The coronavirus pandemic is a health crisis with so many cultural consequences: Above all, the deeper absorption of all facets of our life into networks and phone screens. Even more than last year, I was drawn to art, music and films that in one way or another elude the functioning of likes and shares – and created a place for human creativity in a world that is too dominated by algorithmic logic .
The apple of my eye. The meticulous, almost overwhelming summer exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art distilled the father figure of modernism to its essentials and revealed the daily, line by line scrutiny that is required to make a piece of fruit as weighty as the Holy Family. Those heavy pears, those lumpy bathers. These short green and blue spots in his views of Mont-Sainte-Victoire. These Provencal rock formations – air rock and watercolor, CÃ©zanne as a geologist! What those hundreds of sheets of paper confirmed on time was that your art will never change someone else’s life if it only shows your opinion. You need the distinction, the seriousness that can only come out of shape. (Read our Review of âCÃ©zanne drawingâ.)
I would call the 42-year-old Japanese film director the most exciting in years if he wasn’t so … calm. âDrive My Carâ, Hamaguchi’s infallibly precise story of a widowed actor who sublimates his grief through his chauffeur and Chekhov, has virtues that are feared to have disappeared from the cinema: long takes, razor-sharp cuts, a leisurely belief in the importance of images. Like Jacques Rivette and Mike Leigh before him, Hamaguchi contrasts his unobtrusive camera work with the conventions of theater – in this case a multilingual âUncle Vanyaâ production that leads to a quiet, heartbreaking finale when Sonya of the troupe âWe’ll rest! “In Korean sign language. Add to this” Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, “Hamaguchi’s three-part fugue of love and intuition, also released this year, and you have the emergence of a breathtaking talent that romance finds rigor. (Read our Review of “Drive my car”.)
Barney & friends
Two decades ago his world making was confused with American Wagnerism; but Matthew Barney is more cooperative and relaxed than you might think, and he’s doing the best job of his career in the easier register, first seen in his 2019 film Redoubt.
For the performance âKatasterismus in three Movementsâ this September at Schaulager in Switzerland, he left more than half of the evening to the Basel Sinfonietta, which performed Jonathan Bepler’s troubled music alongside a Bernese sculpture made of copper, brass and burnt pine. Three women brought the rest of Catasterism to life: contact improvisation pioneer KJ Holmes, cree hoop dancer Sandra Lamouche, and athlete Jill Bettonvil as the sharp-shot Diana pumping a meaty Barney sculpture full of lead. (Read our review Matthew Barney’s “Redoubt”.)
“The Marbles of Torlonia”
In Rome alone this spring, in the almost empty Capitoline Museums, I saw the first public exhibition of the largest private collection of ancient art in half a century. Travel restrictions made the Greek and Roman sculptures of the Torlonia family random sleepers: dozens of portrait busts, a hairy billy goat lying like a god of love, a shattered Hercules reassembled from a hundred shards. Rome was my first trip abroad since the pandemic, and I would undergo a dozen PCR tests to see this truly legendary collection before it disappears again on January 9th. (Read our report on the Torlonia marbles.)
Astral, but never spacey, architectural and yet also limitless, this nine-movement album-length composition deserves each of the rave reviews that rained down when it was released in March. While Pharoah Sanders’ muted tenor saxophone (and occasional vocalizations) swings around the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra and the synthesizers and celesta of Sam Shepherd – aka Floating Points, a British electronic musician nearly five decades younger than Sanders – feels ” Promises âlike a self-regulating ecosystem, an increasingly dense network of music and movement. These guys knew what they were doing when they chose a painting by Julie Mehretu for the album cover, whose retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art this year was the same accumulating size. (Read our Review of “Promise”.)
The secret of good decoration: just buy the best and do nothing! Fricks’ down-to-earth reinstallation in Whitney’s vacant building filtered the Vermeers and VelÃ¡zquezes we thought we knew and isolated Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert âin a sublime brutalist cell that is illuminated by one of Marcel Breuer’s trapezoidal windows. What Frick Madison has proven more subtly is that we can contextualize art in a hundred digital formats; The greatest challenge for museums is to gain time and space to really look. (Read our story on the making of Frick Madison.)
The weather station, ‘ignorance’
I feel so useless / Like a tree in a city park / Standing as a symbol for what / We have blown apartâ¦. While forests burned in British Columbia and diplomats hesitated in Glasgow, the Toronto singer and songwriter Tamara Lindeman, who appears as the weather station, presented an unconditional, open-hearted album of atmospheric fear in which guitars mix with greenhouse gases and the loss is measured in metric measurements becomes tons. She knows we don’t need artists to tell us the climate has changed; we need them to tell us how we are. (Read our Interview with the singer.)
Paris had a quartet of great cultural openings this year. The Bourse de Commerce, renovated by Tadao Ando for FranÃ§ois Pinault’s contemporary art collection, attracted the most Instagram shares, but it has been two renovated historic sites – the MusÃ©e Carnavalet, the Museum of Parisian History, and the HÃ´tel de la Marine, the amazingly large naval headquarters – that best combined old and new. The sweetest surprise in town is the old Samaritaine department store, which has reopened after 16 years and whose Art Nouveau surfaces have been renewed with wavy glass from the Japanese company Sanaa. (Read our story on the Restoration of the HÃ´tel de la Marine.)
Books are back!
Closer to home, the New York Public Library emerged from a far too long pandemic closure with a sweet new home: the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, formerly the shabby Mid-Manhattan Library, which the Dutch company Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder rethought and revived became beautiful. Its clean white spaces are packed with computers (there’s even a Bloomberg terminal for budding teen retailers), but the core remains its 400,000-member collection of books in circulation, which is open for free browsing. A few years ago the NYPL planned to sell this place and relegate its main research books to New Jersey. The Niarchos – like Toshiko Mori’s renovation of the Brooklyn Public Library – is an affirmation that cities need readers and readers need print media. (Read our Review of the new library.)
Daniil Medvedev’s ridicule
The most beautiful and funniest performance art of the year took place at Arthur Ashe Stadium when the lanky young Russian put down his last serve, won the US Open title – and had his whole body tossed onto the pitch, mimicking a PlayStation movement while he lolled like a dead fish. As arrogant as it is ridiculous, Medvedev’s side-flop kept me locked up all fall as a Gen Z masterclass in how to stay human in a world of memes. If you need to dive into the algorithm then do it with total disdain. (Read our profile from the “octopus” Daniil Medvedev.)