Laura Cumming’s best art of 2021 | Art and design

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This was the year of the great exhibition – in spite of the plague. Galleries offered online shows when they couldn’t open and riches when they could, no matter the havoc of cancelled loans, insurance hikes and unreliable transport. Schedules were dextrously shifted and blockbusters extended, so judiciously that Tate shows ran longer and the Royal Academy’s magnificent Late Constable continues straight through until next year. Still, one curator confided, 2021 was like playing poker while also juggling eggs.

Terrific surveys of female artists continued apace, though still not fast enough to make up for lost time. The wild and stirring genius of the Scottish painter Joan Eardley was celebrated in multiple centenary shows across Scotland. Swiss modernist Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s graphic wit and versatility of needle, pen and paintbrush dazzled at Tate Modern. There were lifetime commemorations of Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield, Eileen Agar at the Whitechapel, Laura Knight at Milton Keynes (still on, until 20 Feb) and US abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler at Dulwich – her visions diaphanous as mist, frequently vast, yet miraculously achieved through hard-line woodcut.

By general consent, Yinka Shonibare brought the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to exhilarating new life with outstanding works by black artists. And 2021 felt at least fractionally more diverse, with riveting solo shows from Charles Gaines, Michael Armitage and Samson Kambalu, Joy Labinjo and Sonia Boyce in public spaces, Carrie Mae Weems in Cardiff, whose photographs could be seen outdoors during lockdown, and every single one of the 40 and more contributors to Life Between Islands, seven decades of British Caribbean art at Tate Britain, so mind-altering I will never forget it. This was the show of the year for me.

The Soldier’s Daughter by Paula Rego, 1987.
The Soldier’s Daughter by Paula Rego, 1987. Photograph: © Paula Rego

Painting soared, and was everywhere. People muttered that it was safer than installation or event art, say, during a pandemic (though that didn’t stop Yayoi Kusama’s mirror-upon-mirror Infinity Rooms from selling out at Tate Modern). Ralph Rugoff’s Mixing It Up: Painting Today offered an enthralling overview of what he called “one of the three best painting scenes in the world right now” – namely ours. His Hayward Gallery show offered an astounding range of UK-based artists – Lisa Brice, Matthew Krishanu, Vivien Zhang, rising stars Mohammed Sami and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami – almost all of them born elsewhere. Yet another irreducible argument, were it necessary, for freedom of movement.

Many venerable artists died in 2021. There will be no more work from Christian Boltanski, Chuck Close, Lawrence Weiner or the Lebanese painter and poet Etel Adnan, who died at the age of 96. Her life lesson was radiantly simple: “When I paint, I am happy.” The tragic death of Tate Modern’s internationally admired head of exhibitions, Achim Borchardt-Hume, whose shows included the incomparable Picasso: 1932, was announced last month. He was 56. Memories of his acclaimed shows survive him.

The Courtauld Gallery reopened after several years – clarified, beautified, masterpieces newly cleaned, the staging a sequence of surprises. So did Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, expanding to incorporate a whole double-height warehouse. The south-west acquired a new museum with the Box in Plymouth, opening with a show of Australian art. Bournemouth got the art gallery Giant, where Debenhams once stood. You can now see the YBAs beside the seaside.

Art can take you anywhere – and this year it did. To the Middle East in the V&A’s Epic Iran, to Australia at Tate Modern (until Autumn 2022), and to Peru (until 22 Feb), Nero’s Ancient Rome and Hokusai’s Japan in the wondrous The Great Picture Book of Everything (ends 30 Jan), all at the British Museum. Art – international, intimate – embraced us into the world again this year, when that world felt remote. For this, and all else, I am so grateful.

The top 10 art shows of 2021

Rainstorm over the Sea, c1824-1828 by John Constable.
Rainstorm over the Sea, c1824-1828 by John Constable, from Late Constable at the Royal Gallery. Photograph: Royal Academy of Arts, London

1. Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now
Tate Britain, London (until 3 April)
Joyous, piercing, beautiful: transatlantic life in every medium

2. Late Constable
Royal Academy, London (until 13 Feb)

Dark, tumultuous, triumphant works.

3. Paula Rego
Tate Britain
The turbulent inner life in stunning narrative paintings.

4. Joan Eardley centenary
Across Scotland

Multiple shows of this great Scottish painter of children, seas and wintry landscapes.

Portraint of Isaac Abrahamsz by Frans Hals.
Portraint of Isaac Abrahamsz by Frans Hals.

5. Frans Hals
Wallace Collection, London (until 30 Jan)

Revolutionising the male portrait: spies, diplomats, cavaliers, brewers.

6. Helen Frankenthaler
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (until 18 April)

Captivating visions miraculously achieved in woodcut.

7. Jean Dubuffet
Barbican, London

Rebellious, witty pioneer of subversive art brut.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp with Dada Head, 1920
Sophie Taeuber-Arp with Dada Head, 1920

8. Sophie Taeuber-Arp
Tate Modern, London

Paintings, puppets, embroideries and more from this long-overlooked modernist.

9. Tokyo: Art and Photography
Modern Art Oxford (until 3 Jan)

Love, loneliness, life and death in the floating world.

10. Artes Mundi

Global sweep through the best in contemporary art.


Turner Prize 2021
Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry (until 12 Jan)
Four socially concerned collectives: worthiest yet, though possibly the worst.