Over the past decade, the number—and size!—of museums, galleries, art fairs, and art schools around the world has grown dramatically, and it feels safe to say that more art was made in the past 10 years than at any other time in the history of humanity. Picking the 20 works that definitively defined that stretch of time is a fundamentally impossible project, but as the decade ends, the editors of ARTnews have taken a stab at it, below. Each listed work pioneered a style, exemplified a scene, shaped a trend, or expanded the bounds of art. Some did all of those things. From the vantage point of today, these works seem likely to endure. But time will be the final judge. (To read lists from each individual editor of artists who did not make the Top 20, click here.) —The Editors
20. Wu Tsang, Wildness, 2012
In Wu Tsang’s feature-length film Wildness, a gay bar in Los Angeles speaks, sensuously and in in a way that beckons viewers in. “They wanted to throw a party, fill my room with their energy,” the bar says in a Spanish-language voiceover. “How could I resist being occupied by them?” Tsang’s unique approach to telling the story of the meeting place called the Silver Platter—including documentary footage and semi-fictionalized segments surrounding a weekly party that Tsang and her friends hosted there—brings to life a space that proved integral for a mix of different communities. Wildness isn’t the artist’s most stylistically accomplished film, but it is her most affecting work to date, and it has been influential for a wave of younger filmmakers mulling over the blurry division between art and life and ways to preserve histories that can all too easily be lost. —Alex Greenberger
19. Anicka Yi, Maybe She’s Born with It, 2015
Throughout the first half of the decade, Anicka Yi established herself as one of the most venturesome artists of the present moment, experimenting with ephemeral materials and scents to conjure delirious work that touches on geopolitics, memory, and identity. Her 2015 show at the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland saw her inimitable visions ascend to a whole new level, and this sculpture—a column of tempura-fried flowers encased in a glowing bubble—exemplifies her achievement, suggesting an artwork as a living, breathing thing, perhaps on life-support, perhaps being cultivated into something new and grand, seductive and terrifying. I’ll never forget the electrifying moment that I first saw it. At the time, we had no idea then of just how ambitious and incisive Yi’s work would become, but this was clear sign that big things were on the horizon. —Andrew Russeth
18. Kevin Beasley, A view of a landscape: A cotton gin motor, 2012–18
The whir of the cotton-gin motor that Kevin Beasley moved into the Whitney Museum in New York was more than a little disquieting. The machine was a long way from its previous home, on a farm in Alabama, and after Beasley acquired it and started changing its context, it turned into another kind of entity entirely. There was something beautiful about it, encased in glass and running like the well-oiled innovation it was. But the rumble it emitted gave a thundering presence to the darkness within it too—as an agent of an industry supported for so long by enslavement. Beasley channeled that presence into a separate listening room with speakers around the ceiling and walls, and he and other artists activated it with performances that played with the sound and turned it into other forms. All of it made for a pointed kind of alchemy in which history seemed both distant and omnipresent at once. —Andy Battaglia
17. Cecilia Vicuña, Quipu Womb (The Story of Red Thread, Athens), 2017
For some 50 years, Cecilia Vicuña has been creating sculptures that explore the complex history of the quipu, a system of knowledge created through knotted strands of colored yarn that were used by the Inca prior to their colonization beginning in the 16th century. (Quipus were systemically destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church.) With her sculptures and performances, Vicuña tenderly thinks through what quipus are, or could have been: recorded forms of knowledge, oral histories, “the imaginary,” as she’s put it. For this piece, created for the Athens portion of Documenta 14, Vicuña sourced wool from locals and had it dyed a deep crimson red. Installed in a stark white gallery of the EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Quipu Womb looked like a knotted, cascading river of blood from a woman’s womb, and it acted as a bridge between pre-Colombian Andean legacies and ancient Greek mythology. What are the threads, Vicuña seemed to ask, that connect us to each other? —Maximilíano Durón
16. Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead, 2017
At Documenta 13 in 2012, Pierre Huyghe offered a beguiling environmental work in Kassel, Germany’s Karlsaue park that involved a dog with one leg dyed purple and a sculpture of a reclining woman whose head teemed with bees—a scrappy ecosystem that seemed to be powered by unseen forces. Five years later, at the superb Skulptur Projekte Münster, he presented a kind of big-budget sequel that was at once earthwork and alien technology. Inside an old stadium that formerly held an ice rink, Huyghe dug up the floor to create a craggy landscape. A mysterious aquarium stood atop one mound. Holes in the ceiling opened by some phantom logic, to let elements and organisms fall down inside. It felt like the artist was not only pushing the boundaries of art—that well-worn cliché—but actively moving beyond it, into the unknown. —Andrew Russeth
15. Danh Vo, I M U U R 2, 2012
The most heartbreaking work of the decade? My vote is Danh Vo’s I M U U R 2 (2012), which consisted of countless tchotchkes collected by the late, great painter Martin Wong, along with a number of his drawings and paintings. Assembled by Vo for his 2013 Hugo Boss Prize show at the Guggenheim Museum, it reads, to me, as an act of potent generosity: keeping the trove of Wong’s material together and proposing that his whole life be viewed as a kind of integral, integrated artwork. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis wisely acquired the work, adding a masterpiece to its collection. —Andrew Russeth
14. Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014
Jordan Wolfson’s animatronic ghoul was one of those artworks where anyone who had seen it at David Zwirner gallery would start to explain it to you and then give up and say, “You just need to go see it.” The freaky thing about going to see it was that while you were looking at it, it was looking at you. A life-size woman robot with flowing golden locks, she was poised in front of a mirror, as though about to embark on some ballet. Dressed in the tight, white, curve-hugging mini-dress of a streetwalker, she was covered in scuff marks, as though she’d been roughed up. So ill-used was she (you might think) that the skin on the upper half of her face had peeled away to reveal something reptilian. What might have been the ballet barre was a metal pole that impaled her at the waist, yoking her to the mirror. As she spoke in Wolfson’s voice, she danced, and her eyes followed you around the room. Being alone with her was like being in one of those nightmares where whatever horrific things you’ve repressed have congealed into the monster who has it in for you. —Sarah Douglas
13. Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
The first thing visitors to the German Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale saw was a set of barking dogs that were kept in shatterproof cages blocking off the structure’s Neoclassical architecture. Inside lay something even stranger. Several performers lunged, writhed, vogued, and posed their bodies over the course of five hours on top of a raised glass platform supported by a grid of metal girders. Below was an amalgamation of different objects: a leather mattress, a white lighter, a BB gun, burning mini torches, chains, cuffs. Throughout the work, a performance called Faust, Anne Imhof, the piece’s creator, texted various instructions to the performers, which included her frequent collaborator and partner Eliza Douglas. Everything that seemed to have been improvised was closely controlled, from the movements of cold-eyed performers to the chic clothing they wore. The Golden Lion–winning piece was uneasy, tense, and brimming with anxiety, and in that way, it was a lot like the society that gave way to the work, where that which is visible is also subject to control, where the body becomes another means of subjugation. —Maximilíano Durón
12. Eric Fischl, Late America, 2016
When Donald Trump won the presidential election, a lot of people professed shock. You get the feeling Eric Fischl didn’t. The painting Late America, which he showed at Skarstedt gallery in New York the following spring, is dated 2016, and quickly became the indelible image of what we mean when we talk about the frustrations of white men in America. With the arrival of this painting, the Obama era was truly over; there is no hope in this painting. —Sarah Douglas
11. Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, Surviving Active Shooter Custer, 2018
Indigenous peoples in the United States have long been subjected to brutal violence—both physical and metaphorical—and their stories have been erased from this nation’s history. In a commissioned work for the 2018 SITElines Biennial at SITE Santa Fe in Mexico, Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho) presented a series of 24 monoprints and 24 ghost prints collectively titled Surviving Active Shooter Custer that made clear just how painful—and how pervasive—these forms of erasure have been. (The following year, the piece traveled to New York for an exhibition at MoMA PS1, and was subsequently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.) The prints present phrases in white set against various shades of reds and oranges. Their words are a mix of fragments from pop songs and common sayings, along with some of Heap of Birds’s own declarations on the topic of mass shootings. Gun violence is not a new phenomenon, explains Heap of Birds—one need look no further than the massacres of Native populations throughout American history, he has said. One telling print, the namesake for the series, reads “STOP / ACTIVE / SHOOTER / CADET / AUTIE / CUSTER”; it repositions General Custer as an active shooter, upending the longstanding perception that he was a Civil War–era hero. —Maximilíano Durón
10. Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, 2013
When historians of future generations attempt to understand what it felt like to be alive in the 2010s, I hope they will devote substantial time to watching Camille Henrot’s Gross Fatigue (2013), which captures the peculiar mixture of pleasure and tension of a time in which inconceivable levels of interconnected communication, and knowledge, were being birthed at the same time that environmental collapse loomed. A deep dive into the Smithsonian’s archives that commingles with images and videos appearing one after another in window after window, set to an irresistible soundtrack by Joakim Bouaziz, it is a work that contains many worlds. It was also a genuine hit—a very rare thing in the art game—and a sign of an exciting new world in which immaculate, culture-shifting videos would hit the road, racking up new fans as they went. —Andrew Russeth
9. Nicole Eisenman, Sketch for a Fountain, 2017
Having long been known best as a painter, Nicole Eisenman has recently become one of our finest sculptors. Her characteristically playful five-part sculpture Sketch for a Fountain, which was first presented at the Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2017, is an ode to leisure and quiet contemplation. The artist’s bronze and plaster figures, situated beside a small water feature, enact their own idiosyncratic modes of relaxation, with one lying on its back, enjoying a large beverage, and another standing, with its head tilted gently skyward. Reimagining the format and social function of sculptural fountains, Eisenman invites visitors to engage in a moment of rest alongside her characters. And engage people did—though not always in positive ways. Visitors to the display in Münster, Germany, beheaded one of the figures and painted a swastika on another. In the end, however, the residents of the city fell in love with the work, along with the slew of critics, curators, and dealers who came by to see it, and locals even began to fundraise to keep it in 2018. Versions of the sculpture have since found permanent homes at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and a park in Boston. —Claire Selvin
8. Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010
As part of her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramović presented a new, interactive performance: The Artist Is Present. The artist sat in the museum’s atrium for eight hours a day over the course of almost three months, offering visitors the opportunity to sit across from her and engage in a kind of silent, emotionally charged communion. The work, Abramović’s longest continuous solo performance, aligned with the artist’s longstanding interest in testing the limits of the body and the mind. The performance became something of a cultural moment, drawing thousands of visitors to the museum for the express purpose of gazing into the artist’s eyes for as long as they pleased. It was also an online sensation, leading to establishment of a blog titled Marina Abramović Made Me Cry. In short, it was an early, exemplary instance of an artwork as a public spectacle and a hot ticket, a trend that would be integral to the coming decade. —Claire Selvin
7. Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010
With The Clock, Christian Marclay made a spellbinding artwork about a subject to which many would not give the time of day. The simultaneously simple and mind-bending collage of movie scenes showing clocks and watches from throughout cinema history (from Late Night Shopping to High Noon) accounts for every minute of an extremely odd 24-hour period, making stars of certain chronological occurrences. 12:02! 1:37!! 9:41!!! And the effect of flitting between scenes that can be scintillating or totally banal makes it all riveting in a way that only grows more mysterious as it goes on and on and on. The long lines The Clock occasions when it screens have become part of the work itself, as does the fact that no artwork like it could have been made in an age before so much was searchable and sortable and ready to be remixed. —Andy Battaglia
6. Cameron Rowland, Attica Series Desk, 2016
Cameron Rowland’s sculptures might seem like spare readymades—scuffed glass cubes, lined-up pews, clean tables—but when one reads into his strangely alluring offerings, they curdle in the mind and turn nasty. Attica Series Desk, which was part of a 2016 show about mass incarceration at Artists Space in New York, is Rowland at his finest. It takes the form of an office desk that a text reveals was produced by the Attica Correctional Facility, which paid its incarcerated makers of products of the kind as little as 10 cents an hour. What could easily have been misconstrued from a distance as a Minimalist sculpture is instead a deeply horrifying statement about how many art objects are built on unequal power dynamics and exploitation. The work imprints itself on viewers slowly, and then lingers. —Alex Greenberger
5. Amy Sherald, First Lady Michelle Obama, 2018
When Amy Sherald’s luminous portrait of Michelle Obama debuted at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. in February 2018, the artist was relatively little known. Her intimate work would quickly change that. The former First Lady is seated before a light blue backdrop, donning a flowing dress patterned with dynamic shapes and abstract formations. The details captivate, like her lustrous purple polish, carefully rendered subject’s fingernails. Since the work’s unveiling on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, the artist has won the Pollock Prize for Creativity and joined the powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth, with whom she recently had a lauded solo exhibition in New York. —Claire Selvin
4. Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013
In just under 16 minutes, Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File covers a mindboggling array of subjects—the circulation of images online, the oppressive use of digital surveillance by the U.S. Air Force, and the ways that class struggle infiltrates the internet, to name just a few. It’s a barrage of information only appropriate to our chaotic times, and Steyerl delivers it all with Chris Marker–esque wit, occasionally appearing in a robe against crudely rendered computer-generated backdrops. Is this meant to be ironic, disturbing, sad, funny? It’s all of the above, and then some. The video also features one of the all-time great endings: a film crew becoming half-visible and cipher-like, via digital effects, as appropriated footage of ’70s pop group the Three Degrees is silhouetted onto a green screen. As the people manning the cameras start to disappear, the singers croon, “When will I see you again?” —Alex Greenberger
3. Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014
In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Studio), 2014, for its permanent collection. Shortly after, they asked him for his thoughts on the acquisition in a video interview. “When you’re on the outside you have to prove you belong in there,” he said, as the white subjects of Old Master paintings and 18-century portraiture appeared on screen. The subjects of Marshall’s works are unmistakably, universally Black. Untitled (Studio) depicts a Black artist’s studio as a place of possibility—of collaboration and image-making. A nude man prepares to pose, while a woman—the artist, it seems—positions another model just so. The Met’s acquisition was the latest sign of a major arts institution beginning to address a long history of neglecting artists of color; Marshall’s picture provides one glimpse of the incredible work that they have been doing all the while. —Tessa Solomon
2. Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014
The sculpture’s physicality immediately overwhelmed when one entered the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn: it was 75 feet long and 35 feet tall, with 80 tons of polystyrene coated in white sugar. The densely layered historical allusions took more care to unpack. Sugar Baby dominated a hall of the refinery, the spot of one of the city’s longest labor strikes, and the factory was slated to be demolished after the exhibition for condominiums. The air smelled of burnt sugar and molasses dripped from the ceiling. The boldly female sphinx-like figure was given the features of a Black “mammy,” the antebellum-era stereotype employed by manufacturers for molasses and other products, here reimagined as an irrepressible force. It was an indictment of the enduring vestiges of racial exploitation, blown up to discomfiting scale. Some viewers were offended, others moved. Though it was destroyed at the end of its run, it remains an indelible, unforgettable work—a piece people will be talking and arguing about for decades to come. —Tessa Solomon
1. Arthur Jafa, Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, 2016
Arthur Jafa’s seven-minute video Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death is a stare down and a sizing up at once. It’s hard to watch but even harder to stop—and everyone winds up implicated in its mélange of moving images of Black pride and horrific violence handed down through the ages. To get to the end is to suddenly feel pulled by some unidentifiable force to want to start again, and it’s so intensely sad but also so inspiring in different registers that it gives rise to feelings that can be difficult to reconcile after the screen goes dark. In a back-and-forth dialogue published in his gargantuan book A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, Jafa says of Black Visual Intonation, the editing technique he enlisted in the video and others like it: “I began to learn that what I was manipulating was not the images but the space the juxtaposition of the images was opening up, or disrupting. Think about a river: the river ain’t the bank and it ain’t even really the water.” Fred Moten, the artist’s friend, responds, “The river, the flow, is the bank and the water muddying one another, channeling one another. The images are like the banks of the river, and their content is the water.” Take us all to that river and wash us in the water in the hopes that it might cleanse our troubled but also salvageable souls. —Andy Battaglia
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