Art in 2011

By Cressida Smart

Writing a review of the arts for any given year is never easy. I wanted to cast the net as wide as possible, but my own knowledge was limited. How do you round up a year when the sheer volume of exhibitions is vast. Instead, I have chosen five happenings in 2011 that stood out for me and had an impact on art either on a local, regional or world stage.

The High Line

On many a morning I have run the 1.45 miles of the High Line in New York and yet I never bore of the views on offer. I can quite happily say that this remarkable piece of design is my greatest discovery in the arts in 2011. In June of this year, the second section of the High Line was opened and offers a new bird’s eye view of the Hudson River. The extension stretches 10 blocks to 30th Street, more than doubling the length of the first High Line, which debuted in 2009. High Line Part Deux has a raft of features, including a viewing platform that puts you on par with the tree canopy, a 4,900-square-foot lawn and numerous decked seating, that prove that the new park will be every bit as gawker-friendly as the old one. In an amusing echo of the original, it even has a new hotel with a glass and mesh facade set to open at 27th Street and 10th Avenue.

Designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, this extraordinary public space has been reclaimed and refitted but keeps a semblance of the original state of the abandoned area with pathways resembling train tracks, weed-like plants and benches made of wood, concrete and steel. If you do one thing in New York, visit this oasis of calm.

Chinese art market

It can’t have come as a surprise to hear that in 2011, China outpaced the UK, to become the second largest art market in the world. Despite the art market’s vulnerability to shocks, including the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, when unrealistic estimates left scores of unsold lots amid tepid bidding even in the Chinese ceramics market, Asia’s rapid wealth accumulation continued to result in more cash flowing into art and other alternative investments.

The sheer volume of works being sold combined with the prices being paid for many of the most desirable works appearing at auction in China is difficult to comprehend. While most of what we know about the market for Chinese art comes from Western sources, the true state of the Chinese art market can really only be determined by looking beyond the results of Western auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, to the results of Chinese auction houses such as China Guardian auctions and Beijing Poly International auctions. As a result five Chinese artists currently sit among the world’s top 10 as measured by combined sales at auction, overtaking giants like the US pop artist Jeff Koons, ranked third, or Britain’s Damien Hirst, ranked ninth by Artprice.

Taking a broader view, Chinese artists accounted last year for fully 45 of the world’s 100 top-selling art names. The Chinese art industry is still evolving, with much of the country’s commerce taking place in Hong Kong, where comparatively relaxed tax and export policies allow international sellers to thrive, while the more closed-off mainland is dominated by the state-overseen Poly and Guardian auction houses.

Lucian Freud and John Chamberlain

Art lost one of its greatest living realist stalwarts with the passing of Lucian Freud. His work is instantly recognisable by the depictions of fleshy nude portraits using impasto, thick clumps of paint, to reveal the human body’s curves, folds and imperfections.

It is also with great sadness that this year sees the passing of John Chamberlain, only three days ago. Embracing Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, he was best known for creating abstract sculptures out of scrap metal. By coincidence, the Guggenheim, New York is planning a new retrospective in February.

Affordable Art Fair, Hampstead Heath

North London gave the Affordable Art Fair a warm welcome when it made its debut in October. After the edginess and often unnecessary exclusivity of Frieze in Regents Park, this fair gave locals the opportunity to peruse a wide variety of art, both in style and price. Galleries came from all corners of the UK came to display their wares and with so many fairs requiring a trip into central London or further afield to south of the river (a big ask for North Londoners), the success of the AAF in NW3 will, one hopes, pave the way for a repeat performance next year.

Degas and the Royal Academy of Art

I can’t tell you the amount of time I spent thinking of my favourite exhibition of the year.  How do you choose and on what criteria should it be based?  I wrote earlier in the year on this exhibition and feel confident in making it my top choice for this year. A favourite exhibition, like buying art, should be based on what you love and the art that stands out for whatever reason that may be. In 2011, I choose Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, an exhibition that brought together two of my greatest passions.

Extraordinarily curated, uniting a wealth of paintings, sketches and sculptures, this showing took one of the all-time great artists, over-exposed according to many, and shed new light and introduced the viewer to a new perspective.  The exhibition was the first to present Degas’s progressive engagement with the figure in movement in the context of parallel advances in photography and early film. The exhibition thrilled me. As I turned each corner, I was overcome with a sharpened sense of excitement and anticipation and was not disappointed.

I ask you now to cast your mind back over this year and decide on an exhibition, piece of architecture or perhaps an item in the news that stole your heart. There is no right or wrong, only what appeals and makes you want to explore further. Heading into 2012, the auction houses will hope for record sales, the galleries, for high attendance numbers and for you, the viewer, a wealth of art to appreciate, inspire and educate.

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