The grand reopening: our critics pick the best art shows for 2021 | Art

Art has been unseen for so long. Like the proverbial flower in the desert, it is hard to believe it is all still there waiting for us in warehouses, crates and long-dark museums. But very soon the sight of it will be instantaneously restored. From 9am on 17 May, all things going to plan, England’s galleries are allowed to open their doors once again in a dam-bursting flood of exhibitions. On 26 April, Scotland’s venues will start reopening, with Wales and Northern Ireland still under review.

The blight has been epochal. Small galleries died, biennales withered, museums cancelled or postponed momentous blockbusters, from Raphael to David Hockney, and nixed many more throughout the pandemic. Shows opened and shut in one day like a Feydeau farce. Hundreds of staff were furloughed, then axed altogether at the Tate, the National Gallery and the V&A, where “departmental restructuring” will mean the loss of deep curatorial knowledge.

But now the surviving staff are scrambling to secure their last Rodin or Rubens from abroad, anticipating a continental third wave. Shows are being hastily recast, catalogues rewritten, events like Glasgow International coming offline into living reality. Eighty-seven galleries are mounting the first ever London Gallery Weekend in June. To set eyes on art once more will be a revelation, literally; and the auguries for the future are strong. Galleries turned themselves into safe spaces from the start, and visitors are increasingly armed with vaccines. Pray the doors never have to close again. Laura Cumming

Barbican, 17 May-22 August

Landscape with Argus, 1955, Jean Dubuffet.
Landscape with Argus, 1955, Jean Dubuffet. Photograph: Copyright Fondation Dubuffet / DACS 2019

It seems almost impossible that this is the first major British show of this wild and zany Frenchman in half a century – but so it is. Dubuffet is unique. His interest in the raw art of the mentally ill and the untrained, from caveman to graffiti artist, fed directly into his brilliantly coloured and expressive painting, in which he goes at it with everything from asphalt and tar to spray gun and plaster. Expect to be startled by his spontaneity and surprised by his influence on so much of what followed. LC

Royal Academy of Arts, London, 22 May-19 September

The Paradise Edict, 2019, by Michael Armitage.
The Paradise Edict, 2019, by Michael Armitage. Photograph: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection © Michael Armitage. Photo: © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

The fantastical dreams of the Kenyan-born painter Michael Armitage (b 1984) are mesmerising, vast and densely worked. Armitage works on lubugu bark cloth, a material made by the Baganda people of Uganda, and all of his paintings speak to cultural assumptions about Africa, its politics and history, but spliced with motifs from western art. Fifteen of his mural-sized works will be displayed alongside paintings by contemporary East African painters who have influenced his career as a figurative artist. LC

Hepworth Wakefield, 21 May-27 February 2022

Two Forms with White (Greek), 1963, by Barbara Hepworth.
Two Forms with White (Greek), 1963, by Barbara Hepworth. Photograph: Jonty Wilde/Photo by Jonty Wilde

The biggest show of the egg-woman (as she was once known) since her death in 1975, this survey marks the 10th anniversary of the museum that takes her name. Every part of Hepworth’s career will be on show, from the famous strung sculptures of the 40s and 50s to the carved marble works and the large bronzes of her later years. And as if that were not enough, Tacita Dean and Veronica Ryan have been commissioned to create related works. LC

Various venues, 18 May onwards

I Keep Telling Them These Stories, 2018, by Jasleen Kaur
I Keep Telling Them These Stories, 2018, by Jasleen Kaur, who will present a new artwork, The First Thing I Did Was to Kiss the Ground in Gravesend as part of England’s Creative Coast. Photograph: © Jasleen Kaur.

This is art as itinerary: a beachside drive (or walk, if you’re very hardy) all along the south coast from Essex and Kent to west Sussex. This year, the loose amalgam of exhibitions includes John Nash at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne, sculptures by Holly Hendry at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, and a Michael Rakowitz installation at Turner Contemporary. Seven new outdoor artworks will appear like beacons along the breathtaking English coastline. LC


Hurvin Anderson; British Art Show
9 / Thomas Dane


Hurvin Anderson was born in 1965 in Birmingham. His paintings explore his Jamaican heritage through depictions of Caribbean landscapes. He has exhibited at Tate BritainIkon Gallery and Harlem’s Studio Museum and in 2017 he was nominated for the Turner prize. His work will be part of the Hayward gallery’s ninth touring British Art Show, which starts in Aberdeen on 10 July, and Art from Britain and the Caribbean at Tate Britain from December. Thomas Dane gallery presents new work by Anderson in September.

Tell us about your solo show in September…
It’s a show of paintings based around these abandoned hotels around the north coast of Jamaica.

It’s less about the hotels and more about utopia. In black culture in Britain, there’s an idea of always wanting to be in a better place and the perfect environment. The paintings are a part of that discussion, this idea of perfection.

Who or what first got you into art?
Growing up, there was an artist called Ras Daniel Heartman. His most famous work is a little boy with dreads crossing his arms. Every person, especially in the Jamaican community, had a copy. You’d go on the roadside in London and people would be selling rip-off copies of his drawings. There’s a John Holt LP cover he is famous for too, so I think those were key.

What has the pandemic taught you?
To move faster. To enjoy people’s company.

Name one thing you can’t live without while you’re working…
I’m a little bit addicted to audiobooks. I love music, but it can be a bit distracting. I’m listening to The Beatles by Hunter Davies at the moment.

What are the best and worst things about the British art world?
I thought it was egalitarian and an open and level playing field, but actually, it’s as bad as everywhere else, if not worse. In saying that, it’s a place where anything can happen. It’s a world full of ideas. If you’re among the right people, you can question things and be challenged, and rethink your own ideas.

If money were no object, what artwork would you most like to own and where would you put it?
Anything by Bonnard. He’s just got this awkwardness – every figure in his paintings seems to not like each other, they seem to be sliding off the canvas. I’d put it in the bedroom. I’d want to see it all the time.

Photograph: Sebastian Nevols

180 The Strand, London, 20 May-1 August

Test Pattern 16 by Ryoji Ikeda.
Test Pattern 16 by Ryoji Ikeda. Photograph: / 180 Strand Gallery/ / 180 Strand Gallery

Vinyl Factory and Fact Magazine presents a massive solo show for the cult Japanese musician-turned-artist Ryoji Ikeda, master of hypnotic hyper-stimulation. A dozen of his colossal sound-light installations will fill the old brutalist office block on the Strand. Nerds love his deep-dive data researchs, from DNA to sonic booms and outer space, but his work is a kind of 21st-century romanticism, wit
h its waterfalls of flashing light. Synapse-splitting installations are promised, along with a reprise of his dazzling strobe-light corridor. Booking definitely essential. LC

National Gallery, London, 20 November-27 February 2022

Lot and His Daughters, c1496–9, Albrecht Dürer.
Lot and His Daughters, c1496–9, Albrecht Dürer. Photograph: National Gallery of Art/image courtesy National Gallery of Art

Albrecht Dürer was European art’s first great tourist, drawing bristling walruses shipped from Scandinavia, and travelling miles in winter to see a whale washed up on a beach in Zeeland. He criss-crossed the Alps more than once and saw what he thought were the bones of a giant. With loans from museums across the world, and from private collections, this epochal show will present the strange genius of his mind and art. And look out for paintings never shown before in Britain. LC

Tate Modern, London, 17 May-31 October

The Tragic Muse, 1890, Auguste Rodin.
The Tragic Muse, 1890, Auguste Rodin. Photograph: Christian Baraja/Studio SLB/Collections du Musée Rodin, Paris

Rodin the revolutionary sculptor of The Burghers of Calais, The Thinker and The Kiss: everybody thinks they know the great French titan. But this show homes in on the origins of his art. How his hands worked the clay models, how he shaved and twisted plaster, what use he made of photographs, and even films, and his relationship with his female collaborators, including the sculptor Camille Claudel and the Japanese actress Ohta Hisa. This show should reshape our understanding of Rodin. LC

Spike Island, Bristol, 19 May-5 September

Punnet I, 2020, by Veronica Ryan.
Punnet I, 2020, by Veronica Ryan. Photograph: courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photogra
ph by Max McClure.

Best known for her pillow, pod and cocoon-like pieces, British sculptor Veronica Ryan’s work celebrates the natural world and the Caribbean with beautiful pastel-hued works that evoke dreaming, childhood memories and home. A key theme for Ryan, who was born in Montserrat, is the island’s pre-colonial history and culture. This show brings together new works made from clay, bronze, fabrics, neon crocheted fishing-line pouches, seeds, fruit stones, guanábana skins and cocoa pods – even volcanic ash from the island. Kadish Morris

British Museum, London, 27 May24 October

Marble bust of Nero, Italy, around AD 55.
Marble bust of Nero, Italy, around AD 55. Photograph: Francesco Piras

Nero the ruthless tyrant – or Nero the conquering hero, last male descendent of Rome’s first Emperor Augustus? If you have him pegged as a matricidal maniac, this blockbuster may just alter your perception. Two hundred spectacular objects, including images, sculptures and illustrated manuscripts, will trace the young emperor’s rise to power, his crimes, misdemeanours and wild indulgences, as well as his diplomatic and military triumphs. Expect a stunning and controversial spectacle. LC


Guerrilla Girls; Art Night, 18 June-18 July, UK-wide


The Guerrilla Girls are US art activists who have used humorous, witty posters – a tactic they describe as creative complaining – to expose sexism and racism in the art world since they first came together in 1985. This summer their work appears at Art Night, the free all-night UK art festival, which runs from 18 June to 18 July. The group is anonymous, but founder member “Käthe Kollwitz” answered our questions.

Tell us about your work for Art Night.
This is one of our largest ever projects. There’ll be billboards all over the UK and an interactive website. People talk about the male gaze, but we think it’s the male graze – men devour women. It looks at male behaviour in art through the ages.

What’s it like working as part of a group?
There are incredibly exhilarating good times – just being in your own head doesn’t lead to the most effective and interesting kind of work – but it can be really hard to agree on things. One thing that’s helped is that we formed to do street posters in New York. We didn’t realise using persuasive strategies from advertising was a new thing in art, but it’s been so effective we’re still doing it.

What got you into art?
I’m not sure there’s really an answer to that. All of our 60-plus members over the years have been artists. All kids are artists and get told what they do is great. Most people stop making art as they get older, but some of us never do.

What’s this past year been like for you as a political artist?
It’s been unbelievably important. With movements like Black Lives Matter and the current protest over violence against Asian Americans, there are all kinds of creative people getting their message out in new ways. Artists are fully participating in this. We see so much great stuff out there – everyone, please keep it up. We’re going to continue making all the trouble we can. Interview by Alice Fisher

Whitechapel Gallery, London, 19 May-29 August

Collective Unconscious, 1977, by Eileen Agar.
Collective Unconscious, 1977, by Eileen Agar. Photograph: © The estate of Eileen Agar

British artist Eileen Agar (1899-1991) may be the most under-represented of all the surrealists. She made diamanté sculptures and ceremonial hats, painted scenes of indelible strangeness, and fashioned collages and fetishes out of feathers, photographs and jewels. Her art seems infused with a constant sense of the sea and the shore, but also with a characteristically independent joie de vivre. This survey of over a hundred works is long overdue, but better late than never. LC

Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500-1860

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 November-27 February 2022

A Rhinoceros, called Miss Clara (1738-58) attributed to Peter Anton Verschaffelt.
A Rhinoceros, Called Miss Clara (1738-58) attributed to Peter Anton Verschaffelt. Photograph: © The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The starting point for this quirky-sounding show is one of the most beloved objects in the Institute’s collection: A Rhinoceros, Called Miss Clara (1750-60), a small bronze representation of a beast that famously toured Europe, having been brought to Rotterdam in 1741 from the Dutch East Indies. The exhibition will place Miss Clara (“tame as a lamb”) in the context of other celebrity pachyderms, and will feature work by, among others, Dürer and Rembrandt. Rachel Cooke

Royal Academy, London, 23 May-26 September

No 370, 2020, David Hockney.
No 370, 2020, David Hockney. Photograph: © David Hockney

Hockney’s prodigious energy co
ntinues to astonish. This exhibition promises more than 100 works, all of which were originally “painted” on an iPad at the artist’s French home during lockdown. The images celebrate the coming of spring in the four-acre field that surrounds Hockney’s house, but are also inspired by the narrative form of the Bayeux tapestry, which he visits often. An immersive experience across three galleries. RC

Tate Britain, London, 7 July-24 October

The Dance, 1988, by Paula Rego.
The Dance, 1988, by Paula Rego.

The largest and most comprehensive exhibition of work by Rego (b 1935) to date, this is bound to be seriously thrilling. On offer will be early paintings, including Interrogation, made when Rego was only 15; collages and drawings from the 1960s and 70s, created in fierce, inspired opposition to the Portuguese dictatorship under which the artist was then living; her famous Nursery Rhymes series of 1981; and work from the 1990s that addresses abortion, depression and human trafficking. A must-see. RC


Alberta Whittle; Glasgow International, 11-27 June


The multimedia artist Alberta Whittle, who was born in Barbados in 1980 and is now based in Glasgow, has a major new installation as part of the rescheduled 2020 Glasgow International – 11-27 June – across three sites. She’s also representing Scotland at next year’s Venice Biennale. Her films, sculptures and performances explore radical self-love and the African diaspora.

Tell us about your work for Glasgow International.
Business As Usual: Hostile Environment is a film in response to the pandemic and the high number of cases amongst BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of colour] communities. I felt compelled to make something urgent. It was originally made for the 2020 event, which was cancelled, so it’s been fascinating to go back, extend and re-edit and include different facets of research. I’m really excited about showing it.

How do you feel about being selected for Venice?
It’s amazing and it’s an unusual space to show your work. I’m really interested in Venice’s history and how it reflects the global systems of migration – that feeds into a lot of the ideas I’m working on.

How has the pandemic affected your work?
I’ve felt a great need to be responsive. It’s been an actual life or death situation, and trying to work through that vortex and think of ways we can be compassionate to each other has been hard. Though weirdly, simultaneously, there’s also been so much time to reflect.

What art space are you looking forward to visiting after reopening?
The Chisenhale has introduced me to so many artists, and I love the South London Gallery.

Who or what got you into art?
My parents met at art school and are artists. So I’ve always made work and always known this was what I was going to do. Other inspirations have been Kara WalkerSonia Boyce and Sir Frank Bowling.

What can’t you live without while you’re working?
Really good pillows, candles, water and a tennis ball for self-massage. I make a lot of my art in bed.

Photograph: Courtesy of Alberta Whittle

Lucy McKenzie

Tate Liverpool, 3 June-31 October

Side Entrance, 2011, by Lucy McKenzie.
Side Entrance, 2011, by Lucy McKenzie. Photograph: © Lucy McKenzie

The practice of the Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie is singular and beautiful, and speaks to many of the things we have loved and, perhaps, lost (post-war murals, fin-de-siècle architecture, glorious old-fashioned shops). This exhibition will include 80 works made from 1997 onwards, and if her name is unfamiliar, all I can say is that it will be on at the same time as Tate Liverpool’s Lucian Freud in Focus, the largest show of Freud’s work to be staged in the north-west for 30 years. See both! Double bubble, as we art critics like to say. RC

Tate Britain, London, 3 November-20 March 2022

A Scene from The Beggar’s Opera VI, 1731 , William Hogarth.
A Scene from The Beggar’s Opera VI, 1731 , William Hogarth. Photograph: Tate

A bracing dash of William Hogarth never goes amiss, but this exhibition sounds to be both expansive and highly original, showing him alongside some of his European contemporaries – Francesco Guardi in Venice, Chardin in Paris and Cornelis Troost in Amsterdam – for the first time. What sympathies did these men share? And how did they capture the affluence and cosmopolitanism of 18th-century life? By answering such questions, we may in future see Hogarth with eyes more widely open. RC

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 18 May-13 June

The Red Gear (Still Life in Red and Blue), 1939, by Fernand Léger.
The Red Gear (Still Life in Red and Blue), 1939, by Fernand Léger. Photograph: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

Its original opening having been delayed by lockdown, this exhibition will deploy works of art by more than 50 artists to examine the many artistic movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, a
mong them post-impressionism, cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. Prints by the likes of Braque, Cézanne and Matisse, portraits by Manet, Georges Rouault and Marie Laurencin – and the first chance to see Édouard Vuillard’s Modèle assise dans un fauteuil, se coiffant (c1903) after its recent conservation. RC

V&A, London, 29 May-12 September

Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, 1411.
Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, 1411. Photograph: Courtesy Wellcome Collection

The first major exhibition to look at Iran for 90 years, this show will tell the story of the country from 3000BC to the present day, and will bring together more than 300 objects, including several significant loans from private collections. Among the highlights are the exquisite Qaran Unhorses Barman, a folio from the Shahnameh [or Book of Kings, the epic poem by Ferdowsi] of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz, from 1523-35; and Miss Hybrid #3, Shirin Aliabadi’s 2008 portrait of a young Iranian woman blowing a bubble with her gum. Not be missed in any circumstances. RC

Quick Guide

Design: Rowan Moore on the best shows and installations to see in 2021


A lot of trees will be moving around London this summer. Four hundred of them will be heading for the courtyard of Somerset House, where they will make Forest for Change, an installation by Es Devlin for the London Design Biennale (1-27 June). Others will be installed on Marble Arch Hill, a temporary miniature mountain by the Dutch architects MVRDV, which you will be able to climb up and take in the view. Just across Hyde Park, the Serpentine Gallery will be opening the latest edition of its (almost) annual pavilion; designed by the Johannesburg-based practice Counterspace, and postponed from 2020, the pavilion will be “based on gathering spaces and community places round the city”.

In Dundee, the V&A’s Night Fever: Designing Club Culture (opening 1 May) will reveal how “as spaces for adventure and escape, nightclubs have always encouraged experimental and radical design – from Studio 54 to the Haçienda”. And from 19 June, the Design Museum will honour the 20th-century designer and architect Charlotte Perriand with a London version of a majestic exhibition previously seen at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

National Gallery, London, 10 December-18 April 2022

A still from In Search of the Miraculous by Kehinde Wiley.
A still from In Search of the Miraculous by Kehinde Wiley. Photograph: © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery and Galerie Templon.

Wiley made his name in his homeland with paintings of modern-day black Americans reimagined as old masters, raising questions about power and identity with his regal, defiant figures. He found international fame in 2018 as the first black artist to paint an official portrait of a president, a work deemed “pretty sharp” by its subject, Barack Obama. Recent work incorporates photography, and his show at the National will also use film to reimagine European romantic landscapes by Turner, Friedrich and Vernet to include people of colour. Alice Fisher

Hayward Gallery, Southbank, London, 19 May-25 July

A still from Redoubt by Matthew Barney.
A still from Redoubt by Matthew Barney. Photograph: ©Matthew Barney, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

This is the first solo UK show for the American performance artist and filmmaker in more than a decade. Still best known for the unsettling Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), Barney’s Redoubt, including engravings, sculptures, and a feature film set in Barney’s childhood home of Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, is a more grounded affair. This exploration of guns, nature, the myth of Diana the hunter and some remarkable hoop dancing has given Barney his best American reviews in years and will be a treat for British fans. AF

Tate Modern, London, 15 July until 17 October

Beach, 1927, by Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
Beach, 1927, by Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Photograph: Photo: Alex Delfanne/Courtesy Stiftung Arp eV, Berlin/Rolandswerth and Hauser & Wirth

The 20th-century avant-garde artist, textile designer, dancer, editor and sculptor overflowed with ideas and creativity, never settled, moving from one discipline to the next with restless curiosity. From Dadaist sculptures and puppet shows for the Cabaret Voltaire to her extraordinary geometric abstracts and constructivist textiles, Taeuber-Arp brought exuberance to every project. This major UK retrospective will feature her most i
mportant works. Recognition here of her contribution to modern art is long overdue: in her native Switzerland, she’s so respected she appears on a bank note. AF

Quick Guide

Photography: Sean O’Hagan on the five best shows to see in 2021


James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective, Serpentine, London

A belated retrospective of the work of 91-year-old Ghanian-born photographer James Barnor, who over six decades has made work chronicling the social and cultural changes in London and Accra. Having started out as a studio photographer, Barnor moved to London in 1959, where he recorded the everyday experience of the African diaspora in the city. In the early 70s he returned to Ghana, where he pioneered colour portraiture and captured the local music scene in Accra. A vivid survey of the work of a singular photographer who moved effortlessly between portraits, photojournalism and social documentary.
19 May-22 October,

Chloe Dewe Mathews: Thames Log, Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol

Over several years, Chloe Dewe Mathews walked the Thames, from its source in rural Gloucestershire to its estuary mouth near Southend-on-Sea, photographing the people and events she encountered, including ship spotters, mudlarks and a ceremonial boat burning, alongside various religious rituals, from Hindu celebrations to Pentecostal baptisms. A portrait of a river and of the vibrancy of multicultural Britain.
20 May-29 August. The show is part of Bristol Photo Festival. A book of the project is co-published by Loose Joints / Martin Parr Foundation.

Peter Hujar, Maureen Paley, London

Peter Hujar, whose reputation has grown since his death from Aids-related complications in 1987, is best known for his intimate monochrome portraits of his friends on the downtown art scene in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. For this series, he turned his gaze on the underground drag culture in the city at that time, making quietly revealing portraits of the artists backstage as they readied themselves for their performances.
15 May-13 June,

Mohamed Bourouissa: HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA!!!!!hHAaA!!!, Goldsmiths, London

Algerian-born Mohamed Bourouissa creates ambitious multi-media installations using film and photography, as well as mobile phone and surveillance imagery to explore the lives of the urban disenfranchised, in particular the ways in which they negotiate – and mimic – the mainstream economic system that marginalises them. The title of his first British solo show is a play on the invented word “Hara!”, which is shouted by young lookouts alerting drug dealers in Marseille to the approach of police officers.
21 May–1

Thomas Demand, Sprüth Magers, London

Thomas Demand makes meticulous lifesize models in paper and card of actual interiors, which he photographs and then destroys. Until now, his locations have referenced recent German and global history (the ransacked Stasi offices in East Berlin, Saddam Hussein’s kitchen), but here he turns his gaze to art history – Monet’s water lilies – and constructed nature – a hydroponic cannabis lab.
13 April-15 May (book appointment online)

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
10 July-3 October

Intimacy and Distance, 2017, by Barby Asante.
Intimacy and Distance, 2017, by Barby Asante. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Kettle’s Yard

Timely works by 10 outstanding British African diaspora artists including new commissions by Barby Asante and Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, and recent work by Phoebe Boswell, Evan Ifekoya, Harold Offeh and Ima-Abasi Okon. Taking in painting, drawing, performance, video and sound installation, the curators’ aim is to explore black artists’ responses to the issues of our turbulent age rather than focusing on the more reductive theme of black British identity. Ideas of sexuality, queerness, migration, conflict, technology and the media promise to make for an imaginative and memorable show. KM

Next Post

The "NOW That's What I Simply call Songs" Dad Rock compilation will haunt you

If you’ve been privileged to somehow never see a person of the commercials for all those “NOW Which is What I Phone New music!” compilations, all you need to have to know is that they are generic mixes of well known songs all lumped alongside one another, presumably for men […]

You May Like