PRINT December 2020

The Artists’ Artists

The Artists’ Artists

To take stock of the past year, Artforum asked an international group of artists to select a single exhibition or event that most memorably caught their attention in 2020.

Sydney Schrader, Torus, 2020, tables. Installation view, 34th Street, Queens, New York.

Sydney Schrader (Gandt, New York)

Schrader’s Torus, 2020, put me in a state of utter disbelief. Displayed for only a few hours on an unusually warm day in February, the artwork consisted of dozens of gray folding banquet tables arranged in two segmented parallel lines on either side of a residential street in Astoria, Queens. The work’s title may have alluded to the circular path I traced as I walked its lengths, or to the topology of a coffee cup or even that of a human body, both of which I found sitting on the artwork at various points during my walk, though they were not “part of it.” What shocked me about this artwork was its absence of complication and the clarity it brought to the air around it.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, In the Drawing Room, 2018, pastel, charcoal, and graphite on paper, 29 1⁄2 × 39 5⁄8".

Toyin Ojih Odutola (Jack Shainman, New York)

For most of this year, I have been housebound due to virus danger and have not had the pleasure of seeing art in person, except my own inside my studio. If one sentence would do: I am greatly impressed by the work of many young Black figurative painters, such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Toyin Ojih Odutola, that I’ve seen online this year, specifically their use of color and choice of subject matter. Ojih Odutola, in particular, is not messing around. She is doing something important in her work, delivering it with authenticity and great skill. That’s what painting should do.

Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and the Infant Jesus Playing with a Lamb, ca. 1503–19, oil on wood panel, 66 1⁄4 × 44 1⁄2". © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

Leonardo da Vinci (Louvre, Paris)

Seeing these works in real life, I felt as though Leonardo Da Vinci was present, showing how he saw and through seeing discovered the underlying relatedness of the world. His life’s work comes together in one of his final paintings, twenty years in the making, of Saint Anne. I don’t think I have ever felt this kind of tenderness from a work of art—the blue haze, the composition moving in a big circle from the rocks below to the height of the mountains, the tree, Saint Anne, Mary, everything down to her baby and the lamb whose ears he is tweaking, felt like an embrace from five hundred years ago, whispering, Everything is one and everything will be all right.

Olivia Camfield and Woodrow Hunt, We Only Answer Our Land Line, 2019, digital video, color, sound, 6 minutes.

“Cycle 0” (COUSIN, streaming)

This ain’t Smoke Signals! “Cycle 0” highlighted the first wave of artists to be commissioned by COUSIN, a collective supporting Indigenous artists who expand the form of moving-image art. The weekend-long screening series, expertly cocurated by Adam Piron and Sky Hopinka, featured the work of an international group of emerging and established artists, including Raven Chacon, Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, Fox Maxy, and Kite. Beamed onto our laptop screens last May, these films offered up a cornucopia of mind-bending approaches to imagining Indigenous futures.

Evelyne Axell, La fille de feu (The Girl of Fire), 1967–68, enamel on wood and board, 47 1⁄4 × 43 1⁄4".  © ADAGP, Paris–Prolitteris, Zurich.

Evelyne Axell (Muzeum Susch, Zernez, Switzerland, on view through December 6)

This retrospective of Belgian Pop artist Evelyne Axell is a revelation. Axell used an incredible array of modern materials, such as fake fur, plastic, and enamel car paint, to produce paintings that vividly explore female sexuality and desire in a consumerist society. In her hands, formal strategies like mirroring, transparency, and silhouetting reach a pitch-perfect sensuality, culminating in a group of works in which the female body seems to merge in an orgasmic fusion with the natural world. Axell’s revolutionary Arcadian longings offer a potent antidote to our dystopian times.

Evelyne Axell (Muzeum Susch, Zernez, Switzerland)

This past summer, Museum Susch, a converted monastery, launched Axell’s first major retrospective outside of her native Belgium. On the upper floor, La femme homard (The Lobster Woman), 1967—a freestanding work on canvas, staunchly displayed in front of a window—took the midday sun beaming through and ran with it, creating a transcendent play between shadow and color on the wall behind me. Nearby was a different source of light: a slide show on Axell’s plans to build an all-plastic museum, an effort she would no doubt have realized had she not passed away prematurely at the age of thirty-seven.

Josh Smith, Prison, 2013, ceramic. Installation view, Josh Smith studio roof, Brooklyn, New York, 2020.

Josh Smith (David Zwirner, New York)

Quick to react to the isolation, the quiet streets, and the aircraftless skies, Smith put together an open-air exhibition titled “High As Fuck.” The show, staged on the rooftop of his studio during the Covid-19 pandemic, was only accessible online. While the city was shut down for several weeks, Smith had begun to see things more clearly. Ten new paintings of his neighborhood, aligned on the rooftop with seven small ceramic prison cells (made in 2014), gave the viewer a sense of looking inside and outside at the same time. The paintings instilled a sense of calm, while the ceramics evoked the lockdown and isolation we were all collectively experiencing. Says Smith, “These are memory paintings but the memory I am painting is now.”

View of “Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: Errata,” 2019–20, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay (Fundació Antoni Tapiès, Barcelona)

Artist, activist, and writer Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has built a guide to unlearning the false certainties of the Western imperial agenda. By inscribing the viewer in a narrative told through films, books, photographs, and artifacts, her exhibition “Errata” aimed to enter into and reverse colonial knowledge. Nowadays, racialized postcolonial voices rise everywhere, so much so that our so-called democracies meet them with fear and repression. We indeed live in societies that have not been decolonized. Azoulay’s work is deconstructing the wall that separates histories from their repair.

View of “Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne—das Original,” 2020, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo: Silke Briel.

“Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne—das Orignal” (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin)

I’ve wandered through Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne countless times in my mind, but I never thought I’d confront it in person. At Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the first reconstitution since 1929 of this staggering (and incomplete) attempt to map the “hiking trails of images” through their recurring “pathos formulas” fully unfolded a project intended to abolish the hierarchies that bind the hands of art and history. The Bilderatlas is a model for thinking like history’s overloaded switchboard operators, in somersaults and arabesques, and a reminder that even our most progressive institutions depend on the “border-police bias” that Warburg defied nearly a century ago.

Doron Langberg, Sleeping, 2019, oil on linen, 24 × 18".

Doron Langberg (Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)

Confident daubs, sprays, and waves of saturated oil paint augmented the mostly large-scale gestural figure paintings in this show. The seventeen canvases oscillated between narratives of familial warmth and scenes of quiet intimacy peppered with contemplative and cruisey portraits. The opening night was a raucous gathering of New York’s queer and art intelligentsia. Very memorable.

Jack Whitten, 9.11.01, 2006, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 10 × 20'. © Jack Whitten Estate.

“Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art” (Baltimore Museum of Art)

The work in the exhibition’s first room was, in a word, breathtaking—a feeling that is rare and, for me, hearkens back to the 1960s and ’70s, when there were truly new things to experience, to think about, to wonder about, things that led us to wonder about art, to wonder if it was art. These days, when we see a great deal of what is being “produced” or “fashioned,” we know, to a mathematical certainty, it ain’t. Thank goodness a work of art—the work of Jack Whitten—survives him: a gigantic jewel box that stretches across a wall and our imaginations.

Screen shot from Verzuz’s “Brandy vs. Monica” Instagram Live battle, August 31, 2020.

Verzuz Battles, organized by Timbaland and Swizz Beats (Instagram Live)

I’ve only managed to catch two of the Verzuz battles live on Instagram (DJ Premier versus RZA, mired early on in technical difficulties, and Brandy versus Monica, technically flawless and hilarious thanks to Brandy’s channeling her TV sitcom character Moesha by reading several poems throughout), but in an era of boring and exhausting online events, they were, for me, one of the few things perfectly scaled to and appropriate for the task. Legendary rappers and singers playing their hits back and forth at any other time might have been an excruciating exercise in humoring stan-dom, but here, out of necessity, our collective lineup of friendly rivalries could play out, in real time, in a mostly generous manner. We could drink, sing along, chime in, watch performers’ peers chime in, and for once find one of the promises of technology, its vow to connect us, kept.

Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, Somos la luz (We Are the Light), 2020, house paint. Installation view, Queens, New York. Photo: Greenpoint Innovations.

Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada (Queens Museum, New York)

Perhaps a different view is necessary during a pandemic that has latched itself around the world. What statement can art provide in the face of this devastation? Jorge Rodrígues-Gerada’s Somos la luz (We Are the Light) offers one such answer. The work is a massive portrait of Ydelfonso Decoo, a physician who died from Covid-19, painted on the surface of the Queens Museum parking lot. Measuring twenty thousand square feet and large enough to be seen from outer space, the painting breaks through the limitations of traditional portraiture; it also pays tribute to all victims of Covid-19 and to those health-care workers who put their lives at risk by caring for those stricken down. The working-class, Black, and Latino communities of Queens were among the hardest hit in New York City. The foremost power of Rodríguez-Gerada’s mural lies in the fact that such a statement can speak so directly during these mostly unspeakable times.

Eric N. Mack, ‘Chloe’ is just the name of the girl in the photograph, 2019, fabric, T-shirt, corduroy, oilcloth, Missoni knit, thread. Installation view, Paula Cooper, New York, 2020. Photo: Steven Probert.

Eric N. Mack (in a group show with Lynda Benglis and Kelley Walker at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

Mack has described his art as having the “intricacies of a palm.” I love to think of the work in this way—as a storytelling topography to be examined with care. After months in quarantine, it was refreshing to encounter his fabric pieces at a recent group show at Paula Cooper. They activate poetic interplays among color, density, texture, pattern, opacity, line, and text. And rather than dwarf us with their magnitude, they made us aware of the relationships between the body, light, and architecture, inducing us to slow down.

Screen shot of Damali Abrams during her “Free Glitter Priestess Reiki Healing Circle” Zoom session, June 3, 2020.

Damali Abrams, “Free Glitter Priestess Reiki Healing Circle” (Zoom)

This reiki healing circle was meant to be exactly that: a healing session. And yet its creative energy—its use of props, intricate decorations, and a DJ set—clearly came from an artist. Thank you, Damali Abrams, for the one truly restorative and enjoyable Zoom of 2020, one that started with an invitation to leave our cameras turned off, to remain silent, and even to minimize the window and step away.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 (Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida)

If art is the human-friendly glove for touching transcendent reality—reality beyond our known beliefs and limits—then engineering is the bloodied hand that makes first contact. In the midst of the pandemic, SpaceX successfully launched NASA astronauts into orbit on self-landing reusable rockets, definitively proving a new model of low-cost sustainable space travel. This historic event reminded me that while our world is a megatheater of failure, fear, and dysfunction, it is simultaneously the stage for cutting-edge engineering projects that renew the divine spirit inside each of us. It is the spirit that says we are truly alive when we are chasing a future that is more integrated with transcendent reality, not less.

John Boskovich, Bondage Menorah, 1997, metal, Formica base with Jean Genet text, United States–issue camouflage Mini Maglites, 41 1⁄2 × 30 × 16 1⁄2".

John Boskovitch (O-Town House, Los Angeles)

“Psycho Salon” was the first show I saw in 2020. A considered and cautious reimagining of Boskovich’s LA living space, the exhibition was also my introduction to the work of an artist who has been obscure since his untimely death in 2006. Alcoholics Anonymous catchphrases and T. S. Eliot quotes adorned statues of Hindu deities, and Jean Genet epigrams embellished jet-black menorahs, these texts all transmuting into New Age self-help mantras. And then there were black-lit honey bears, a neon-pink-and-black pentagram rug, and Polaroids of the artist’s friends and/or lovers smoking crack. Altogether, the exhibition embodied the depth and conceptual rigor of Boskovich himself—artist, writer, director, pianist, farmer, lawyer, and, most importantly, human.

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, One Last Trip to the Underworld, 2019, stop-motion animation, color, sound, 3 minutes 55 seconds.

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg (Tanya Bonakdar, New York)

Last fall, on what would become my final romp around Chelsea for the foreseeable future, I stumbled upon the remarkable world of Nathalie Djurberg and her collaborator Hans Berg. I’ve been a fan of their work for some time, but as a collector and an artist, I would have gladly stolen one of the fanciful clay creatures hovering over the even fancier floral sprouts scattered throughout the exhibition. Four of the team’s trademark animations accompanied the sculptures; one, featuring a macabre ballet with an octopus, stayed with me all week.

Sam McKinniss, Lindsay, 2019, oil on linen, 15 × 21".

Sam McKinniss (JTT, New York)

Walking into McKinniss’s opening was like walking into a house of mirrors. His subjects are mostly actors, musicians, and athletes, caught both “on” and “off” camera, and everywhere I looked, the people—the paintings—spoke of the inescapable sign of performance. Yet rather than bring about an existential claustrophobia of language, the show seemed to be an affirmation. The collective wink of these paintings reminded me that performance has no outside: We choose the reference, add and remove as we please, manipulate each stroke with our unique gesture and tone. A process of self-determination also known as painting.

Scott Covert, Henry Darger, 2019, oil crayon, wax crayon, pen, and ink on paper, 18 × 24".

“Painting Is Painting’s Favorite Food: Art History as Muse” (South Etna, Montauk, New York)

This group exhibition’s title was taken from Asger Jorn, a founding member of the CoBrA movement. What stood out most for me was a wall of grave rubbings by Scott Covert—he calls them “Lifetime Drawings”—tiny checkerboard squares, penned in over tombstone frottage, from the headstone of Henry Darger to that of Winslow Homer, that “take a lifetime” to draw. Covert brings history, depth, and mortality to what was once considered a quaint pastime. He’s forever on the global road, carrying paper and canvas, rubbing out names and matching them with historical or humorous fellows. He’ll follow you to your grave.

The sinking of an Edward Colston statue (Bristol, UK)

On June 7, protesters pulled down a bronze sculpture of a seventeenth-century slave trader and theatrically dumped it into Bristol Harbor. Monuments like this seem to say little about whom they depict and everything about the ideologies of the cultures that build and maintain them. That statue was well “contextualized” as it sank.

Charbel-joseph H. Boutros, an artwork that is shown close to the model of the unrealized project where ideally that work should be shown (detail), 2019, blown-glass sphere, water from the Atlantic ocean, a teardrop from a gallerist’s left eye, metallic structure, carpet, desert sand, models of an unrealized museum, dimensions variable.

Home Works 8 (various locations, Lebanon)

On October 17, 2019, as Home Works 8, the latest iteration of a triennial citywide cultural forum, was opening its doors to the public, the revolution sparkled more seriously than ever before, taking each and every person into the streets, hand in hand, to scream in the faces of the rulers stealing Lebanon. Organizer Ashkal Alwan, which decided not to open the exhibition, posted a statement in support of the protesters. Only ten months later, many art institutions, museums, and galleries in the city were destroyed by the August 4 blast that killed more than two hundred people, disappeared many more, and wounded no fewer than seven thousand. All of our hearts broke—that is, if we survived.

View of “Designs for Different Futures,” 2019–20, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Left: Eero Ludén, Ron Aasholm, and Carmen Lee, Another Generosity, 2018. Photo: Joseph Hu.

“Designs for Different Futures” (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

An unusually broad survey of applied design, this exhibition roped in many of the most important issues that challenge the world today—climate change, environmental sustainability, food security, and the right to shelter and health care, among other urgent topics. Especially compelling was Another Generosity, 2018, designed by Eero Lundén, Ron Aasholm, and Carmen Lee of Lundén Architecture Company in collaboration with Bergent, BuroHappold Engineering (now Buro Happold), and Finland’s Aalto University. Resembling an enormous breathing machine, the work comprises large, glowing air-and-water-filled “lungs” that inflated, deflated, or shifted color in accordance with minute fluctuations in the gallery’s atmosphere. Overall, the show was exhilarating in its conception and design, providing an experience that was both sobering and inspiring with respect to the possibility of better futures.

Leonardo da Vinci, Figure studies for Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1481, pen and ink on paper, 10 7⁄8 × 8 1⁄4".

Leonardo da Vinci (Louvre, Paris)

Almost the only art show I saw this year was Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre. I was appreciating some very faint line drawings where he comes to grips with muscles, the actual appearance of the human body rather than some religious idea of it, and suddenly everyone looked up. It was the gilets jaunes shouting insults at us from the floor above. Art causing trouble again, just like it should, even after hundreds of years!