Tit was the year of the great exhibition – despite the plague. Galleries offered shows online when they couldn’t open and riches when they could, regardless of the ravages of canceled loans, insurance hikes and unreliable transportation. The schedules were skillfully altered and the blockbusters extended, so aptly that the Tate shows lasted longer and the magnificent Late Constable of the Royal Academy continues until next year. Still, one curator said, 2021 was like playing poker while juggling eggs.
Great surveys of women artists have continued at a steady pace, but not yet quickly enough to make up for lost time. The wild and moving genius of Scottish painter Joan Eardley has been celebrated in several centenary exhibitions across Scotland. The graphic spirit and the versatility of the needle, pen and brush of Swiss modernist Sophie Taeuber-Arp dazzled Tate Modern. There have been lifelong commemorations of Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield, Eileen Agar in Whitechapel, Laura Knight in Milton Keynes (still until February 20) and American Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler in Dulwich – her diaphanous visions as mist , often expansive, but miraculously achieved by hardwood engraving.
By general consent, Yinka Shonibare has given the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition an exhilarating new life with exceptional works by black artists. And 2021 felt at least slightly more diverse, with fascinating solo exhibitions by Charles Gaines, Michael Armitage and Samson Kambalu, Joy Labinjo and Sonia Boyce in public spaces, Carrie Mae Weems in Cardiff, whose photographs could be seen at the outdoors during the lockdown, and each one of 40+ contributors to Life Between Islands, seven decades of British Caribbean art at Tate Britain, so overwhelming I’ll never forget it. It was the show of the year for me.
The paint flew away, and was everywhere. People whispered that it was safer than installation or event art, say, during a pandemic (although that didn’t stop Yayoi Kusama’s mirror-in-mirror Infinity Rooms from selling at Tate Modern. ). Mixing It Up: Painting Today by Ralph Rugoff offered an exciting glimpse into what he called “one of the three best painting scenes in the world right now” – ours. Her exhibition at the Hayward Gallery offered an astonishing array of UK-based artists – Lisa Brice, Matthew Krishanu, Vivien Zhang, rising stars Mohammed Sami and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami – almost all born elsewhere. Another irreducible argument, if it were necessary, for free movement.
Many venerable artists have died in 2021. There will be no more works by Christian Boltanski, Chuck Close, Lawrence Weiner or the Lebanese painter and poet Etel Adnan, who died at the age of 96. His lesson in life was radiantly simple: “When I paint, I am happy.” The tragic death of the internationally admired Tate Modern exhibition director Achim Borchardt-Hume, whose exhibitions included the incomparable Picasso: 1932, was announced last month.He was 56. Memories of his acclaimed shows survive him.
The Courtauld Gallery reopened after several years – clarified, embellished, newly cleaned masterpieces, staging a sequence of surprises. The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh has expanded to incorporate an entire double-height warehouse. The Southwest has acquired a new museum with the Box in Plymouth, opened with an Australian art exhibition. Bournemouth got the Giant Art Gallery, where Debenhams once stood. You can now see the YBAs by the sea.
Art can take you anywhere – and this year it did. In the Middle East in the epic V&A Iran, in Australia at the Tate Modern (until fall 2022) and in Peru (until February 22), ancient Rome of Nero and Japan of Hokusai in the wonderful The Great Picture Book of Everything (ending January 30), all at the British Museum. Art – international, intimate – embraced us in the world again this year, when that world seemed far away. For that and for everything else, I am very grateful.
The top 10 art exhibitions of 2021
1. Life between the islands: Caribbean-British art from the 1950s to the present day
Tate Britain, London (until April 3)
Joyful, piercing, beautiful: transatlantic life on all media
2. The late gendarme
Royal Academy, London (until February 13)
Dark, tumultuous, triumphant works.
3. Paula Rego
The turbulent inner life in stunning narrative paintings.
4. Joan Eardley’s centenary
Multiple exhibitions by this great Scottish painter of children, seas and winter landscapes.
5. Frans Hals
Wallace Collection, London (until January 30)
Revolutionize the male portrait: spies, diplomats, horsemen, brewers.
6. Hélène Frankenthaler
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (until April 18)
Captivating visions miraculously realized in woodcut.
7. Jean Dubuffet
A rebellious and spiritual pioneer of subversive art brut.
8. Sophie Taeuber-Arp
Tate Modern, London
Paintings, puppets, embroidery and more by this long neglected modernist.
9. Tokyo: art and photography
Modern Art Oxford (until January 3)
Love, loneliness, life and death in the floating world.
10. Artes Mundi
Sweep the world through the best of contemporary art.
Turner Prize 2021
Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry (until January 12)
Four socially concerned collectives: the most worthy to date, but perhaps the worst.