As 2021 comes to a close, we’re taking the time to look back on the shows in the U.S. and around the world that we feel had the greatest impact. Like the year before, this year was again marked by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But it had many more bright spots. Thanks to the vaccine, we saw the return of in-person shows, fairs, biennales, and events. Artists took the tumultuous times head-on, continuing to make work, sometimes addressing it directly, sometimes not. Curators took on subjects that ranged from themes like grief, connection, and even clay. There was joy, sadness, a celebration of humanity. Whether looking to the past, present, or future, we found ourselves once again communing with art, artists, and the thing that moves us most of all, beauty.
Alice Neel: People Come First
Open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art March 22 through August 1, Alice Neel’s “People Come First” was a retrospective spanning the entirety of the late artist’s career, highlighting Neel as one of the most radical painters of the century. Through around 100 paintings, watercolors, and drawings, viewers experienced Neel’s career trajectory, including her work for the W.P.A. in the 1930s, up through her late style in the years leading up to her death, in 1984. Accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, viewers found works like the turkey sitting in a kitchen sink titled Thanksgiving from 1965, or the 1943 work The Spanish Family.
Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America
The New Museum
Conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” was a group presentation at the New Museum up February 17-June 6.On view was work by 37 intergenerational artists who examine the racism and violence experienced by Black communities across America through topics like mourning, loss, and commemoration. Including names like Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Simone Leigh, Kerry James Marshall, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Dawoud Bey, and Lorna Simpson, the exhibition filled all three main floors, the lobby gallery, and public spaces at the New Museum with works dating back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s up through the present day.
Guadalupe Maravilla: Seven Ancestral Stomachs
Guadalupe Maravilla’s “Seven Ancestral Stomachs” was on view at P·P·O·W in New York February 26 through March 27. The exhibition featured an installation of paintings and sculptures that addressed his personal journey in healing, as well as his efforts in activism and collaboration. Maravilla’s towering “Disease Throwers” series—part instrument part shrine—as well as wall sculptures made from gourds explored his ongoing process of healing from both cancer and generational trauma. Also on view was a group of work made in collaboration with traditional Mexican retablo painters.
Filling the entirety of The Whitney’s expansive fifth floor gallery was an exhibition spanning two decades of Julie Mehretu’s practice, open to the public March 25 through August 8. The most comprehensive survey of the Ethiopian artist’s work to date, the presentation (co-curated by Los Angeles Country Museum of Art’s curator Christine Y. Kim and The Whitney’s assistant curator Rujeko Hockley) brings together over 70 works highlighting Mehretu’s multilayered artistic oeuvre, including intimate drawings, printmaking, and large-scale, panoramic canvases.
“Clay Pop,” curated by Alia Williams, was on view at Jeffrey Deitch in New York September 10 through October 30. It looked at the current state of ceramics created by the next names in craft. Objects by 37 artists were included, with names like Genesis Belanger, Woody De Othello, Ryan Flores, Devin B. Johnson, Ruby Neri, Brie Ruais, Adam Silverman, Katie Stout, and Amia Yokoyama. “Artists are taking a traditional medium and turning it on its head,” said Williams.
rafa esparza: keeping
Commonwealth and Council
“keeping” was on view at Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles March 11-April 10. As rafa esparza’s first solo show with the gallery, it celebrated community, shared memory, and chosen families. Images rendered in adobe explored themes around care, Brown bodies, and connection. The artist referenced both the personal and historic, including the 1970 Chicano Moratorium protests in Los Angeles. A mix of sculpture, painting, and architecture, ever-present was esparza’s passion for collaboration and relationships.
Kara Walker: A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be
The first major exhibition in Switzerland by the artist, Kara Walker’s “A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be” encompassed over 600 works on paper spanning the last 28 years, including a series of new drawings and many that have never before been presented to the public. Kunstmuseum Basel presented Walker’s exploration of topics like history, gender roles, sexuality, race relations, and violence, which encouraged viewers to question the narratives they have been fed. The artist has focused on contemporary matters like the dialogue arisen from the Black Lives Matter Movement and the legacy of Barack Obama—which took on a fantastical gaze in works like a depiction of the former President as Othello, holding the head of a certain yellow-haired man.
A solo show of new sculpture by Wangechi Mutu was on view at Gladstone Gallery in New York May 6-June 25. Otherworldly, larger-than-life bronze sculptures like MamaRay and Crocodylus made for a powerful presence within the gallery—the former depicting a sting ray-liked winged figure with a semi-human head, the latter a figure riding a crocodile both covered in rivulets of veins and muscles. Musa is a haunting piece, a mermaid-like presents at rest in a woven basket of liquid, just next to a similar basket of egg-shaped heads.
Nabuqi: Ghost, Skin, Dwelling
Edouard Malingue Gallery
Edouard Malingue Gallery in Shanghai presented “Nabuqi: Ghost, Skin, Dwelling” November 10-December 12. A range of objects and works were on view, from colorful seating, to floor lamps, to window and door frames. Public and private spaces are blurred, what can be used or just observed. “Bodies and objects become more intimate, in place, in contact, and in peace with one another,” said the artist.
Feeling the Stones
Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale
Saudi Arabia’s first biennial opened on December 11, 2021, and is on view through March 11, 2022. Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale takes place in the city’s JAX district, featuring the work of over 60 national and international artists. Lead curator Philip Tinari of UCCA worked with Wejdan Reda, Shixuan Luan, and Neil Zhang to create a show in six parts over six buildings inspired by the popular 1980s concept of “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” Participating artists include Shadia Alem, William Kentridge, Filwa Nazer, Xu Bing, Sarah Morris, Sarah Abu Abdallah, Tavares Strachen, and many more. “The Biennale’s aims are twofold: to bring Saudi contemporary art into the global conversation, and to bring Saudi audiences into the world of contemporary art. We are grateful to have been in extended dialogue with the participating artists, and are excited to support and show 29 newly commissioned works,” said Tinari.