The heights, the lows and the $ 14 million sculpture: the year in art

Artist Guy Warren with Peter Wegner's Archibald-winning portrait.

Artist Guy Warren with Peter Wegner’s Archibald-winning portrait.Credit:Steven Siewert

The Art Gallery of NSW played it safe and postponed their Matisse blockbuster until the end of this year, but were caught with the Archibald Prize and its associated exhibits. As these shows are the gallery’s biggest annual money-spinner, this was a blow to the bottom line. At least he managed to get the 100th anniversary of Archibald launched in early June, and the prize awarded – with an expression of inevitability – to Peter Wegner for his portrait of centenary artist, Guy Warren. It may have been symbolically true, but it was also a rare example that the best painting took the laurels.


Another show gave a too short window was Archie 100, a satellite exhibit that looks at the history of the Archibald Prize. It was a fascinating selection, but undersold by geniuses at AGNSW, who were late in publishing a superficial catalog. The show has at least been able to travel. There was no other chance Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, which was one of the more adventurous international projects of 2021. By Klint (1862-1944) is believed to have created abstract art before Kandinsky and others got started. That is a big plus for women and for Sweden! Whether you accept the claims depends on your interpretation of Klint’s paintings as independent works of art or cosmic diagrams of anthroposophical mumbo-jumbo. Either way, it was an engaging show that was snapped off before word-of-mouth had done its job with the audience.

The national, an overview of modern Australian art shared between AGNSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks, was a little more lively than its two previous iterations, but still a motley affair.

Art Gallery of South Australia, aided by smaller COVID numbers, managed to time its large exhibitions with more skill (and luck) than other museums. I was able to travel to Adelaide to see the Ramsay Prize for New Artists; the latest Tarnanthi study of native art, and – best of all – the greatest retrospective ever of Clarice Beckett’s work. It was a revelation that made me feel that Beckett (1887-1935) may very well be Australia’s greatest female artist. That would be my nomination for this year’s show.


It was a stop-start year for the commercial galleries, though many retailers were surprised by the amount of sales they achieved during the lockdown, as collectors unable to travel abroad were forced to spend money at home. When you have that kind of itching, it needs to be scratched. Nor did the auction houses have reason to complain about the sale.

The Museum of Contemporary Art limped between lockdowns with shows by artist activist Richard Bell and American multimedia artist Doug Aitken. The museum also said goodbye to the longtime director, Liz Ann Macgregor and senior curator, Rachel Kent, where the latter pursued a tree change as CEO of the Bundanon Trust in Shoalhaven.

In between long stays at home with a book, I could see and write about useful studies and projects by John Olsen (National Art School Gallery), Wendy Sharpe (Mosman Art Gallery), Haydn Wilson (State Library of NSW) Margel Hinder (AGNSW)) , and the Papunya Tula movement, which celebrated its 50th anniversary (SHErvin Gallery).

In last year’s round-up, I remember asking why the “crazy project” of the Powerhouse Museum move was still going on, and it cost hundreds of millions of dollars for what would definitely be a negative outcome. The disaster now appears to be unstoppable, while the idea that Powerhouse has been “rescued” more than ever looks like a spin, as virtually no material policies have been announced and no guarantees given as to the future of the rest of the The Ultimo website. Now, NSW’s art minister Don Harwin has resigned – a move that has aroused joy in some circles, but which may actually make things worse.

Liz Ann Macgregor left MCA after 22 years.

Liz Ann Macgregor left MCA after 22 years.Credit:Nick Moir

When we go into 2022 and boldly pretend that the virus is no longer a problem, one wonders what lies ahead. Denmark thought it had licked the pandemic, but the Danes are back in lockdown. Circumstances may even conspire to close art activities for an even longer period of time. As we enter the festive season, it is not clear whether we are on the verge of a new dawn or waiting for the storm clouds to roll in.

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