If art is a reflection of society, the likes of Marilyn Minter, Whoopi Goldberg, Maurizio Cattelan, and even Tracey Emin's pet stone did their best to make the widely reviled 2016 a year of not just great new TV shows and earth-shattering album drops, but one of art-world moments to remember, too. Here are the artists, newfound curators, and unexpected mediums who won 2016.
Best Unretirement: Maurizio Cattelan
Though he claimed to have parted ways with the art world just a few years back, the Italian provocateur Maurizio Cattelan couldn’t resist re-rolling out some of his greatest hits this year, reviving his sculptures of everyone from Pope John Paul II to Adolf Hitler for a “post-requiem” show at the Monnaie de Paris. The exhibition, though, wasn’t too much of a surprise: He’d already eased himself back to work a few months back, installing a live donkey named Gabe at Frieze and a solid gold toilet on the fourth floor of the otherwise decidedly un-flashy Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim.
Best New Art World Couple: Tracey Emin and Her Stone
Tracey Emin's work has centered around love for decades, but the British artist bid adieu to her naughtier enfant terrible days with the announcement that she tied the knot to a partner who definitely won’t be straying anytime soon: a solid, dependable, literal rock she spied out the window of her studio in the French countryside. The union, Emin reports, has her feeling better than ever.
Best Frequent Flier: Ai Weiwei
Free to roam once more, Ai Weiwei has spent the year since the Chinese government returned his passport mostly visiting countries like Greece and Syria, highlighting the international refugee crisis. And this fall, he brought that focus back to New York with no less than four concurrent shows in the city, including a truly chilling installation at Deitch Projects in Soho and massive cast-iron tree trunks at Lisson Gallery.
Best Activist: Marilyn Minter
Marilyn Minter may have just opened her first-ever museum retrospective, currently on display in all its glittery, glamorous glory at the Brooklyn Museum, but it’s the artist’s continued activism that’s been her real achievement this year. Between tapping Miley Cyrus and Marc Jacobs for a steamy photo shoot and “target[ing] the big boys” with an auction organized with Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman, Minter has raised millions for Planned Parenthood, which named her its Woman of Valor this year. All that, though, was before the election: Since then, Minter’s taken on a major role in the Dear Ivanka protest efforts, an artist-run movement to implore the president-elect’s daughter to bring some semblance of reason to the White House.
Best New Medium: VR
Though artists like Jon Rafman have been giving virtual reality a whirl for over a year now, thanks to collaborations with headset makers like Oculus Rift, the medium really came into its own in 2016, appearing everywhere from the New Museum to Art Basel — it even became a must-have accessory on the biennial circuit. Björk took a stab at the medium, too, though her all-immersive exhibition "Björk Digital" might be better termed surreal reality: it's allowed visitors in London, Montreal, Sydney, Tokyo, and her hometown of Reykjavik to step into the Icelandic enigma’s mind — and her mouth.
Best New Art Material: Soylent
After a notable number of recalls this year, the supposedly meal-replacing soy protein cocktail Soylent might not always be fit for consumption, but it has found a new life as an art material. Refrigerated cases of the drink composed a full booth at Frieze by Société gallery and the artist Sean Raspet, whose 400-calorie capsules were circulated by spacesuit-clad individuals in Soylent uniforms by the designer Nhu Duong. Yummy.
Best IRL: Agnes Martin
Despite its resolutely irreproducible nature, Agnes Martin's much raved about survey show at the Guggenheim, open until January, was a runaway hit this fall, making an unmissable case for art usually wont to go missing in the Instagram age.
Best New Trend: Comfy Seating
Other than its almost aggressively Instagrammable light installations and a charming underwear chandelier, Pipilotti Rist’s current show at the New Museum stands out for another welcoming reason: a sea of twin- and king-sized, pillow-adorned beds. After removing their shoes, visitors are free to lay back and watch Rist's underwater videos on the ceiling above. Or maybe they can nab a seat across town in Hito Steyerl’s video game-like Factory of the Sun installation at the Whitney; the artist provided reclining lawn chairs. Meanwhile, Jessi Reaves’ solo show of strange furniture at Bridget Donahue and Jon Rafman’s ball pit all the way in Amsterdam also got down on settling in.
Best Centenarian: Carmen Herrera
Just over a century after she was born in Havana, the Cuban painter Carmen Herrera got her first full-scale institutional recognition this fall when she opened a show of boldly colored canvases stretching up to five feet wide at the Whitney Museum, at the ripe age of 101 years old. She still works every day in the same studio she's lived in since the 50's — all she needs is a few helpings of café con leche.
Best Octogenarian: Yayoi Kusama
At 87, Yayoi Kusama may not be able to jetset to her various installations worldwide — they’ve stretched from London to Stockholm to Connecticut in just the last few months — but the Japanese artist still hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down. After taking over Philip Johnson’s Glass House — twice — she’s gearing up for a career-capping exhibition with no less than six infinity rooms that’ll travel the world until she turns 90.
Best Display of Ambition: JR
It's go big or go home for the French artist JR, who attempted to steal the show from both Olympians and the world’s largest museum this year with his massive wheatpasted images. This summer alone, he performed a vanishing act on I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid outside of the Louvre and covered the city of Rio in not just giant, floating divers and high-jumpers, but also any brasileiro or visitor who dropped by his citywide photo truck tour.
Best Newcomer to the Canon: Kerry James Marshall
Having made its way from Chicago to the Met Breuer in New York, Kerry James Marshall’s career survey show “Mastry” puts the Alabama-born artist in his rightful place along the art history stalwarts he’s long meticulously studied — and even made improvements on, populating classic scenes with exclusively black figures.
A Retrospective of Kerry James Marshall's Paintings of Black History
Best Fair Booth: “You Can Call Me Baby” at Spring/Break
Though she was actually across the Atlantic sharing the runway in Paris with Pat Cleveland and Amber Valletta on the Spring/Break fair's opening night, the model-turned-curator Myla Dalbesio still managed to steal the show with “You Can Call Me Baby." Its message of female empowerment came courtesy of 11 women artists, including erotic tapestries by Erin M. Riley and a chilling video by Signe Pierce.
Best New Curator: Whoopi Goldberg
While everyone from Brooke Shields to FKA Twigs to Jonathan Anderson tried their hands at art curating this year, it was Whoopi Goldberg — who also hit the fashion jackpot with an internet craze-inducing appearance in Vetements — who best acquitted herself with a show of Marilyn Monroe’s ephemera at the Mana Contemporary. Her advice for other newcomers? “Stand your ground.”
Best Westworld: Kanye West
Back in August, long before “Westworld” even went on air, Kanye West took his own step into the bot world with an eerily realistic sculpture of a grouping only silicon and West’s beautiful, dark, twisted imagination could bring together, featuring Bill Cosby, Anna Wintour, Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, and a perkily breasted Caitlyn Jenner. The motley crew all shared a two-night-long nude sleepover at Los Angeles’ Blum & Poe gallery in an IRL version of West’s “Famous” video, kicked off by West himself (via video conference) and attended by Kim Kardashian, in both bot and non-bot form.
Best Shia LaBeouf: Shia LaBeouf
The actor-turned-artist has built himself quite a catalogue unraisonné in recent years, but his art-world enthusiasm hit an all-time high in 2016 with a month-long hitchhiking project that took LaBeouf and his frequent artist partners-in-crime, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, across America, crowdsourcing rides by tweeting out their GPS coordinates and getting in the car with whomever showed up.