The Venice Biennale is usually a place where you go to find up-and-coming artists about to hit it big, but this year’s edition garnered headlines for another reason: the unusual makeup of its artist list.
Roughly 90 percent of the people included in the main show were women or gender nonconforming. In addition, some 95 of the 213 artists included were no longer alive; the earliest-born of them, Maria Sibylla Merian, died back in 1717.
While there were also emerging artists to see, the Biennale provided a large helping of artists whose work is getting long overdue recognition.
The term “rediscovery” is often slapped on artists such as these, but as this Biennale pointed out, that label is often incorrect, as many of the dead artists included here were well-connected during their day and were even part of well-known avant-gardes like Surrealism and Dada. Whatever their status may truly be, these artists are an example of under-recognized talents getting their due and an affirmation that this trend, which can be seen in institutions across the globe, is very much alive.
Below is a look at 10 under-recognized artists who got their due this year.
While new levels of recognition for lesser-known artist are often a reason for celebration, the enthusiasm for the Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko (1909–1997) came under less happy circumstances. In February, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, officials in the country said that Russian troops in Ivankiv had burned 25 “masterpieces” by Prymachenko, a self-taught painter whose vibrant images of beasts and Ukrainian people are done in the style of pysanka, a form of egg decoration seen throughout the country. The status of these works remains unclear—word later emerged that some of the paintings may have been saved as the history museum that housed them was torched—but the fact that they were even threatened caused sadness for lovers of Ukrainian art history, since Prymachenko’s art has been considered a symbol of national identity. In the wake of the events of February, international institutions took note of Prymachenko’s work, and her art became a last-minute addition to the Venice Biennale, whose curator, Cecilia Alemani, said she had included her paintings as “a sign of solidarity [with] Ukrainian culture.”
The unclassifiable output of Ovartaci, a Danish-born artist who spent time in Argentina, was little-known to the larger public until the artist’s work appeared in Alemani’s Biennale. With its visions of thin-waisted aliens and phantasmagorical landscapes, this work looked right at home there. Ovartaci, who died in 1985, was assigned male at birth, and identified as female for much of her life, only to begin identifying as male once more during her final years. In between all that, Ovartaci spent 56 years at a Danish mental institution, where a room became filled with dolls meant to conjure beings from other universes that the artist claimed to be able to access. (In a winking nod to the artist’s circumstances, Ovartaci’s name was self-chosen; it roughly translates from the Danish to “Chief Lunatic.”) Beyond a museum devoted to the artist in Aarhus, Denmark, it’s been difficult to see Ovartaci’s work, but the Biennale presentation offered solid proof that we need a full-on retrospective right away.
Fujiko Nakaya’s art has often been literally uncontainable, since her best-known sculptures are composed of dense fog that rises into the air and dissipates gradually. This past spring, a fog sculpture by the 89-year-old Japanese artist surrounded the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and another appeared in a gallery that was part of a Nakaya exhibition there, the first at a museum anywhere to comprehensively survey her art. Indoors, Nakaya’s fog wafted through galleries that featured some of her lesser-known pieces, which took the form of works that sought to scramble one’s sense of perception and initiate a new relationship with the natural environment. In addition to widening people’s understanding of Nakaya’s career, the exhibition also spotlighted her role in bringing video art to Japan, where she founded the artist collective Video Hiroba and, in Tokyo, opened SCAN, the first gallery devoted to video in the country.
Raphael Montañez Ortiz
Many artists want to show at museums, but few actually want to create institutions. Raphael Montañez Ortiz has now succeeded in doing both, having had a retrospective earlier this year at New York’s El Museo del Barrio, the museum he founded in 1969 as a community-led space for art by Puerto Rican artists. (The retrospective is now on view at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, which co-organized it.) Montañez Ortiz, who is now 88, has worked in a number of modes, although the one that he is most frequently aligned with is what he termed “destructivism,” or artwork that relies on the immolation of various objects. A good smattering of documentation related to his smashing of pianos and furniture was on view here, but it was the lesser-known objects that shined brightest: his early flirtations with (and subversions of) Abstract Expressionism, his more recent assemblages that ponder histories of colonialism, and his less easily defined projects that foster artistic collaboration.
For decades, Barbara Chase-Riboud has been creating sculptures dedicated to giants of Black history, from civil rights activist Malcolm X to Sarah Baartman, whose body was put on display in 19th-century Europe. These sculptures are abstract, so they cannot be said to depict these people outright, but Chase-Riboud has described them as monuments anyhow, and what glorious, beautiful statues they are. Although Chase-Riboud’s unusual fusion of the Baroque art’s maximalism and high modernism’s formalism has gained her many fans over the years, it wasn’t until 2022 that she had her first retrospective, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. That show is currently on view, as is a more modest but no less important survey at the Serpentine Galleries. Meanwhile, Chase-Riboud’s memoir, which comes mainly in the form of letters sent to her mother over the years, was published this year by the Pulitzer and Princeton University Press.
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag
In 1978, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag signed the manifesto of the Crystalist group, which aspired toward “a new language and new poetry” that could find previously untapped ways of communicating spiritual truths. Even before then, however, Ishag had been seeking to do just this, painting memorable images that envisioned alternate states that seem largely divorced from this world, with mysterious figures arranged in circles and people fusing with trees. A pioneer of Sudanese modernism associated with the Khartoum School, the 83-year-old artist was given overdue recognition this fall at the Serpentine Galleries in London, in a retrospective that was co-organized with the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, where the show will head in 2023.
During Oscar Howe’s lifetime, his work was rejected because it did not conform to many white-led institutions’ ideas about how Native American art should look; he once called the art world “one more contributor to holding us in chains.” No more, however. A traveling retrospective devoted to the Yanktonai Dakota painter that kicked off at the National Museum of the American Indian was one of the year’s finest New York shows. Curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, it offered a fine look at how Howe married age-old Očhéthi Šakówiŋ aesthetics and modernist abstraction, representing dancers and animals who are ensconced in warping mixtures of color. The show is now on view at the Portland Museum of Art in Oregon, which co-organized it, and will travel in 2023 to the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings.
Now, it seems you can’t tell the story of AIDS and art without mentioning Darrel Ellis, who moved in the same circles as artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, and even appeared in Nan Goldin’s landmark 1989 show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.” And yet, until very recently, Ellis was considered a lesser figure within that lineage. A 2021 monograph by Visual AIDS righted that oversight by illuminating Ellis’s rich oeuvre, which took the form of re-photographed pictures originally snapped by his father and painted portraits in which Ellis represented himself in stereotypical roles for Black men, including a Black Panther and a security guard. A retrospective followed this year at the Baltimore Museum of Art, offering a much-needed deep dive into Ellis’s career. The show, which travels next year to the Bronx Museum, attests to the complexities of the small but important oeuvre of Ellis, who died of AIDS-related complications at 33 in 1992.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s writing and art have long been staples in the field of Asian American studies, but they haven’t gotten wider recognition until the past few years, when figures like writer Cathy Park Hong have staked an impassioned claim for Cha’s continued importance. 2022 was arguably Cha’s year, however, as her most famous written work, Dictee, was re-released by the University of California Press and as her visual art appeared in the Whitney Biennial. The latter marked an informal survey for the Korean-born artist, whose career was cut short when she was raped and murdered in New York by a security guard at age 31 in 1982. The works at the Whitney Biennial attested to the many ways in which Cha utilized text, performance, video, and the spoken word to dramatically reorder language and investigate how ideas are transmitted.
Until this year, Maria Bartuszová remained a relatively obscure figure, despite having received renown during her lifetime in Slovakia, the country where she was long based. Born in Prague in 1936, Bartuszová created sculptures by loading up balloons and tires with plaster. Then she tied them up, so that as their insides dried, they looked as though they were bulging or growing. She called them “living organisms,” an acknowledgement that they hardly appeared to be static. These works, alongside some of her sculptures resembling flaking eggshells and creatures still being formed, were on view at London’s Tate Modern in a retrospective that provided one of the most comprehensive looks at Bartuszová’s art to date beyond central and eastern Europe. Some were also on view in the Venice Biennale’s main show, where they were presented within an exhibition focused on how artists of the past had created vessel-like objects.