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The Defining Artworks of 2020

For much of this year, galleries, museums, and art spaces across the world were shuttered by Covid-19. Although art remained locked away from public view, that didn’t mean artists weren’t busy at work, crafting paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, videos, and more that spoke to the mood of 2020. Whether in the form of film anthologies released digitally or protest-minded projects that took place outside the walls of art spaces entirely, artists continued to mine new territory and, in the process, redefine what art could be.

[Read about the defining art events of 2020.]

This list below surveys the 20 works that came to define this year. Included in it are new works responding directly to the pandemic and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd at the end of May. Some works created to address such topics were fleeting and glimpsed only for a short period of time; others are permanent and will likely be seen by many in the years to come. By tackling collective fears and structural change, these pieces made us hopeful for a world that could look very different in 2021.

Also included on this list are a few works made well before 2020 that were seen anew. Viewed in light of Covid-19 and calls for accountability, these works may signify something entirely different than they once did, but they are no less meaningful than they were before.

To look back on the past 12 months in art-making, below is a survey of some of the most important artworks made or presented in a new light in 2020.