The Most Influential Artists of 2020 | Sunday Observer

The Most Influential Artists of 2020

17 January, 2021

At the start of 2020, it was impossible to predict that this year would transform the art world as we knew it. By March, the Covid-19 pandemic began to throw entire years of museum, gallery, and biennial exhibitions into the balance, and it may have forever rocked the international art fair circuit. In June, the Black Lives Matter movement swept through the art world and ushered in a long overdue reckoning with the inequity and systemic racism of the art industry.

The artists below were at the forefront of these waves of change. They created fresh work to live up to this moment and launched fundraisers and initiatives to aid victims of Covid-19, promote BIPOC organisations, and lift up fellow artists. Some managed to set head-spinning auction records and opened spectacular museum shows; others set career milestones and earned due recognition for their longstanding, influential practices. They represent a small fraction of the artists who inspired us this year, though they stand out as leaders who will surely guide us through the next one and whatever it may bring.

Amoako Boafo

B. 1984, Accra, Ghana.
Lives and works in Vienna, Austria.


If Amoako Boafo’s sell-out booth with the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery at 2019’s Art Basel in Miami Beach marked him as one to watch, the painter’s 2020 auction performance shows that collectors were paying attention.

In February, he made his stunning auction debut at Phillips in London, when ‘The Lemon Bathing Suit’ (2019), a stylised portrait showcasing the bold brushwork and bright colors he’s become known for, sold for £675,000 ($875,000)—more than 13 times its high estimate.

This would become a pattern of his for the rest of the year, with underestimated paintings regularly shattering expectations and selling for hundreds of thousands. Institutions have taken notice, too: The Guggenheim Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Vienna’s Albertina Museum have all acquired Boafo’s work.

Amid the buying frenzy, Boafo has continued to develop and diversify his practice, collaborating with Dior menswear designer Kim Jones on the brand’s summer 2021 collection, and opening a show of new portraits, ‘I Stand By Me’, at Mariane Ibrahim’s Chicago gallery in September. His most ambitious project? An upcoming gallery and studio complex, complete with an artist residency program, in his native Accra.

- Allyssia Alleyne



B. 1974, Yate, England. Lives and works in England.

Every year is a busy one in the Banksy-verse, but in 2020, the agit-prop prankster made his influence felt far and wide. As the U.K. weathered the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring, he gifted a painting to a British hospital, with funds from its anticipated sale to benefit the National Health Service.

Over the summer he again offered up his work to fundraise for health care, pledging proceeds from Sotheby’s sale of Mediterranean sea view 2017 (2017) - a grim commentary on the European migrant crisis—to a hospital in Bethlehem. The work provided a major windfall for the hospital, exceeding its pre-sale high estimate of £1.2 million ($1.5 million) to fetch £2.2 million ($2.8 million), becoming Banksy’s second-highest auction result at the time.

Later in the summer, Banksy’s attention returned to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, and in a much more direct manner: He helped fund the work of a refugee rescue ship he’d adorned with an eye-catching paint job. The ship ran into some trouble during one of its missions, though, and had to be rescued. Meanwhile, the runner-up auction record set by the Mediterranean sea view didn’t stand long. Banksy’s spin on Claude Monet’s ‘Giverny’ paintings, ‘Show Me the Monet’ (2005), exceeded its high estimate by more than half at a Sotheby’s auction in October, ultimately selling for £7.5 million($9.7 million)—still well short of his $12.1-million record.

- Benjamin Sutton


Betye Saar

B. 1926, Los Angeles.

Lives and works in Los Angeles.

In 2020, we witnessed a flurry of firsts for the long-overlooked artist Betye Saar. Bookending the year was the landmark exhibition ‘Betye Saar: Call and Response,’ which debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before travelling to its current venue, the Morgan Library in New York. The show, which includes both finished works alongside sketchbooks and drawings, is the first to span the now-94-year-old artist’s entire career. Meanwhile, the beginning of this year saw the tail end of ‘Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girls Window’ at the Museum of Modern Art, the first dedicated examination of Saar’s work as a printmaker.

Along with her major museum shows, Saar was also named the recipient of the 2020 Wolfgang Hahn Prize and was the subject of a documentary short, Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business. Directed by Christine Turner, the eight-minute film was featured at this year’s Sundance and was selected as a New York Times op-doc. In November, ‘Saar’s ABCD Education’ (2001) achieved a new auction record for the artist at a Sotheby’s day sale, selling for $81,900.

- Shannon Lee


Christine Sun Kim

B. 1980, Orange County,

California. Lives and works in Berlin.

At Super Bowl LIV in February 2020, sound artist and performer Christine Sun Kim made a strong impression. At the 40-yard line, she performed the national anthem and ‘America the Beautiful’ in American Sign Language. Known for her pointed explorations of sound’s role in society, Kim saw it as an opportunity to extend her work drawing attention to issues facing the greater deaf community to an audience of over 100 million viewers.

Yet, Fox Sports hardly aired the performance, leading the artist to pen an op-ed for the New York Times. “I had hoped to provide a public service for deaf viewers, and believed that my appearance might raise awareness of the systemic barriers and the stigmas attached to our deafness—and move some people to action,” Kim wrote. “I hope that despite the failure of Fox to make the performance accessible to all, it did do that.”

Kim’s work has continued to receive major mainstream visibility this fall. In September, her 2018 work One Week of Lullabies for Roux became the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s first-ever sound installation. The following month, Kim was named one of the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s inaugural Disability Futures Fellows. This year, she also held solo exhibitions at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo Shibuya Koen-dori Gallery; and this December, she opens a solo show, ‘Trauma, LOL,’ at her L.A. gallery François Ghebaly. Most recently, Kim’s work was featured as part of New York magazine’s initiative that commissioned artists to create their own versions of the United States’s iconic “I Voted” stickers.

- Shannon Lee