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The best art exhibitions of 2017

The best art exhibitions of 2017
Richard Mosse, copyright and courtesy the artist, courtesy the Barbican

It’s not a tough life, being an art critic. All the glory, the money, the praise, the adulation, the whole getting paid to have opinions thing: it’s not bad. Not bad at all. Personally, I spend most of my time in my velvet-lined and shockingly luxurious ivory tower. I’m in it right now, in fact. To my left, a chalice filled with the finest vintage Chablis. To my right, a teacup Doberman: the animal with the greatest viciousness-to-size ratio on earth. His name is Pierre.

You might be thinking ‘ivory tower? That doesn’t sound structurally stable’ and you’d be right. I like to live dangerously. Here’s another thing I like to do: descend from my dangerous tooth-based home, look at art and give it the old thumbs up or the old thumbs down, like Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Gladiator’ but without the toga. I could wear a toga. Get me a toga and I’ll wear the damn toga. Anyway, I’ve reviewed just over 100 art exhibitions this year, edited reviews of countless others, and seen a lot more than that, so when I say this is my definitive list of the good shit, you’d better trust that I’m super legit.

Best big blockbuster-y shows, in no particular order

Arthur Jafa: ‘Love is the Message, the Message is Death’ at 180 the Strand

Some idiot (me) called this one of the most important works of art of the past decade, and people fuuuucking lost it. The comments section on this review is just… perfect. Pure poetry. But you know what? Jafa’s video IS important, it IS brilliant, and it DOES matter. If you missed it, you’re a grade A bozo and you belong in the comments section. 

Hokusai: ‘Beyond the Great Wave’ at the British Museum

Let’s be real for just one gosh darn minute here: a lot of the BM’s recent art shows have been absolute aberrations. This though, total gold. Beautiful, absorbing, stunning art with a story that was a total revelation. More like this please, less like everything else. 

Richard Mosse: 'Incoming' at the Barbican Curve

Mosse filled the always-tricky Curve space with a harrowing film about the migrant crisis, all filmed with military-grade thermal imaging cameras. The result was a grim journey through contemporary geopolitics that was both gorgeous and harrowing. Have I said harrowing already? It was really harrowing. But, you know, in a good way. Like, in a ‘I really fancy getting totally harrowed by some art today’ sort of way. 

David Hockney at Tate Britain

Hockers, mate, smashed it. Except in the ’80s. Things went to absolute shit in the ’80s. Yikes. The rest of it though, smashed it.

Cézanne Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery

This show was a lot like my office: just a couple of big rooms filled with people who look like they really don’t want to be there. Not the visitors, obviously, the people in the portraits. Cézanne was a user, you see: he’d force people to sit for hours and hours, treating them like living bowls of fruit to turn into incredible, stunning, important paintings. Poor them, lucky us.

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‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ at Tate Modern

As racial tensions reached untold heights in 2017, this awesome show proved powerfully and worryingly timely. It was full of incredible art and moving stories and went a long way towards helping rejig the old art canon.

Geta Brătescu: ‘The Studio: A Tireless, Ongoing Space' at Camden Arts Centre

You know what’s a bummer? How mind-blowingly rare it is for major London institutions to give women artists solo shows. Camden Arts Centre did way better than most though, and this exhibition of perfectly experimental and neatly conceptual drawings, portraits and textile works by the nonagenarian Brătescu was totally vital.

‘Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys’ at the Courtauld Gallery

This exhibition of portraits of very, very grumpy hotel workers – all rendered as angular, gloopy, meaty triangles – would get a terrible review on hotels.com, but a great one on timeout.com/art.

Rose Wylie: ‘Quack Quack’ at the Serpentine

Wylie does not give a hoot, or a quack. She’s just an 80-odd-year-old woman painting whatever the heck she wants: football, movies, celebrities, biscuits, war – it’s art of near-total freedom. And biscuits. 

Best small gallery shows, in no particular order

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Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth

This show of drawings of Richard Nixon looking stupid makes you really wish Guston was still around today.

Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner

Raunchy and hilarious, just like me.

Alice Theobald at Pilar Corrias

Silly, humorous art about the scariest thing ever: growing up. Terrifying.

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Ed Fornieles at Carlos/Ishikawa

Who knew computer programming as art didn’t have to be ultra f’in boring?

Marcin Dudek at Edel Assanti

Dudek is a former football hooligan, and this neat little show made you part of a braying, knuckle-dragging mob of hoolies.

Jordan Wolfson at Sadie Coles HQ

The video work in the main gallery was okay, but not spectacular. It’s Wolfson’s VR piece, where you get to watch him use a baseball bat to smash seven shades of everything imaginable out of a man on a New York pavement, that was the good bit. As vicious as it is dumb, and as smart as it is stupid. 

Picasso: ‘Minotaurs and Matadors’ at Gagosian

Big, ambitious and really well put together. Gogo proved that commercial galleries don’t have to be just shops.

There’s loads of art to see right now, right here.

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