Best of visual art 2021: Crowds are smaller, and vaccination cards sometimes mandatory, but the art world is open again

Meanwhile, the sale of works of art from public collections has continued, a lingering impact of the pandemic given the looser disposal rules approved by the Association of Art Museum Directors in the spring. 2020. And, in case anyone has forgotten, when 2021 began, the United States was in the midst of its most serious constitutional and moral crisis since the Civil War. As the art world came to life again, it opened its doors to a transformed world – more nervous, skeptical and militant than it had ever been. Many art lovers found themselves torn: desperate to be immersed in art like the good old days, but wary of anything that smacked of escapism.

‘Jasper Johns: Spirit/Mirror’

There was general euphoria among visitors to the big hit event of the season, the two-part Jasper Johns retrospective curated by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in September. The sheer scale of the event, its focus on a beloved icon of the last century, its traditional curatorial approach and the buzzing crowds made it seem like it all could have happened, for example, in 2019. The two wings of this giant diptych spanned the entirety of Johns’ long career, dating back to the 1950s and culminating in work done in recent years by the now 91-year-old artist. I found the Philadelphia iteration more attentive to Johns’ darker side, to the way he seems to have escaped into formalism, perhaps because of an overwhelming sadness that always feels present in his work.

‘The Medici: Portraits and Politics: 1512-1570’

Logistical nightmares, compounded by the pandemic, may have forced the National Gallery of Art to cancel its major Genoa exhibition, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York pulled off a minor miracle with its exhibition of Medici portraits. Curators and art managers managed to transport essential works of art out of Italy and place them on the walls of the museum, where they looked spectacular. “The Medici: Portraits and Politics: 1512-1570watched the portrait in Florence as the Medici family reestablished their control over the city, now ruling as hereditary dukes rather than oligarchs and behind-the-scenes puppeteers. The politics of the day were as ugly as they come, but the people portrayed, by Raphael, Pontormo, Bronzino and Salviati, have the poise, momentum and self-glorifying joie de vivre of today’s Instagram stars .

“Alice Neel: People First”

“Alice Neel: People First, also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was a revelation. It’s not just the accomplished and vital early works, or the haunting cityscapes that might seem peripheral to his greater number of mid-century portraits. Nor was it the discovery of the extent of his skills and talent. Rather, it was Neel’s decades of fully engaged, humane, engaged and passionate activism that left the deepest impression. She left us a fully articulated world of people, not the powerful or the famous (although she painted a few too), but also children, friends, neighbors and bohemians, many of them on the fringes of society, but absolutely in the center of its all-encompassing empathy.

‘Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel’

Albert Barnes, the megalomaniac collector who left us the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, collected the work of Maurice Utrillo, the troubled son of Suzanne Valadon. In September, the museum opened a dynamic and engaging exhibition of Valadon’s work, reinforcing the idea that she was an infinitely superior artist. Valadon was self-taught, beginning his career as an artist’s model. But she quickly became a fine, insightful and daring painter. This exhibit was also a positive sign that the Barnes Foundation has figured out how to use its medium-sized space in a way that complements and enhances its permanent collection.

Barbara Kruger: “Thinking of you. I mean me. I mean you.’

Barbara Kruger’s works overflow from the Chicago Art Institute and seemed to become legends – ironic, invigorating, surreal – of the city itself. The text-based artist had not had a great show in the United States for about two decades, a long time for someone who is acutely aware of the present and how it is shaped by the media, messages and our corrupt and hypocritical politicians and oligarchs. The exhibition touched on his early cut-and-paste works, from the 1980s and 1990s, but focused primarily on his ongoing critical dissection of consumer culture and media. Kruger’s work has migrated to new platforms but remains as sharp and brilliant as ever.