Ten Art Exhibitions You Won’t Want to Miss in 2021

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Black-Eyed Susan (Backstage at Camille), 1974
Peter Hujar, Black-Eyed Susan (Backstage at Camille), 1974© 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London

Belle Hutton shares a selection of must-see exhibitions, from Peter Hujar and Niki de Saint Phalle to Lubaina Himid and Martin Margiela

A new year normally means a host of exciting new art exhibitions to look forward to, and 2021 looks (so far) to be full of unmissable shows. Of course, 2020 was no normal year, and nor will 2021 be: amid lockdowns and social distancing, many of last year’s blockbuster exhibitions were cancelled or postponed, and the same might happen for the shows scheduled to open in the months ahead. Here, however, is a selection of what will hopefully be this year’s must-see exhibitions (some with dates still to be confirmed), from Peter Hujar and Niki de Saint Phalle to Lubaina Himid and Martin Margiela.

Peter Hujar at Maureen Paley, London: Dates TBC

A forthcoming exhibition at Maureen Paley, London – originally due to open in February, now likely postponed – showcases a selection of photographs by Peter Hujar, taken in downtown New York in the 1970s and 80s. Studio portraits of Hujar’s contemporaries like John Waters, Divine and David Wojnarowicz sit alongside photographs taken backstage at clubs and theatres, where the photographer documented drag artists, performers, dancers and actors. Among the lively backstage-set photographs – presented by the gallery as an ode to the performance venues now shuttered around the world – and studio scenes are also a number of contemplative self-portraits. The compelling selection of photographs offers a glimpse into a storied time in underground New York’s history via a lesser-seen corner of Hujar’s celebrated archive.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life at MoMA, New York: March 11 – August, 2021

Featuring over 100 artworks, Structures for Life is an exploration of the late Niki de Saint Phalle’s extraordinary creative output. De Saint Phalle was a prolific force in the second half of the 20th century, creating pieces ranging from paintings, sculptures, and films to clothing, theatre sets and fragrances. Through her work, De Saint Phalle also tackled contemporary social and political issues: she famously, for example, produced an illustrated book entitled Aids: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands in 1986, which was distributed in schools and medical facilities in the tens of thousands. Structures for Life promises to explore in detail some of De Saint Phalle’s most enduring works: her large outdoor sculptures, often depicting the undulating figures of women painted in vivid colours; and her Tarot Garden, a sprawling sculpture park she developed over two decades in Tuscany.

Arthur Jafa at Louisiana Denmark: January 19 – May 9, 2021

“I envisioned that it would be uploaded to YouTube and maybe I would get a job directing a commercial,” Arthur Jafa told Another Man in November 2019, speaking of his searing film Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, which had been released to widespread acclaim three years earlier. In just under eight minutes, Love is the Message explores Blackness both as a creative force and an object of white brutality through layers of found footage. The film is central to a forthcoming exhibition on Jafa at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, where it will be screened alongside a number of works made for the exhibition. “I think there’s a tendency, at least initially, to want to construct [Love is the Message] as a kind of sociopolitical statement that dovetailed with Black Lives Matter. I guess that’s a way you can read it, but I’ve always felt there are things about it that are not so obvious,” Jafa has said.

Dawoud Bey: An American Project at the Whitney, New York: from April 21, 2021

An American Project is a survey of image-maker Dawoud Bey’s 45-year career, stretching back to his early photographs taken in Harlem and including projects completed in the last decade, the most recent of which are atmospheric landscapes (Night Coming Tenderly Black, 2017). Through his searing portraiture, often capturing scenes of everyday life, Bey explores what it means to be Black in the USA today and investigates the social and political histories of various African American communities. The Whitney’s exhibition – which is currently on show at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia – brings together imagery from throughout Bey’s career, revealing how he has consistently highlighted otherwise marginalised or forgotten stories through his photography.

Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life at the Design Museum, London: June 19, 2021

Summer sees the arrival of The Modern Life at London’s Design Museum, an extensive exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Charlotte Perriand. One of the 20th century’s most pioneering – and prolific – designers and architects, Perriand’s work and collaborations are now considered iconic: from the chaise longue – designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret – and the block-coloured ‘nuage’ cabinet, to an entire ski resort in Les Arcs, France. Perriand’s holistic approach to art and design meant that she advocated for architecture and interiors informed by nature, and furniture that is both beautiful and practical, always with interconnecting elements. Following a year – and likely ahead of a few more months – defined by more time spent at home, Perriand’s design outlook feels as pertinent and inspiring as ever.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms at Tate Modern, London: March 29, 2021 – March 27, 2022

Not one, but two of Yayoi Kusama’s much-Instagrammed Infinity Mirror Room installations, Filled With the Brilliance of Life and Chandelier of Grief, arrive at London’s Tate Modern later this year, in what is surely one of the city’s most anticipated art events for 2021. First created in 1965, Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms have become among her most recognised artworks – other pieces, like gargantuan polka-dotted pumpkins, are also signatures of the Japanese artist – and are loved for their inherent otherworldliness and the feelings of escapism they inspire.

Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern, London: November 25, 2021 – May 25, 2022

Tate Modern describes its Lubaina Himid exhibition, set to open in autumn this year, as “theatrical”, since the British artist has drawn on her love of theatre for its design. “The exhibition will unfold in a sequence of scenes designed to place visitors centre-stage and backstage,” says the gallery. Himid, who won the Turner Prize in 2017 and was a prominent figure in Britain’s 1980s Black arts movement, will present new works in the playful show alongside some pieces from her decades-long career. Known for her figurative paintings and installations, Himid’s work uncovers “marginalised and silenced histories, figures, and cultural expressions”.

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast at the Royal Academy, London: Dates TBC

The Royal Academy is set to hone in on Francis Bacon’s enduring fascination with animals, looking at how creatures appeared in his visceral paintings throughout his career. Man and Beast – dates for which are still being confirmed, amid new lockdowns in London this year – will look at how Bacon took animalistic gestures and applied them to his depictions of humans and vice versa, consistently reframing perceived ideas of human nature in his boundary-pushing works.

The New Woman Behind the Camera at The Met, New York: June 28 – October 3, 2021

The 1920s saw the advent of the New Woman, a modern expression of female independence and empowerment. The feminist movement encouraged women to pursue their own interests in life and art. At the Met Museum in New York later this year, The New Woman Behind the Camera will look at how women became photographers during this movement, via works by female artists the world over created from the 1920s to the 1950s. “During this tumultuous period shaped by two world wars, women stood at the forefront of experimentation with the camera, and produced invaluable visual testimony that reflects both their personal experiences and the extraordinary social and political transformations of the era,” says the museum of this unique time in photography’s history. The show will feature photographs by the likes of Berenice Abbott, Dora Maar, Homai Vyarawalla and Dorothea Lange.

Martin Margiela at Lafayette Anticipations, Paris: April 15 – July 25, 2021

Sculptures, photographs and installations by Martin Margiela, one of fashion’s most elusive designers, will make up an exhibition in Paris this spring. The Parisian foundation Lafayette Anticipations describes the forthcoming show as “a total artwork” which will comprise previously unseen pieces by Margiela. The Belgian designer, who left his eponymous fashion house Maison Margiela in 2009, is known for both his avant-garde designs – the impact of which is vast across the fashion industry – and his relative anonymity, having always refused interviews and communicated with the press via fax (maintaining this mystery, the image above is simply a “clue” as to what his artworks are like). For his first art exhibition, Margiela is said to have created new pieces which riff on themes of “the passage of time, disappearance, chance, mystery, aura”, reflecting his lifelong “obsession” with art.