Laura Cumming’s Best Art in 2021 | Art and design

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 cleverly changed 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 the Whitechapel, Laura Knight in Milton Keynes (always on, until February 20) and American Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler in Dulwich – her diaphanous mist-like visions, often expansive, but miraculously achieved through a hard woodblock print.

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 Soldier’s Daughter by Paula Rego, 1987. Photograph: © Paula Rego

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 on mirror Infinity rooms for sale 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. Just like the one in Edinburgh Fruit market gallery, expanding to incorporate an entire double-height warehouse. The southwest has acquired a new museum with the box in Plymouth, opening with an Australian art exhibition. Bournemouth got the art gallery Giant, 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 V&A Epic Iran, at Australia at Tate Modern (until fall 2022), and in Peru (until February 22), Ancient Rome of Nero and the Japan of Hokusai in the marvelous The Great Picture Book of Everything (ends January 30), all at the British Museum. Art – international, intimate – embraced us in the world again this year, when that world seemed distant. For that and for everything else, I am very grateful.

The top 10 art exhibitions of 2021

Rain on the Sea, c1824-1828 by John Constable.
Rain on the Sea, c1824-1828 by John Constable, of the late Constable at the Royal Gallery. Photography: Royal Academy of Arts, London

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
Tate Brittany
The turbulent inner life in stunning narrative paintings.

4. centenary of Joan Eardley
Across Scotland

Multiple exhibitions by this great Scottish painter of children, seas and winter landscapes.

Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz by Frans Hals.
Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz by Frans Hals.

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
Barbican, London

A rebellious and spiritual pioneer of subversive art brut.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp with Dada head, 1920
Sophie Taeuber-Arp with Dada head, 1920

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.

About Brandon A. Hood

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