The Best of 2021: Our Top 10 United States Art Shows

Thanks to the beloved Hyperallergic contributors located around the country, we are able to bring you a list of 10 knockout exhibitions across several states this year. As someone who did limited traveling in 2021, working with these writers and reading their words on art has expanded my horizons. I hope they can do the same for you. —Elisa Wouk Almino, Senior Editor

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1. Four Solo Artist Exhibitions Across Philadelphia

Installation view, Emma Amos: Color Odyssey (photo by Joseph Hu, image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021)

This fall, there was a bounty of artist retrospectives at museums across Philadelphia. Joan Semmel at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA), Suzanne Valadon at the Barnes Foundation, and Emma Amos and Jasper Johns at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While each was notable and worth seeing on its own right, together they are a tour de force, demonstrating the power of a city’s art institutions to offer a wide arrange of material that speaks to many audiences. Touring the shows in one day felt like getting an in-depth education in portraiture, identity, gender politics in modern and contemporary art, and many other things. While some of the shows were smaller than many would’ve liked, they certainly whetted our appetites for more. More of this excellence, please. Read below for more on the Amos show, which contributor Ilene Dube chose as her favorite show of the year. —Hrag Vartanian

Emma Amos is having a moment, albeit posthumously. The only woman and youngest person to be invited to join Spiral, a New York-based collective of African American artists active in the 1960s and ’70s, Amos joins the pantheon of octogenarian and nonagenarian women finally getting retrospectives in major museums. Amos, who died last year, was a professor at the Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University, when it was a hotbed of the feminist art movement, a movement she actively participated in. Among the highlights of Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, curated by Laurel Garber and Shawnya L. Harris, is “Tightrope” (1994), which employs Amos’s signature technique of African textile borders. The artist paints herself in a Wonder Woman costume that peeks out from her painter’s smock, her balancing on the tightrope suggestive of the struggles Amos faced as an artist without the privileges afforded to White masculinity. —Ilene Dube

2. Joan Mitchell at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, Calif.

Joan Mitchell, “Ode to Joy (A Poem by Frank O’Hara)” (1970–71) (University at Buffalo Art Galleries, gift of Rebecca Anderson, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, photo by Biff Henrich, ING_INK, Buffalo, New York)

September 4, 2021 – January 17, 2022

Curated by Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel

Is it too much to call seeing Joan Mitchell at SFMOMA a religious experience? Oh well, because the retrospective co-curated by Sarah Roberts of SFMOMA and Katy Siegel of the Baltimore Museum of Art (where the show will open in March) brought me to my knees. Roberts and Siegel sidestep the biographical preoccupations of most exhibitions on women artists of the past to hold focus on the art itself. The result is soul stirring, even consoling, in the face of Mitchell’s fierce faith in painting. The show features some 80 works, including massive diptychs, triptychs, and quadriptychs with the palpable fervor of altarpieces. —Bridget Quinn

3. Chakaia Booker: The Observance at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, FL

Chakaia Booker, “The Observance (A Fragmented Beaded Banner)” (1995-2021) rubber tires, rubber conduit, cable (photo by Seph Rodney)

April 22 – October 31, 2021

Curated by Alex Gartenfeld and Stephanie Seidel

The powerfully compelling alchemy of Chakaia Booker’s work begins with the material she has chosen as the primary source for her sculptural work: castoff rubber tires. Chakaia Booker: The Observance, from the very first object encountered, unfolds one astonishing transformation of this medium that is just utterly everyday, industrial, beneath aesthetic notice. She creates totems, gardens, portals to other worlds, creatures of manifold tendrils and unknown ancestry, and memorials to gods passed out of time. The exhibition also comprehensively gave visitors a sample of her paintings (from 1991–92 and 2009), experimental works of bronze, ceramic, and plastic assemblage, and documentary photographs that reveal Booker’s process of salvaging the detritus the uses in her work. This was a show needed right now, one that properly took stock of this artist I had never heard about before seeing this exhibition. Hers is an obsession we humans have had for centuries: to find a way to turn base materials into noble ones. Chakaia Booker shows us the way. —Seph Rodney

4. Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, TX

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium)” (1964–68), black-and-white Polaroid (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

October 17, 2021 – January 17, 2022

Curated by Lisa Volpe

Georgia O’Keeffe is well known for her luscious paintings of nature, but she also — very quietly — made photographs for many years. This exhibition is the first of its kind dedicated to O’Keeffe’s rarely seen, often-unacknowledged photographic methods and works. Over the course of three years, curator Lisa Volpe combed through O’Keeffe’s diaries, letters, and archives, enlisting the help of unexpected experts who included a chow chow dog breeder and a river rafter, to pinpoint the dates and locations of the artist’s largely unattributed snapshots. But her research also crucially illuminates the key role of photography in O’Keeffe’s personal life, and the fluidity with which it carried over to her larger art practice. Not to be missed, this rich exhibition adds a new dimension to O’Keeffe’s ever fascinating story. —Lauren Moya Ford

5. Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, IL

Installation view of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now with work by Joy Lynch in the foreground and, in the background, Daniel Clowes (photo courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago)

Jun 19 – Oct 3, 2021

Curated by Dan Nadel

Most people may think of New York as the epicenter thanks to superhero comics and artists, but the Chicago comics exhibition packed a punch with its celebration of Chicago cartoonists and comic book artists, such as Daniel Clowes and Lynda Barry. Not only should Chicago be considered an important part of the United States’ comic book creation, but cartoons and comics should be viewed as their own distinct art form, worthy of critical assessment and study. The exhibition also showcased the work of Black cartoonists, such as Charles Johnson and Seitu Hayden, who published their work in Chicago Defender and other Black media. In addition to showing newspapers, sketches, comic book covers of the artists, the show exhibited several installations by them including Chris Ware, Emil Ferris, and Kerry James Marshall that brought their work to life. —Elisa Shoenberger

6. Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud at the Wellin Museum, Clinton, NY

Installation view of Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud, at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College (photo by Seph Rodney)

October 19, 2020 – June 18, 2021

Curated by Katherine Alcauskas

In several ways, Michael Rakowitz’s resuscitation of what is known as “Room H” of the Northwest Palace of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (now Kalhu) is about what could not be shown because of colonialist theft, local looting, and the violent iconoclasm recently carried out by a sectarian religious order. The heritage of Iraqis exists in scattered fragments, yet Rakowitz, unbowed by these circumstances has determined — working collaboratively with a team of studio workers — to “reappear” the famously unique palace reliefs. The artist has been working at this for at least 14 years and the show presents several of his gorgeous, reinvented faux reliefs consisting of vivid mosaics that detail clothing, jewelry, hair and skin, all made of the papier-mâché and cardboard used to package food associated with the region and Iraqi culture. And next to these reconstructions are the empty spaces where the missing reliefs once were, alluded to by large printed captions that indicate the reliefs are scattered at institutions around the world. This exhibition is a haunting and deeply beautiful act of historical recovery that refuses defeat, even as it acknowledges what it is to live a life among fragments of one’s heritage. —Seph Rodney

7. Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change at the Toledo Museum of Art, OH

LJ Roberts, “VanDykesTransDykesTransVanTransGrandmxDykesTransAmDentalDamDamn” (2014-20), mixed media (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

November 21, 2020 – February 14, 2021

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Curated by Lauren Applebaum

A group show curated by Lauren Applebaum, Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change recognizes that quilts are an art form that has always been concerned with identity, recognition, labor, communication, and human connection. The show features some 30 works that run the gamut from historical and traditional quilting to ultra-contemporary and mixed media works, even pushing into virtual and non-fiber-based forms of quilting. Quilts have been famously adopted to tout modern causes. It is perhaps less generally recognized that quilts have always offered a subversive avenue for self-expression to people who have been historically marginalized due to their gender, education, financial independence, and access to materials. The act of creating whole cloth from scraps and dregs is not just a matter of making ends meet, but a statement on the nature of what (and who) is discarded, as well as an empowering act of reclaiming that refuse in the name of something transformative and beautiful. Though art has often been concerned with politics throughout the ages, Radical Tradition successfully underscores how through quilts, such agendas can be inserted into a quotidian and domestic setting, inviting us to wrap ourselves in these messages and really sleep on them (or under them) — and that is one of the most potentially radical things about them. —Sarah Rose Sharp

8. Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey at the Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, NJ

Dawn Clements, “My Desk” (2009), ballpoint pen ink on paper, 18 x 79 inches (image courtesy the Dawn Clements Artwork Trust and Pierogi, photo by John Berens)

May 1 – September 4, 2021

Curated by Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson

“Some works of art are slow; they walk instead of run,” Dawn Clements said in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail. Clements has an uncanny ability to translate cinematic time and a sense of unfolding drama to a two-dimensional surface. Clements’s recent survey at Mana Contemporary, curated by the founders of Pierogi Gallery, Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson, featured nearly 30 of Clements’s drawings in ballpoint pen and paintings in Sumi ink and watercolor. When done on multiple pieces of paper glued together in a vast sprawl, these works were both panoramic and miniaturist. In acting like a movie camera, they required a viewer to step back for an establishing view — as in, for example, “Lina, L’angelo bianco, 1955″ (2014), with its simultaneous depiction of multiple rooms — but then to move in close, like a camera zoom, to discern their consummate detail. With Clements, objects always feel like an extension of character, an intricate mise en scène arrested in time — a film frame charged with an emotional spillover from some previous scene. Through her play on mirrors, doubles and shadows, and her evocative titles, e.g., “Notes on a Most Violent Year” (2015), Clements reclaimed the domestic space of melodramas as a stage for haunting psychosomatic events. —Ela Bittencourt

9. Simphiwe Ndzube: Oracles of the Pink Universe at the Denver Art Museum, CO

Simphiwe Ndzube, “Dondolo, the Witch Doctor’s Assistant” (2020), mixed media on canvas (image courtesy Denver Art Museum) 

June 13 – October 10, 2021

Curated by Laura F. Almeida

In his first solo United States museum exhibition, South African artist Simphiwe Ndzube wove his own brand of magical realism with the iconography of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by artist Hieronymous Bosch in a radical exploration of global water scarcity. After six years of drought, water shortages have threatened to turn off the taps in the Ndzube’s birthplace, but similar concerns persist with his current home in California, a state perennially on fire. The most unique hallmark of Ndzube’s work are figures that physically emerge from the canvas with strange limbs and sewn-on clothing. The choice troubles the space between real and imagined, sculpture and painting, but more importantly, it pushes the discomforts of the subject into the gallery, sharing air with the viewer. Today, Eden is wherever water springs. —Kealey Boyd

10. Titian: Women, Myth & Power at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Mass.

Titian, “The Rape of Europa” (1559–1562), oil on canvas, 70 × 81 inches, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (© Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

August 12, 2021 – January 2, 2022

Curated by Nathaniel Silver

Titian: Women, Myth & Power is a small but visceral exhibition that underscores the power of myth to illustrate humanity’s capacity for violence. In the traveling exhibition’s only stop in the United States, the Gardner’s prized “The Rape of Europa” (1559–1562) is reunited with the five other monumental oil paintings (1551-1562) that completed a mythical cycle inspired in part by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Roman mythology. They were originally commissioned by Philip II of Spain for his imperial room in Madrid. Titian termed these dramatic works “poesie” — painted poetry — but the visual poetry’s objectification and eroticization of violence against women is put under new scrutiny now, in the midst of the #MeToo movement. The ethical choices that translators of myth — whether textual or aesthetic — make in “beautifying” this violence is an ongoing dialogue that needs to be heard in museums, in classrooms, and in our workplaces.  —Sarah E. Bond

Honorable Mention: Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine at the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine

Bob Thompson, “The Judgement” (1963) oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches Brooklyn Museum, New York, A. Augustus Healy Fund (courtesy and © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York)

July 20, 2021 – January 9, 2022

Curated by Diana Tuite

When 28-year-old Bob Thompson passed away in 1966, he had already produced more than 1,000 paintings. The painter felt he was not long for this world — that if disease or drug addiction didn’t kill him, then the police or White vigilante mobs might. His colorful and daring oeuvre, on display for his first retrospective in 20 years, challenges our perceptions of the Western canon. Appropriations of the Old Masters reckon with Civil Rights-era tensions using world-historical compositions, not unlike variations of jazz standards by his contemporaries Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. In 2021, Thompson deserved a revival of this scale and quality. —Billy Anania


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