The Top 10 Shows in the US of 2021

From Lorraine O'Grady's storied retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum to Ben Sakoguchi's presentation of his seminal work Chinatown (2014) at Bel Ami, Los Angeles, these are the best shows in the US of 2021

BY Terence Trouillot in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 16 DEC 21

It's difficult for me to conceive of 2021 as separate from 2020. The last two years have merged seamlessly in my mind –  time folding onto itself as we continue to wrestle with the reality of COVID-19 while, at the time of writing this article, the Omicron variant spreads like wildfire across the globe. Despite all this, the last 12 months have been exciting and optimistic (though hectic) in offering a slew of long-overdue surveys and some impressive gallery exhibitions in the United States. This has been yet another trying year, but the visual arts feel more vibrant than ever, providing a hopeful prospect of what's to come. Here are the highlights of 2021.

AC2K, Untitled (Times Square/Gap Grunge 1), 1992-1993
ART CLUB2000Untitled (Times Square /Gap Grunge 1), 1992–93, colour print, 27.9 × 35.6 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Artists Space, New York

Art Club2000

Artists Space

New York, US

The legendary 1990s collective, Art Club2000, celebrated its first major survey earlier this year at Artists Space. 'Active until 1999', wrote Simon Wu, 'the collective of seven precocious students from Cooper Union – Patterson Beckwith, Gillian Haratani, Daniel McDonald, Shannon Pultz, Sarah Rossiter, Soibian Spring and Craig Wadlin – made work that discussed and embodied New York’s (and the art world’s) most salient hypocrisies of the period: the commodification and gentrification of Manhattan’s downtown (from SoHo to Chelsea) and the neoliberalism of the city’s progressive cultural workers.'

Salman Toor, Four Friends
Salman Toor, Four Friends, 2019, oil on panel, 102 × 102 cm. Collection of Christie Zhou. Courtesy: the artist and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Salman Toor

Whitney Museum of American Art

New York, US

Perhaps one of the most anticipated shows in New York during the pandemic – which opened in November 2020 – was Salman Toor's 'How Will I Know', the painter's very first museum solo exhibition showcasing his exquisite tableaux of Brown queer life. In his review, Tausif Noor wrote: 'I don’t remember precisely when I first saw Salman Toor’s paintings but I do distinctly remember how I felt in that moment: a particular flash of recognition, a momentary illumination that results from seeing and being seen.'

Ben Sakoguchi Chinatown, 2014 Acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels) 53 x 91 in (134.6 x 231.1 cm)
Ben Sakoguchi, Chinatown, 2014, acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels) 135 × 231 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Ben Sakoguchi

Bel Ami

Los Angeles, US

A brilliant show at Bel Ami this past spring showcased the sardonic oeuvre of Ben Sakoguchi, including his titular work, Chinatown (2014), a massive, multi-panel history painting detailing Los Angeles's murky past of anti-Asian racism. 'Sakoguchi spares no detail' wrote Travis Diehl, '[t]he central panel, long and horizontal, is divided into 18 compartments – one for each of the victims of the infamous 1871 Chinatown lynching, the worst mass murder of its kind in US history. The painting is grisly and unflinching: the victims are mauled, bruised and hanged by their necks from trees and pullies. Yet, each is also delicately adorned – and partly concealed – by red and gold latticework of the sort that suffuses Chinatown.'  

Lorraine O'Grady, Art Is … (Dancer in Grass Skirt), 1983/2009, C-print, 51 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Alexander Gray Associates, New York, and DACS, London

Lorraine O'Grady

Brooklyn Museum

New York, US

Arguably one of the best exhibitions of the year, Lorraine O'Grady's 'Both/And' at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, marked the first major solo retrospective of the celebrated performance and conceptual artist. In an interview with Malik Gaines, O'Grady stated: 'You have to understand that my performance Mlle Bourgeoise Noire [1980–83] predated the work of the Guerrilla Girls by five years. At the time, it was a total non-sequitur to ask a question like: ‘How many Black people are in this gallery?’ The racism and cultural self-satisfaction were appalling. The only Black artists at that time who could even be considered artists by the structure in place were using white aesthetics. Somebody like Faith Ringgold was just laughed at.' 

Kenneth Tam, Silent Spikes, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Queens Museum, New York
Kenneth Tam, Silent Spikes, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Queens Museum, New York

Kenneth Tam

Queens Museum

New York, US

Kenneth Tam's noteworthy solo exhibition 'Silent Spikes' at the Queens Museum in New York, presented a single work by the artist exploring masculinity and its relationship to race and labour. 'His latest work, Silent Spikes (2021)', wrote Alex Jen, 'takes the masculine trope of the cowboy and the 1867 strike of Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers as its starting point. In the video, Tam is disarmingly direct, asking a group of Asian men what they think sensuality is – something I never thought would be a matter of public concern.'

'Kandis Williams: A Field', 2020–21, exhibition view, Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University
'Kandis Williams: A Field', 2020–21, exhibition view, Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Courtesy: the artist and Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University

Kandis Williams

Institute of Contemporary Art

Richmond, US

Kandis Williams took over the Institute of Contemporary Art, at Virginia Commonwealth University, with an expansive installation looking at the history of prison farms in Virginia. 'Elaborating her earlier experiments on a grand scale', wrote Ian Bourland, 'the work addresses a vast historical sweep without sacrificing a feeling of immediacy made all the more potent by its contrast with the screen-bound textures of most COVID-19-era interactions. The gallery – an airy, vaulted white cube – had been transformed: when visitors exit the elevator, they are greeted by a sense of lush overgrowth, more evocative of the region’s tidal marshes, kudzu and dense forests than the Richmond streetscapes beyond.'

Eva Hese and Hannah Wilke in the catalogue essay of 'Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke: Erotic Abstraction', 2021, Acquavella Galleries, New York
Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke in the catalogue essay of 'Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke: Erotic Abstraction', 2021, Acquavella Galleries, New York

Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke

Acquavella Galleries

New York, US

This past summer, the works of Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke were shown together for the first time in a thrilling exhibition at Acquavella Galleries, New York, titled ‘Erotic Abstraction’. 'The pairing of the artists', wrote Cassie Packard, 'who art-history often siloes into the categories of 1960s post-minimalism and 1970s feminist art respectively, is a remarkably generative one. Deftly curated by Eleanor Nairne, a curator at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, the exhibition presents Hesse and Wilke’s oeuvres in separate rooms and features works on paper, video and sculpture, all made between 1965 and 1977.'

A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo 1994 Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer Five elements, dimensions variable; each element ~1 ft square, ~5-6 ft high; full install ~9-10 feet wide, ~4 feet deep Courtesy of The Michael Richards Estate
Michael Richards, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, installation view. Courtesy: the Michael Richards Estate; photography: Daniel Bock

Michael Richards

Museum of Contemporary Art

North Miami, US

This past summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, presented a well-deserved retrospective of Michael Richards, a celebrated multi-media artist who tragically lost his life during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. 'This pointed survey of Richards’s oeuvre', wrote Jackson Davidow, 'enables viewers to trace themes, materials, forms and motifs from work to work, starting with photographic and video documentation of his early installations, such as Same Old Song and Dance (1992), a jarring piece displayed in the windows of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University that scrutinizes lynching, blackface and minstrelsy.'

Woody De Othello, 'Looking In', 2021, exhibtion view, Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. Courtesy: the artist and Jessica Silverman; photography Philip Maisel
Woody De Othello, 'Looking In', 2021, exhibition view, Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. Courtesy: the artist and Jessica Silverman; photograph: Philip Maisel

Woody De Othello

Jessica Silverman

San Francisco, US 

Woody De Othello's second solo outing with Jessica Silverman, 'Looking In', was an impressive display of new works – paintings, ceramic sculptures, and one large-scale bronze – all made during the COVID-19 shutdown. As Natasha Boas stated in her review: 'In this show, the artist’s recurring motifs of plants, flowers, mirrors, phones, light switches, clocks and body parts – depicted in ceramic sculptures, works on paper and paintings – deliver an experience akin to noticing the minutia of our daily lives while stuck at home during shelter-in-place orders for the better part of a year.'

Hypsipyle, 1973. Satin, rayon, nylon, cheesecloth, nylon netting, ribbon, dyes, wood, acrylic paint. 48 x 108 x 6 in. Courtesy of Lenbachhaus, Munich.
Rosemary Mayer, Hypsipyle, 1973, satin, rayon, nylon, cheesecloth, nylon netting, ribbon, dyes, wood, acrylic paint, 122 × 274 × 15 cm. Courtesy: Lenbachhaus, Munich 

Rosemary Mayer

Swiss Institute

New York, US

This fall, the Swiss Institute opened 'Rosemary Mayer: Ways of Attaching', the first institutional survey of the late American artist. Anchoring the exhibition were Mayer's textiles sculptures and drawings from the early 1970s – rare works that are absolutely wondrous and beautiful to look at in person. 'Hypsipyle (1973), her last scaffolded fabric piece', wrote Paige K. Bradley, 'a ruddy orange, dark lilac and sand-hued fabric draping on bent wooden rods, hovers between form and formlessness, positing irresolution as a burning ambition.'

Main image: ‘Rosemary Mayer: Ways of Attaching’, 2021, exhibition view, Swiss Institute, New York. Courtesy: Swiss Institute, New York

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.