The Year That Was: Degree Critical Reflects on 2020

December 18, 2020

As 2020 draws to a close it seems there are few superlatives left to describe it. “Unprecedented,” “extraordinary,” “apocalyptic,” “bewildering,” and “terrible” have all been used up. Suffice to say, it was a year unlike most any of us has seen in our lifetimes. We’ve witnessed a grave amount of suffering, not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic, its 75 million infections, and nearly 2 million deaths globally, but also the resultant unemployment and homelessness, racial strife, and mental exhaustion. Added to this was the spectacle of the American presidential election, the most tumultuous in generations, which the world watched with mostly horrified eyes.

The end of December typically brings a slew of year-end roundups, “Best of” lists where we reflect on the books, films, art and music that seem to define a year. But since this year was so unlike any other in recent memory, the editors of Degree Critical put a somewhat different question to our writers: What work of art, from any time and across any genre, brought you solace this year? What follows is their far-reaching responses, edited only for clarity, in order to preserve the impressions of this singular moment in time.


Jesse Chun and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, stain begins to absorb the material spilled on, 2020, installation view, DOOSAN Gallery, New York. Courtesy of DOOSAN Gallery, New York.

stain begins to absorb the material spilled on – Jesse Chun and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin 

The last show I saw before sheltering-in-place was Jesse Chun and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin at DOOSAN Gallery called stain begins to absorb the material spilled on (January 16 – February 15). On Valentine’s Day, I didn’t know it was the last I’d see in that bygone era, just that I had to see it for its own sake. Shin’s mugwort aroma diffused from Korean onggi ceramics, microporous for fermentation, while a recording of Chun’s enunciated consonants echoed amidst two text sculptures on the white walls and one on the concrete floor. Whispers of “T-T-T, S-S-S, SH-SH-SH” whooshed like the soundtrack of an ASMR dreamscape—not as a fantastical escape, but rather as a terrain for deep communication. Blurring the bounds of language, noise, and sound makes irrelevant the power-over scaffolding that the English tongue buttresses.

Chun’s work emphasizes how different consonants require only breath (“T”) and others require the voice (“D”), and the work required time to impress itself on me. A month later and in lockdown, a phrase from Walt Whitman’s “The Song of Myself” kept returning to me: I lean and loaf. I repeated loaf-f-f out loud. F exposes the teeth like a groundhog lollygagging in the grass amidst the mugwort, lambs’ quarters, and dandelions. And that is the posture of loafing by definition: idling, lazing, dillydallying. Loaf-f-f is like a puff or a vapor, reminding that we are a mere mist in the wind, and its etymology really is a matter of air, but in the way of fermented yeast that causes bread to rise. Perhaps loafing got a bad rap from Anglo-Saxon bread-makers that cut corners by putting iron in the dough to make it heavier, or maybe it was a derogatory term that loaf-wards and loaf-kneaders, eventually called lords and ladies, used to describe the bread-makers with lesser status. (I happened upon this idea in philologist Walter William Skeat’s 1913 book The Past at Our Doors, Or the Old in the New Around Us). The connotations of loafing remain tethered to socioeconomic class today, and its undoing is a matter of air, not only breathed, smelled, and tasted, but also spoken and heard. Language is stained with meaning, but only for a time. Each utterance impresses those material conditions back onto the world of words, too. I’m finally beginning to understand the title of Chun and Shin’s exhibition: how stains do begin to absorb the material spilled on.

Lune Ames


Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019, film still, duration: 120 minutes.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Céline Sciamma
The Lighthouse Robert Eggers

The lockdown was like an eternal Sunday evening. Streets were suddenly street-sized maps with no one on them, like a surreal Jorge Luis Borges story. Clocks stopped ticking, or we stopped listening. Isolation meant safety, uncertainty, comfort, and loneliness as new universes were formed inside small one-bedroom apartments and basement floors, mansions and hotel rooms. Céline Sciamma’s fabulous feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) shows a similar micro-universe conceived by a painter and her subject on an isolated shore in Brittany. The viewer lives with them as they look at and inspire each other, develop a special relationship and routine, and fall in love. Robert Eggers’s black-and-white film The Lighthouse (2019), on the other hand, depicts a most different side of isolation: Two lightkeepers arrive on a far-out island off of New England to tend for a lighthouse for a month; but their companionship, loneliness, and confinement in the deserted island turns nightmarish, surreal, and dark. Both these movies are period pieces that capture the essence of solitude in its highest and lowest points that made watching them in a modernized version of isolation an equally real, yet otherworldly experience. As we waited in our secluded quarantine homes, we believed when The Lighthouse’s Thomas Wake raised his glass to toast: “To four weeks.” Did Wake ever make it out of the island? We didn’t.

Cigdem Asatekin


Plato’s Republic

“And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?” – Plato’s Republic, Chapter 7

2020 has been, more than anything else, a year of dueling illusions. As the pandemic continues to force vast swathes of people to hunker down in place, we face new realizations regarding freedom and constraint, reality and perception.

While trying to understand the proverbial cave we’ve occupied these recent months, I picked up Plato’s Republic when our own Republic started exhibiting troubling signs of imploding. As conversations surrounding (mis)representation in politics as well as in the racial makeup of the pandemic’s victims started gaining momentum, my questions pertaining to the insidiousness of this distracting illusion of representation and the unchanging status quo driven by ignorant, elitist policies also began to grow. While one would think that the sound of ambulances rushing through the streets has been loudest this year, what has been truly deafening is the silencing of thought.

And yet, from the dark recesses of this cavernous pit, a band of dwellers seem to be moving towards light. As calls for change grow louder, I approach the new year with tentative hope that we might find our way out of this darkness one day. 

Rabia Ashfaque


Installation view of Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury, November 1, 2020–February 6, 2021 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt.

Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury at MoMA

Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury at the Museum of Modern Art (through February 6, 2021) provides counterpoints to the understanding of drawing’s role in post-war art. Gathering 75 works, from Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Alfredo Volpi, and many others, as well as recent acquisitions by artists such as Uche Okeke, made between 1948 and 1966, the exhibition freshly examines the commonly perceived subsidiary practice of drawing, defined by curators as “modest, immediate, and direct.” The exhibition reconsiders drawing’s provisional qualities that acquired new values through the interlocking of movements, distant geographies, and generations during the mid-century. The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic also bore down on the rationale of the exhibition, which related the death toll and economic crisis as a Degree Zero moment, for which drawings can “offer templates for beginning again.” What it means to “begin again,” though, varies greatly in different milieus. The inclusion of artists from diverse geographies enlightens viewers to the specificities of the Degree Zero moments from which they emerge; after colonization, after fascism, after atomic apocalypse.

Geronimo Cristobal


Noah Davis, Delusions of Grandeur, 2007. © Estate of Noah Davis. Image courtesy Estate of Noah Davis.

Delusions of Grandeur – Noah Davis

In early February I had the pleasure of both being introduced to the work of late artist Noah Davis, and writing about it, all in one fell swoop. The magisterial show of Davis’s work at David Zwirner Gallery (January 16 – February 22) was a fitting tribute to this great painter and polymath, who died of cancer in 2015 at the age of only 32. Among the many fantastic paintings in that show, Delusions of Grandeur (2007) particularly stood out to me. The domestic canvas depicts an interior staircase of a house leading from one story to the next, with a child standing at the foot of the stairs. But Davis has injected a zesty dash of magical realism, with a cloud of tiny stars emanating from a doorway on the second story landing. The jutting angles of the staircase and the ethereal, faceless child compound the uncanniness of this superficially ordinary scene, and it is a painting I have returned to throughout the pandemic, albeit only via the digital photos I took the day I saw it. I reflect on the first couple of months of 2020 now as our “B.C.” time—Before Covid—and everything that happened in January and February seems, retrospectively, so optimistic, so full of possibility. I was going to write so much this year! There are so many shows to see! Where will I travel? Nine months later, I’ve rarely left my neighborhood, and oftentimes, even my home. The majority of my travel has been via the staircases of my old house. Yesterday, I must have traversed the three flights no less than 50 times on various household errands: basement to kitchen, kitchen to bedrooms, up to the attic and back down again. On the stairways, I sometimes experience the phenomenon of jamais vu, the odd sensation of the familiar becoming momentarily uncanny. I’m a child at the threshold, dreaming of stars.

—Jessica Holmes


Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver, Cinematic Illumination, 1969, 360-degree video, installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of MoMA, New York.

Cinematic Illumination – Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver

In looking back, I find it hard to accept that there was a fragment of a recognizable year before mid-March; I can’t quite reconcile the art I saw during this time with the numerous days that followed, where I compulsively watched a bizarre array of movies in the venue of my apartment. I could write about any one of those delightful specimens now, but will instead point to one day’s deviation when I visited MoMA to see Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s rapturous Cinematic Illumination (on view through February 2021). The museum’s recreation of the artist’s original 1969 installation inside a Tokyo discotheque—where an expansive band of screens circles the center of a gallery that vibrates with kaleidoscopic flashing lights and entrancing pop-music—provides an intoxicating experience. Stills of faces, magazine covers, and the silhouette of a man in motion glitter, race, and pop throughout the screen’s hoop, and I found that the best way to keep up with the presentation was to succumb to its ecstatic dance. Underneath a pulsing disco ball, I twirled and shuffled among a small group of strangers, eventually exiting the gallery in a fugitive euphoria. I never expected art would afford a reminder of what it feels like to dance, but for the cathartic movement alone: I am thankful.

Kaitlyn Kramer


Lara Mimosa Montes, Thresholes (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2020).

Thresholes – Lara Mimosa Montes

In the preface to her second book of poetry Thresholes, published earlier this year by Coffee House Press, Minneapolis and New York-based Lara Mimosa Montes writes, “This was never the book I intended to write; nevertheless, it is the book that was written.” Though Montes is referring to “the forces that wished to be written,” I cannot help but think beyond the writing portion of a book’s life—the life it gains, as it exists in this world. This book may not have been intended for the pandemic or the ensuing fissures within our system that came floating to the surface (though, to whose surface it came floating to, is another conversation). But if the force that wished to be written also understood the time for which it would come to exist, I believe that it knew Thresholes is a book we need during this time. Revealing Montes’s vast intellect as she draws from subject matters such as art, dance, linguistics, and beyond, Thresholes moves through time and place, specifically her birthplace of the Bronx, and takes readers through the death of her dear “R.” Thresholes is a perfect book for this moment where time is experienced differently; and though some may see that as a loss, it is an unleashing, of our identities trapped between the past and our becoming. 

Diana Seo Hyung Lee


Jacob Lawrence, “We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! —petition of many slaves 1773,” Panel 5 (1955), from “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954–56). Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross/Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation/Artists Rights Society.

The American Struggle Series – Jacob Lawrence

The first artworks I saw in real life since the lockdown began were those of “The American Struggle” series, by Jacob Lawrence, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (August 29 – November 1, 2020).

It is October 2020. The presentation feels mild-mannered, at first: a spacious room deep in the museum’s bowels, modestly sized artworks lining its walls, like an army of colorful single-file ants, indecipherable from afar and uniform in their enumerative order. I get closer and recognize the not-so-mildness: the strict attenuation of faces at war, color that now feels explosive, the pain of captivity depicted across the illustrated moments that make up our country’s timeline. I am moved, as good art tends to stir me into being. I am masked, absorbed, as I return to art-in-person through these works. Produced in the 1950s, they so strongly articulate the present condition—a pandemic as merely one of our crises du jour.

Emily R. Pellerin


Lygia Clark’s proposition Rede de elásticos (Elastic net), 1974. Shown in use, in Paris, in 1974. Courtesy Associação Cultural “O Mundo de Lygia Clark,” Rio de Janeiro.

The Works of Lygia Clark

By the time I was six months pregnant, my hip bones started to dramatically loosen, my belly stretched and grew larger and larger to nest a little human being living inside my body. It was around that time, as I remember, that I began to finally comprehend my long-time obsession with the work of artist Lygia Clark. I had written about Clark non-stop, for almost three years, and for my thesis at SVA’s Art Criticism and Writing program. But I had never fully understood why I had been so fascinated with her work. During those years, I returned many times to the photographs of her propositions and to the images of the therapeutic method she invented in the late 1970s. I memorized the materials of her sensorial objects, masks, textured bags, and vessels she made: things that could be stretched, and that could morph. Like other Brazilian late modernists, Clark was into the gestalt of objects, and into the notion of the inside as the outside, or vice-versa. Some of her vessels were made to be filled up and then emptied out, over and over again.

I had no idea that, five years later, when I became pregnant, I would have learned more about my body transformations from Clark than from pregnancy apps or my health practitioner. As my body became almost unbearable, throughout many nights awake, Clark came to my rescue. And after I gave birth, in a world going into lockdown due to a pandemic, I revived the images of Clark’s practices in my mind to cope with these magnificent and terrifying changes, both physical and mental.

My healing, my training, and the awareness I needed of my new body, had begun before I had even considered motherhood, through seeing those images.

Tatiane Schilaro


Shirin Neshat, “Women Without Men,” 2009, film still. Courtesy of the Artist and Gladstone, New York.

Women Without Men – Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat’s luminous film Women Without Men (2009) presents an interlaced tale of four women’s personal struggles amid political turmoil. Set in Iran during the 1953 CIA backed coup that installed the military dictatorship of the Shah, tragedy marks each of the main characters, whether through death or disillusion. The backdrop of the tale might be decades and continents distant from our current situation, but the steely determination shown in the face of extreme societal upheaval does have reverberant parallels. With enthralling sound and music performances matching the elegiac visuals, Women Without Men remains a powerful depiction of asymmetrical gender dynamics, imperialist militarism, and the lurking threat of religious fundamentalism: a somewhat surreal fable that calls for continued engagement across the world. 

David C. Shuford


Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

At the End of the Year:

I came back, as I often do, to The Great Gatsby. In spite of nearly a century’s praise threatening to entomb this book, it is still underappreciated. Fitzgerald tapped into a vein that many try to, but few can find. This time, I am struck by Nick Carraway’s observation on turning thirty: “Thirty-the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” I can see the burnishing truth to that now far more clearly than I ever could have in my high school reading.

Collin Sundt


Special thanks to our writers, who are all current students or alumni of the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, for their contributions to this remembrance of 2020.

Degree Critical will be on holiday hiatus until the New Year. We look forward to the year ahead, and will resume publishing with new content on January 15, 2021. Wishing all of our readers a healthy and peaceful holiday season.

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