists, and audiences seemed to blend. Reflecting on this project, Campos Pons referred to herself as a “curandera not a curadora” – a healer, not a curator. —Rebecca Uchill
12. The Holes in the Water. Contemporary Indigenous Art at The Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico City, Mexico
May 23–September 22
Curated by Itzel Vargas Plata
The Holes in the Water. Contemporary Indigenous Art deviated from the typical exhibition of indigenous art in Mexico in which the technical qualities of the production of work are exalted to stage folklore and a false idealization patronized by the nationalist ideology. In turn, the exhibition gathered a number of artists whose work takes part prior to the Spanish colonization legacy, representing cultures that have been transformed, that do not live in isolated bubbles, and undergone a series of exchanges and processes where the identity builds and reconstructs in everyday life facing a complex future.
The exhibition reflected beyond the artistic practice itself and made visible social problems that as a country are evident but not spoken about, such as linguicide, the forced catellinization and displacement of expropriated territories. This is probably the first exhibition in Mexico that do not speak in totalitarian terms and shows that the indigeneity isn’t hegemonic, is multiple and in a constant state of emergency. —Lety Gutiérrez
13. Nam June Paik at the Tate Modern, London, UK
October 17, 2019–February 9, 2020
Organized by Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling
If there was ever any doubt about Nam June Paik’s importance in the history of twentieth-century art, Tate Modern’s retrospective puts it definitively to bed. Part fun fair extravaganza, part masterclass in Eastern philosophy, this exhibition fizzes, pops, and makes you think seriously about the state of the world in the digital age. Highlights include a robot couple made from radio and television sets, a statue of Buddha gazing at its own image relayed through a closed-circuit TV, and Paik’s spectacular reimagining of the Sistine Chapel. —Naomi Polonsky
14. Brian Jungen: Friendship Center at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
June 20–August 25
Curated by Kitty Scott
Part of a generation of indigenous artists in North America who have flourished this century, Jungen is fluent in many types of visual culture and he collides them to make objects that are always bringing the outside world, and its associated symbolism, into the gallery in unorthodox ways.
His totems and masks made with athletic wear are certainly his most famous work, but here it is accompanied by other fantastic creations (like the whale skeleton made of plastic chairs) that suggest a wider frame for his vision. He is unapologetic in his cultural appropriation, including from indigenous groups he’s not a member of, to suggest how identity and aesthetics continue to be seen — and misinterpreted — through settler eyes for indigenous communities in Canada and beyond. Whatever he does, it’s never mindless.
His earliest work in this series, like “Prototype for New Understanding #5” (1999), demonstrates that two decades later these objects, which may continue to inspire fascination, also continue to point out that there is a great deal that hasn’t evolved in a mainstream understanding of the communities that continue to exist on Turtle Island since before European colonization. —Hrag Vartanian
15. Elevate Biennial, Gstaad, Switzerland
February 1, 2019–January 1, 2021
Curated by Neville Wakefield and Olympia Scarry
Elevation 1049 is a biennial now in its third iteration, produced by the Luma Foundation, and seeks to gather art world glitterati in the elite mountain town of Gstaad for a singular art festival experience — this year around the theme “Frequencies.”
For Gstaad 2019, organizers took a bold and risky tack, with the bulk of festival programming comprised of 10 works of performance art, taking place over the course of opening weekend (February 1–3), anchored by only one ongoing installation: “Mirage Gstaad” by Doug Aitken.
Overall, performances were greatly informed and impacted by the surroundings, which worked to the advantage of some, and very much to the detriment of others. Among the best: Marianne Vitale’s “Burned Bridge” being literally burned atop a ski slope accessible only by gondola and a concert by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster in collaboration with Julian Perez, “Exotourisme,” that was hypnotic, transportive, and complete, greatly enhanced by the surreal paleo-futuristic decor that gave the entire experience the feel of a shoot for Bladerunner B-roll. As a consummate experience in the Swiss Alps, one could not do better than the splendor of Elevation 1049. How much of that is attributable to the power of the art, and how much to the power of wealth is difficult to decide. —Sarah Rose Sharp
Kandinsky, Arp, Picasso: Klee & Friends at the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland
March 19–September 1
Curated by Fabienne Eggelhofer
It’s nice to be reminded that talent does not exist in a vacuum — even the most famous artists draw influence from others. This beautiful show focused on Paul Klee and his impressive circle of friends and how they all impacted one another, including Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Hans Arp, among others. It’s amazing to note how much happened in European art in the early 1900s, from Surrealism to Cubism to Concrete art, and how Klee deftly interweaved all of these aesthetics. —Elisa Wouk Almino
Leandro Elrich: Liminal at MALBA, Buenos Aires, Argentina
July 5–October 26
Curated by Dan Cameron
Liminal was the first survey of Argentine conceptual artist Leandro Erlich on the American continent. Curated by Dan Cameron, the hit show at MALBA brought together 21 installations produced between 1996 and today. Playful and interactive, the exhibition reminded us that imagination can transform reality into art and create illusions that appear real. Producing works in such a polished way that some were hard to distinguish as art — like the “For Sale” sign on the facade of museum — Erlich made the public doubt reality, while appealing to them with his clever wit and ingenious installations. —Silvia Rottenberg
No Looking Back, OK? at the Maribor Art Gallery, Maribor, Slovenia
November 30, 2018–March 17 2019
Curated by Simona Vidmar and Jure Kirbiš
In 2019, artists and curators continued to deconstruct concepts like memory, cultural heritage and political symbols, subjects that formed the basis of an exhibition held at the Maribor Art Gallery, entitled No Looking Back, OK?. The exhibition featured an international assortment of over a dozen socially and politically engaged artists.
In Mounira Al Solh’s large scale-paintings, real political figures from West Asia are placed in ludicrous, humiliating situations. With healthy doses of irony and camp, Al Solh’s works poked fun at autocratic politicians in moments of excess, surrounded by the trappings of plunder and pillage. Above all, the exhibition —curated by Simona Vidmar and Jure Kirbiš — stood out not on account of being a major, blockbuster show, but rather for developing a comprehensive and timely approach to looking at how memory is being wielded by artists interested in contemporary issues like post-truth and fake-news, and with it how forms of disobedience and rebellion can begin to take shape through media and art. —Dorian Batycka
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The Brazilian artist asked the museum to remove his work from a show about the Black experience, calling the institution a “White man’s theater.”
In an era of fast fashion and sweatshop exploitation, the artist demonstrates how far an industry will go to keep workers out of the picture.
This adventurous theater festival returns in person with 36 artists and companies from nine countries performing at different venues across the city.
Both Don Ed Hardy and Laurie Steelink refuse to adhere to traditional artistic hierarchies, an attitude they have shared throughout their 30-year friendship.
It took over 37 hours to pull 1,900 miles of glass filament to create the garment, now on view at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Learn more about the New York-based, globally linked program and its upcoming discussions on art and society in the time of AI and data governance.
An insidious racism is at play in interviewer Henri Renaud’s attempt to groom Thelonious Monk for public consumption on French television.
The last few years at the museum have not been without controversy, and Decatur will inherit a record of workforce struggles.