The Best of 2021: Our Top 10 New York City Art Shows

These are the shows that Hyperallergic’s critics, both staff and contributors thought were the most compelling of the year. Thought it was a year of tentative venturing back out into the open to look at artwork in person, the production wasn’t tentative at all. The city brought shows to life that will be talked about for years to come. —Seph Rodney

1. Surrealism Beyond Borders at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Koga Harue, “Umi (The Sea)” (1929) oil on canvas from the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (photo by Seph Rodney)

October 11, 2021–January 30, 2022

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Curated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate Modern staff

When André Breton, the self-appointed “Pope of Surrealism,” visited Mexico in 1938, he thought it was the “Surrealist place par excellence.” Frida Kahlo, a natural-born Surrealist if ever there was one, thought Breton a pretentious manifesto maker. She, and Mexico, weren’t going to play nature to European culture; exotic “other” to Breton’s café-society revolutionaries. The same could be said of many of the artists in this exhibition, a sprawling show whose orbital view of the movement — it ranges over 45 countries — decenters the Paris-New York scene that has, until now, defined Surrealism. Wandering through the maze of galleries, you’ll encounter Brazil’s Antropofagia (“Cannibalism”) movement, Turkish Surrealists influenced by Sufism, a Filipino artist who reconciles his Catholicism with psychoanalysis, the “Scientific Surrealists” of a future-shocked postwar Japan, and dozens of others — deep-sea divers in the cultural unconscious of their cultures who are only now making the lobster telephones in New York and Paris ring. —Mark Dery

2. Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities, at the Morgan Library and Museum of Art

Shahzia Sikander, “Epistrophe” (2021) gouache and ink on tracing paper (photo by Seph Rodney)

June 18–September 26

Curated by staff at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum

This exhibition covers the first 15 years of Sikander’s career: her initial work within the tradition of miniature or manuscript painting which she studied in Lahore, Pakistan, the work that came out of her study at the Rhode Island School of Design, her fellowship in Houston at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the paintings and drawings she produced after settling in New York. The show demonstrates Sikander’s virtuosic visual citation of several different cultural traditions Hindu, Safavid, Mughal, European, African Americanto weave together her own unique style. In doing so, the show reveals Sikander to be a model for syncretic absorption and reinterpretation, instead of cavalier appropriation. And the through line pulling the visitor from one end of the exhibition to the other is the myriad ways the artist reimagines and represents the power of women — a theme that in her hands feels fresh and primed for further exploration. —Seph Rodney

3. Alice Neel: People Come First at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alice Neel, “The Black Boys” (1967) on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

March 22–August 1

Curated by Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey

Big Alice Neel museum retrospectives have been done before. Recent major shows include Helsinki in 2016, a London/Houston/Stockholm in 2010-2011, as well as the 2000 retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art that came to the Whitney. The Met Museum broke new ground by more openly acknowledging conundrums of race, sexuality, and Marxism in Neel’s oeuvre. At 118 works, the Met put on view several works excluded from earlier retrospectives that explore these themes. The exhibition catalog transformed Neel scholarship — integrating recent evolutions in race, gender, queer, and class theory — with the more familiar Neel material. Far from lionizing her, or defending her as a product of her time, the essayists honestly assess her blindspots as a White, straight, progressive woman artist. It’s profitable reading and looking for any artist or thinker who aspires to become a better ally. —Daniel Larkin

4. Estamos Bien – La Trienial 20/21 at El Museo del Barrio

Luis Flores, “Estamos Bien?” (2021) yarn, AAA T-shirt, Levi’s jeans, Vans shoes, socks, and dry wall (photograph by Seph Rodney)

March 13–September 26, 2021

Curated by Rodrigo Moura, Susanna V. Temkin, and Elia Alba

Gathering contemporary works by 42 artists who identify as Latinx, a sometimes polemical, gender-neutral term for diasporic Latin American descendants, El Museo’s triennial exhibition complicated notions of a complex and diverse identity. In the process, the show introduced audiences to artists who had never before been shown at the East Harlem institution, which has previously faced criticism over what some view as insufficient Latinx representation on its curatorial staff. The choice to bring in Queens-based, Brooklyn-born artist Elia Alba as a guest curator, as well as the truly kaleidoscopic wealth of mediums, approaches, and nationalities included in La Trienal, may signal a shifting tide. Among the strongest works were “The Strangest Fruit” (2013), Vincent Valdez’s disturbing paintings illustrating the lynchings of Mexican Americans in the 19th century; María Gaspar’s “Disappearance Suits” (2012–20), poetic photographs of the artist camouflaging in natural landscapes; and Lucía Hierro’s “Racks” series (2019), giant plushy bags of snack food on bodega-style display strips. Notably, the art on view did not reflect strictly on the Latinx condition — a generalized concept the curators succeeded in dismantling — but on themes relevant to a wider American public, from mass consumption and consumerism to climate change and inequality. —Valentina Di Liscia

5. Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019, at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Installation view of Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019; foreground, Marie Watt, “Skywalker/Skyscraper (Axis Mundi),” (2012); background, Liza Lou’s “Kitchen,” (1991-1996) (image by Debra Brehmer)

November 22, 2019–February 2022

Curated by Jennie Goldstein, Elisabeth Sherman, and Ambika Trasi

Craft may have been historically relegated to its own domain, but it was also a frontier for artists to break free from the hierarchy of painting and sculpture. Alternative media such as weaving, ceramics, beading, or embroidery also often addressed issues of gender and race. In a completely riveting exhibition, Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 presents material experimentation that stretched from Ruth Asawa’s elegant hanging wire sculptures to Mike Kelly’s crazy quilt of stuffed toys and old afghans. The show successfully outlines a thrilling alternative trajectory paved mostly by women who fought the inequities of the art world with needles, thread, and glue guns in hand. —Debra Brehmer

6. On Delegitimization and Solidarity: Sisiku AyukTabe, the Martin Luther King Jr. of Ambazonia, the Nera 10, and the Myth of Violent Africa at the International Studio & Curatorial Program

Adjani Okpu-Egbe, “The Aftermath of Mautu,” (2021), mixed media on canvas, 70 x 47 inches (photo by Shark Senesac, courtesy the International Studio & Curatorial Program)

September 25, 2021–February 25, 2022

Curated by Amy Rosenblum-Martín

For Adjani Okpu-Egbe, the personal is the political. A native of Ambazonia (formerly South Cameroon), the Afro-Surrealist artist critiques United States and European neocolonialism in the region, calling attention to an ongoing liberation struggle that receives little attention in mainstream media — let alone in contemporary art. Mixed-media paintings of Black mothers and children are flanked by army helmets and consumer products, alluding to extrajudicial killings of Ambazonian workers and the lack of fair trade practices which ensure their poverty. With labels written in the first person, Okpu-Egbe urges us to think through the contradictions of racial capitalism, while remembering to honor the sacred. —Billy Anania

7. David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979 at the Drawing Center

Bruce W. Talamon, “David Hammons making a body print, Slauson Avenue studio,” Los Angeles (1974) digital silver gelatin print 16 x 20 inches (40.6 x 50.8 cm); David Hammons preparing to create a Body Print; he has rubbed baby oil on to his hands and face and will press his face and hands onto the paper (image courtesy the artist).

February 5–May 23

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Curated by Laura Hoptman and Isabella Kapur.

The shows at the Drawing Center are quite often wonderfully intriguing; the exhibition of David Hammons’s body prints was no exception. It took a truly innovative technique — slathering baby oil or margarine over a body, then pressing that body against paper, and affixing charcoal or powdered pigment to the surface — and married it to powerfully evocative content. Most of what is depicted in the front room concerned the intersection of Black people and facets of life in the United States: employment, urban dwelling, American identity and citizenship. But at the back of the center, in the second gallery, more exploratory pieces were installed, collages that took African masks or figural motifs and put them in combination with colorful, abstract forms. Hammons is one of those very rare artists who made work that operated on several levels at once and made them all compelling. This show reminds us that such a thing is possible. —Seph Rodney

8. Wangechi Mutu at Gladstone Gallery

Wangechi Mutu, “MamaRay” (2020) bronze 65 x 192 x 144 inches at Gladstone gallery (photo by Seph Rodney)

May 6–June 25

Curated by Gladstone staff

Wangechi Mutu is just relentless in her melding of the mythic, the alien, the abstract, and the feminine. She surprised audiences more than a year ago with her pieces for the Metropolitan Museum’s facade commission and this year has presented sculptures that are more daring, more otherworldly. I want to tiptoe up to her pieces, half expecting them to come alive and rear up out of their somnolence. Finding this combination of majesty and peril in contemporary sculptural work is rare. As a friend of mine said to me: I wonder what she dreams about. This show felt like a window into at least one of those dreams. —Seph Rodney

9. The x in florxal is silent when spoken at Artists Space

Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, “For Aricka, Ayana, Ayodele, Bernice, Chantelle, Charmaine, Cynthia Ch., Cynthia Co., Daphne, Davina, Dawn,
Dina, Emily, Erica, Evadne, Frances, Gail, Gwen, Hara, Heather, Imanei, Imani, Janet, Jenny, Kadija, Kahdeidra, kale, Kelly, Kenya (R), LesLes, Lois, Lynnette, Madeleine, Mahogany, Marsha, Maiya, Najela, Nontsi, Ola, Pilar, Queen, RaFia, Ro-Ro, Sandra, Sasha, Serenity, Shana, Simone L, Simone W, Tabitha, Taiyi, Trinity, Uchenna, Vivian, Wangechi, X, Yvette, Zuri” (2021); living plants: hannibal (Epipremnum aureum) with rose quartz, gertrude deuxieme (Tillandsia xerographica), leonie (Philodendron totem), eversley deuxieme (Tillandsia xerographica), melford (Epipremnum aureum) with amethyst; dessicated floral matter (eucalyptus, grass, willow, palm), knight on horse back figurine, brass candlesticks, polystyrene, porcelain and 18 karat gold plates, crystals (various), bamboo earrings, jade, cremains, leather, cork, glass, dragon figurine, sandalwood incense and ceramic holder, palo santo (Bursera graveolens), and window (photo by Filip Wolak)

March 20–May 1

Curated by Jay Sanders and Stella Cilman

Immersive exhibitions need not appeal to pure spectacle. As poet and critic Adjua Greaves proved this spring, the juxtaposition of revolutionary theory and fertile plant life creates an environment conducive to intellectual growth and introspection. Greaves arranged the gallery of Artists Space with maps, sketches, and annotated photographs interweaved with site-specific installations that felt lived in, leaving the impression that the artist herself was there alongside us. Long tendrils of devil’s ivy stretched across pieces of rose quartz and toy knights, alongside prints bearing the names of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (an American historian and activist) and Eduardo Galeano (a deceased Uruguayan journalist and novelist). In connecting botany and decolonization, Greaves portrays liberation as a regenerative process that can be achieved with instruments already at our disposal. —Billy Anania

10. Return to Color: Ha Chong Hyun at Tina Kim Gallery

Detail of Ha Chong-Hyun’s “Post Conjunction 11-4” (2011) (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

May 8–June 30

Curated by gallery staff

The Return to Color exhibition by Ha Chong Hyun is not normally the type of work I like, but this thoughtful show was full of paintings with extraordinary surfaces that continue to linger in my brain. Combining his incredible “Post Conjunction” series from 2011 (I’m still blown away by these works) with “Conjunction” works from last year, the oil and mixed media paintings are master classes in mark making. Each work seems to break apart the surface and reimagine abstraction again and again, often with a language that looks overly familiar even if it is partly askew. Part of the Dansaekhwa movement, Chong-Hyun normally paints on rough material and that rawness contributes to a sense of timelessness and tension that says so much using so little. —Hrag Vartanian


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