Best of visual art in 2022

The most engrossing shows ran the gamut, including Alex Katz at the Guggenheim, Picasso at the Phillips and Matisse in Philadelphia

Illustration by David Milan for The Washington Post (Illustration by David Milan for The Washington Post; Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

It was another brilliant, baffling and engrossing year for visual art, which feels more central to the wider culture every time we look. Whether it’s the brave new world of generative AI, the brute spectacle of blue-chip masterpieces selling for obscene sums (that are then donated to charity), or the once unthinkable possibility that the British Museum may soon return the Elgin marbles to Greece, art is always near the center of the culture’s knottiest, most interesting conversations. Not even war can silence art and the artists who make it, as demonstrated by more than one exhibition on this list of our favorites from 2022.


‘Winslow Homer: Cross Currents’

Winslow Homer: Cross Currents” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was the most significant and extensive Homer exhibition in almost 30 years, and it advanced ideas that have been gaining traction for decades. We knew Homer was acutely aware of the cataclysmic trauma of the Civil War, but this show advanced understanding of his deeper political, racial and social sympathies. Focused on one of the Met’s finest and most haunting Homer paintings, “The Gulf Stream,” the exhibition included chapters on Homer as an observer of Reconstruction, America’s role in the Atlantic slave trade, its rise as an imperial power and its faltering stewardship of the environment. It also included a generous survey of watercolor works made during Homer’s sojourns in the Caribbean, stunning works saturated with light and color, yet just as haunted as his better-known images of Americana. — Philip Kennicott


‘Alex Katz: Gathering’

Alex Katz is 95, and still painting like a charging rhino in the guise of a Paris dandy. I walked around “Alex Katz: Gathering,” his Guggenheim retrospective, responding like a sequence of cartoon thought bubbles: Gee. Oof. Wow. This show simply charmed the pants off me. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous building was practically made for Katz. His deliriously deft, gorgeously colored large-scale paintings pop off the walls and converse with charismatic confidence across the rotunda. This is painting as fancy footwork. I came off the ramp wanting to dance. — Sebastian Smee


‘Picasso: Painting the Blue Period’

The Phillips Collection exhibition “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” took a deep dive into the Spanish artist’s apparent discovery of poverty, inequity and disaffection, painted from around 1901-1904 in monochromatic hues of blue. It offered enough depth and breadth to understand the personal origins of these beloved works, as well as the visual inspiration, including visits to a notorious women’s hospital-prison in Paris, for some of his agonized images of women, beggars and the indigent. Was this evidence of the artist’s eyes opening to a world full of injustice and misery? Or a brief and productive detour into darkness by a painter ordinarily driven by desire, physical and visual rapaciousness? The exhibition left the question open. — P.K.


Donatello retrospective

The first retrospective of Donatello in 35 years was always going to be an event. The fact that the show took place in Florence, where the inimitable Renaissance sculptor spent most of his career, and was spread across two illustrious venues — the Bargello and the Palazzo Strozzi — gave it an aura almost of myth. To see a show of such quality, and then to walk along the River Arno with a chocolate and lemon gelato in hand … does it get better than that? — S.S.


‘The Double’

“The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900” at the National Gallery of Art took up an idea that was hiding in plain sight and made it the theme of a bewildering, challenging, provocative symphony of thought. Artists double things all the time. Indeed, representational art is about making a double of the world. We seem to need doubles to know anything at all, including ourselves, which we can’t comprehend without looking in the mirror. Curator James Meyer gave visitors not just a rich exhibition of modern and contemporary art, but also a thorough taxonomy of how and why art plays with ideas of reproduction, identity and divided images. The “double” turns out to be a capacious mode of thinking that encompasses some of the most important art made in the past century. — P.K.


Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus was to art photography in the late 1960s and ’70s what Martin Scorsese was to cinema. Arbus died in 1971, but her influence peaked posthumously after a controversial 1972-1973 exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art broke attendance records. The New York gallery David Zwirner had the genius idea of re-creating that exhibition and publishing an accompanying book that reprints, in facsimile, all the important articles written about Arbus, both for and against. I loved “Diane Arbus: Cataclysm.” Devoid of wall texts and other distractions, the show made it possible to see Arbus with fresh eyes, and to feel her camera’s almost terrifying objectivity with new force. — S.S.

In New York City, "Women at War," a new exhibition of Ukrainian women artists, depicts the current Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the longstanding war. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

‘Women at War’

Women at War” was a small exhibition, but an extraordinarily potent one. It opened at the Fridman Gallery in New York less than a half-year after Russia invaded Ukraine, but it dealt with a longer history of Russian aggression, Ukrainian suffering and the impact of both on women. Its stance on the war, and on war in general, was clear: It is an abomination. But the artists dug much deeper, exploring how war remakes the world and our own sense of identity. Women are reflexively thought of as victims of war, as a kind of blank slate open to the violent designs of violent men. But the female artists in this show resist and subvert that notion and, in the process, help rethink the very idea of what it means to be a woman. — P.K.


‘Matisse in the 1930s’

No major museum has ever devoted a serious exhibition to Matisse’s magisterial work from the 1930s. The Frenchman began the decade by coming to America not once but twice, the second time to discuss a mural, commissioned by Albert Barnes, that helped set him on a new path. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Matisse in the 1930s” revealed the 20th century’s greatest artist (okay, there was also Picasso — he was pretty good, but I’m calling it for Matisse) coming into his own against a backdrop of global turmoil. A dazzling show. — S.S.


Pussy Riot retrospective

People don’t tend to think of Pussy Riot — the collective of feminist, anti-Putin activists — as artists. But that’s exactly what they are: performance artists who use punk, poetry and situational agitprop as their tools. “Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia,” a 10-year retrospective of Pussy Riot “actions,” which have taken place in Red Square, in a Russian Orthodox cathedral, at the Sochi Olympics, at the 2018 World Cup final and in Siberian penal colonies, opened at Kling & Bang in Reykjavik, Iceland, at the end of November. Noisy, scandalous, incredibly brave and, at times, poignantly poetic, it shows art at its most meaningfully political and free. — S.S.


Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas was the subject of the single best solo show at this year’s Venice Biennale, the first since before the pandemic. Titled “open-end,” the show of washed-out, haunting and often sexually explicit paintings filled the Palazzo Grassi on Venice’s Grand Canal. Dumas grew up in South Africa but has lived for decades in Amsterdam. She has an incredibly light touch and makes work that can look deceptively nonchalant. But don’t be misled. This show pulsed with ambition, honesty and passion. — S.S.