7 Must-See Exhibitions in Venice Beyond the Biennial
From Helen Frankenthaler to Luc Tuymans, there are many great exhibitions to discover outside of the Giardini and the Arsenale
The 58th Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, opened to previews amid conversations of relevance and national identity. There were lines half a mile long outside the Arsenale, one of the two venues of the main exhibition (the other is the Giardini), which is receiving unusually complimentary reviews.
The biennial consists of both a main international group exhibition, which is curated by Ralph Rugoff this year and features 79 artists, as well as roughly 90 national pavilions, each organized by a different country. There are two main locations of the biennial, the Arsenale, a former network of shipyards that was once the economic and military center of the city, and the Giardini, a park. The pavilions are peppered throughout the Giardni and the Arsenale as well as locations around the city. The main group exhibition is divided between the two locations.
Among the standout themes at the pavilions were race and climate change—and there were some deeply psychological works as well. Laure Prouvost for France and Kathy Wilkes for the U.K. drew the biggest lines, while Eva Rothschild for the Irish Pavilion and Ghana’s first pavilion, masterminded by David Adjaye, drew critical acclaim.
But beyond the Giardini and the Arsenale and the many pavilions installed in beautiful churches and palazzos, there are a slew of other exhibitions to discover in the winding streets and canals of this breathtaking city. Here are some of the best on view.
1. Lee Kang-So: “Becoming”
Palazzo Caboto, a small yet beautiful palazzo facing the bay at the beginning of Via Garibaldi, is the site of an exhibition of work by the conceptual artist Lee Kang-So, staged by Gallery Hyundai.
This show features the artist’s recent paintings and sculpture in the context of his performance work from the 1970s, in which he instigated audience engagement exploring the relationship between the work and the viewer.
In Disappearance, 1977, he films himself repeatedly painting the viewer out of the picture, gradually obscuring his image as if the viewer were the canvas. In Self Portrait, which he reiterates for each installation, he paints his body and rubs it down with canvas; the paint on the fabric is the portrait.
This show is a unique chance to see a stunningly organized exhibition of Kang-So’s fascinating works in Europe.
2. Luc Tuymans: “La Pelle”
Curated by Caroline Bourgeois, this large show is Belgian painter Luc Tuymans’s first solo show in Italy. The exhibition illustrates the artist’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of figurative painting. Seeing his work veer between this and the abstract as he plays with representation and scale is impressive and extensive. His paintings and their often everyday subjects are wonderfully offset by the opulence of Palazzo Grassi’s intarsia marble floors and glass chandeliers.
3. Joan Jonas: “Moving Off the Land II”
This year, a strong theme at the biennial is the impact of climate change and the future of the planet. Joan Jonas’s installation at Ocean Space, located within the massive Church of San Lorenzo, is no exception. This deconstructed chapel, which has been closed to the public for nearly a century, is home to Joan Jonas’s “Moving Off the Land II,” an exploration of her relationship with sea life.
In her legendary style, Jonas takes humanity’s collective fear of climate change with humor and authenticity.
Performances launched the exhibition, which is a series of film pieces featuring Jonas and a supporting cast speaking about and interacting with ocean life.
The opening of the biennial is often an opportunity to take a look inside some of Venice’s most stunning buildings. Not only is the Church of San Lorenzo a wonderful example of Venetian architecture, but Jonas’s warm and emphatic work communicates an infectious empathy for underwater life.
4. Njideka Akunyili Crosby: “The Beautyful Ones”
Victoria Miro’s small and perfectly formed gallery near Piazza San Marco was packed beyond bursting for the gallery’s opening party, which was attended by artists such as Kerry James Marshall.
Crosby’s paintings, layered in meaning and complex composition, are a feast for both the eyes and the mind. In “The Beautyful Ones,” she shows a selection of portraits in her signature style, complementing the simpler, sparser portraits that are on view in Ralph Rugoff’s biennial exhibition.
5. Charlotte Prodger and Sean Edwards
Scotland and Wales Exhibitions
Representing Scotland and Wales at the biennial at a collateral exhibition are Charlotte Prodger and Sean Edwards, respectively.
Prodger’s film SaF05 takes its name from a bearded lioness whose domain is the Okavango Delta. A film of the landscape narrated by Prodger features conversations interspersed with interludes inspired by her own memories of being a queer teenager growing up in Aberdeen.
Sean Edwards’s film and sculpture were soundtracked by his mother reading live, broadcast from the U.K. through speakers in the exhibition space. She performed a moving poem comprising memories of her weekly baths as a child and moving from cities in the U.K. looking for work before she settled in Cardiff in Wales.
6. Helen Frankenthaler
Palazzo Grimani and its collection are utterly breathtaking with its ornate ceilings and spellbinding assortment of ancient sculpture. The collection alone is worth taking some time to view.
The combination of this and its show of work made by the abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler between 1952 and 1993 makes this a must-see destination when visiting the biennial.
Although beloved in Europe, Frankenthaler shows are rare. This exhibition, crafted by John Elderfield in tandem with a show at Gorgonian in Rome, is a chance to see wonderful examples of work created across her career.
The natural light in Palazzo Grimini combined with Frankenthaler’s exceptional use of color and breathtaking application of paint makes this show a true one-off.
7. Georg Baselitz Academy
This huge retrospective makes Georg Baselitz the subject of the only exhibition dedicated to a living artist, at Gallerie dell’Accademia. This was also the only show with a line to rival the biennial itself during the preview.
Curated by Professor Kosme de Barañano, this show explores the trajectory of Baselitz’s work, delving into what brought him to where he is today as an artist and also mines the relationship between his work and Italy, where Baselitz has kept a residence for many years. Including painting, drawing, and sculpture, this show provides insights into the work of a living great.