The Best Art I saw in 2021
I can’t say I was feeling particularly optimistic about the world when I wrote the best art entry for 2019. But we were sweet summer children then, one and all. After the great bounty of art I saw that year, I didn’t go to any museum from March until I saw the Basquiat show at the MFA in October 2020, less than a week after I was laid off from my museum job of 7 years via zoom call. I don't think any reader will disagree that we can call 2020 a loss.
In 2021 the major “art” “news” was all about NFTs, a fitting metonymy for a capitalist death cult society where the only thing we can produce is planet-killing emissions and shareholder value full of sound and fury signifying nothing. NFTs are a scam, as we wrote in April, and frankly it is appalling that we still have to hear about them.
Anyway, I did see some art this year and I do maintain that art remains important to enjoy and talk about so here we go.
Oscar Muñoz at Phoenix Art Museum
This was a huge retrospective in a vast array of media and there was not a single dud in the entire exhibition. Being able to make poignant and meaningful art about abstract concepts like ephemerality, loss, and memory is hard enough, and it’s easy to be maudlin or heavy handed with death metaphors. Instead Muñoz makes interactive disintegrating newspapers and framed family pictures superimposed with video reflections feel like rediscovery, not loss. We could all use a bit of optimism these days.
One smaller piece (“Aliento [Breath]”) invited you to blow on reflective steel disks to reveal small portraits—this is a 1995 work for which COVID wildly raises the stakes. I’ve long said that art should be more dangerous.
Also, it is a notable achievement to make a black box that I personally find compelling or worthwhile (the last one was Love is the Message/The Message is Death by Arthur Jafa) and Muñoz made not one but TWO that blew me away, like the dissolving portraits that featured in both.
Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You at the Art Institute of Chicago
I would never have expected a boomer artist to be able to tap the zeitgeist over four entire decades but Kruger shows that she does in fact understand both the materialistic 80s of pop art and the heavily ironic meme-ification of the internet age. You know what you’re getting: big fat Futura words and iconic repurposed images. Go forth.
Let there be light by Yayoi Kusama at Phoenix Art Museum
There’s a particular kind of critic who loves to bitch about art that is popular and commodified without any awareness of why such things happen in the art world. They are short sighted and wrong. The point is, Infinity Rooms are fun, and the lit up ones are particularly aesthetically pleasing, and if I post some selfies of me in an aesthetically pleasing setting then that’s simply what we’ve got going for us these days. Even if I paid too much or waited too long for the privilege (neither of which I did here).
As an aside, here’s a special fuck you to art critic Blake Gopnik for his elitist nonsense article from March 2021 about how he likes standing in front of paintings in empty galleries, that pandemic restrictions keeping the hoi polloi out of the building is the way art “should be.” Imagine being paid to think about art and say that art is best when only the rich have the time and money to afford it. Imagine thinking a world where museum attendance is super low, museums are shuttered, and thousands of museum workers have been laid off is somehow *good* for art. Then again if what you like about art is the privilege and cachet it gives you in this world then that makes sense.
Annunciation by Jay Defeo at the Art Institute of Chicago
That’s my type: a large gothic abstract painting with an Anselm Kiefer feel to it. No notes.
In 2021 I did also participate in a work of art (which I should mention even if it is not in consideration for one of the best arts I saw this year), Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portrait. In it you can hear me saying wild socialist things like “capitalism isn’t working because 500,000 people have died from COVID in this country” – a statistic that was shockingly outdated on the low end even by the time the exhibition opened 4 months after filming – while my face is projected on top of one of three Gilbert Stuart George Washington portraits. You can catch it at Harvard Art Museum through April 17th 2022.
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