Five stories that had the art world talking
THE TRUMP EFFECT
Only time will tell if Donald Trump can make protest art great again. But in a year when many blue-chip artists were inspired to express dissent but failed to create work that seized the public’s imagination, people on the streets came through. A day after the president’s Jan. 20 inauguration, the Women’s March drew a record number of demonstrators to Washington, D.C., and a total of more than 4 million in cities around the world. Many carried handmade signs (reflected by a spike in January sales at America’s arts-and-crafts stores) and many wore pussyhats, the knitted pink cap that was inspired by a crass Trump boast and became the lasting symbol of an event that helped inspire a record number of women to run for public office. Many other anti-Trump demonstrations and works of art would follow, but as New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote: “If art can be defined as form shaped by the pressure of ideas, beliefs, and emotions, the Women’s March might be seen as the largest work of political performance art ever.”
A RECORD SALE
Jesus, that once humble carpenter, is suddenly the art world’s richest trophy. Last month, following tense bidding during an auction at Christie’s in New York City, a small painting of Christianity’s central figure sold for $450 million, making it by far the most expensive work of art ever sold. Salvator Mundi, created circa 1500, is one of only about 20 paintings in the world credited to Leonardo da Vinci, and no others are in private hands. But the buyer, who was first identified as an obscure Saudi prince, then the Saudi crown prince, then Abu Dhabi’s ministry of culture, may want to scrutinize the purchase closely before that city’s branch of the Louvre museum puts it on display. Not all experts accept that Salvator Mundi is a genuine Leonardo, given that the portrait is more primitive than his previously known works. In 1958, it was sold for just $125, and as recently as 12 years ago, it was attributed to one of Leonardo’s students.
THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE
Yayoi Kusama is a proving to be a visionary in more ways than one. Plagued by hallucinations since childhood, the Tokyo artist seems to have foreseen the rise of mobile phones and social media way back in 1965, when she installed her first Infinity Mirror Room. To step into one today is to enter a glowing, candy-colored environment perfectly tailored for selfies, as Kusama-mad crowds in four U.S. cities could attest. A retrospective that gathered six of the artist’s infinity rooms traveled from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to Seattle this year, drawing 160,000 visitors at the Hirshhorn Museum and forcing 150,000 Angelenos onto a waiting list just hours after tickets for its Broad museum engagement went on sale. Two new infinity rooms that debuted at a New York City gallery in the fall allowed visitors a minute alone in each installation, resulting in four-hour-long lines. Kusama, who’s 88 and has lived in a Tokyo mental hospital since 1977, is still working, and still on the rise.
A NEW MEDIUM
A headset, it turns out, can be a great canvas, as virtual reality emerged this year as a medium of enormous promise. Dozens of artists took tentative steps forward with Tilt Brush, a Google program—now available on consumer-grade VR headsets—that allows users to paint on air in three dimensions and lets viewers step inside. But Jordan Wolfson created a very different kind of VR experience for the Whitney Biennial, shocking many museum visitors who donned goggles to experience a two-minute spectacle called Real Violence, in which a bat-wielding young man beats another human figure to a pulp on a city street. On the opposite coast, movie director Alejandro Iñárritu won far broader praise for Carne y Arena, a VR experience in which the viewer steps into a nighttime desert landscape to witness a clash between migrants and U.S. border agents. The possibilities appear to be endless.
A NEW BARRIER
Maybe there’s one ideological line a contemporary artist can’t cross. Many of Dana Schutz’s peers howled in protest when a new work by the celebrated painter debuted at the Whitney Biennial in March. Open Casket reinterprets a famous photo of the battered face of black teenager Emmett Till after the 14-year-old was beaten and fatally shot by white men in 1955 Mississippi. The disturbing original photo, once published, helped galvanize the civil rights movement, and Schutz, who’s white, said she had created her abstracted version of the image in an act of empathy. That wasn’t enough for 28 artists who signed a petition demanding that the painting be destroyed because no white artist should be allowed to exploit the violence visited on a victim of white racism. Schutz immediately promised she’d never sell the painting, and some black artists defended her. But that didn’t prevent protesters from trying to halt a Schutz retrospective at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, by which time art’s boundaries, arguably, had already been redrawn.