2021: The Year in Art

Published January 6, 2022
The NGV Triennial took us into the tunnel of 2021, (installation by Kenzo Kuma & Associates)

Looking back on 2021 it would require more space to list the exhibitions we didn’t see rather than the ones we did. So many shows were cancelled, cut short or handicapped by the pandemic it’s not hard to remember the highlights.

The first notable event of the year was the NGV Triennial, a massive survey of international contemporary art assembled under the most difficult conditions. Of more than 100 artists or groups of artists from 30 countries, none of them were able to visit Fortress Australia. Works were installed by the gallery team in remote consultation with the creators. This led to no appreciable drop-off in quality, even with British artist, Faye Toogood, who rehung three rooms of the NGV’s permanent collection, incorporating her own additions, without leaving the UK.

Social distancing in the Federation era (Frederick McCubbin, ‘Down on his luck’ (c.1889)) From ‘She-oak and Sunlight’

The Melbourne gallery had a hit with the Australian Impressionist survey, She-Oak and Sunlight, but bombed with two would-be blockbusters: French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum. Both shows were locked down almost as soon as they opened.

During the first months of 2021, before the big June door-slam, museums hastened to make up for time lost in 2020. The National Gallery of Australia took a punt on Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London– a show it could have held over until the end of the year. Would the lure of iconic pictures such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait at the age of 34 overcome the public’s reluctance to travel while the virus still lingered?

Yes! Sort of. Attendances proved healthy enough to justify the decision, which must have been a big relief for everyone.

Tintoretto’ ‘The Origin of the Milky Way'(1580) ..another unscientific hypothesis, from ‘Botticelli to Van Gogh’

Director, Nick Mitzevich, now boasts that the NGA had the best-attended show in the world over these weeks. It’s amazing what milestones can be achieved when the rest of the planet is closed. Nick was probably less pleased when he announced the NGA would be spending $14 million on a stainless steel sculpture by Lindy Lee, and met with a wall of steely disapproval. The current Jeffrey Smart survey should help restore the love.

Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hoped to get the year moving with another high-profile loan exhibition. European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York opened on 12 June and soon ran up against a draconian set of border closures, ensuring that Queenslanders had the gallery to themselves. This may have been good news for Brisbane’s art lovers, but there are not quite enough of them to cover the costs of an international blockbuster.

I was in town for the opening but never got to file a review, which was a shame because the quality of work was arguably even higher than the NGA exhibition. The Queensland Art Gallery did, at least, manage to fit in a survey by William Yang, a much-respected photographer who was born up north, but made his name in Sydney.

Pieter Claesz, a memento mori for QAGOMA’s ‘European masterpieces..’

A little down the road from Brisbane, with great fanfare the Gold Coast opened its long-awaited new gallery, modestly known as HOTA, or Home of The Arts. From the outside, this Ashton Raggatt McDougall building is as gaudy and vulgar as Surfers Paradise, but the interiors are sleek and functional. A must-see HOTA survey of William Robinson’s Creation Landscapes was turned into a no-see, thanks to the pandemic.

The Art Gallery of NSW played it safe, postponing their Matisse blockbuster until the end of this year, but got caught with the Archibald Prize and its associated exhibitions. As these shows are the gallery’s biggest annual money-spinners, this was a blow to the bottom line. At least we managed to get the 100th anniversary Archibald launched in early June, and the prize awarded – with an air of inevitability – to Peter Wegner for his portrait of centenarian artist, Guy Warren. It may have been symbolically right, but it was also a rare instance of the best painting taking the laurels.

HOTA arrives discreetly on the Gold Coast

Another show afforded a too-brief window was Archie 100, a satellite exhibition looking at the history of the Archibald Prize. It was a fascinating selection, but undersold by the geniuses at the AGNSW who were late to publish a perfunctory catalogue. At least the show has been able to travel. There was no second-chance for Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, which was one of the more adventurous international projects of 2021. Af Klint (1862-1944) is widely believed to have created abstract art before Kandinsky and others got started. It’s a big plus for women, and for Sweden! Whether you accept the claims depends upon your interpretation of af Klint’s paintings as self-contained works of art, or cosmic diagrams of Anthroposophical mumbo-jumbo. Either way, it was a engaging show that was nipped off before word-of-mouth had done its work with audiences.

The National, an overview of contemporary Australian art shared between the AGNSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks, was a little more lively than its two previous iterations, but still a patchy affair.

Clarice Beckett, ‘Motor lights’, (1929)

The Art Gallery of South Australia, aided by smaller COVID numbers, managed to time its big exhibitions with more skill (and luck) than other museums. I was able to travel to Adelaide to see the Ramsay Prize for emerging artists; the latest Tarnanthi survey of indigeneous art, and – best of all – the largest-ever retrospective of Clarice Beckett’s work. It was a revelation, making me feel that Beckett (1887-1935) may well be Australia’s greatest  woman artist. It would be my nomination for exhibition of the year.

It was a stop-start year for the commercial galleries, although many dealers were surprised by the volume of sales they achieved during lockdown, as collectors who were unable to travel overseas were obliged to spend money at home. When you’ve got that kind of itch it needs must be scratched. Neither did the auction houses have any reason to complain about sales.

The Museum of Contemporary Art limped along between lockdowns with shows by artist-activist, Richard Bell and American multi-media artist, Doug Aitken. The museum also said farewell to long-serving director, Liz Ann Macgregor and senior curator, Rachel Kent, the latter pursuing a tree change as CEO of the Bundanon Trust in the Shoalhaven.

In between long stints at home with a book, I was able to see and write about useful surveys and projects by John Olsen (National Art School Gallery), Wendy Sharpe (Mosman Art Gallery), Haydn Wilson (State Library of NSW) Margel Hinder (AGNSW), and the Papunya Tula movement, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary (S.H.Ervin Gallery).

Mick Namarari, ‘Kangaroos sleeping in the rocks’ (1972), 50 years of Papunya Tula

In last year’s round-up I remember asking why the “lunatic project” of the Powerhouse Museum relocation was still going on, costing hundreds of millions of dollars for what is certain to be a negative result. The disaster now seems unstoppable, while the idea that the Powerhouse has been “saved” looks more than ever like mere spin, as virtually no substantive policies have been announced and no guarantees given as to the future of the rest of the Ultimo site. Now, Arts Minister, Don Harwin, has been dumped by the new Premier – a move that has caused rejoicing in some quarters, but may actually make matters worse.

As we go into 2022, boldly pretending that the virus is no longer a problem, one wonders what lies ahead. Denmark thought it had licked the pandemic but the Danes are back in lockdown. Despite the Premier’s cavalier attitude to infections, circumstances may yet conspire to close down arts activities for another lengthy period. As we enter the festive season it’s not clear whether we’re standing on the threshold of a new dawn or waiting for the stormclouds to roll in.



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1 January, 2022