The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Best visual art of 2021: Jasper Johns in two venues, Medici portraits and text-based artist Barbara Kruger

(Joanne Lee/The Washington Post; Museum of Modern Art; Amorepacific Museum of Art; iStock)

This year was better for art than the previous year, but things were far from normal in 2021. Major museums, including the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian in Washington, began reopening in May after a months-long shutdown. But around the country, and the world, crowds were thinner, often limited by timed-entry tickets, and masks were essential. The surge of delta variant cases forced the National Gallery to cancel a major exhibition of Genoese Baroque art, already delayed from its anticipated opening in 2020. That led to a giant hole in the museum’s schedule, and bitter disappointment among those looking forward to a stunning show.

Meanwhile, the sale of art from public collections continued, a lingering impact of the pandemic given the looser rules for deaccessioning endorsed by the Association of Art Museum Directors in the spring of 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 back to life, it reopened its doors to a world transformed — more nervous, skeptical and activist than it had ever been. Many art lovers found themselves torn: desperate to be immersed in art just like the old days, but wary against anything that smacked of escapism.

'Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror'

There was general euphoria among visitors to the big blockbuster event of the season, the two-part Jasper Johns retrospective hosted by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in September. The scale of the event, its focus on a beloved icon of the past century, its traditional curatorial approach and the buzzing crowds made it all seem like something that might have happened, in say, 2019. Both wings of this giant diptych covered the whole of Johns’s long career, dating to the 1950s and culminating in work made in the past few years by the now 91-year-old artist. I found the Philadelphia iteration more alert to the darker side of Johns, the ways in which he seems to have escaped into formalism, perhaps because of an encroaching sadness that feels ever present in his oeuvre.

'The Medici: Portraits and Politics: 1512-1570'

Logistical nightmares, compounded by the pandemic, may have forced the National Gallery of Art to cancel its big Genoa show, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York managed to pull off a small miracle with its Medici portraits exhibition. The curators and art handlers succeeded in transporting essential arts works out of Italy and putting them on the walls of the museum, where they looked spectacular. “The Medici: Portraits and Politics: 1512-1570” looked at portraiture in Florence as the Medici family reestablished its control over the city, now ruling as hereditary dukes rather than oligarchs and behind-the-scenes puppet masters. The politics of the day were as ugly as can be, but the people depicted, by Raphael, Pontormo, Bronzino and Salviati, have the poise, élan and self-glorifying joie de vivre of today’s Instagram stars.

'Alice Neel: People Come First'

“Alice Neel: People Come First,” also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was a revelation. It wasn’t just the accomplished and vital early works, or the haunted cityscapes that might seem peripheral to her larger body of portraits made mid-century. Nor was it the discovery of the breadth of her skill and talent. Rather, it was Neel’s decades of fully committed, humane, engaged and passionate activism that left the deepest impression. She left us a fully articulated world of people, not the powerful or famous (though she painted a few of those, too), but also children, friends, neighbors and bohemians, many of them on the margins of society, but absolutely in the center of her encompassing empathy.

'Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel'

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

Barbara Kruger: 'Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.'

The works of Barbara Kruger spilled out of the Art Institute of Chicago and seemed to become captions — ironic, bracing, surreal — to the city itself. The text-based artist hadn’t had a major show in the United States for some two decades, a long time for a someone who is keenly aware of the present, and how it is shaped by media, messaging, and our corrupt and hypocritical politicians and oligarchs. The exhibition touched on her early cut-and-paste works, from the 1980s and ’90s, but focused mainly on her ongoing critical dissection of consumer and media culture. Kruger’s work has migrated to new platforms but remains as incisive and brilliant as it ever was.