This year, we (mainly me) sifted through countless art exhibitions. We looked at paintings, gawped at sculptures, stared at videos and immersed ourselves in installations. We read millions of gallery handouts filled with sentences that made no sense, we sauntered through snooty galleries in Mayfair, elbowed tourists out of the way at major museums on the South Bank. We visited literally hundreds of shows.
And why? For fun? No, we did it so that we could tell you what was worth going to, and what wasn’t, to help you sort the art wheat from the art chaff. And this lot right here, these are the ones where you really should’ve listened to us.
The best exhibitions we saw in London in 2023
Mike Nelson: ‘Extinction Beckons’ at the Hayward Gallery
Desolate, post-apocalyptic immersive-ness from the guy who basically invented the form: Mike Nelson returned to London after his excellent Tate Britain commission with a maze of terrifyingly bleak installations at the Hayward. It was a full-body art experience, leaving you lost in sand dunes, derelict barracks and sweaty rooms where you’re cast as the main character in the most depressing film ever. Brutally brilliant.
Read our review of Mike Nelson: ‘Extinction Beckons’ at the Hayward Gallery.
‘Hardcore’ at Sadie Coles HQ
Possibly the least sexy exhibition about sex you’ll ever see, Sadie Coles HQ’s ‘Hardcore’ was a group show about the fringes of sensuality, the boundaries between pain and pleasure and positivity and negativity, filled with hanging animal carcasses, leather and nudity. Uncomfortable, weird and uncompromising.
Read our review of ‘Hardcore’ at Sadie Coles HQ.
‘People Make Television’ at Raven Row
Raven Row announced their return to the scene after a few years of closure with this super in-depth, totally absorbing, utterly fascinating show about the Community Program Unit, a public access project by the BBC. This was a chance to look back into an unfiltered past and to see the UK as its citizens saw it, not through the eyes of its historians or film makers. There were films about poverty, joy, love; there were debates and documentaries, poetry and music. It was all of Britain on display, and it just kept you coming back for more.
Read our review of ‘People Make Television’ at Raven Row.
Peter Doig at the Courtauld Gallery.
Doig is an artist hellbent on cementing his place as the most important living painter, and his show at the Courtauld did nothing to harm that. This was an exhibition full of heat and sun, but also longing and sadness. These summery paintings hid an aching heart, endless guilty nostalgia and lost memories, and they were as beautiful and affecting as paintings could hope to be.
Read our review of Peter Doig at the Courtauld Gallery.
Steve McQueen: ‘Grenfell’ at the Serpentine
A complex one, this. Steve McQueen’s Grenfell film was 30 minutes of footage of the wreck of Grenfell Tower taken from a helicopter, circling it over and over. It was deeply unsettling, hugely moving. You felt like you were being shown something you shouldn’t see, being forced to confront the tragedy on a visceral level. I had problems with it, quite a few actually, but it’s definitely one of the most important works of the year, if not the best.
Read our review of Steve McQueen: ‘Grenfell’ at the Serpentine.
Philip Guston at Tate Modern
Delayed for ages, the Philip Guston retrospective finally showed up near the end of 2023 and it was more than worth the wait. A journey from political painting to figurative, comic-fuelled brilliance via abstraction, this huge show proves how special, unique and influential Guston was. He tackled racism and injustice, he dealt with loss and love, all with the same passion, flair and vast fields of pink. Gorgeous painterly perfection.
Read our review of Philip Guston at Tate Modern.
Christian Marclay: ‘Doors’ at White Cube
How do you follow up a mega-hit like ‘The Clock’, a work of art that became a viral sensation and had people camping out to watch it overnight? By making something so hard to watch and unfollowable that no one can hack it for more than 10 minutes, that’s how. Marclay’s ‘Doors’ is a collage of doors opening and closing from throughout cinema history, constantly throwing the viewer into jarring new scenes, sending you tripping from thrillers to comedies, horrors to romcoms, in a genuinely dizzying bit of film editing magic.
Read our review of Christian Marclay: ‘Doors’ at White Cube.
Marcin Dudek: ‘Neoplan’ at Edel Assanti
Polish artist and former football hooligan Marcin Dudek found an abandoned bus in Romania (one used to ferry football), then tore it to pieces and re-built it in Fitzrovia. The result was part-theatre, part-mausoleum: a broken elegy to violence and camaraderie, to acts committed and lives lived. Shocking, confrontational and somehow beautiful.
Read our review of Marcin Dudek: ‘Neoplan’ at Edel Assanti.
Martin Wong: ‘Malicious Mischief’ at Camden Art Centre
Sensual, erotic, gritty, violent, psychedelic: Martin Wong’s show at Camden Art Centre told the story of immigrant America through prison scenes, poetry and Bruce Lee. His work was a collision of street art, ceramics, poetry and a wholly unique approach to painting that was as full of hope as it was with misery and decay.
Read our review of Martin Wong: ‘Malicious Mischief’ at Camden Art Centre.
Avery Singer: ‘Free Fall’ at Hauser & Wirth.
New York painter Avery Singer built a full reconstruction of a late 1990s corporate office for this trippy exploration of the impact of 9/11. Singer’s office space was a weird, quiet, grey world with the constant threat of destruction hanging over it. The paintings in the space dealt with fame and loss, gore and pain, but all with a dreamy, threatening edge that made the whole thing feel somehow unreal. Singer was asking big questions about tragedy and death, medication and corporate boredom, but providing no answers in the process.
Read our review of Avery Singer: ‘Free Fall’ at Hauser & Wirth.
Don’t want to live in the past? Here are the ten best exhibitions you can see right now.
And here are some free exhibitions too.