There have been signs of a surge coming for years: Kara Walker’s moving meditation on sugar’s inextricable links to slavery, which drew crowds to Brooklyn’s old Domino Sugar factory in 2014; the history-making, back-to-back turns of two African-American artists, Mark Bradford and Martin Puryear, representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and 2019, respectively; the burbling to the top of other women and artists of color never quite given their due, such as Howardena Pindell, Charles Gaines and Jack Whitten. But it was only in the past year that the art world’s commitment to diversity finally felt serious. And then, with the brutal police killing of George Floyd giving way to worldwide protests against systemic racism, that progress suddenly felt woefully inadequate. As the keepers of our culture, museums came into sharp relief during the Black Lives Matter protests, leaving their internal staff hierarchies, boards of trustees and other institutional shortcomings open to criticism. Some owned up to their failures, while others took sharp hits for their tone-deaf responses.
Leading galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, Pace and David Zwirner have been in an arms race to sign acclaimed artists of color and women for the past couple years, but that competition came to a head in 2019 with Nicole Eisenman, Glenn Ligon and Sam Gilliam—just a few of the big names to throw in with powerful dealers. At the same time, many of the most talked-about rising stars continued to push the art world beyond its comfort zone: Vaughn Spann, who was a highlight of a group show at Gagosian; Lauren Halsey, who brought a South Central vibe to Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton; and Jordan Casteel, who caught the eye of important collectors, such as J. Tomilson Hill, and followed her frst major solo exhibition, at the Denver Art Museum in 2019, with a solo turn at the New Museum in New York.
Many of the fall art season’s most acclaimed exhibitions were devoted to African-American artists, including the multidisciplinary Pope.L, who was celebrated in New York at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as by the Public Art Fund, for which he orchestrated one of his signature “Crawls”; assemblage artist Betye Saar, who at 93 had bicoastal shows at MoMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Theaster Gates, who brought his pioneering social-practice art to the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis. Prominent commissions also gave voice to the once-silenced, such as Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, depicting a proud black youth riding a powerful steed—which resides in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., a setting that is all the more poignant now that so many of the Confederate statues the piece riffs on are being torn down—and Wangechi Mutu’s commanding African women, posted along the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art like sentries.
Meanwhile, in a controversial move, the Baltimore Museum of Art vowed that in 2020 it would buy art exclusively by women, an attempt to rectify the profound imbalance in its collection, which was 96 percent male at the beginning of the initiative. It even sold a few of those male-made pieces, including a Warhol and a Franz Kline, to fund the new acquisitions.
But the moment that signaled a true sea change occurred when MoMA reopened its doors after a $450 million expansion. It wasn’t only the many temporary exhibitions and installations by artists of color, including Pope.L and Saar, that made a statement, but also the collection galleries, which no longer told an art history written almost exclusively by white men. The Alfred H. Barr Jr. Galleries, where curators hung Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, may have shown it best: The canonical masterpiece had a new neighbor, African-American artist Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, a piece that, with its explosive energy and politically charged theme, feels uncannily of the moment, though it was painted in 1967. The painting took its place not with the humble gratitude of a guest but with the hard-earned self-respect of ownership.
Retrospective: Gerhard Richter: Painting After All at the Met Breuer
The exhibition, which opened just nine days before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the museum to close, traces Richter’s 60-plus-year career as one of the era’s most lauded and influential artists. Richter is that rare artist who can move seamlessly between representation and abstraction, with each form borrowing from the other. His interests in perception, in photography’s growing cultural dominance and in the material possibilities of paint coalesce to make him an undisputed master. But it’s his unflinching humanity that makes this exhibition essential viewing. With authoritarian regimes on the rise around the world, Richter’s work has never felt more relevant—or more haunting.
The paintings reveal what philosopher Hannah Arendt termed the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, here hiding in plain sight. A seemingly ordinary family portrait is of Richter’s first wife as a child, posing happily at the beach with her mother, sister and father—a notorious Nazi doctor who transitioned to a comfortable life after the war, without consequence. There’s also the hazy but unmistakably smiling Uncle Rudi, a black-and-white canvas mimicking an old photograph of the artist’s uncle, a soldier killed on the Eastern Front; that signature blurring speaks to the fog of memory, the impossibility of knowing. Richter, whose view of history is sharp, gave the painting to the Czech village of Lidice—where the German army had massacred civilians—as an acknowledgment of culpability.
Rediscovery: Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 at the Whitney Museum of American Art
(Above: Diego Rivera, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931)
Art history tends to portray American artists as under the spell of Europeans, at least until World War II. But this Whitney exhibition, which was also interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, paints a picture of Stateside artists in the 1920s and ’30s focused on another foreign land: Mexico.
The end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 unleashed the Mexican Renaissance, and among the most inventive artists were the muralists, whose highly stylized epics told stories of peasants, laborers, class struggle and everyday life. American artists traveled to Mexico to see them, and Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros—known as Los Tres Grandes, or “the Three Greats”—all brought their considerable talents to the US, influencing scores of artists here, including Philip Guston and Jacob Lawrence. Jackson Pollock even made a pilgrimage to Pomona College in California to see Orozco’s intense Prometheus and later kept an image of the Greek rebel in his studio. When Siqueiros set up a workshop in New York, Pollock joined his experiments with paint handling, which helped him develop his iconic dripping and flinging.
But the influence on Americans aside, the Mexican avant-gardists’ murals and canvases hold up in their own right as boldly colored, complexly composed, deeply empathetic portrayals of the human condition.
The art industry has taken heat of late—including in these pages—for its environmentally unfriendly circuit of far-flung fairs, biennials and other must-go events that keep art and its followers on a near-constant circumnavigation of the globe. Among its less-than-green practices is the standard use of wooden crates, which are typically dismantled and discarded after a single shipment.
Enter Rokbox, a reusable packing crate that launched last year. Made from recycled or recyclable materials, Rokbox requires no additional packaging, is adjustable for varying sizes of canvases and protects against water, vibration and shock. It also arrives carbon-neutral, as the company purchases offsets for its manufacture; even shipping it requires less fuel because it’s lighter than wood. Andrew Stramentov, the company’s founder and managing director, compares it to a reusable water bottle—though because of the size differential between a bottle and a heavy wooden crate, “each time you reuse a Rokbox is like reusing a water bottle 333 times.”
Museum Expansion: Museum of Modern Art
You can’t blame the doubters. The last time MoMA expanded, in 2004, the result felt like a soulless corporate tower. Then, to make way for this round of growth, MoMA announced it would raze the much-admired former home of the American Folk Art Museum next door, sending the architectural community into an uproar. But when the addition, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler, was unveiled in the fall, all seemed forgiven. The expansion, which added more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space, is not only light and airy, with a glass-walled staircase that invites the city in, but it also allows the museum to tell a much broader, deeper story.
MoMA is the de facto keeper of the modernist canon, and the story it chooses to tell is of utmost importance. Richard Serra’s imposing steel blocks are there, but so are George Ohr’s quirky ceramic bowls. Matisse’s The Red Studio is there, but hanging next to it is Fiery Sunset by Alma Woodsey Thomas, an African-American painter born in Georgia in 1891. MoMA committed to rotating a third of the works in the collection galleries every six months. That doesn’t mean every piece will have a turn on the bench—it’s hard to imagine The Starry Night or One: Number 31, 1950 being shelved—but if nothing else, serious FOMO will surely translate to return visits.
Museum Commissions: Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, at Tate Modern & Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
(Above: Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019)
Installed last fall on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Walker’s off-kilter interpretation of a grand memorial fountain and Wiley’s subversive rendition of a Confederate statue both use the artists’ characteristic insight and wit to take on the public monuments long decried as symbols of white supremacy, some of which local governments—or protesters—have torn down this spring.
Walker’s piece, for Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall, took the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace as a jumping-off point to consider what we elect to memorialize, and what those choices say about our culture. Her four-tiered fountain takes jabs at the UK’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade—or, as she describes it, “an Empire that redirected the fates of the world.” The allegorical tour de force includes a multitude of telling figures, including a weeping boy, a possibly remorseful plantation owner and a laughing “Queen Vicky,” as well as circling sharks.
Wiley’s equestrian bronze places a black youth wearing a hoodie atop a muscular steed, with the pair elevated on an enormous stone plinth. The meaning would be clear anywhere, but the fact that the site-specific piece is permanently installed a few blocks away from an avenue of Confederate statues in Richmond, Va., the onetime Confederate capital, makes it all the more gripping. Just months after Wiley’s sculpture was installed, protesters toppled that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis one night in June. Mayor Levar Stoney has pledged his intent to do the same to the statue of General Robert E. Lee.
Gallery Expansion: Pace Gallery
Founded 60 years ago by Arne Glimcher and now helmed by his son, Marc, Pace boasts a rich history of representing many of the era’s brightest luminaries, including Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg and many more. That daunting legacy hasn’t stopped Marc from trying to close the gender gap by adding prominent senior female artists such as Lynda Benglis and Mary Corse, or from building a roster of 21st-century stars, among them Tara Donovan, Loie Hollowell and Adam Pendleton. All told, there are now roughly 100 artists and estates in the lineup.
Representing that many artists requires substantial real estate, and in September, Pace—which also has galleries in London, Hong Kong, Seoul, Geneva and Palo Alto—inaugurated a new eight-story flagship in New York’s Chelsea. “You have a lot of artists, you need a lot of galleries. That’s pretty straightforward, right?,” Marc told Robb Report last summer in the lead-up to the opening. “The flip side of it is: How are you going to attract these artists? An incredible space attracts artists, but these things go together.”
At 75,000 square feet, with multiple galleries for simultaneous shows, Pace is bigger than some museums. But intimate spaces, including a rooftop sculpture garden and a flexible gallery for Pace Live, a new performance program, keep it from feeling overwhelming. And though Marc said his wife has forbidden him from opening another gallery, he insisted, “We still do not have enough space.”
Blockbuster: Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre
(Above: Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne, circa 1508)
Plenty might be envious, but few could argue that the Louvre, with the largest holdings of his extant paintings in the world (five, or roughly a third), including the Mona Lisa, not to mention 22 drawings, is the best positioned museum to mount a once-in-a-lifetime Leonardo exhibition. Then there’s the fact that the Renaissance polymath died in France, leaving some French to bask just a bit in his reflective genius.
In any case, 500 years after his death and with hard-wrangled loans from the Vatican Museums and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, among others, the Louvre opened its show to exuberant acclaim—and drew a record 1.1 million visitors, more than double the record set by the previous holder, Delacroix. Absent the ability to move the Milanese convent refectory that houses The Last Supper, the Louvre gathered the essential Leonardos, from Vitruvian Man (arguably the world’s most famous drawing) and his mesmerizing painted drapery studies to his scientific notebooks (loaned by Bill and Melinda Gates). As New York Times critic Holland Cotter observed, “Leonardo’s greatest accomplishment was that he erased the distinctions between art and ideas, putting a positive endgame value on long-term exploring over short-term arriving.”
Emphasis on long-term. He spent more than 20 years tweaking The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne, his depiction of three generations in which a grown Mary sits on her mother’s lap while reaching for her own babe—an image as moving in the 21st century as the 16th.
One to Watch: Jordan Casteel
(Above: Jordan Casteel, Her Turn, 2018)
Jordan Casteel is not one for wasting time. Just three months after earning her MFA from Yale, in 2014, she wowed the art world with a gallery show featuring richly hued nudes of men of color, their genitalia purposely hidden as a commentary on our culture’s sexualizing of the black male body. That dazzling debut led to a coveted residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Less than five years later, she landed her first solo major-museum exhibition, at her hometown Denver Art Museum, followed this past winter by one at the New Museum in New York, placing her among a cadre of acclaimed black artists devoted to depicting people of color.
“I was always interested in representing an authentic view of the people and environment around me,” the 31-year-old Casteel tells Robb Report. “My years at Yale distinguished personal, global and art historical factors that further clarified my commitment to painting people of color.”
She has since found her subjects in her community: on the streets of Harlem, where she now lives, and in her classroom at Rutgers University–Newark, where she is a tenure-track professor. Working primarily from photographs she takes herself, Casteel creates empathic portraits with nuanced expressions and body language. Obsessed since childhood with color and its potential for symbolism, Casteel meticulously selects her palette before beginning a canvas, often subtly applying atypical pigments for skin tones, such as pink or purple, which she says represent the mosaic of experience that exists within a subject. “It’s my way of pushing the boundary,” she says.
The daughter and granddaughter of social-justice activists—her maternal grandfather was Whitney Young Jr., the revered head of the National Urban League in the 1960s—Casteel has similar ideals “embedded in my being,” as she puts it, but uses different tools. “They’re real, living people,” she says of her subjects. “I’m defending their identity.”
Gallery Show: Amy Sherald, the heart of the matter… at Hauser & Wirth
(Above: Amy Sherald, If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it, 2019 )
Sherald was respected but fairly obscure before her official portrait of a regal, circumspect former first lady Michelle Obama—who handpicked Sherald for the job—was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2018, catapulting her into the spotlight’s glare. The larger-than-life painting, in which Sherald employed grisaille, her signature technique of representing black skin tones with shades of gray, proved such a hit with the public that the museum decided to send it on tour next year, along with Kehinde Wiley’s companion portrait of former president Barack Obama.
The commission secured Sherald’s reputation and landed her a spot at a major gallery, Hauser & Wirth, known for its starry—and diverse—roster. For her sharply edited debut show at the gallery’s space in New York’s Chelsea, Sherald produced eight canvases, all of them realist, photo-based portraits of everyday African Americans. Most wear boldly patterned clothing and stand against brightly saturated, monochromatic backgrounds, the simplicity of which throws the viewer’s attention back to the subjects themselves. And that’s the point: Sherald’s goal is not only to help rectify the long absence of black figures from the canon but also to broaden their representation in the culture.
“If you’re black, I want it to be a resting place to see a reflection of yourself in a way that is perhaps opposite of what you would see in the media,” she told one interviewer last year. “I want it to be reflective of beauty, dignity and self-worth. For people who are not black, I want them to take the time to internalize something that’s not them.”
Performance: Pope.L, Conquest, with the Public Art Fund
As part of a three-venue tribute to Pope.L, the Public Art Fund produced Conquest, the latest installment of the artist’s long-running “Crawls” series, in which he dragged himself facedown through urban environments in a potent metaphor for struggle against a backdrop of homelessness. Pope.L made his first “Crawl” in 1978 and over the years did versions carrying a small potted flower or wearing a Superman costume.
One hot Saturday in September, more than 140 volunteers gathered in New York’s West Village and, in relay, traversed a mile-and-a-half course to Union Square Park, squirming on their bellies, crawling on all fours or shimmying on their derrieres along the sidewalks—while blindfolded and carrying flashlights. Each wore knee and elbow pads, but only one shoe. One woman also wore her baby in a carrier. There were old and young, able-bodied and disabled, and people of every race and from every borough, representing every stratum of the city. The grueling physicality and atypical unity among strangers were affecting, as was the route, which passed the AIDS Memorial and areas once farmed by Lenape Indians and inhabited by colonial-era slaves—now among the city’s most affluent addresses. That irony was not lost, nor was the collective reaction of random passersby, which ranged from bewildered and amused to shocked, even empathetic.