Some of today’s most influential artists are finding ways to capture the zeitgeist in their latest work.
—by David Graver
From the quarantine directives of a global pandemic to the rallying cries of a groundbreaking civil rights movement, 2020 continues to have a resounding impact on people. The art world took hits of its own. Exhibitions shuttered and collecting activity declined, but these events fueled the imagination of some of today’s most influential artists, gallery owners, and institutions, all of whom continue to find ways to capture the zeitgeist. Among the many questions asked and changes occurring, three in particular—online viewing rooms, isolation creation, and the power of protest and activism art—will set the tone for the future of the art world.
In early March, during New York City’s prestigious Armory Show art fair, COVID-19 concerns dominated conversations. It was the last event in the traditional global art circuit as cancellations and postponements soon toppled the art calendar. The closures caused grave concern, as galleries saw their sales at art fairs fall by nearly half from the year before, according to Art Basel and UBS’s “Art Market 2020” report.
Leaders of the industry began to ask: Could an online exhibit carry the same weight as an in-person experience? Does art have the same power online? Critics rallied against “online viewing rooms,” and it was not until Jean Jullien’s first-ever virtual exhibition, “Home Slice,” in April, that an art gallery enacted a successful, immersive iteration. Soon after, thousands of galleries hosted online exhibits. Dozens of others united for profit-sharing exhibitions with their artists. Museums and institutions brought efforts online, from Zoom lessons with curators to virtual walk-throughs.
JiaJia Fei, digital strategist and founder of the first digital agency for art, says: “In the form of websites, video presentations, and livestreams, some of the more exciting projects that emerged from the global closure of museums and galleries were not translations of the physical but experiences that were born digital. If paintings exist in the history of art because of walls, then we have only begun to explore the possibility of the screen as the new interface for culture.” Code, she says, will be the tool “to envision a future of cultural consumption.”
Sales in the first half of 2020 were jostled, but milestones were set, too. At Art Basel’s online iteration in June, the powerhouse David Zwirner Gallery broke the record for the highest price ever documented for an online transaction by a private dealer: $8 million for Jeff Koons’s Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red) (2013–2019). Meanwhile, online fairs and auctions saw substantial VIP sales but a slowdown in the middle of the market.
While the infrastructure teetered, artists took up the baton to develop works in the face of duress. The depth of such effort can be traced through fine art photographer Jamie Beck’s Instagram account, where, on May 13, she launched the hashtag #isolationcreation. For 60 days she asked professional artists and everyone else at home to upload and tag their work, resulting in more than 350,000 shared entries. Helen Toomer, cofounder of the Catskills-based Stoneleaf Retreat artist residency, which focuses on supporting women and families, says: “As much as the world has been unable to physically connect, we are uniting through our screens and the world is changing. We should be forever thankful to these artists for sharing the truths of this time.”
NYC street artist Buff Monster mirrors the tonal change. “I’m always making work that is optimistic and hopefully uplifting, and rarely overtly political,” he says. “But in these unprecedented times, I thought it appropriate to be a bit more overt in my messaging.” He began with a dedicated print to raise money for the nonprofit City Harvest. It sold out in two minutes.
ART FOR JUSTICE
With the death of George Floyd, everything changed, and artists—and people—responded. “From murals to monuments, there have been artistic interventions in the streets of America that have amounted to the rethinking of what public space has to offer to our past and future. These gestures are not being made by traditional artists; they are being made by the people, using the transformative power of art to call for justice,” says critic, curator, and author of The New Black Vanguard Antwaun Sargent. The Smithsonian Museums even began collecting and preserving protest art—in real time.
Galleries promised to diversify their rosters, with Hauser & Wirth leading the way through the representation of Amy Sherald and Simone Leigh. Of course, Black artists still need equal access to investment, collectors, and auction houses. Museums must nurture Black curatorial talent, too. Sean Kelly, founder and director of his acclaimed, eponymous gallery, sees education as the next step and is launching a mentorship program to help young people from underrepresented communities explore careers in the art world.
“People who should have had a platform are being thrust into the spotlight,” says Trevor Bazile, creative director of Borscht, a Miami-based nonprofit collective of artists and filmmakers. “We are hearing the voices of oppressed people.”
This isn’t a time-stamped trend; this will be art for a new era.
SPOTLIGHT ON SOUTH FLORIDA: NOTABLE GALLERIES
Home to the fabled annual Art Basel Miami Beach show, South Florida has long been an art lovers’ paradise. Here are seven must-see galleries for collectors and enthusiasts.
David Castillo Gallery: Located in Miami Beach, acclaimed gallerist David Castillo’s art space presents work from established, midcareer, and emerging talent—with many of the latter going on to exhibit in museums worldwide. It ranks among the premier galleries of South Florida.
Fredric Snitzer Gallery: Since opening its original Coral Gables location in 1977, Snitzer has championed Latin American artists in the U.S. and paid particular attention to Cuban artists. Many emerging talents in Snitzer’s roster over the years rose to international acclaim. Now their Arts & Entertainment District location (near Downtown Miami) features 1,400 square feet inside and 2,600 outside.
Holden Luntz Gallery: Of the various galleries in Palm Beach, none match the curatorial prowess of Holden Luntz Gallery, specializing in the full breadth and depth of photography. Exhibitions range from vintage treasure troves by the likes of Edward Weston and Henri CartierBresson to experimental contemporary works in thematic group shows.
Locust Projects: Founded by three artists in 1998 as an alternative space for emerging talent, the Design District’s Locust Projects began in nearby Wynwood and helped to establish that neighborhood as a cultural phenomenon. Locust Projects became a hub of site-specific installations from groundbreaking talent—balancing local visionaries with global icons. Adopting a nonprofit status in 2002, Locust Projects continues to work outside the traditional commercial gallery system.
MAC Fine Art: With three locations in South Florida, dotted around Jupiter and Fort Lauderdale, gallery owner Mary Ann Cohen’s MAC Fine Art exhibits some of the most sought-after fine artists today. For the burgeoning art lover, MAC offers authorized limited edition prints through its MAC Fine Art Publishing division.
Nina Johnson: Miami-born Nina Johnson’s eponymous contemporary art space in Little Haiti showcases emerging and established artists from around the world. Nina Johnson gallery’s diverse roster continues to push the art world’s boundaries.
Rosenbaum Contemporary: Boca Raton’s Rosenbaum Contemporary presents postwar, modern, and contemporary artworks— including paintings, sculptures, and more— from a roster of icons that includes Alexander Calder and Alex Katz. Founded in 1979, the family-run institution also offers a range of arts services and exhibits within several international contemporary art fairs.