The Artists, The Curators

The Best of 2018

Image Above: Louis Vuitton Foundation-Jean Michel Basquiat; Cover Story Image: Self Portrait of David Wojnarowicz 1983-85

BY: Zach Wampler

Every art exhibition needs two things: art and some sort of organizing principle. So it makes sense that the relationship and roles of artist and curator have only grown over the years.

This year, artists and curators were as innovative as ever at a time when art and creativity is desperately needed. Suzanne Pagé, for example, curated not just one but two major surveys at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. On the other hand, Jane Panetta is breaking new ground in her career when it was announced she would co-curate the 2019 Whitney Biennial. While women seem to be doing the best and most progressive curatorial work, the beloved Helen Molesworth was let go from her position as Chief Curator at MoCA Los Angeles (some alleged sexism and others say the institution was resistant to Molesworth inclusive and diverse agenda).

If curators are progressive organizers, then artists act as innovative creatives. Even posthumously, artists have forged new visions and debates. The Whitney’s spectacular David Wojnarowicz retrospective showed an artist who’s work is perhaps more relevant than ever and still manages to shake a viewer to their core. Raúl de Nieves, while radical and queer like Wojnarowicz, created an escapist fantasy this year in the form of a bejeweled and beaded merry-go-round.

2018 was tumultuous, to say the least, but if there is any solace or hope to be found, it is in these devoted workers who make art happen.

Check our lists below for our list of our top artists and curators of this year.

Most Provocative Artists:

David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz black and white portrait
Peter Hujar, “David Wojnarowicz,” 1981 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;

 

Although he passed away due to AIDS in the 1990s, Wojnarowicz was an artist and advocate who used everything within his creative abilities to denounce the capitalism, colonialism, and bigotry that he saw destroying the world.

As the AIDS epidemic started to claim his creative circle, he turned to advocacy, which in turn infused his art and writing.

The Whitney Museum assembled a major Wojanrowicz retrospective this year, and in the Trump era, this work shone with renewed brilliance, passion, and intelligence.

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago Portrait
Judy Chicago, Courtesy of Sebastian Kim and TIME

 

Judy Chicago is a feminist pioneer. Since the late 1960s, her brilliant use of color and craft led to powerful critiques of masculinity and endorsements of radical sexual and feminist politics.

Chicago has had an excellent year of exhibitions and press, and earlier in December 2018, a survey of her work opened at the ICA Miami. However, a recent proposal for a museum devoted to her work in her hometown of Belen, New Mexico has become a controversy. Local government and religious leaders objected to Chicago’s work for being radical, sexual, and obscene. It is an unsettling reminder that much of the world is often critical of a woman’s viewpoint, and therefore we must celebrate Chicago’s work now more than ever.

Raúl de Nieves

Raúl de Nieves portrait
RAÚL DE NIEVES WITH HIS INSTALLATION, “WHEN I LOOK INTO YOUR EYES I SEE THE SUN,” 2018. PHOTO BY BFA.COM

 

This Mexican-American artist has a reputation for outré work and persona. With long hair and elaborate outfits, de Nieves himself makes almost as much of an impression as the work.

With several showings in 2018, the artist’s highlight of the year was his piece When I Look Into Your Eyes I See the Sun, which was first shown at this year’s edition of Art Basel Miami. Originally a carousel from the 1950s, de Nieves and his studio labored for months in restoring it and coating the entire pieces in beading and embellishments.

Some may say this is just another folly of the corporate art fair machine, but this work felt like the perfect and absurd escape we all have been craving in recent months.

 

Kehinde Wiley & Amy Sherald

Kehinde Wiley & Amy Sherald
Artist Kehinde Wiley, and Amy Sherald attend their official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018. Courtesy Mark Wilson / Getty Images North America.

 

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were both respected artists before their mainstream breakout this year. The breakout I’m referring to? Oh, just their officially commissioned portraits for former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Wiley’s lush flora and fauna consuming the background of the seated president was at once serene, elegant, and remarkably unusual for a presidential portrait. Sherald on the other hand painted Michelle Obama with an elegant and cool geometry. Both portraits felt incredibly contemporary, which can rarely be said of most paintings of leaders and dignitaries.

Most importantly, these were two of the most prominent representations of powerful and accomplished black people by fellow people of color in recent memory. Moments such as those feel inspiring and almost energizing in their hopefulness.

 

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard black and white portrait
Zoe Leonard, Courtesy Richard Burbridge & Interview Magazine

 

When her poem from 1992, “I want a president,” went viral this year in response to American politics, Leonard was perhaps more of a niche, art world figure. Now, her work has reached a a new and larger audience, and she has had some spectacular exhibitions. All in all, it has been a banned year for Leonard.

At the Whitney Museum, Zoe Leonard: Survey tracked Leonard’s photography and sculpture throughout her career. Always political, yet subdued and elegant, this show illustrated Leonard has slowly and repetitively been honing her activism for women, queers,  people with AIDS, and many others who have been disenfranchised.

Best Curators:

Suzanne Pagé

Suzanne Pagé portrait
Suzanne Pagé, Courtesy of Edouard Caupeil

 

Suzanne Pagé has an already impressive résumé, but 2018 was the curator’s most elaborate double-feature to date.

As her role as Artistic Director of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Pagé has ample resources to create elaborate exhibitions. Pagé curated separate but coinciding shows of works by Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both cut short in their lives and artistic careers, these artists explored the subjects of death, sexuality, class, race, and artistic production in new and radical ways. It was wonderful to see these hundreds of works all under the same Frank Gehry designed roof.

 

Kathy Halbreich

Kathy Halbreich portrait
Kathy Halbreich. Courtesy of MoMA

 

If anyone deserves to be in the curatorial hall of fame, it is Kathy Halbreich. She has had a decades-long career and, until recently, was the Associate Director of MoMA in New York (she now leads the Rauschenberg Foundation).

Halbreich’s final act at MoMA is really what earns her a spot on this list. With much experience and knowledge of the legendary Bruce Nauman’s work, her final exhibition was Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts. This is a sprawling show that covers MoMA and MoMA PS1, and although Nauman has a reputation for difficult, noisy, and unruly art, Halbreich handled the challenge with ease. I hope her work with the Rauschenberg Foundation will be just as engaging.

Jane Panetta

Jane Panetta
Jane Panetta, Courtesy Hannah Celli & the Whitney Museum of American Art

 

The Whitney Museum has always had some of the most engaging curators in New York, and Jane Panetta is certainly one of the most interesting members of the museum’s current curatorial team.

Since the new Whitney opened downtown, Panetta has devoted herself to showing young and new artists who are in need of a platform. What makes her exciting this year though was that she was announced to be a co-curator of the 2019 Whitney Biennial (along with the fantastic Rujeko Hockley). Panetta gives us all a lot to look forward to.

Helen Molesworth

Helen Molesworth portrait
Helen Molesworth. Courtesy John Kennard

 

Unfortunately, unlike the other curators on this list, Helen Molesworth became a cautionary tale for what happens when a curator’s work and a museum’s management clash.

Molesworth is an accomplished academic, a critical darling, and an outspoken, progressive advocate. As Chief Curator of MoCA Los Angeles, she often fought back for a more diverse selection of artists and a more diverse board. Earlier this year, to the disappointment of many, Molesworth was fired by MoCA director Philippe Vergne. No one knew for sure why she was fired (especially since she was well liked and an effective worker).

This firing was one of the reasons Vergne will leave his post in early 2019. I certainly hope Molesworth will move on from MoCA to bigger and brighter things in 2019.

Margot Norton

Margot Norton
Margot Norton. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

 

Margot Norton has slowly but surely become a force at New York’s New Museum. This past year she co-curated the brilliant survey of the artist Sarah Lucas. Her past work at the New Museum has also brought about some of their most critically-acclaimed press.

Much like Jane Panetta at the Whitney, her future work looks even more intriguing. Earlier this year it was announced that Norton and ICA Los Angeles curator Jamillah James would be co-curating the New Museum Triennial in 2021.