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2020 in Review
The Best Art of 2020
By Andrea K. Scott
December 30, 2020
Farah Al Qasimi’s series of seventeen effervescent color pictures, taken in New York City neighborhoods favored by immigrants, appeared on a hundred bus shelters citywide.Photograph by James Ewing / Courtesy Public Art Fund
This has been a despicable year, but not without its silver linings. The puppy population of New York City soared, Biden beat Trump, and the truth-to-power urgency of Black Lives Matter finally became undeniable. But to reflect on the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others—including the more than three hundred thousand lives lost to covid-19 in the U.S.—returns us to the annus horribilis.
In early December, Pantone named its official colors for 2021, a decision that seemed to channel both the bleakness and the bright spots of the past year, not to mention the brain freeze of indecision that 2020 levels of uncertainty induced. Instead of championing one color, as it has in the past, Pantone anointed two: “Ultimate Gray,” a dispiriting fog, and “Illuminating,” a sunny yellow. The Internet was quick to point out that the combo also called to mind a banana and duct tape, the materials of Maurizio Cattelan’s infamous contribution to the 2019 edition of Art Basel Miami. The thought of that infuriatingly brilliant one-liner (now in the collection of the Guggenheim) makes me almost nostalgic for the vacuous hoopla of art fairs.
2020 in Review
New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.
It’s hard to believe that, in the first week of March, eight fairs did descend on New York City, for Armory Week. A number of overseas galleries made the trip, as they usually do, but the news from Europe was already worrisome, and some handshakes were being politely declined, from the Park Avenue Armory to Piers 90 and 94. (Belated apologies to the prescient collector whose offer of an elbow bump I greeted with side-eye.) On March 18th, it was announced that the Met was temporarily closing its three branches; a state-mandated shutdown of nonessential businesses soon followed.
For months, looking at art became staring at screens, and a new three-letter acronym entered the lexicon: O.V.R., for “online viewing room.” If that sounds like an enticement to see artists envision new forms with digital means, downgrade your expectations to “slideshow.” Still, the art world has been luckier than other cultural sectors of New York City. Museums and galleries reopened this fall, and there were fewer closures of the latter than feared, although one did mark the end of an era. After twenty-six years as an independent tastemaker, the British expat Gavin Brown closed his enterprises and took a job with the doyenne Barbara Gladstone.
Perhaps the happiest art news of this dismal year is that intrepid new galleries continue to open. Another silver lining of 2020 is the reassurance that art is unstoppable. The following is a list of some beacons that cut through the pandemic blur.
Morgan Bassichis
Illustration by Ohni Lisle
In March, this irresistibly charismatic New York-based performer—whose sui-generis style blends cabaret panache and standup shtick with grace notes of klezmer—made us feel less alone when they began posting their comforting “quarantunes” on Instagram. Like the full-length performances that have earned Morgan Bassichis a loyal following from Fire Island to the Whitney Museum, the intimate clips were funny, strange, exquisitely sung, and unexpectedly moving. Onstage, Bassichis often repeats simple lyrics—“I know you’re scared; I’m scared, too”—until they accrue the power of incantations. The quarantunes had that same magic, along with some good advice for bad times: “I’ll tell you the secret. Take a shower.” If you feel like laughing out loud, read “The Odd Years,” Bassichis’s purple book of to-do lists, published by Wendy’s Subway.
Farah Al Qasimi
Photograph by Farah Al Qasimi / Courtesy the artist, Helena Anrather, and the Third Line
When the Public Art Fund invited the Emirati photographer Farah Al Qasimi to conceive of a project for spaces usually reserved for advertisements on a hundred bus shelters citywide, she came up with “Back and Forth Disco,” a series of seventeen effervescent color pictures, taken in New York City neighborhoods favored by immigrants. Although the project went up in January, it delivered the most delight in the early months of the pandemic, when walking outside was one of the remaining joys of city life. Spotting Qasimi’s picture of a white cockatoo in a curtain store in Ridgewood, Queens, on a bus shelter on Hudson Street in Manhattan felt almost as exciting as spotting a vibrant Western tanager in a tree along the Hudson River.
Between Bridges
Courtesy Between Bridges
Countless artists banded together throughout the covid crisis to support essential causes. Some turned to making masks (Stephanie Syjuco, in the Bay Area; Beth Lipman and Ken Sager, in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin). On Juneteenth, the photographers’ coalition See in Black (founded by Joshua Kissi and Micaiah Carter) launched a benefit for organizations “working to dismantle systemic, race-based oppression.” And, from April to August, more than fifty participants—including Glenn Ligon, Thomas Struth, and Carrie Mae Weems—designed posters under the auspices of Between Bridges, to help ninety-eight struggling art spaces, music venues, and residencies around the world. The prevailing spirit was hope, tinged with romance, as seen in Nicole Eisenman’s wistful closing-time scene, “Never Forget Kissing in Bars.”
Monumental Changes
Illustration by Divyakshi Kedia
In late June, the American Museum of Natural History made the clear-eyed decision to remove a statue of three men from its front steps: Theodore Roosevelt, looming, on horseback, over an indigenous and a Black figure. New York City has more work to do to rectify racism in its public art, but several new projects are under way, including a soaring silhouette of the U.S. congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, by Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous. For now, Simone Leigh’s sixteen-foot-tall monument to Black womanhood, “Brick House”—the inaugural commission of the High Line Plinth—keeps vigil above Tenth Avenue at West Thirtieth Street.
Jacob Lawrence
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art / © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation / ARS
Who made America great when America began making itself? That question was at the heart of the Met’s exhibition reuniting the twenty-six extant panels of Jacob Lawrence’s thirty-part cycle “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” made between 1954 and 1956. The cycle revisits this country’s foundational years, from the Revolutionary War to the construction of the Erie Canal. Transcendentally rendered in tempera on board—in an earthy palette of brown, blue, mustard, and green, almost always violently disrupted by red—each work compresses the dynamic sweep of a history painting into a modest twelve by sixteen inches. Unsung American heroes are Lawrence’s ultimate subject. In the tenth panel, “We Crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry . . .,” he relays the story of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, replacing the figure of one triumphant general with a cadre of anonymous, wave-battered soldiers.
“Nothing but Flowers”
Courtesy the artist and Karma
Brendan Dugan, the founder of Karma, in the East Village, has replaced Gavin Brown as New York’s it-boy gallerist with a golden touch. In late summer, Dugan turned an almost embarrassingly basic theme—floral paintings by fifty-nine artists—into one of the best shows of this weird year. He is also an accomplished book designer, and the visual intelligence of the exhibition’s installation, the flow and the syncopation of images, delivered nearly as much pleasure as the paintings themselves. If this sounds like escapism, consider Jennifer Packer’s lush, nearly abstract arrangement, in green, blue, and gold, painted in honor of Sandra Bland and titled “Say Her Name.”
“Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”
Courtesy MOMA PS1
The United States imprisons more people than any other country on earth. This compelling exhibition at moma PS1, guest-curated by the art historian Nicole R. Fleetwood, shared works by some three dozen visionaries, some of whom are or have been incarcerated themselves. Tender portraiture emerges as one central theme, notably in a room lined with hundreds of drawings by Mark Loughney, from his ongoing project “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration.” Started in 2014, it includes some sketches so fresh the sitters are seen wearing face masks. The show’s excellent catalogue would be well accompanied by one of the most mind-opening books I read this year: “Carceral Capitalism” (2018), by Jackie Wang, a young poet, assistant professor at the New School, and prison abolitionist.
Sky Hopinka
Courtesy the artist and Broadway
People who claim that New York City is over haven’t been looking at art. New galleries—good ones!—continue to open, especially in Tribeca, where the matter-of-factly named Broadway inaugurated its storefront space with a hypnotic show by the restlessly intelligent indigenous filmmaker Sky Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. The show’s centerpiece, “Lore,” was a short film with the fragmentary internal logic of dreams and the intimate mood of late-night conversations, circling a band of friends in a practice-room reverie, with Hopinka on bass. “Lore” itself is a rehearsal of sorts: its audio consists of early drafts and excerpts of Hopinka’s searing prose poem “Perfidia,” published as an elegant book by Wendy’s Subway. (Count this small Brooklyn publisher’s winning streak as another one of 2020’s silver linings.)
Jonathan Berger
Courtesy the artist and Participant Inc.
In his beautiful exhibition “An Introduction to Nameless Love,” at Participant Inc, following its début at Harvard’s Carpenter Center, Jonathan Berger spun art from the lives of six people who found life-altering connections beyond the you-complete-me clichés of romance, including the autistic philosopher Mark Utter, the turtle conservationist Richard Ogust, and Maria A. Prado, who once lived in a homeless enclave beneath New York City. Their stories were spelled out in some thirty-three thousand hand-cut tin letters suspended on nickel wire, shimmering planes that turned the act of reading into a full-body experience.
Benny Andrews
Courtesy the Benny Andrews Estate and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
This American artist, who died in 2006, at the age of seventy-five, painted with deep feeling for working people. He arrived at the extraordinary composite technique he called “rough collage”—incorporating fragments of clothing and other elements into his figurative images—while completing a portrait of the janitors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which he attended on the G.I. Bill. As seen in the wonderful show “Benny Andrews: Portraits, a Real Person Before the Eyes,” at the Michael Rosenfeld gallery, Andrews frequently looked to his fellow-artists—his wife, Nene Humphrey; Alice Neel; Norman Lewis; Howardena Pindell—as subjects, because he “wanted to make them appear as much a part of everyday existence as taxi drivers or lawyers.” In the show’s tour de force, “Portrait of the Portrait Painter,” from 1987, Andrews turned his loving and intelligent eye on himself and his own labor.
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This post has been updated to reflect Morgan Bassichis’s pronoun usage.
2020 in Review
Andrea K. Scott is the art editor of Goings On About Town and has profiled the artists Cory Arcangel and Sarah Sze for the magazine.
More:
Art
Photography
Pandemics
Racial Injustice in America
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