arts and design

The best art of 2020: Picasso's doodles, queer South Africa and gory Gentileschi

Adrian Searle

5. Crushed, Cast, Constructed

Gagosian, London, now closed
A show of grey sculptures: what could be more fun? Urs Fischer’s hugely enlarged aluminium casts of clay shapes squeezed and stretched in the palm of his hand, Charles Ray’s fastidious reconstruction of an abandoned 1938 farm tractor that for many years lay rusting in a field, and John Chamberlain’s crushed replica of a Donald Judd box – each played with form and formlessness, the haptic and the engineered, forensic reconstruction and wilful destruction. The sculptures related to the scale of the human body and all had an appeal to our sense of the anthropomorphic. Crushed, Cast, Constructed felt like a concise, poetic little essay, and none the worse for that. Read the full review.

Poetic … Crushed, Cast, Constructed.
Poetic … Crushed, Cast, Constructed. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

4. Zanele Muholi

Tate Modern, London, until 31 May
Muholi has spent the last two decades documenting and celebrating black queer lives in post-apartheid South Africa. They celebrate the extravagant theatre of trans beauty pageants and beach life, intimacy and awkwardness and vulnerability as well as glamour and camp. Their photographs document lives in transition, getting older and getting along. In their self-portraits, acting out parodical roles and situations, Muholi confronts the viewer with dignity, humour and style. I’ve never seen someone with a footstool on their head look so cool. Read the full review.

3. Picasso and Paper

Royal Academy, London, now closed
Torn papers, ripped papers, papers with eyes and screaming mouths burned through them with the tip of a cigarette, fancy papers and old packing papers, doodled papers, paper covered in gouache, paper as a support and paper as the medium itself for the creation of a cuttlefish or a guitar or a face. Picasso had a magical, almost devilish touch and feel for materials, an unerring eye for their transformation. Did we need a Picasso show in 2020? Picasso and Paper made you want to go home and draw, and then give up again, almost immediately. Read the full review.

Bruce Nauman exhibition at Tate Modern, London, 2020.
Bruce Nauman exhibition at Tate Modern, London, 2020.
Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images

2. Bruce Nauman

Tate Modern, London, until 21 February
A pared-down survey of over 50 years of work that continues to thrill and to disturb. Conjuring tricks and pratfalls, walking round the studio, performing repetitive tasks, Nauman sets the world spinning. Whenever I return to his work, I find something unexpected or new. This time, the image of an artist in the perpetual lockdown of studio life, making works from the near-to-hand (even from his hands themselves), from the circumstances he finds himself in, from floors and walls and his own body. This autumn, his art felt both laugh-out-loud funny and as grim as torture. Nauman’s art has an almost uncanny prescience. Read the full review.

1. Tavares Strachan: In Plain Sight

Marian Goodman, London, now closed
This was a show filled with ghosts and apparitions, neglected histories and forgotten stories. Partially blind Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, black polar explorer Matthew Henson, Katherine Johnson, the first African American woman to work as a Nasa scientist, and whose orbital calculations enabled crewed spaceflights, Henrietta Lacks, whose “immortalised” cell line is foundational to cancer research, and Viv Anderson, one of the first black footballers to play for England. The names kept on coming.

About more than name-checks and black histories, visual toasts and shout-outs, they provide the undercurrent to this bewildering, labyrinthine assembly of paintings, sculpted busts, adulterated, collaged pages from old editions of Encyclopedia Britannica, star-fields and football pitch schematics and much, much more besides.

Sculpted busts of scientists, singers, politicians, abolitionists and actors hid behind African masks, were encased in diving helmets and astronaut’s masks, or topped with Oceanic head-dresses. Here’s Nina Simone and James Baldwin, there is Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Robert Smalls.

Bewildering though all this was, the Bahamian artist took things to another level by putting live performers into the mix. A black man,­ perhaps playing Henson himself, seemingly as befuddled as the rest of the audience, sauntered and shimmied and sang, later joined by a woman and a brattish kid, each of them an unreliable chorus, eventually leading us into two secret rooms, suddenly revealed: one a cramped bedroom, the other a conservatory filled with plants: reviewers were encouraged not to spoil the surprise.

It was astonishing. It had a kind of flawed magnificence. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. For bravery and ambition, by inventiveness and the sheer pleasure of secrets revealed, cunningly disguising its didactic purpose, Strachan’s work has stayed with me like nothing else this year. Read the full review.

Jonathan Jones

5. Arctic

British Museum, London, until 21 February
A sealskin survival suit worn by a 19th-century Kalaallit hunter to leap on a whale’s back is one of the startling, strange glimpses of extreme lifestyles in this homage to the peoples of the Arctic circle. It is uplifting and inspiring to see how reindeer herders and sea hunters have not just survived but thrived in a frozen world for millennia. In a disturbing year, their loving culture and ingenious creativity testify to the human spirit. Read the full review.

Darkness Goldness by Georg Baselitz, White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, 2020.
Darkness Goldness by Georg Baselitz, White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, 2020. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

4. Georg Baselitz

White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, now closed
The veteran German master of postmodern expressionism is still painting and sculpting with supreme intensity. His eerie new images of a single emaciated hand, sketched in gold and suspended in space, were the year’s most powerful and poignant evocations of human fragility. As the world suffered, Baselitz unveiled these frail, almost mummified icons of creativity, intimacy and endurance. Read the full review.

3. Gillian Wearing

Maureen Paley, London, now closed
For her lockdown project in the spring of isolation, the celebrated video artist took up a paintbrush and stared at herself. Some of the resulting self-portraits were painted with a mirror, others from photographs she staged. They took apart her own image with ruthless honesty, fiercely questioning who she is, what it is to be someone, locating a raw truth and invincible sadness. Read the full review.

2. Titian: Love, Desire, Death

National Gallery, London, until 17 January
This dreamlike show is the Sistine Chapel of sex. It reunites Titian’s erotic oil works painted for Philip II of Spain, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The sheer lush majesty of Titian’s paint breathes life into trees, water, sky and light – and that’s before you even look at the floating, imploring bodies. This is Titian telling Michelangelo who’s boss. Read the full review.

Artemisia at the National Gallery, London, 2020.
Artemisia at the National Gallery, London, 2020. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

1. Artemisia

National Gallery, London, until 24 January
This exhibition miraculously reunites all the major known works by a woman who painted her way to fame four centuries ago. Artemisia Gentileschi turns out to be even greater than her admirers hoped. The show starts with Susanna and the Elders, painted when she was 17, proof of early genius. Then it’s a savage ride of suffering and rage culminating in her great Allegory of Painting in which she and her brush become one. Read the full review.


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