Best Art Exhibitions of 2021
Ambitious museum shows in Tulsa, Richmond, and Louisville left an imprint. Jasper Johns, Maya Lin and Latino artists shone. And the high quality of gallery shows of women was dizzying and gratifying.
Most Memorable Art and Image-Makers of 2021
The year 2021 was about recovery — slow, partial, tentative, ongoing — from lockdown. Over the summer, museums and galleries rebooted, but with masking and distancing in place. After a year of social isolation, a market trend in easy-to-like figure painting had natural appeal, with portrait shows everywhere. (New York had Medicis and Alice Neel; Hans Holbein and the Obamas currently hold court in Los Angeles) But for me, many of the most memorable events were either outside bicoastal centers or in unusual locations and forms within them.
African American South
Several of the year’s most ambitious museums were in cities below the Mason-Dixon line. “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,” an engrossing survey of work by 120 Black artists organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va., mined a particularly rich vein of its regional subject through a focus on music: gospel, blues, free-jazz, soul, hip-hop, Mardi Gras marches, all embodied in fabulous visuals. The exhibition (now at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston) was installed just blocks from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a residential thoroughfare once dotted with Jim Crow-era statues of Confederate heroes. In September, the last, a statue of Robert E. Lee, was craned-lifted and trucked away.
In Tulsa, Okla., a new, truth-telling monument was unveiled. Called Greenwood Rising, it’s a museum and cultural center devoted to documenting three nested narratives: the long record of racist violence in the United States; the shorter history of a once-thriving African American neighborhood in a city that, for a time, managed to escape that violence; and the explosive story of what happened when that violence finally hit. Over two successive days in the spring of 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood, known as “Black Wall Street,” was the scene of one of the largest and deadliest episodes of white-on-Black terrorism yet recorded in the United States. Greenwood Rising takes you back to that moment and place, and forward into a present that has its own traumas.
Unusual Business in Museums
During the forced closures of the past year, museums had to contemplate the future and worry about what they were seeing, including the prospect of diminishing public relevance. Some understood that the solution lay not in a return to pre-Covid routine, but in change. The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., took a step in this direction with “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” a big, impressive group loan show dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville native killed by city police officers in March 2020. Under its curator, Allison Glenn, the show was assembled in four months — warp speed in museum-time — and created a prototype for institutional responses to history-as-it’s-happening.
New York’s Guggenheim Museum floated a different model. With a fast-tracked suite of summer shows, it turned a Modernist monolith into the equivalent of an alternative space. In the atmosphere of pandemic-induced uncertainty, its young curators filled the museum’s central spiral with offbeat wonders: the Manhattan solo debut of audio and video work by the Rwandan-born Dutch artist Christian Nyampeta; an extraordinary floor-to-ceiling video by Wu Tsang of the trans singer and songwriter Beverly-Glenn Copeland; and, for four precious days in July, a socially distanced performance called “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy,” conceived by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
This was the year when public awareness of ecocide reached at least an orange alert level. Direct response from museums and galleries remained muted, with notable exceptions being “Diane Burko: Seeing Climate Change,” a solo exhibition of paintings at the Katzen Arts Center of American University in Washington (through Dec. 12); and a survey of early work by the ecofeminist artist Betsy Damon at La MaMa Galleria in Manhattan. In New York, the major statement on the theme of present and future catastrophe took place, appropriately, outdoors, in Madison Square Park, where Maya Lin’s “Ghost Forest,” a grove of dead and salvaged Atlantic white cedars, all victims of environmental damage, was installed last Spring. Surrounded by the park’s lush greenery the lifeless trees made for a starkly majestic cautionary tableau, an arboreal “Burghers of Calais.” (And when they finally came down, they were given new life by teenagers learning to build boats.)
“Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” a doubleheader retrospective divided between the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was one of the season’s most hotly anticipated blockbusters. Enough to say that it lived up to expectations. (It continues at both venues through Feb. 13.) The same went for “Titian: Women, Myth & Power” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, featuring a cycle of six monumental paintings on mythological scenes produced late in this Venetian artist’s career. Just to get these pictures together under one roof represented a staggering institutional coup, one unlikely to be repeated anywhere else anytime soon. (The show is on view through Jan. 2)
On the contemporary front, “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And” brought a long overdue career survey of a supersmart American conceptual artist and writer to the Brooklyn Museum. (A book of her essays, “Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space 1973-2019,” was a vital supplement to the show.) Company, a gallery on the Lower East Side, inaugurated a new space with “Barbara Hammer: Tell me there is a lesbian forever …” a museum-ready selection of the late, great filmmaker’s early work on paper, organized by the artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden. And in a strong solo called “Amerika. God Bless You If It’s Good to You” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts — celebrating its 50th anniversary — Wardell Milan showed masterly drawings of white supremacist nightmares and collaborated on a theater piece with the trans performer Zachary Tye Richardson and the sculptor Billy Ray Morgan.
In New York, Latino art, with its various monikers and meanings, continued to gain visibility. Four years late and not a moment too soon, a retrospective of the Chicana artist Laura Aguilar traveled from Los Angeles to the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in Manhattan last Spring. An identity-scrambling contemporary survey, “Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21,” filled a reinvigorated El Museo del Barrio. Americas Society put together an invaluable two-part historical show called “This Must Be the Place: Latin American Artists in New York, 1965-1975” (through May 14). And there was more, a lot. There will always be.
(Read our review of Laura Aguilar.)
The Speculating Class
As the Covid crisis goes on, some elements of the art world are already operating at a pumped-up version of prepandemic normal. I’m talking about the presence of private money. The year may have left museums and galleries (never mind artists) scrambling, but the collecting, speculating class grew unimaginably richer, and the VIP lounge at the top of the art world is bursting with cash. We got a glimpse of this in the triumphalist spectacle of the fall auctions, and, somewhat lower down the slope, in the gold-rush surge in NFTs, which is already starting to look like a viral pandemic of its own. (Read our coverage of the recent auctions of the Macklowe estate and a Frida Kahlo painting.)
Photojournalists on the Ground
I’ll end, though, on a high note, with a salute to some of 2021’s truly great, and often minimally rewarded, image-makers: the photojournalists, professional or otherwise, on the ground everywhere this year — the ones who caught every freakish twist of the right-wing uprising in Washington, who walked straight into the fiery furnace that is increasingly our planetary landscape and who recorded the wrenching chaos in Afghanistan, right up to, and beyond, the minute the last-exit planes took off, and who captured the collective jubilation when the Ahmaud Arbery verdict came in. No artists produced more important work.