It has become a cliché to suggest that the art-historical canon is expanding—that much is apparent to anyone who has visited a museum in the past five years. But just how much can it grow? The answer to that question remains unknown, and a range of shows for under-recognized artists in 2023 suggested that we simply do not know the limits yet. That, of course, is a good thing.
One significant way the canon grew this year was through the addition of figures active before 1900, an area that has received less attention in major museums in past years. Female Old Masters were seen anew, especially in the case of a Baltimore Museum of Art show that spotlights women working in Europe between 1400 and 1800.
Yet the art-historical rewriting hardly ended there. It continued with fresh looks for modernists forewent in the past, as well as with retrospectives for artists who hailed from beyond Western Europe and the US. These shows acted as signs of changing times and increased curiosity on the parts of curators, and the momentum is likely to be felt in 2024 and the years afterward.
Below, a look at 10 artists who received their due in 2024.
Juan de Pareja
Most who encountered Juan de Pareja’s name knew it from a Diego Velázquez’s 1650 portrait of him, a crown jewel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection since the institution bought it in 1971. If they did know anything about de Pareja, they knew that he had been enslaved in Velázquez’s household. They may not have known that de Pareja, a man of African descent born in Spain, was an artist in his own right. This year, the Met endeavored to do justice to de Pareja, whose own works—including one of the 10 remaining paintings by him known to scholars—were placed alongside pieces by Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and other giants of 17th-century Spain. The show marked an attempt to peel back some of the mystique surrounding this lesser-known artist while also exploring the contexts that guided his career—namely, the widespread practice of enslaving people of African descent in Spain and the loss of historical matter related to non-white artists in Europe writ large.
“I think I serve the cause of women best by concentrating like a man.” So said the artist Harriet Backer, a Norwegian woman who, during the 19th century, sought an art education via female-only classes offered by a Munich academy, which listed these courses outside the purview of its official curriculum. Backer, who later studied in Paris, too, wound up drawing influence from Impressionism for her sedate paintings, in which contemplative women are often shown alone in light-filled interiors. With an eye for detail and a good sense for loose brushwork, Backer is now beloved in Norway, where Oslo’s Nationalmuseum mounted a retrospective for her this year. Her influence is likely to grow next year, when the exhibition makes its way to Paris’s Musée d’Orsay.
To say that Marisol is under-recognized belies the fact that, at the height of her career, she was well-connected, with Andy Warhol among those who called her a friend. But she has not achieved the same degree of fame afforded to the Pop artists who rose alongside her, and anyway, her works, mainly composed of wooden elements that stand in for squat bodies, largely do not conform to the thematic interests of that movement. The artist, who was of Venezuelan descent and born in Paris before moving to New York, was instead much more fascinated by the possibility of monumentalizing those close to her and those she idolized, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Martha Graham, in ways they had never been represented. Her flirtations with Pop and her subsequent portraits all figured in a retrospective organized by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum that opened this year at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Following its run there, it will tour the US in 2024 and 2025.
The grandchild of enslaved people, Catlett was keen to reflect the lived realities of Black Americans, and she did just that, whether in the form of abstractions or more explicitly political works, like a large sculpture of a fist that dates to the Black Power era. In the US, Catlett is well-known for her sculptures of Black women whose forms she abstracted until their waists, arms, and faces sometimes melted into each other. These works count as some of the vital modernist artworks produced during the early and mid-20th century, as do the prints that Catlett made through the workshop Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City, where she resided for much of her career. This year, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany, mounted one of the most expansive shows of her work ever staged, bringing her massively influential art to European audiences.
Charmion von Wiegand
A fascination with spiritualist women artists of past eras has been felt widely as of late—look no further than the Guggenheim Museum’s well-attended Hilma af Klint retrospective from 2018 or critic Jennifer Higgie’s forthcoming book on the subject, due out in January in the US. The trend was on full display this year at Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Basel, which mounted a von Wiegand retrospective that counted as the American artist’s first institutional show in 40 years. On hand were a number of her abstractions composed of hard-edged planes of color that are arrayed in jagged compositions, some of which refer to patterns derived from Hinduism, Buddhism, theosophy, and other spiritualities.
The South African artist Gavin Jantjes was born in 1948, the year that Apartheid began, and the racism he faced firsthand before departing for England during the early ’80s would come to influence his work. As the artist and curator Rasheed Araeen once put it, “Jantjes’ concern has not just been to confront the system through the rhetoric of ‘political art’ but to develop a modern language of art which reflects the contemporary struggle of African culture.” That meant highlighting systemic inequities that impacted Black Africans like himself, as he has done in his activism, and also showing how the injustice they face extends beyond the continent itself. He did so in his 1981 painting Quietly at Tea, featuring a multicolor cast of characters conversing while a Black maid looks on. That work, along with many others, figures in Jantjes’s current retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates.
The Georgian-born artist Karlo Kacharava produced thousands of works before he died of a brain aneurysm in 1994—a formidable, sizable output for an artist who only lived to be 30. Yet despite all the paintings he produced, and despite the fact that he roamed Western Europe, spending time in Paris, Madrid, and Cologne, his art has only rarely made it beyond Georgia, where he is considered one of the country’s most important artists, known for his cryptic images of youth culture. Right now, audiences outside Georgia are getting a taste of Kacharava’s paintings with a vast retrospective being held at the S.M.A.K. museum in Ghent, Belgium. The show has the potential to go a long way in canonizing Kacharava, a figure whose untimely passing made doing so difficult.
“The first time in history that pure abstraction came was with Islamic, or Arabic art,” Palestinian painter Samia Halaby told the National earlier this year, asserting that non-representational art had long predated European modernism. For making statements like these, the painter, who was born in Jerusalem in 1936, has been considered a hero to many younger artists in the Middle East. In the United Arab Emirates, she is right now the subject of a retrospective at the Sharjah Art Museum. (It travels to the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University in June 2024.) On view was Halaby’s full output, from her abstractions based on her interior states of the 1970s, to her images created with the help of a computer during the 1980s, to her more recent works that meditate on Palestinian history with blunt force.
Of all the artists in the Guggenheim Museum’s current survey of Korean experimental art (silheom misul, as the tradition was known there), few stood out quite like Kim Kulim, whose film The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969) packs thousands of images of everyday life in Seoul into a mere 11 minutes. This mosaic of a shifting South Korea, a classic experimental film of the era, is hardly the only work that the 87-year-old artist has produced, however. His full oeuvre, from his abstract paintings to sculptures formed from disused found materials, is now the subject of a grand blockbuster being held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul.
Because Amalia Mesa-Bains’s ofrenda-style installations are composed of many elements that can be shifted out, the pieces pose an unusual challenge for curators: they are themselves in flux. In a 2018 ARTnews profile of Mesa-Bains, she even joked that it would be impossible for her to have a retrospective, seeing as it would involve remaking so many of the decorative elements, flags, clothes, historical artifacts, and more that form her installations. But have a retrospective, she did this past winter, when BAMPFA in Berkeley, California, brought together some 60 of her works. The show, with its dozens of installations and sculptures attesting to how Mesa-Bains has mulled means of honoring the past, often with a specific focus on Chicana women and their traditions, affirmed her reputation as a key feminist artist.