The 20 Most Influential Artists of 2017
It’s a daunting task to name the individuals who most profoundly shaped and inspired the global art world in 2017. Decades ago, creative scenes were relatively tiny and cliquish, but the ongoing explosion of interest in contemporary art has meant more of everything: more artists; more galleries and museums; more biennials, art fairs, and unconventional projects; more excitement and energy. Still, there remain artists whose vision and influence find them towering above the crowd. Here, Artsy’s editors offer up our take on the 20 who continue to have a pervasive, undeniable impact on artistic production and culture at large.
B. 1962, Paris. Lives and works in Paris and New York
The single most ambitious work of contemporary art created in 2017 wasn’t in Venice’s Giardini but in a disused ice rink behind a Burger King in the German city of Münster. Enabled by the rink’s coming demolition, Huyghe(pronounced hweeg) was given carte blanche for After ALife Ahead: He excavated its floor and installed panels into the roof that opened and closed according to a musical score. The composition was based on the triangular patterns present on the shell of a venomous sea snail, placed in a tank on a central island of concrete left in the carved-out rink’s center. Human cancer cells multiplied in an incubator on the far side of the rink, while an augmented-reality app let viewers witness pyramid-like representations of those cells be spawned, most of which eventually fly out the rink’s roof openings. (For a deeper look at the mechanics of this complex piece, read Artsy’s coverage here.)
Huyghe, who this year won the Nasher Prize, has been a revered figure of the conceptual art movement known as Relational Aesthetics since the ’90s, though popular recognition of the 55-year-old artist has sometimes lagged behind that of peers like Philippe Parreno. After ALife Ahead marked the culmination of several experiments and preparatory works over recent years. And it continued the unique brand of environmental installation in which viewers themselves become actors within the work (each exhale of CO2 caused the cancer cells to multiply more quickly) that he used to acclaim at Documenta 13 in 2012. There, Huyghe’s contribution involved a surreal, living sculpture garden (complete with a pink-legged dog) hewn out of a compost heap in Kassel’s Karlsaue Park. Huyghe’s installations strike a canny balance between his viewers’ simultaneous participation in and subjection to the system that he creates—a system that, once set off, is also outside of his control. The results, with their infinitely intertwined elements and cascading effects, create environments that mirror the complexity of our own, a fact that has earned Huyghe his status as one of the most important artists of his generation.
B. 1939, Philadelphia. Lives and works in New Paltz, New York
Schneemann is a touchstone for the feminist art movement in America during the 1960s and ’70s. But it took over half a century for the Body Artand performance pioneer to get the recognition she’s long been due. This year she won the prestigious Golden Lion lifetime achievement award at the Venice Biennale, and in October, MoMA PS1 opened “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting,” the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s 60-year-long career.
The exhibition features over 300 works, beginning with her rarely seen bright and brushy semi-abstract paintings from the 1950s and ephemera from her Fluxus-inspired collaborations from the 1960s—including her famed Meat Joy (1964), a pivotal work that features men and women rolling around in raw meat and fish to a rock soundtrack. More recent installations from the early 2000s showcase Schneemann’s ability to easily shift from painting and performance to digital media, as seen in More Wrong Things(2001), which intermingles footage of major public disasters with archival footage from the artist’s own archive. It loops across 14 screens suspended from the ceiling, with a mess of wires and chords charting a chaotic, networked relationship.
Along with peers like Judy Chicago, Mary Beth Edelson, and Rachel Rosenthal, Schneemann was part of a second wave of feminist cultural discourse that challenged taboos about the female body and sexuality while subverting the long-held (white) male gaze. Her more recent work continues this legacy of speaking out against oppressive and outmoded social norms. Consider Precarious (2009), which relies on a rotating mirror system to implicate the viewer into a cage-like setting, surrounded by video projections of prisoners, animals in captivity, and Schneemann dancing. And as the charming 78-year-old made clear during a recent conversation with uberfan Ragnar Kjartansson at the New Museum, she’s continuing to innovate and explore new avenues of artmaking—including collaborating with her cat.
B. 1961, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles
With every passing year, Bradford’s art grows larger, his themes more ambitious. For “Tomorrow is Another Day” at the 2017 Venice Biennale, he transformed the American Pavilion into a decaying wasteland, host to a giant, festering, abscess-like form. Visitors to the pavilion (which the artist, speaking with the New York Times, noted loosely resembles a smaller-scale White House or a Jeffersonian plantation) found Spoiled Foot, a thickly textured, malignant red-and-black outgrowth composed of layers of paper, canvas, and varnish with the familiar skin-like pockmarks that so often feature in his paintings. It nearly consumed the front gallery space. Elsewhere, palimpsests of peeling paint and paper reinforced the sense of moral bankruptcy emanating from Bradford’s metaphorical representation of the United States.
Just months later, he unveiled Pickett’s Charge, a vast, site-specific work in the American capital, at D.C’s Hirshhorn Museum. A 360-degree mural, or “cyclorama,” the piece reimagines the 1883 Gettysburg Cyclorama, by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, which placed visitors at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Recreating the panorama in abstract form—using digital printouts of the original painting, blown up and reconfigured—Bradford updated the immersive mural in a contemporary vocabulary, capturing the weight of this history and asserting its continued relevance.
Next September, the artist will be taking his Venice Biennale presentation to the Baltimore Museum of Art and combining it with a monumental new “waterfall” work—his series of paintings-turned-sculptures composed of cascading ribbons of painted and dyed fabric suspended from beams. It is set to be his most impressive iteration to date, and will continue his ongoing preoccupation, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with themes of water and flooding; this particular “waterfall” will extend dramatically from the museum’s second-floor galleries down into the lobby, like a biblical torrent.
B. 1978, Paris. Lives and works in New York
There are never enough hours in a day, or so goes the tired adage of the perpetually busy. Henrot must agree. In addition to her inclusion in nearly a dozen group shows across the globe this year—including “The Message: New Media Works” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the National Gallery of Victoria’s triennial in Melbourne, Australia—the 39-year-old French-born, New York–based artist received her first major solo exhibition in her hometown of Paris this fall, a sprawling exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo that takes as its theme the days of the week. “Days are Dogs” divides up the 64,500-square-foot space into seven sections to question the arbitrary structure of how we mark time and ritualize our lives, as perhaps best exemplified in Saturday, a stark 20-minute film that immerses viewers in the Sabbath celebrations of the Seventh-day Adventists, who observe the Sabbath on Saturdays rather than Sundays, like most other Christian sects.
Henrot’s career has been gaining steam since she won the Silver Lion award at the 2013 Venice Biennale for the video Grosse Fatigue, a visually snappy meditation blending scientific facts and creation stories through items in the Smithsonian Institution’s archives; a subsequent companion installation, The Pale Fox, which debuted at London’s Chisenhale Gallery in 2014, explored our collective obsession with objects.
“Days are Dogs”seems almost like a mini retrospective for the artist, who has gained a reputation for poignant, essayistic multimedia works that interrogate the stories we tell ourselves, whether through ancient myths or everyday objects. Henrot shines through as an artist truly unafraid to blur media and categories of making, whether she’s placing abstract sculptures in a rural field, creating a series of comically bulbous “telephones,” or experimenting with drawings that explore everything from the lives of animals to the dregs of her email inbox.
B. 1957, Beijing. Lives and works in Berlin
Ai has swiftly become the art world’s conscience when it comes to the plight of displaced peoples around the world. (The artist himself spent his childhood in exile from his native Beijing, as a result of pressure put on his father, a poet.) He has fervently dedicated himself to raising awareness of the global refugee crisis. Last year saw the occasional misstep—a self-portrait in the pose of a drowned Syrian infant refugee, reenacting a viral news image, raised a bit of ire—but that was followed by four concurrent gallery showsacross New York City, all adeptly addressing the sheer scale of the global refugee crisis.
In 2017, the artist unveiled his largest work to date at Prague’s National Gallery: Law of the Journey, a 70-meter inflatable boat sculpture filled with 258 sculptural figures intended to call out the “shameful” politicking in Europe and abroad that ignores the plight of millions seeking shelter on other shores. He also made his first foray into film with Human Flow, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September: a visually stunning and emotionally wrenching documentary that follows the migrant passage of millions across the globe, with Ai’s camera turned on Berlin, Calais, Gaza, Turkey, Bangladesh, Jordan, and the U.S.-Mexico border, among other locations. (The film was included on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary.) Ai then brought this issue home in New York with a 300-piece exhibition, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” on view through February 11, 2018. The city-wide public art project includes banners of refugees strung above the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market; portraits of New York immigrants installed on bus shelters in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx; and, most notably, a much-Instagrammed large steel cage sculpture constructed under Washington Square Park’s iconic arch.
B. 1954, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Lives and works in Preston, United Kingdom
Himid made history this year when she took home the 2017 Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art award. The artist is not only the first woman of color to win, but at 63 she is also the oldest awardee thanks to the Tate’s announcement earlier this year that artists of any age can be considered. Himid is known for her darkly witty yet challenging works that explore black identity and creativity, the legacy of colonialism and racism, and institutional biases against women and people of color.
Take, for instance, her range of traditionally fashioned British crockery works featuring scenes of slavery, or her well known “Negative Positives” series begun in 2007—for which she paints decorative patterns over large swaths of pages from newspaper The Guardian that feature black subjects, underscoring the often unconscious stereotyping lurking in the accompanying text. (She pursued a similar approach with the New York Times for a recent show at New York’s FLAG Art Foundation.)
Though prolific, Himid’s work has been under the radar for decades. But she took the U.K. by storm in 2017, with exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary, Spike Island in Bristol, and Modern Art Oxford, as well as a site-specific commission for this year’s Folkestone Triennial: a human-scale jelly mould installed on the seaside town’s beach that plays on the connection between the rise of sugarcane plantations and the popularity of jiggly British tea-time treats.
B. 1968, Remscheid, Germany. Lives and works in Berlin and London
While Tillmans’s visionary artistic practice has been progressing since the 1980s—including figurative and abstract images, made using both analog and digital technology—the past two years have seen the artist reaching a new level in terms of critical and popular recognition. The once-prevalent ghettoization of photography apart from the mainstream art world has thankfully continued to break down, thanks in no small part to creatives like Tillmans. (And part of what makes his images exciting in the white cube context derives from his signature installation philosophy—which experiments wildly with scale, and can happily pair a professionally framed photo next to one that hangs loosely from clips).
Tillmans was the first non-Brit to win the prestigious Turner Prize in 2000, and this year was the subject of further English accolades when Tate Modernmounted its major survey exploring work made since 2003 (a period ripe with digital and abstract experiments, as well as a focus on political issues, like the invasion of Iraq). However, it was a major retrospective at Switzerland’s Fondation Beyeler, concurrent with Art Basel in Basel, that had his name on everybody’s lips. The exhibition’s 200-odd works spanned the artist’s career from 1986 to 2017, ranging in scope from still lifes and candid portraits to non-representational texture-and-light studies, Xerox-manipulated images, photographs made without a camera at all, and a brand new audiovisual installation. The masterful exhibition suggested that Tillmans is still capable of transforming his practice with ease, not to mention the field of photography in general.
B. 1983, Enugu, Nigeria. Lives and works in Los Angeles
Through her collage-based paintings depicting intimate, personal scenes, Nigerian-born, L.A.-based artist Akunyili Crosby is pulling focus onto a larger trend, what’s become known as “Afropolitanism”: the shifting multicultural identity of African citizens and members of the African diaspora as they move to more urban centers across the globe. The artist’s career has risen rapidly over the past few years, culminating this year with a highly coveted MacArthur “Genius” grant.
Her works—mingling acrylic, textiles, Nigerian magazine cut-outs, photographic image transfers, and other media—are currently on view in New Orleans’s Prospect.4 triennial, and are the subject of two concurrent exhibitions this fall at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Akunyili Crosby creates densely patterned scenes that explore moments of personal reckoning that span generations, from her grandmother’s isolated upbringing in a village to the artist’s own Western, urban life. Akunyili Crosby’s latest works, as seen in Baltimore, take a decidedly heavier turn, however, exploring the implications of casual racism faced by the artist as an immigrant in America.
B. 1983, Paris. Lives and works in Paris and New York
In September, a 70-foot-tall baby was spotted crawling across the arid borderland between Mexico and California. The brainchild of 34-year-old French photographer and street artist JR, Kikito—as the gargantuan black-and-white toddler is affectionately named—peeps curiously from the Mexican side of a fence erected at Tecate, roughly 45 miles southeast of San Diego. JR is known for his deeply humanist, architecturally scaled outdoor works that often appear in areas of socioeconomic disparity or cultural contention. These include Women are Heroes (2008), which featured the eyes of local women smattered across the sides of buildings in Rio de Janeiro’s oldest favela, and Wrinkles of the City, a collaboration with José Parlá for the 2012 Havana Biennial that included depictions of elderly Cubans who lived through their country’s revolution in the 1950s. His habit of surreptitiously muralizing public walls has prompted some to call him the French Banksy.
Thanks to the help of Tecate-area residents, Kikito went up in a matter of days after President Trump’s decision to repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which offers legal protection to some who entered the U.S. illegally as minors, often with their parents. It’s hard to disassociate the image of a giant child behind an imperious metal barricade from the contentious presidential mandate. But the work also effectively makes light of Trump’s campaign promise and Executive Order to build an expansive, high-security border wall, making the existing stretch of wall at Tecate seem flimsy indeed: surmountable by a baby.
2017 also saw JR install a 150-square-meter mural at the Palais de Tokyo, take over the Renzo Piano pavilion at Château La Coste, and notch a show at the Paris location of Perrotin. He also debuted Faces/Places, a documentary created with legendary 89-year-old Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda. It documents their interactions with the people of rural France whom the unlikely duo meet while traveling around the country creating portraits of those they encounter. The understated and poignant film—in which Varda likens JR to a young Jean Luc-Godard—won the L’Œil d’Or award when it premiered at May’s Cannes Film Festival, and it was met with critical acclaim when it was released in October (and later landed on the shortlist of Oscar nominations for Best Documentary).
B. 1945, Newark, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York and Los Angeles
The “Pictures Generation” member has been a pioneering influence for decades—her work cropped up in the influential 1973 Whitney Biennial, and she had a solo at MoMA PS1 in 1980—but it continues to resound in an age of political division and sloganeering. Kruger has remained faithful to her own best format: appropriated imagery mixed with brash, in-your-face, Futura text. But this instantly recognizable style is as impactful as ever, translated by the artist into an endless variety of contexts, including on billboards (a format the artist has worked in since the ’80s). Prefer your Kruger in wearable form? There was a wicked t-shirt available at “Anger Management,” a pop-up store organized by Marilyn Minter and hosted by the Brooklyn Museum between September and November. The artist’s fashion-ready messaging was as acerbic as ever: “Admit nothing. Blame everyone. Be bitter.”
In 2017, Kruger closed out a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and, at Sprüth Magers in Berlin, presented FOREVER, an installation for which she plastered a borrowed Virginia Woolf text across the walls and floor to dizzying effect. In New York, for the biennial Performa 17, Kruger went all out, commandeering a school bus, a skatepark, a MetroCard design, and a billboard for components of an interconnected project that jabbed at the streetwear brand Supreme (whose logo cops Kruger’s signature typographical treatment). The centerpiece of her participation was Untitled (The Drop), billed as the artist’s first foray into performance, in which the only performers were store clerks, offering Kruger-branded schwag (skate decks, hats, hoodies) to a consumer audience. Not everyone was sold on the affair, but it certainly got people talking outside the normally hermetic confines of the art world. Like a number of feminist artists who came of age in the 1970s, Kruger’s work has gained wider acclaim this year, becoming a calling card for progressive politics at a time when those values are under attack.
B. 1955, Newark, New Jersey. Lives and works in Chicago
The prevailing memory of the 2017 Whitney Biennial will likely be the outrage over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, but it would be a shame if that overshadowed Pope.L’s strange, complicated, and typically irreverent 2017 work, Claim (Whitney Version). A large, pink-colored cube, the installation was festooned with pieces of bologna, as well as small photographic portraits of what the artist claimed were Jewish people. (“Fortified wine” was also used as a material.) The enigmatic work proves especially complex amidst the current resurgence of identity politics, and in June, it netted the artist the coveted Bucksbaum Award.
Since the 1970s, Pope.L has developed a layered practice that combines performance, video, painting, and sculpture. Some of his most iconic works were acts of endurance in which the artist donned various costumes and crawled for great lengths; at 62, he’s still making the same sort of sacrifices, and still taking risks. For Documenta 14, he unveiled Whispering Campaign(2016–17), a sound piece sited in both Kassel and Athens for which performers whispered lines from a script into mini headsets that were then broadcast via speakers placed in offbeat locales around the cities. Also in 2017, at the Detroit alternative exhibition space What Pipeline, the artist launched a simple but loaded project: He took lead-damaged water from Flint, Michigan, bottled it, and sold the results as a kind of unhealthy readymade. “Flint Water” turned the gallery into a sort of factory or store, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to a charity (a signed bottle of Flint’s chemical tap can still be yours for $250).
B. 1929, Matsumoto, Japan. Lives and works in Tokyo
Kusama’s career spans seven decades, but 2017 might have been her biggest year yet. The prolific 88-year-old Japanese artist’s immersive installations bridge Pop Art and Minimalism, which put her on the map by the middle of the 20th century and have helped make her one of the highest-grossing female artists at auction today. Meanwhile, Instagram has provided a new platform for a younger generation of fans to engage with Kusama’s glittering, mirrored installations, giant polka-dotted pumpkins, and energetic abstract paintings. (For even younger art lovers, 2017 also saw the publication of a children’s book about Kusama’s life.)
The artist kicked off this past year with an attendance record-shattering solo exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardenthat will continue to travel North America through 2019, while another major retrospective, “Life is the Heart of a Rainbow,” originated at the National Gallery of Singapore in June, and traveled to Australia’s Queensland Art Gallery in November. In October, a five-story museum entirely dedicated to the artist’s career opened in Tokyo. Kusama is closing this monumental year out by storming New York with a solo show at Judd Foundation’s SoHo space and two concurrent exhibitions spanning two of David Zwirner’s Manhattan galleries. Blockbuster-worthy lines have greeted her fan-favorite “Infinity Mirror Rooms” at Zwirner’s West 19th Street location, while its East 69th Street outpost showcases 10 new paintings that harken back to Kusama’s “Infinity Net” canvases from the late 1950s and early 1960s—bringing an illustrious career full circle.
B. 1977, London. Lives and works in London
2017 was a year of transcendence, artistic and otherwise, for British artist Mirza. Known for his kinetic, sculptural assemblages that exude sound and light, the artist kicked off the year with his first solo show in Canada at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery, titled “Entheogens,” debuting a series of new works emulating the psychedelic sensations of plants like peyote and magic mushrooms. He then realized a hefty commission from the Zabludowicz Collection, commemorating the 10th anniversary of its London space, a show which quickly became the talk of Frieze Week. The resulting four works respond to or otherwise intervene in visitors’ experiences of the building and the artworks within it; one of them, a sensory deprivation chamber, aims to create an altered state of consciousness for participants.
Mirza also started working on a large-scale outdoor sculpture inspired by megalithic structures like Stonehenge for Ballroom Marfa, to be unveiled in the winter of 2018. The institution’s most ambitious commission since Elmgreen & Dragset’s now-iconic Prada Marfa from 2005, stone circle will be situated in the remote high desert grasslands of West Texas. There, eight black marble boulders integrated with LEDs and speakers will emit electronic sound and light. A ninth “mother” stone (with solar panels that help power the piece) creates a sound and light score activated each month by the full moon, making stone circle a suitably mystical experience for the new millennium.
B. 1978, Giessen, Germany. Lives and works in Frankfurt
At this year’s Venice Biennale, Frankfurt-based Imhof’s minimalist, goth-inflected performance Faust drew the longest lines—and ultimately won the German Pavilion the illustrious Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation. (If you missed it in Venice, you can relive the experience with our own 360 video.) The 39-year-old artist considers her choreography-based practice to be rooted in drawing and painting, but she’s become better known over the past decade for her gruellingly long and sometimes uncomfortably voyeuristic performance works.
Faust was no exception. Lasting roughly five hours, performers clad in black athleisure and denim performed a choreographed sequence of dancing, climbing, and crawling over—and under—raised glass floors and partitions, occasionally interjecting some sort of communication ranging from banging on a wall, yelling, or just mindlessly checking their phones. At the prompting of a rhythmic beat, however, the performers would march in formation, like militarized normcore fashion models. Imhof managed to make fashionableness into something foreboding, no less so because the performance was staged in a Nazi-era building surrounded by fences and guarded by Dobermans. Faust was touted as a masterpiece of modern-day angst, ceaselessly investigating the power structures both past and present that dictate our lives and enslave us with their promises of freedom and self-expression.
While certainly not as high-profile as the Golden Lion, Imhof also scored the 2017 Absolut Art Prize, which comes with a nearly $120,000 budget to stage a new performance, this one to be set in the harsh desert of Death Valley, California.
B. 1965, Bristol, United Kingdom. Lives and works in London
“Undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade,” wrote Andrew Russeth of ARTnews, reflecting on “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” Hirst’s two-part blow-out at both locations of the Pinault Collection in Venice that opened in April. That level of critical vitriol directed at the 52-year-old artist is representative of the consensus among members of the art press and the vast majority of those in the inner circles of the art world. But, more so than any artist, Hirst has purposefully cultivated a different and much larger audience, hoards of whom lined up outside the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana to see his entirely for-sale show.
Hirst’s Venetian outing, as well as its critical reception, generated some welcome and uneasy questions: What sort of audiences matter in 2017? When is appropriation cultural theft? Is it even possible to discuss the line between art and commerce with a straight face anymore? “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” was crazily dramatic, uneven, at times knowingly stupid, blatantly spectacular—and also undeniably entertaining. Trying to unpack it in the context of the so-called serious art world would be a bit like comparing the later works of Shakespeare with Season 16 ofLaw & Order: SVU.
The show presented a postmodern jumble of references, styles, and materials. One of its hallmark works was Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) (2014), a several-story-tall painted resin sculpture of a headless man with an action-hero physique; a time-lapse video of its piece-by-piece completion suggests that it required a level of effort on par with a small Hollywood film. Elsewhere, much tinier faux-artifacts were presented in vitrines, aping the style of a natural history museum. The whole conceit was bound together by a fiction of Hirstian proportions—the sculptures supposedly being the reclaimed booty following a shipwreck. Whether you loved it or hated it, the outing affirmed that the brash, take-no-prisoners artistic ego is alive and well.
B. 1976, Buenos Aires. Lives and works in New York
Raised in Israel, the Argentine-born and New York-based artist says her goal is “to make work that’s as accessible as possible, while being intelligent.” Rottenberg, primarily a video artist and sculptor, squeezes thorny subjects (labor, globalization) through her distorted, technicolor lens. The resulting films and their whimsical, immersive environments are undeniably odd, cerebral, and fun, as evidenced by a standout installation at the 2017 Skulptur Projekte Münster. The centerpiece there was a film, Cosmic Generator, shot on both sides of the United States/Mexico border, as well as in China. As is her style, Rottenberg combined quasi-documentary footage with dreamlike sequences—like a scene in which tiny men, dressed as tacos, burrow through underground tunnels before arriving to be eaten at a Chinese-Mexican restaurant.
In December, Rottenberg opened an exhibition at the freshly reopened Bass Museum of Art in Miami, bringing her eccentric vision to the broad audience in town for Art Basel in Miami Beach. There, a new version of Cosmic Generator was joined by sculptural installations (incorporating emergency food supplies, ceiling fans, and inflatable palm trees) and a second video, NoNoseKnows, which debuted at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It imagines the globalized economy as a fleshy machine, powered by raw muscle (and mussels), absurd actions, and more than a few bodily secretions. Rottenberg cannily mixes footage of actual labor (women scooping and sorting pearls out of shellfish) with surreal moments (a drab bureaucratic office where a woman sneezes out plates of pasta).
Much like Pipilotti Rist or Ragnar Kjartansson, Rottenberg has earned popular acclaim while resolutely following her own passions and curiosity, which often involves engaging with communities other than her own. In an art world that might scoffingly consider “accessible” a dirty word, she continues to prove that brainy and big-hearted aren’t mutually exclusive.
B. 1974, Camp Springs, Maryland. Lives and works in Berlin
Over the last decade, American artist (and 2017 MacArthur “Genius” grantee) Paglen has been probing the technology behind governmental surveillance and data collection, and how it alters the world around us both psychologically and physically. Paglen uses his unique skill set and background—he trained in both photography and geography, and had an itinerant childhood on military bases across the U.S. and Germany—to document obscure military installations, satellite launches, and hidden National Security Agency locations. He’s also evinced a curiosity for how technology can be put to less nefarious aims: an exhibition at New York’s Metro Pictures this past fall, “A Study of Invisible Images,” explored his research into computer vision and artificial intelligence’s applications for artmaking.
Things are only looking up for Paglen in 2018, which promises to be literally astronomic for the 43-year-old Berlin-based artist’s career. Paglen is turning his sights skyward as he works on completing the world’s first space sculpture, with support from the Nevada Museum of Art. Set to launch in the spring of 2018, the mirrored inflatable, dubbed Orbital Reflector, will be visible in the night sky for roughly eight weeks before it disintegrates. Although he’s already traveled to extremes for his work (including to the depths of the ocean, where he captured images of internet cables buried on the seafloor) the artist’s low-orbiting satellite is a feat unprecedented in contemporary art. Soon thereafter, Paglen will be the subject of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “Sites Unseen,” the first major survey of this pioneering artist’s work in the U.S., opening in June.
B. 1970, Euclid, Ohio. Lives and works in Los Angeles
Long a touchstone for and key figure in the Los Angeles art community, Owens got an overdue East Coast spotlight with a major survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art that opened this fall. There are plenty of artists who continue to expand the field of contemporary painting, but few do it with such verve, playfulness, and rigor. The Whitney’s entire eighth floor, for instance, is given over to a multi-part sculpture in which Owens enlarges and remixes drawings and a short story appropriated from her own son, who is in middle school.
Another installation pairs artist-designed wallpaper with an interactive component: Text a question to a dedicated number, and pre-recorded audio answers play in the gallery space. (I asked “What is art?” A rather blasé voice answered, “I don’t know, but his gallery moved away from there.”) Owens was previously lauded in the (somewhat controversial) 2014 Museum of Modern Art survey “The Forever Now,” and her turn at the Whitney—which follows inclusion in two of the institution’s biennials—should cement her future as a kind of godmother for younger talents.
Meanwhile, back home in L.A., she continues to oversee 356 Mission, the art space that she co-founded with Wendy Yao and Gavin Brown in 2012. It’s been a point of contention this year, as protestors in the Boyle Heights neighborhood have turned their ire on it (as well as other venues) for being the advance guard of gentrification. But, despite the pushback, the artist-supportive venue has undeniably become a centerpiece of the city’s art scene, holding exhibitions with the likes of Seth Price, Maggie Lee, Wu Tsang, and many others.
B. 1937, Bradford, United Kingdom. Lives and works in Los Angeles
In his 80th year, the venerated British artist is still pushing the boundaries of painting, most recently unveiling a series of vividly colored compositions of interior and outdoor settings with wild fun-house perspectives and peculiarly shaped canvases. (He’s also recently made much-publicized forays into digital painting using apps on his iPad). Best known for his depictions of crystalline swimming pools (and the attendant Californian lifestyle), Hockney has for some six decades experimented with media and subject matter of all kinds—including landscapes, still lifes, and nuanced and life-affirming portraits of friends, often painted in pairs. That tonal range has been on view in his retrospective this year, beginning at the Tate Britain in February—where it broke attendance records—before going on to the Centre Pompidou this summer and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is on view through February.
The exhibition confirms Hockney’s position as one of our greatest living artists and one whose influence on painting cannot be underestimated. Drawn to Los Angeles’s intense light, abundant vegetation, and unabashed pleasure-seeking, the artist has long excelled as a colorist, incorporating garish Fauvist hues into his work and mastering the technicalities of his materials. Hockney has explored how paint can be manipulated to create different textures and degrees of luminosity—as well as exploring a catalogue of perspectival and compositional effects, from a near-Cubist flatness and angularity to a greater depth of perspective and receding space. He is also celebrated for having expressed queerness in his work long before the Culture Wars, painting supple male nudes in the shower or swimming in sun-soaked L.A. bliss.
B. 1954, Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York
The self-portrait pioneer had her share of shows in 2017, including a multi-decade survey at Mnuchin Gallery in New York and her retrospective, “Imitation of Life,” which moved from the Broad in Los Angeles to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Throughout her career, Sherman has kept pace with changing trends. And it was her canny transition to Instagram that unexpectedly caught the art world’s attention this year, as she began using simple apps like Facetune to unnerving effect. Another favored tool, Perfect365, is a go-to for social-media users who want to add digital makeup effects to their selfies. (“It’s like having a glam squad in your pocket!”, the app’s marketing claims.) While the original intent of these programs was to help users cheat a sort of artificial beauty, Sherman exploits them to different ends—as a meditation on self-presentation and how we show ourselves to the world.
Sherman isn’t alone among an older generation of artists who are hooked on the image-sharing app (count photographic icon Stephen Shore among them), but her account is unique in how it extends her practice into a more casual space. “I feel pretty,” she comments, annotating a way-close-up selfie in which her shocked eyes pop in surprise over a comically distended mouth. In other posts, she seems to inhabit the role of a high-society alien—her skin jaundiced or purple—as she indulges in various luxuries and then pays the price (in one case ending up, horrifically shriveled, in a hospital bed).
For W’s annual art issue in December, Sherman contributed an Instagram-style selfie for the cover. “They’re just fun, like a little distraction,” she saidregarding her social media postings. Still, the buzz that sprung up around this “little distraction” in 2017 is a testament to Sherman’s ongoing influence and relevance. She remains a star that nearly any young artist—especially those engaged with identity, beauty, and the self-portrait—must reckon with.
Additional reporting by Margaret Carrigan.