By Sebastian Smee
The protests of the summer of 2020 triggered a reckoning in the art world that extended in many directions but returned insistently to the question of Black artists’ visibility in American museums and galleries. A year later, the picture is markedly improved. In fact, Black artists are visible as never before: Simone Leigh was chosen to represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, becoming the third African American in a row to be so honored, and Black artists will be the focus of some of the most engaging shows of the summer.
Last year, sculptures by the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu inaugurated an annually changing commission to fill four niches on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Now Mutu is starring on the West Coast, in “Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Can You Hear Me?” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco (through Nov. 7). Mutu’s commanding bronze goddesses, which combine human, animal and alien forms inspired both by Kenyan traditions and Afrofuturism, have been strategically placed in galleries of European art, where they boldly propose alternative visions of beauty, power and love.
New York’s Guggenheim Museum, meanwhile, recently awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize to Deana Lawson, an African American artist based in Rochester, N.Y. The award comes with a solo show, “Centropy,” running at the Guggenheim through Oct. 11. Lawson’s star has been rising for years now. Her large-scale photographs spike tired conventions of documentary portraiture with freewheeling artifice and invention. They steep mischief and self-assertion — both sexual and cultural — in solutions of tender pathos. A bewitching brew.
Among dozens of other Black artists to feature prominently this summer are the photographer Dawoud Bey and the late folk artist Joseph Yoakum. The Bey exhibition, “An American Project,” through Oct. 3 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which I reviewed in April, reveals an American master at work. Yoakum, meanwhile, is the subject of a show, “What I Saw,” at the Art Institute of Chicago through Oct. 18. Yoakum gave various accounts of his life — he claimed at different times to be African American and Native American. Born into poverty, he led a peripatetic life, which included a stint in the circus. He didn’t have his first solo show until his late 70s, only six years after taking up art, but became an instant star. The Chicago show, which will travel to New York and then Houston, is focused on his vibrant colored-pencil drawings of fantasy landscapes, which are full of rhythm and spiritual yearning.
Potentially the most stimulating group show of the summer is “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” which runs at the Met from July 2 to Oct. 3 before traveling to Washington’s National Gallery of Art (Oct. 31-Jan. 30). Featuring the work of more than 120 photographers from over 20 countries, the exhibition displays photographs made between 1920 and 1960, when female photographers were making an impact on the medium as never before. The show includes a diversity of genres, from avant-garde modernism to fashion, documentary and portraiture, and will include names both familiar (Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Tina Modotti) and less familiar (Elizaveta Ignatovich, Consuelo Kanaga and Homai Vyarawalla).
One artist long familiar to contemporary-art lovers but still underrecognized by the wider public is Lynda Benglis. Since the mid-1960s, Benglis, 79, has been one of America’s most inventive sculptors, constantly pushing materials toward new and unexpected forms — solidifying spills, magnifying knots, toying with metallic, sparkly and gorgeously unstable colors. Thanks in part to gifts from Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, the National Gallery now has the largest public collection of her work. All 33 of the NGA’s Benglis pieces — not just sculptures but also drawings, paintings, prints and videos — will be on display in the gallery’s East Building, which reopens June 18. Six of her most recent sculptures — large-scale knots cast in shiny bronze — are also in a stunning show, “An Alphabet of Forms,” at the Pace Gallery in New York (May 5-July 2).
People talk about planes, trains, cameras and computers, but it’s hard to think of any modern invention that has affected life quite as much as the automobile. “Automania,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 4 to Jan. 2, looks at the impact of cars on everything from urban planning and pollution to psychology and art. The show, which features only eight actual cars (one is a restored Volkswagen Beetle), is a multimedia extravaganza, with films, photographs, car parts, architectural models, posters and art. Beep-beep, yeah!
If for some reason I can’t drive, I will walk or even crawl to see two shows opening in late summer and early fall. The first, “Titian: Women, Myth, and Power” at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from Aug. 12 to Jan. 2, will reunite Titian’s famous “poesie” — the late mythological paintings commissioned by King Philip II of Spain and based on tales from Ovid. Painted between 1551 and 1562, these are quite simply six of the most astonishing paintings ever made. The Gardner’s “The Rape of Europa,” widely regarded as the most important Renaissance painting in America, will be shown alongside works from the same stupendous series lent by museums in London, Madrid and Edinburgh, Scotland. Their fragility and importance mean that they almost never travel, so this show, which was delayed by the pandemic, is a one-off. The Gardner will be the only U.S. venue.
Where the Titian show promises an intensely concentrated blast of Venetian sensuality, the second show, which I’m just as keen to see, will probably be its antithesis: cerebral, muted and dispersed. Jasper Johns, 91, is being honored with a lifetime retrospective across two venues: the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Sept. 29-Feb. 13).
Few artists have had a greater impact on modern American art than Johns. Yet there remains something enigmatic and clandestine about his work. Like a catalogue of Rorschach ink blots, his oeuvre generates orgies of idle speculation and elaborate projection. I am hoping that rather than setting us straight, this retrospective will add to the confusion, leaving us none the wiser about what it is, exactly, that makes Johns so great.