The Big Idea: A Racial Reckoning
It was a rocky year for the art world. The pandemic forced museums and galleries to close for months on end. Long-planned exhibitions were delayed. Revenues from ticket sales, galas and membership dues were lost. When museums did reopen, they operated with reduced attendance.
But the novel coronavirus was only one culprit in the institutions’ illness. As the death of George Floyd ushered in Black Lives Matter protests in cities large and small, night after night, pent-up frustrations over racial inequality in virtually every facet of American life erupted. And the great art museums, which fancy themselves bastions of progressive values, were no exception.
Many museums have recently made strides in diversifying their exhibition programs and collections. (In this space last year, we applauded those efforts.) But paradoxically, staff members charged that institutional racism kept their leadership ranks disproportionately white and frequently poisoned the workplace.
This time, outrage began to have an impact, as prominent figures fell from grace. At the Guggenheim Museum, a guest curator accused chief curator Nancy Spector of treating her in a racist manner. Current and former staff complained of systemic racism at the museum, which did not hire a full-time Black curator until 2019, 60 years after its founding. Though a law firm hired by the Guggenheim cleared Spector, she resigned, and was replaced with the first Black person to hold the position, rising star Naomi Beckwith.
At a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staff meeting, longtime senior curator Gary Garrels was defending the continued consideration of white male artists when he cited the need to avoid “reverse discrimination.” Ironically, Garrels championed making the collection more inclusive and had acquired pieces by Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, among other artists of color, with the proceeds from the sale of a Rothko. But an uproar ensued over his use of the loaded term, which is associated with foes of the civil-rights movement, and Garrels, too, resigned.
Virtually no institution was unscathed. Directors at museums in Cleveland and Detroit left under clouds, though a powerful curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art held on to his job after deriding those in favor of removing white-supremacist monuments as “revolutionary zealots”—on Juneteenth, no less.
The gaffe that perhaps best illustrated museums’ often lackluster attempts at progress occurred at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which planned an exhibition about protest art. But its method of collecting examples—from charity sales meant for the Black community, rather than with customary fees—infuriated the artists as a tone-deaf continuation of institutional degradation of Black artists. At least the museum was consistent: It asked neither for artists’ permission to display their works nor for their input before promptly canceling the show.
Museum Retrospective: ‘Alice Neel: People Come First’
Just when we could use a strong jolt of humanism, the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes along with this spot-on retrospective of Alice Neel, an artist who spent much of her career making extraordinary portraits of ordinary people. The Met has assembled about 100 of her expressionistic paintings, drawings and watercolors, which also include streetscapes and still lifes, for the long-overdue examination (up until August 1) of a woman whom Met director Max Hollein calls “one of the [20th] century’s most radical painters.”
Well before it was fashionable, Neel, who died in 1984 at the age of 84, was deeply committed to social justice. Through decades when pure abstraction was the name of the game and figuration was out, she stuck to what moved her: New York City and the countless strands of humanity she encountered there, confronting forces both societal (the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the civil-rights movement) and personal (motherhood, sexual desire). Atypical for a white artist, she frequently chose people of color as her subjects, many of them neighbors in Spanish Harlem, where she lived and worked for more than 20 years. With a skilled hand, she authentically and unsentimentally depicted those more accustomed to being overlooked: immigrants and children, women who were pregnant or breast- feeding, LGBTQ individuals, political activists and others. The renderings are psychologically penetrating and often subversive, such as the nude self-portrait she made when she was 80. Though she toiled in obscurity too long, Neel has become an influential force, touching such contemporary artists as 2020 Best of the Best “One to Watch” Jordan Casteel.
Group Show: ‘Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America’
Years before the world heard of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright, the late curator Okwui Enwezor conceived this exhibition at the New Museum examining Black Americans’ grief over racist violence “in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance,” as he writes in the accompanying catalog. He had hoped it would open last October, before the presidential election. The pandemic delayed that plan, but nothing could blunt the impact of this show, which traces the perennial state of mourning in the Black community from slavery through the rise of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan and into the current era, in which police brutality and mass incarceration remain burning issues.
The show features an all-star cast of 37 Black artists, including Mark Bradford, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Arthur Jafa, Julie Mehretu and Carrie Mae Weems, who make use of just about every medium, from painting to video, installation to sound. The art is nothing less than haunting, whether Kevin Beasley’s Strange Fruit (Pair 1), which borrows the title of Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching ballad for a dangling sculpture in which Air Jordans serve as stand-ins for a Black body, or images from LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family,” a stark series of photographs capturing the economic and emotional fallout of perpetual racism in black and white.
Saving Grace: Outdoor Art
In this past strange loop of a year, when we’d exhausted every episode of every series on every streaming service and baked enough bread to keep insulin manufacturers running overtime but were wary of stepping inside any enclosed structure that wasn’t our own home, there remained places of soul-renewing respite.
Outdoor art, whether in city plazas or rural sculpture parks, offered those who yearned for afternoons at museums or galleries a chance to contemplate something other than the pandemic. Visiting such beloved spots gave viewers a literal breath of fresh air, whether it was Anish Kapoor’s giant, mirrorlike “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park or Martha Tuttle’s installation of 200 diminutive handcrafted glass and carved marble stones placed atop boulders across eight acres of field at the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. Tuttle’s piece, on view through November 8, is titled A stone that thinks of Enceladus in a nod to the Saturn moon, the most reflective object in our solar system and a more than apt metaphor for the impulses the work inspires.
Public Art: Statue De-Installations
Sometimes an empty plinth or even a hole in the ground is preferable to a piece of public art. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and renewed conversations about what and whom we choose to honor in stone, scores of public statues—chief among them Confederate figures such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis—were carted off last year. Most were erected decades after the Civil War in an unsavory effort to recast white supremacists in a noble light.
In many instances, local governments or universities removed the tributes. In others, fed-up activists did the toppling, with ropes or chains. The trend caught on in Europe as well: In Belgium, statues glorifying the brutal Leopold II, who turned much of central Africa into his personal piggy bank at the expense of countless Black lives, were vandalized and dismantled, and in the UK, dozens of memorials to slave traders, colonialists and promulgators of racism came down.
“Finally” was the typical, but not universal, reaction among progressive-minded folk. Sir David Adjaye, the Ghanaian-British architect, told Robb Report last year that he is opposed to removing controversial memorials. He sees them as material reminders of painful episodes in history—reminders that should help us prevent repeating the same mistakes.
Digital Program: David Zwirner Gallery
When the pandemic struck, most galleries were caught flat-footed. Everyone had a website, of course, and art dealers had grown accustomed to sending collectors JPEGs of artworks years ago. But a scant few actually had any sort of online exhibition program or strategy for selling without brick-and-mortar spaces or international art fairs.
David Zwirner, who presciently had commissioned McKinsey & Co. to help the gallery with a digital push in 2019, was well poised to pivot. “I realized that our industry is literally 10 years behind,” he told Robb Report last year, adding, “I wanted to start an internal digital revolution.” Shortly after New York and other cities shut down, his gallery unfurled an online program that ticked all the boxes: It was smart and visually compelling, with contributions from the likes of Jeff Koons, Lisa Yuskavage, Suzan Frecon and Kerry James Marshall; drew in new collectors; and managed to create a sense of urgency among heavy hitters who may have been hesitant to buy in uncertain times. It even put a spotlight on small, struggling galleries in the US and Europe that lacked the resources to develop a strong online presence of their own, giving them a selling platform, free of charge.
Blockbuster: ‘Raffaello 1520-1483’
This celebration of the Renaissance wunderkind on the 500th anniversary of his death at the age of 37 was meant to be a must-see historical exhibition that would bring even bigger hordes of tourists than usual to Rome. But when Covid hit, public-health measures forced the Scuderie del Quirinale to shut down the once-in-a-lifetime show just three days after it opened in March 2020. The curators regrouped and reopened in June, making the case that Raphael (as the English language styles him) was the period’s greatest painter.
The pandemic still precluded foreign visitors from making the pilgrimage, so the organizers decided to bring Raphael to them. A series of videos, available at scuderiequirinale.it (with English translations on YouTube), illuminate the exhibition of 120 works by the master as well as an additional 80 objects and artifacts assembled by curators. Like his archrival Michelangelo and the elder statesman Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael did not confine his ambitions to painting; he also made important contributions to architecture, classical archaeology and printmaking. But few would deny that his spectacular brushwork—capturing human emotion, fluidity of movement and exquisite detail, all in a brilliant palette—was the star of this show, whether in the pathos of his portrait of the wall-eyed Tommaso Inghirami or the radiant femininity of his women (Michelangelo could have stood a lesson from him on that count). Little wonder his patron Pope Leo X was said to have wept upon hearing news of Raphael’s untimely death.
Reimagined Collection: Frick Madison
Old masters haven’t looked this young and fresh for centuries. In March the Frick Collection, which has been housed in founder Henry Clay Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion since its opening in 1935, temporarily decamped a few blocks away to the Whitney Museum’s Marcel Breuer building (which most recently served as the Met Breuer) while its Gilded Age home undergoes an expansion.
Titians, Gainsboroughs and Veroneses in midcentury Brutalist architecture may sound like a recipe for indigestion, but in a case of opposites attracting, it actually works. Perhaps the Frick’s ornate mansion was a distraction, a kind of fantasy of how robber barons lived with their masterpieces a century ago, whereas here in the Breuer it’s all about the exceptionally well-lit art, now organized chronologically and geographically in intimate galleries. If Rembrandt’s 1658 self-portrait, his face marked by age, doesn’t give you goose bumps, then perhaps Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, the last work Frick acquired before his death in 1919, will. Fine examples of European and Asian porcelain, Indian carpets and French furniture also made the trip, and yes, Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, one of the museum’s most popular works, has pride of place.
Auction Game Changer: Beeple
Prior to March 11, you’d be forgiven for never having heard of a “non-fungible token,” or NFT, let alone the pseudonymous Beeple, who created one titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a montage of digitally rendered images that—surely, you did hear—sold for $69 million in cryptocurrency at Christie’s on that date.
Art critics were aghast (Beeple?), as were environmentalists: Creating an NFT, which is a unit of data stamped with a unique, verifiable code and stored on a blockchain, eats up an astounding amount of electricity. But NFTs quickly claimed their place in pop culture, albeit with a strong undercurrent of snarky skepticism: A New York Times journalist raised money for charity by selling an NFT of his column about NFTs; an artist called Fridge put up a billboard in SoHo featuring a scannable QR code and titled Nothing Fucking There; a man auctioned an NFT of his famous 2017 tweet of a sad cheese-sandwich “dinner” in take-out Styrofoam served at the fraudulent Fyre Festival. Even so, the establishment signaled it wasn’t laughing off the sensation as a gimmick when the blue-chip Pace Gallery teamed with the legit artist Urs Fischer to release an NFT series. Only naïfs would be foolish enough to think we won’t be seeing more of the phenomenon.
(Literal) Rediscovery: ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’
A Jacob Lawrence exhibition is always a treat. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, mounted a show of his series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” which recounts our democracy’s development with a focus on women, people of color and laborers in a cubist-inflected style and saturated colors.
The revered Black artist painted 30 panels for the project from 1954 to 1956, and though a single collector purchased the lot, he later dispersed the individual pieces. Curators were able to track down 25. But when the show traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a sharp-eyed visitor became convinced that one of the lost panels was hanging in her neighbors’ apartment on the Upper West Side. The museum authenticated the painting as Panel 16, and its owners, who’d bought the depiction of Shays’ Rebellion for about $100 at a local charity auction in 1960, allowed it to join the exhibition. The celebratory publicity about the find inspired a nurse just a few blocks away to take a closer look at a painting of immigrants her mother-in-law had given her 20 years ago. It turned out to be Panel 28. With three missing works to go, the exhibition still has one more destination: the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where it’s scheduled to open June 26.
Lifetime Achievement: Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer
When Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer opened Metro Pictures in New York’s SoHo in 1980, Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo were among the artists in the inaugural exhibition. More than 40 years later, when the partners jolted the art world with their decision to close the gallery, now in Chelsea, at year’s end, Sherman and Longo were still on the roster, along with other stalwarts, including Louise Lawler, Isaac Julien and Olaf Breuning. To say such mutual loyalty is a rarity in the art world is a severe understatement. But Winer and Reiring are old-school dealers who hold that “a gallery is only as good as the artists it shows,” Reiring tells Robb Report. And Metro Pictures’ artists were more than good; they were exceptional.
Before teaming up, Winer had worked at the nonprofit Artists Space and Reiring for the eminent Leo Castelli. The women, friends since high school, were both fluent in the difficult, esoteric art of the 1970s but were drawn to a more accessible style they saw emerging. “Suddenly, there were these young artists who had really interesting ideas and were also making these attractive images,” Reiring says. Sherman, with her iconic photographs exploring female identity, was at the forefront of this “Pictures Generation,” and Metro Pictures quickly became the place to see and buy the game-changing art—and a bigger, broader scope of collectors did indeed buy.
In recent years, as prices skyrocketed and a handful of mega-galleries swallowed up ever larger chunks of the market, respected establishments that were not expansion-minded, like Metro Pictures, found it tougher to compete, and the partners sensed the pandemic would usher in a markedly changed art world. The days when, as Reiring recalls, artists’ definition of success was “to sell a piece now and then, and have an article in Artforum,” may be long gone, but Reiring and Winer’s contributions to contemporary art are indelible.