Best art exhibitions 2021

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However, I close with a greeting to some of the really great and often minimally rewarded photographers of 2021: the photojournalists, professional or not, who are everywhere this year – the ones who caught every wicked twist on the right wing uprising in Washington, who stepped straight into the fiery furnace that is increasingly our planetary landscape, recording the ripping chaos in Afghanistan to the departure of the last planes and beyond, and who caught the collective cheers as the verdict of Ahmaud Arbery was pronounced. No artist produced more important works.


roberta smith

This fall, there was a sense of high spirits in certain areas of Manhattan, namely the areas with many commercial art galleries. People commented dizzy about the unusually high quality of the gallery scene, as if the art dealers had returned to their calling and were eager to make up for the hardships of the lockdown. Several men had impressive shows – Philip Guston, Beauford Delaney (until December 23rd), David Salle and Alvaro Barrington come to mind. What moved me most, however, was the high frequency of outstanding individual presentations of women’s art – more than I could mention here, even if I could have seen them all. The exhibitions touched all stages of artistic development – early, medium, late – and the cumulative message was about longevity: women have always been here and dedicated their lives to art.

(Read our reviews of Philip Guston, Beauford Delaney, David Salle and Alvaro Barrington.)

Right at the start of the year there were signs that some excellent debuts might be around the corner. Canada introduced Rachel Eulena Williams colorful, irregular pieces of wall that combined discarded pieces of paper and plastic with the help of cords into collages that were hung up and released (among their predecessors: the sculpted paintings by Elizabeth Murray, the toned-down sand and fabric sculptures by Senga Nengudi, and the cut tin constructions the outsider artist David Butler). In the Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with the Studio Museum, the filmmaker Garrett Bradley presented “America”, two overlapping screens hanging in the center of a gallery on and through which she projects combinations of found and made footage that form a majestic reinterpretation of African American culture and history. Another highlight and something of a sleeper was the debut of Cathy Lebowitz in the Skoto Gallery. The artist for two decades Editor at Art in AmericaShe had previously kept her wonderful drawings to herself. Made with colored pencil, they are modest, absolutely riveting and extremely unstable. Their surfaces are filled with interlocking shapes and textures that reflect the influence of Gorky and, oddly enough, Morandi. They refuse to merge into legibility and constantly point out various possibilities: abstraction, overgrown garden, untidy studio, cabinet of curiosities of a naturalist.


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