The Defining Artworks of 2021

After a tumultuous 2020 that involved the beginnings of a pandemic and worldwide upheaval, the art world began to slowly go back to a form of normal in 2021. Along with that shift came a number of developments that brought art-making in new and unexpected developments. There was the rise of a new medium, and there was the return of performance art. There were artworks that spoke to a continued reckoning with systemic racism, and there were powerful pieces that offered forms of healing in a time when illness was prevalent. There was no shortage of creativity on display. The list below, featuring 15 works that defined this year, attests to that.

Despite the fact that some were able to get vaccinated and resume social activities, not everyone went back to traveling internationally. Possibly for that reason, some cast their eyes toward artworks of the past and considered them anew. For that reason, this list includes several works that were produced decades ago but speak to the current moment.

To look back on the past 12 months in art-making, below is a survey of some of the most important artworks made or presented in a new light in 2021.

Guadalupe Maravilla, Disease Thrower (#13 & #14)(2021)


a large metal assemblage sculpture in an outdoor park, surrounded by barbed wire, with the New York City skyline in the background

Guadalupe Maravilla, Disease Throwers, 2021, at Socrates Sculpture Park, New York.

Photo : Courtesy Socrates Sculpture Park/Photo Sara Morgan

The twisting, towering forms of two recent sculptures in Guadalupe Maravilla’s Disease Thrower series were visible across the five-acre Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York. The aluminum structures featured two large gongs activated by healing sound bath ceremonies. At its feet were vegetables key to Mesoamerican communities such as corn, squash, and beans, as well as fruits. Enigmatic symbols and a medicinal garden enveloped the shrines. It was the Brooklyn-based Salvadoran artist’s latest exploration of illness and migration, two prescient themes for the post-pandemic times. Throughout the duration of the show the artist opened the sound baths to the public to provide a holistic path through the year’s psychological pain.  —Tessa Solomon

Kehinde Wiley, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman(2021)


gallery installation shot showing portraits of two 18th century women, with a colorful painting of a contemporary black man in between them

At center, Kehinde Wiley, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, 2021, flanked by (left) Joshua Reynolds, Diana (Sackville), Viscountess Crosbie, 1777, and (right) Thomas Gainsborough, Elizabeth (Jenks) Beaufoy, later Elizabeth Pycroft, ca. 1780.

Photo : Courtesy The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens/Photo Joshua White

Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th-century painting Blue Boy is so iconic that the Huntington museum in San Marino, California, where it is housed, sells Christmas ornaments in the titular boy’s image. And why wouldn’t they? The blushing child, wearing bows on his satin shoes, is positively angelic. Those shoes, and the boy’s impeccable outfit, telegraph his privileged status—heir to a fortune. Museum founders Henry and Arabella Huntington acquired the painting a hundred years ago, and the museum wisely decided to pay homage to that moment by giving it a contemporary counterpart. They ended up choosing Kehinde Wiley for the job. Wiley, the official portraitist to Barack Obama, posed a young Black man in the exact same manner as Gainsborough’s boy, and outfitted him in vibrant streetwear. The two paintings were installed such that they faced one another. Wiley told NPR, “Here, I’m trying to allow for even the presentation of the painting to take on the nature of its meaning.” —Sarah Douglas

Dancers during a rehearsal for Anne Imhof’s performance Natures Mortes, 2021, at the Palais de Tokyo.

Photo : Courtesy Palais de Tokyo/Photo Nadine Fraczkowski

Over eight days in October, Anne Imhof capped “Natures Mortes,” the five-month exhibition she curated at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, with a hotly anticipated performance of the same title. That name turned out to be something of a misnomer: far from a still life, it became a veritable symbol for the art world’s active return to in-person activities. It coincided with the cross-channel migration between two long-delayed fairs (Frieze London and FIAC), and images of the event and its large audience bounced around Instagram in real time. Artist Eliza Douglas, Imhof’s partner in art and life, reprised the starring role she’s had in previous Imhof creations, most notably the Golden Lion–winning Faust at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. In Natures Mortes, she sang haunting melodies while other performers alternately writhed or  paraded around, many of them wearing pro-choice T-shirts. The artwork even had something of a Covid-friendly element: a passage where performers moved outside the Palais de Tokyo to cavort in a fountain. —Sarah Douglas

Glenn Ligon, A Small Band (2015)

Glenn Ligon’s sculpture A Small Band, 2015, installed outside the New Museum as part of the exhibition “Grief and Grievance,” 2021.

Photo : Courtesy New Museum/Photo Dario Lasagni

Created for and first shown in a different setting in 2015, Glenn Ligon’s neon work A Small Band resounded in new and different ways when it started shining on the facade of the New Museum in New York as part of “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.” The group exhibition was the last one conceived by the storied curator Okwui Enwezor (who originally commissioned A Small Band for the Venice Biennale in 2015), and Ligon was part of the team who came together to realize plans for it that were left incomplete after Enwezor died in 2019. The themes engaged by the work—among them racism and police brutality, as alluded to by the words “blues blood bruise,” uttered by Daniel Hamm, a Black teenager who was beaten in 1964, and incorporated in Steve Reich’s epochal experimental music tape-phase composition Come Out (1966)—are sadly as resonant now as they were then. But they also took on new meaning in a world transformed (at least in certain ways, however small and insufficient) by the social and cultural reckoning of the past two years. —Andy Battaglia

David Adjaye, Asaase (2021)

David Adjaye, Asaase, 2021.

Photo : Courtesy Gagosian/Photo Dror Baldinger

For the “Social Works” group exhibition at Gagosian in New York this summer, director Antwaun Sargent commissioned a dozen Black artists, including Titus Kaphar, Alexandria Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems, to engage with a public space “as a community-building tool, as Sargent put it. Ghanaian British architect and sculptor David Adjaye unveiled Asaase, a labyrinthine structure that takes its name from a Twi word meaning “earth.”  It consists of blocks of rammed earth, a natural construction technique used for thousands of years. In this case, 60 tons of dirt from a limestone quarry in upstate New York were mixed with water and a dash of cement, and pounded into shape. Among its references are the monumental mudbrick minaret of Agadez in Niger and the Tiébélé royal court in Burkina Faso, two architectural feats Adjaye sought to celebrate with Asaase. “I’ve always questioned the way material has a certain language within the classical canon of a European sensibility,” he told Sargent. “There’s an apartheid in that, or a hierarchy of materiality. —Tessa Solomon

Yolanda M. López, Guadalupe Triptych (1978)

Yolanda M. López’s Guadalupe Triptych, showing (left to right) Victoria F. Franco: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, all 1978.

Photo : Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

For the Chicanx community, Yolanda M. López’s passing in September left a hole in the hearts and souls of many. Part of the first generation of Chicana artists, she created an expansive body of work that was rooted in activism for her community, in particular for Chicana women. She is best known for her various explorations and reclamations of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The most powerful of these is her Guadalupe Triptych, in which she depicts three generations of Chicana women (grandmother, mother, artist) as the Virgen. It continues to be a powerful statement in which the artist offers Chicanas and Latinas new ways for seeing themselves. As she once said in an interview with Elizabeth Martínez, “I looked at this religious icon of the Virgin, who was a symbol of Mexican nationalism, to see what it did for us as women.” —Maximilíano Durón

Lucy Raven, Ready Mix (2021)

Lucy Raven, Ready Mix, 2021, at Dia:Chelsea, New York.

Photo : Courtesy Dia:Chelsea, New York/Photo Bill Jacobson Studio

The Dia Art Foundation pioneered New York’s Chelsea gallery district when it started luring visitors to one of the first art spaces there in 1987, so it was rich to see the institution reestablish its presence this year in newly renovated digs on 22nd Street—and with a hypnotic, sharp-eyed installation by Lucy Raven to mark the occasion. Ready Mix took the form of a 45-minute film projected on an enormous immersive screen, with bleachers that implicated the audience as spectators of subject matter—scenes of destruction and creation at a concrete plant in Idaho, presented in transfixing but also terrifying fashion—that could be read any number of ways. They resonated with all the rampant building and development that continues to change Chelsea by the day, and they also communed—with a self-critical air of contemplation—with the legacy of Land art in untouched desert landscapes that Dia is associated with, thanks to its involvement with iconic works like Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. —Andy Battaglia

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square(1995)

Ai Weiwei.

Photo : Sipa USA via AP

Within the past two years, Ai Weiwei has released two documentaries (one about the pandemic in Wuhan, the other about protests in Hong Kong) and published a memoir about his family’s oppression by the Chinese government. In 2021, none of those projects proved as controversial, however, as a work that Ai made 14 years ago. The photograph Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square (1995) features a blurry image of his crumpled fist, his middle finger stuck up before Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which had been the site of a bloody student revolt in 1989. Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square was at one point expected to be shown at M+, the Hong Kong museum that finally opened in November after years of anticipation. When news broke that the photograph would not go on view, the museum quickly became the subject of controversy. In deference to Hong Kong’s national security law, the museum reneged on a promise to show the Ai photograph and works like it. The debate signaled that M+—which has positioned itself as a competitor to the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, and Tate Modern, both in scale and ambition—was not exempt from the artistic censorship Hong Kongers face. —Alex Greenberger

Pamela Council’s installation A Fountain for Survivors, 2021, in Times Square.

Photo : Courtesy Times Square Art Alliance/Photo Michael Hull

It’s no secret that New Yorkers try to avoid Times Square at all costs, but art enthusiasts in the city couldn’t avoid heading to the Midtown nexus to see Pamela Council’s 13-foot-tall sculpture A Fountain for Survivors. Commissioned by Times Square Arts, the sculpture has an exterior made of thousands of acrylic nails in mesmerizing shades of pink and purple. Inside is a fountain that creates a multisensory experience. Intended as a monument to survivors of all kinds (“Survivors know who they are,” Council has said), the installation also become a meeting place and host to various events, including a comedy show, a cabaret, a discussion on estate planning for Black families, and more. In an artist statement, Council said, “Conceived and created during a time when we are socially distanced, my goal with this work is to make a temporary monument that mirrors the experiences of masking & interiority that many have known, and which have now become a part of all of our lives.” —Maximilíano Durón

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Forbidden Colors” (1988)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Forbidden Colors”, 1988.

Photo : Courtesy of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/© Felix Gonzalez-Torres

A painting done in the same minimalist mode that guides his better-known works, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Forbidden Colors” (1988) is composed of just a few solid blocks of color—white, green, red, and black. The “forbidden” quality referenced in the title refers to these hues’ source material: the flag of Palestine, a nation whose citizens, many have claimed, are suffering human rights abuses at the hands of Israel. (Between 1967 and 1993, displaying those colors side by side in Israeli-occupied territory could lead to one’s arrest.) Within the art world, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict openly has long been considered a taboo. Yet this past May, the work—a deep cut within Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre—became an unexpected sensation among artists and critics. That month, an Israeli court allowed for the eviction of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem; a violent standoff ensued in which more than 100 Palestinians and more than a dozen Israelis died. As international protests mounted, members of the art world got involved, with many sharing the Gonzalez-Torres work as a pro-Palestine rallying cry. The work was even seen widely outside the confines of the art world—the Brooklyn-based leftist journal Jewish Currents featured it on the cover of its Fall issue. —Alex Greenberger

Dawoud Bey, “In This Here Place” (2021)

Dawoud Bey, Cabin and Benches, 2019.

Photo : Courtesy Sean Kelly, New York

Dawoud Bey has become widely known for his work mining African American histories, but he outdid himself with his new photographic series, “In This Here Place,” which features images of sites where Louisiana plantations once stood. But the subjects of these haunting black and white is less those structures than the slave cabins that can be seen along the west banks of the Mississippi River. In taking these pictures and displaying them now, Bey has said he aims to connect past forms of oppression to the violent policing of Black people in the country that takes place today. “For me, there’s a straight line that can be drawn from the plantation to George Floyd,” Bey told the T: The New York Times Magazine. —Angelica Villa

Robert Colescott, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware River (1975)

Robert Colescott, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975.

Photo : Courtesy Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles/©2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When Los Angeles’s still-unfinished Lucas Museum of Narrative Art emerged as the winning bidder of Robert Colescott’s 1975 painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware River: Page from an American History Textbookfor $15.3 million during a Sotheby’s New York auction, the sale proved to be momentous. The painting is a riff on Emanuel Leutze’s 1852 painting of the first President of the United States crossing the Delaware River. In Colescott’s version, Black figures representing racist caricatures that have been used throughout American history replace Leutze’s white figures. Colescott may have become the first Black artist to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 1997, but within the biggest U.S. museums, his reputation has generally lagged behind his art historical importance. Signs that that will soon change could be seen as early as 2019, when curator Lowery Stokes Sims mounted the first retrospective since Colescott’s death, in 2009, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Further evidence arrived this year with the Christie’s sale, which reset Colescott’s record and put him among the few Black artists with work to sell at auction for more than $10 million. —Angelica Villa

Wu Tsang, Anthem (2021)

Wu Tsang, Anthem, 2021, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Photo : Courtesy Guggenheim/Photo David Heald

Billowing and bold, Wu Tsang’s Anthem filled the spiraling rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York with a moving portrait of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a Black transgender composer in his late 70s whose work has only recently been bubbling up from the musical underground. The format was simple: video footage of Glenn-Copeland singing and playing piano at home in Nova Scotia projected on a 84-foot-tall scrim, with a multi-channel speaker array broadcasting his mesmerizing sounds. But the effect of it was overwhelming. Tsang’s tenderness and reverence for her subject was more than evident, and Glenn-Copeland’s presence was so commanding that his smallest expressions and gestures took on outsize emotional force. Plus, the whole thing changed as you moved around it while walking up and down the rotunda—asserting the importance of paying attention to fleeting moments and hidden histories that are always in some sort of state of transition. —Andy Battaglia

Dead Scott, White Man for Sale, 2021.

Photo : Courtesy Cristin Tierney Gallery

In White Man for Sale, Dread Scott met the moment yet again in one of the year’s most resonant works, a send-up of the craze for NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which took the art world by storm in 2021. Scott has repeatedly used his performances and sculptures to address the African American experience in the United States since the ’80s. He returned to these themes in a decidedly different way with this low-tech piece, which sold via Christie’s in October. In it, a video loop shows a white man standing on a wooden block near a bustling Brooklyn intersection. In an artist statement, Scott said of the work, “The term fungible resonated differently for me due to its use by scholars of the history of slavery. People are inherently non-fungible. But as slavery became an integral part of developing capitalism, enslavers sought to make people fungible.” In a moment when it seems like just about anything can be sold as an NFT, Scott makes a powerful statement about what that actually means, particularly when the buying and selling of NFTs has largely been led by white men. —Maximilíano Durón

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021)

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, 2021.

Photo : Christie’s

When Beeple’s NFT Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) sold for $69 million, a new era was ushered in. Everydays is a composite work made up of digital paintings Beeple made daily for the past 5,000 days. No individual work can be seen in this form, just neon colors and vague shapes, yet when individual panels are enlarged, they can be quite jarring. Politicians, cartoon characters, and astronauts are mashed together in often grotesque ways. In one titled Feeding TimeTransformer-like Hillary Clinton has a tube coming out of her crotch that is attached to Donald Trump’s faceBoth extremely online and very oddBeeple’s work is the face of this emerging market, and Everydays made him a sensation almost overnight. Largely unknown to the art world, despite his fame on Instagram, Beeple became one of the most expensive living artists when Christie’s auctioned the work in MarchWhether the NFT boom that resulted from its sale is a case of tulip mania or the future of art collectingEverydays initiated a new way of trading digital art and led to the rise of a new medium. Not many artists could claim such a feat. —Shanti Escalante-De Mattei