Bridget Riley @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the work of the celebrated British artist Bridget Riley (b.1931), covering 70 years of her career, and featuring over 200 works and 50 huge and wonderful paintings.

Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley (1961) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved

  1. It is a big, bright, light, beautifully arranged exhibition for which they’ve removed walls and partitions to make the gallery space as open and light as possible
  2. What’s not to love? Riley’s paintings are large and joyful, life-affirming, wonderfully inventive and teasing and striking and bold and imaginative works

To shake it up, the exhibition is organised thematically rather than chronologically, in order to draw attention to the interests and themes that recur throughout her oeuvre, themes such as ‘Stripes and Diagonals’. ‘Curves’, ‘Black and White’.

An explorer

As you progress through you learn that Riley is a sort of inventor, or explorer, or analyst, of the effects of pattern and colour on the eye and mind.

This becomes clear in what is chronologically the beginning but has been arranged to be the ‘final’ section of the show (though you can wander round it in any order), and is titled Beginnings.

It includes a large selection of drawings right from the start of her career. Some go as far back as her secondary school, the phenomenally posh Cheltenham Ladies College which she attended after the war. Others are from her time at  Goldsmiths College (1949–52) and the Royal College of Art (1952–55).

What we see is a very gifted student doing scores of life studies, nudes, portraits, and some landscapes. She was a good drawer and is quoted as saying drawing remains central to her practice – ‘an enquiry, a way of finding out’. I was particularly captivated by this woman’s head, whose beady features reminded me of Daumier.

But the point of showing the early work is to bring home how she was fascinated by the impact of lines and shapes. There are landscapes with detail filled in, and next to them the same landscape but sketched only as parts of lines, leaving the eye to complete the design and also to fill in the volume. Looking at them you realise how she was restlessly investigating the impact of shapes, patterns and design.

Seurat

The post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat is so important to Riley’s art that he merits a section to himself. Seurat pioneered the use of pointillism i.e. reducing the entire painting to blobs or dabs of colour. The aim was to make the colours vibrate against each other and so to capture the effect of light.

But in doing so Seurat discovered that deploying colour like this – not in the long smooth strokes of traditional painting, but in dots placed next to each other – created a curiously dynamic and energetic image. Riley was early on fascinated by the use of contrasting colours, patterns and sapes to create a completely deceptive sense of volume and depth.

So much so that in 1959 Riley made her own, larger version of Seurat’s classic painting The Bridge at Courbevoie. The aim wasn’t to reproduce it but to get right under the skin of Seurat’s method and vision. She’s quoted as saying:

I believed – and in fact still believe – that looking carefully at paintings is the best training you can have as a young painter.

Copy of Le Pont de Courbevoie by Georges Seurat by Bridget Riley (1959) © Bridget Riley 2019

The subject matter isn’t really the pint for either painter. It was the way design and depth and volume and shape could all be created by arranging dots. What came next was a breakthrough.

Black and white

She threw out colour. She chose to concentrate on black and white alone, in order to focus on the perceptual potential of the work – in order to explore the nuts and bolts, the bare bones of perception, to explore what goes on when we look at an image. And the results surprised even her.

Blaze 1 by Bridget Riley (1962) © Bridget Riley 2019

From 1961 to 1965 Riley worked only in black and white, exploring a wide range of visual effects, including many which create optical illusions of depth, of the picture plane folding away from the viewer, or emerging from the canvas, or shimmering.

She said at the time that she began with a basic geometrical shape (square, circle, line) and then ‘put it through its paces’ – subjecting it to systematic distortions and experiments.

She was immediately recognised as an exciting new voice and included in a 1965 collective exhibition, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which featured many exponents of what was becoming known as Op Art (short for optical illusion art), so she found herself grouped with them, though she has always disavowed connection with the movement.

There are several rooms full of these wonderful optical illusions from the 1960s, many of which look like they could be on a polka-dot mini-skirt modelled by Twiggy.

Coloured lines

Then, in 1967, Riley first introduced colour into her work. Since then, the way that colour behaves and the way that different colours interact has been one of her main concerns.

At the core of colour is a paradox. It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours.

In particular her analysis led her to realise the importance of lines and edges.

A long line of colour, essentially an ‘edge’ without a large volume to carry, is the ideal element to work with this elusive relationship between colour and light.

It’s fascinating to share with her the discovery that colour is inherently unstable. The colours we see are defined by the other colours we see them with. Hence her work in the later 1960s and throughout the 1970s which explored a wide range of effects created by long, apparently straight, ‘edges’ of colour and the way they bleed and reverberate against each other.

Chant 2 by Bridget Riley (1967) © Bridget Riley 2019

May sound improbable but many of these vast collections of coloured strips do shimmer and vibrate against each other. And I realised that some of them created colour-based optical illusions. Lines of only red and green, viewed at the right distance, create additional lines of yellow which, in reality, are just not there. But you can see them, loud and clear.

In the early 1980s she expanded her palette to include more colours. Ra from 1981 is the first of Riley’s large-scale ‘Egyptian palette’ paintings, inspired by the colours found in ancient Egyptian art. You can see how much richer and deeper it is than something thinner like Chant 2. That’s also because she began using oil paint instead of her previous staple of acrylic paint, oil giving a richer and deeper effect.

Ra by Bridget Riley (1981) © Bridget Riley 2019

Curves

Curves were present in some of the early black-and-white paintings such as Kiss (1961) and Current (1964) but very much within the geometric simplicity of those early works.

In the 1970s she reintroduced curves as a compositional element using a limited number of colours that cross over each other in twisted curves, such as Aubade (1975), Clepsydra (1976) and Streak 2 (1979). You can see how these compositions lead logically on from – or certainly derive a strong visual debt to – the edge and line drawings. She has taken the discoveries of the use of multiple coloured parallel lines and subjected them to wave-like undulations.

Some of them, huge affairs hanging on the Hayward’s big white walls, are quite wonderfully hypnotic.

Stripes and diagonals

In the late 1980s a major shift occurred in Riley’s work when she crossed the stripe with a diagonal thrust of colour. The exhibition features four of these large ‘rhomboid’ paintings which create visual effects far more complex than the earlier Op Art or line paintings.

High Sky by Bridget Riley (1991) © Bridget Riley 2019

To be honest, paintings like this felt a long, long way from the works of the 60s and 70s. They had a very different vibe, and I didn’t warm to them as much. The Op Art stuff feels cool and stylish, sleek and slick like the original James Bond Aston Martin.

This feels more… well, how would you describe it? It is a natural progression from the line paintings which they’re exhibited next to but… some kind of line has been crossed into a different visual universe.

Even more so when, in the 1990s, Riley returned to the idea of interlocking curved shapes but combining them with what she had discovered about the power of diagonals to create more complex but also more zoomorphic or relaxed or curved patterns. And gone are the lines. These are experiments with blocks of colour as shapes, or with the way shaped colour effects us.

Painting with Verticals 3 by Bridget Riley (2006) © Bridget Riley 2019

What there was of hard angles and linear energy in the diagonals paintings has now been almost entirely lost. These rhomboid paintings are more… decorative. If they have a visual energy it is much more diffused.

Something about their sheer size and their bright bright colours reminded me of David Hockney’s last decade or more, both displaying a late-in-life love of big big brightly coloured, blocks of patterned or abstract shapes for their own sake. There were references to Matisse and his late-in-life highly-coloured cutouts. Maybe it is a state some artists arrive at after 50 years of painting – a sense of complete freedom.

Dots

And just when you thought she’d earned the right to hang up her brushes, Riley surprised everyone with another drastic change of approach – coloured dots. Black and white dots had featured in the early Op Art works, but now she set out to investigate the impact of using quite large coloured discs arranged in regular patterns.

The result was a large painting titled Cosmos and a series painted on canvas and on walls known as the Measure for Measure series, and the wall painting Messengers which was recently unveiled as a permanent decoration to the Annenberg Court in the National Gallery, just across the river from the Hayward.

It’s not just the shapes – it’s another experiment with colour as Riley deliberately pared back her pallete to just purple, orange and green. Then in 2018 she added turquoise.

Measure for Measure by Bridget Riley (2017)

Inventor and superviser

At some point one of the wall labels casually mentions that from quite early on Riley designed her pieces and then had assistants actually paint them. This professional and rather detached, scientific approach to the work is reinforced by the Beginnings section which, alongside the early drawings, includes quite a lot of studies for the early abstract works, cartoons or preparatory sketches, which are covered in notes and instructions and she suggested moving various blocks of colour around to experiment with the effects.

It’s somehow rather wonderful and inspiring to think of her as this chief, boss, head designer, experimenter, analyst and visual scientist, paying others to actually make the work so that she can continue her alchemical investigations into the visual power and patterns, designs and colour.

What I really really really missed from the exhibition is any summary of her findings. After a lifetime devoted to experimenting with visual effects – what conclusions can she share with us? She’s quite liberally quoted on the wall labels, but generally only in respect of particular works or series. Are there no general conclusions which she could share with us? I’d love to know.

Life enhancing

The Director of Hayward Gallery is quoted as saying that Riley’s work is not just vision-enhancing but life-enhancing’ and that seems to me absolutely right. This is a wonderful, inspiring and deeply enjoyable exhibition by a great and lovely artist.

I’ve managed to get to the end without conveying that some of the art has really genuinely hallucinatory optical illusory power. I found myself walking back and forth in front of a series up on the first floor of the curved line paintings from the late 60s. They really did shimmer and billow as you walked past. Maybe you get a little of it from this image on your screen, but imagine something like this only ten feet tall. It’s transporting!

Cataract 3 by Bridget Riley (1967) © Bridget Riley 2019

Interview

The exhibition was first staged at the Royal Scottish Academy. In this video Bridget Riley is interviewed by Sir John Leighton, Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Curators

Senior Curator Dr Cliff Lauson, with Assistant Curator Sophie Oxenbridge and Curatorial Assistant Alyssa Bacon.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Feast For The Eyes: The Story Of Food In Photography @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Two types of art exhibition

There are, maybe, two types of exhibition – the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’. An example of a ‘closed’ exhibition is the massive William Blake show currently on at Tate Britain, which presents Blake’s work in chronological order, explaining his etchings and paintings and illustrations in a cumulative way, so that you really have to pay attention and read all the wall labels to understand what’s going on, and to be able to move forward.

In an ‘open’ exhibition, by contrast, there’s just a lot of stuff hung up on the walls and you can wander round and look at whatever takes your fancy, popping in and out, window shopping, snacking, returning to the same rooms later to have another go round. Maybe the curators have organised it a bit by themes, but it doesn’t matter too much whether you pay any attention to them – you are, in effect, free to stroll around and create your own route and draw your own conclusions.

Feast For The Eyes is very much an ‘open’ exhibition. It brings together over 140 works, from black-and-white silver gelatin prints and early experiments with colour processes, to contemporary works of all shapes and sizes and styles, all focusing on the yummylicious subject of food.

Phillip J. Stazzone is on WPA and enjoys his favourite food as he’s heard that the Army doesn’t go in very strong for serving spaghetti (1940) by Weegee © Weegee/International Center of Photography

The sociology of food

Feeding is a basic activity of all life forms. All of us have to take in nutrition – foodstuffs which can provide protein, calories, fats, essential acids, vitamins and so on.

And for as long as we have had records, food has held a richly varied symbolic and allegorical meaning for peoples and societies – from Eve eating the apple in Paradise through to Mom serving up all-American apple pie in a 1950s kitchen.

New Recipes for Good Eating, Crisco, Proctor and Gamble, Cincinnati. Photographer unknown

The growing, harvesting, preparation, cooking and consumption of food has been accompanied throughout human history and around the globe by all kinds of rituals and celebrations – as are new births, the annual celebration of birthdays, the activities surrounding mourning – all have come with their own traditions of foods and drinks.

Photography and food

So, what about photography and food? Well, as soon as photography was invented, the earliest pioneers – alongside portraits and pictures of landscapes and houses – experimented with taking photos of food. For the most part they arranged and posed foodstuffs in the layouts which had been developed by the painters of still lives.

Still Life with Fruit and Decanter by Roger Fenton c.1860

The exhibition includes some very early three-dimensional or stereographic images produced by the London Stereoscopic Company in the 1850s, two colour images side by side designed to be viewed through a special stereoscopic viewer to create an early 3-D experience.

In the 160 years since Fenton’s pioneering work, people have taken countless millions more photos of food of every possible types and shape, from every possible national cuisine, in every possible position and angle, taken in styles which range from early Victorian, through social realism and documentary styles (the poor in Victorian slums or 1930s Depression-era America).

The Faro Caudill Family Eating Dinner in Their Dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940. by Russell Lee. Courtesy The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The exhibition includes experimental Modernism of Man Ray and the like, through to 1960s pop art which, Andy Warhol-style, presented po-faced photos of mass produced tins and cans as themselves worthy of interest and respect, like this great blank photo of a tin of spam by Ed Ruscha.

Spam (1961) by Ed Ruscha © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Thus Feast for the Eyes sets out to give examples of pretty much every way food has been prepared, posed and consumed over the past 150 or so years – from a poptastic 1960s art film by Carolee Schneemann of an art happening where a bunch of scantily clad young men and women holding dead chickens rolled and cavorted over each other – to a feast arranged to take place on a long table straddling the USA-Mexico border.

There are collages and cutups, sexy images of rude food, sculpted food, architectural food, and so on. There’s everything from tiny old Victorian photos to huge new prints enabled by the latest digital technology by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Untitled from the series Forbidden Pleasures by Jo Ann Callis (1994)

There is, of course, also a whole world of cookbooks to be explored – dating back as far as the famous Mrs Beeton, and illustrated from the late Victorian period onwards with all manner of photos.

A good chunk of the show features those very distinctive illustrations you used to see in 1950s and 1960s cookbooks, the kind I remember my mum having, where colour printing was going through a very distinctive phase which made everything look like it was under neon lighting, where every food known to man or woman seemed to be coloured either vivid pink or orange or yellow.

Some of the corny old 1950s and 60s cookbooks on show at Feast for the Eyes. Photo by the author

And all that’s before you even approach the huge volume of images created to fill the wide universe of advertising every conceivable foodstuff as well as cookery implement.

Classic black and white photography

Insofar as it has been a subject of photography right from the beginning, food offers a way of surfing through the history of photography seen via one topic. Thus the exhibition includes some extremely famous food-related photos – Robert Doisneau’s one of Picasso sitting at a table which cleverly replaces his fingers with baby baguettes, or the super-famous image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of two couples having a picnic by the river, the man in the foreground pouring himself a glass of red wine.

Picnic on the Banks of the Marne (1938) by Henri Cartier-Bresson

So there are works by Weegee, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Edward Steichen, classics of black and white photography.

Modern and weird

But there are also plenty of works by new and contemporary photographers, such as Imogen Cunningham, Roe Ethridge, Lorenzo Vitturi – creator of surreal images paying homage to Ridley Road Market in London’s East End – and Joseph Maida – the latter represented by a quartet of fancy food images from his series Things R Queer in which he mixes up food porn and Pop art humour, advertising glossiness and Japanese cuteness.

#jelly #jello #fruity #fruto #thingsarequeer (October 26, 2014) by Joseph Maida. Courte

Political photography

And food can be political in the most basic sense that some people have a lot while others have little or none – one of the basic causes of conflict around the world and throughout history. A striking political image in the show is by the French photographer JR, who took an aerial view of migrants having a picnic on a long bench set up across the US-Mexico border, the table covered with a table cloth printed with the eyes of a child migrant.

Migrants, Mayra, Picnic across the border, Tecate, Mexico-USA (2017) by JR

The curators’ three themes

The curators have themselves arranged the works under three headings – Still Life, Around the Table and Playing with Food, and their wall labels and explanations group works together into three rooms (which are colour coded, the walls painted a vivid yellow, red and blue respectively). They expand on the themes and discuss issues around the tradition of still lives, or the sociology of eating. They provide plenty of food for thought.

But we are free to ignore them if we prefer, and wander at will, letting ourselves be struck by vivid and arresting images as we come across them, such as this classic depiction of the reality of unvarnished life in modern England by the poet laureate of the mundane and everyday, Martin Parr.

New Brighton, England, 1983–85 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

One of my favourite images was a 1977 still life by the American photographer Irving Penn. Penn had the bright idea of taking blocks of frozen food from his freezer – or more probably of creating blocks of frozen food in a freezer – then taking them out and arranging them as sculptures and photographing them. His photos capture the moment as the blocks of fruit and veg start to melt and the white frosting starts to give way to the true underlying colour of the various foodstuffs. Vivid, creative.

Frozen Food (With String Beans), New York, 1977 by Irving Penn

Photographers

The show includes works by:

  • Nobuyoshi Araki
  • Guy Bourdin
  • Imogen Cunningham
  • Roe Ethridge
  • Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton
  • Rotimi Fani Kayode
  • Roger Fenton
  • Peter Fischli and David Weiss
  • Nan Goldin
  • Daniel Gordon
  • Rinko Kawauchi
  • Russell Lee
  • Laura Letinsky
  • Vik Muniz
  • Nickolas Muray
  • Martin Parr
  • Irving Penn
  • Man Ray
  • Martha Rosler
  • Ed Ruscha
  • Cindy Sherman
  • Stephen Shore
  • Edward Steichen
  • Wolfgang Tillmans
  • Lorenzo Vitturi
  • Tim Walker
  • Andy Warhol
  • Weegee
  • Edward Weston
  • Hank Willis Thomas

and many others. It is a smörgåsbord of imagery, a tasty buffet of photos old and new, large and small, black and white or coloured, digital and analogue, posed or au naturel, a rich array which creates all kinds of memories, associations and sensations in the visitor (by the end I found I was feeling really peckish – one of the 1960s style photos of swirly vanilla and strawberry ice cream had really pushed my button).

It only costs £5 to visit the Photographers’ Gallery, and this is only one of three exhibitions currently on there. Pop along and feast your mince pies.

Curators

Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography is organised by the Aperture Foundation, New York and curated by Susan Bright and Denise Wolff.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


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Bill Woodrow @ the Royal Academy of Arts

As the promotional material says:

‘This exhibition presents the first comprehensive survey of work by the sculptor Bill Woodrow RA. Comprising around 50 works, the exhibition spans Woodrow’s entire career and explores the themes of his oeuvre from the early 1970s to the present day, highlighting his humour and inventiveness and underpinning his influential role in contemporary sculpture. The exhibition is held in Burlington Gardens, the Royal Academy’s new venue for contemporary art.’

This is not a sell-out exhibition which is a shame. When I got there at 11am it was empty, which meant it was lovely and peaceful to wonder around and let your imagination respond and be inspired by Woodrow’s wonderful creations.

A fairly simple story emerged: In the 50s and 60s there grew up an orthodox school of Modernist sculpture represented by Anthony Caro who made big sculptures in bronze or welded steel, although abstract and Modernist in design, they clearly came from the tradition that sculpture be big and impressive.

1. Early works Woodrow arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in 1968 just after Richard Long and Gilbert and George had graduated and begun to create a movement against the previous generation, invoking conceptual art to find material in the everyday world of the East End (G&G) or on epic walks through strange landscapes (Long). Initially Woodrow followed this line of thinking, in his earliest works such as Untitled 1971 and Corral which feature sticks and images of the countryside. I also liked Babylon, two rows of a dozen ancient bricks holding down a long scroll-like photo of, presumably, the ruins of Babylon.

2. Cutouts and Breakdowns The next and biggest room in the exhibition contained some dozen of the works for which he’s best known. Woodrow seems to be happy to group his works into series with thematic connections. So the cutouts series emerged as he took aviation shears (!) to household white goods and cut out of them strange shapes. Imagine an enormous artillery shell, as tall as a man, a beautifully designed industrial  artefact – and half way down the metal  has uncurled, has been cut away and the shards reworked to for a swallow, painted realistic colours, a natural lifeform emerging from a mass-produced industrial product (nature v man; peace v war) – The Swallow (1984). A kettle has had the bottom cut open an the strands of metal shaped into a giant scarab beetle – The Glass Jar (1983).  Hanging from the ceiling is the fabulous Twintub with Satellite (1982). An elaborate version has a series of wires running from a dismantled filing cabinet yards and yards across the floor to the detached drawers while a a metal monkey leans down to grasp a revolver attached to a hanging  bowling ball (!) – Red Monkey (1985).

Alongside this are examples of the Breakdown series in which he dismantled common white goods and arranged every component in a mat in front. Hence Tape Recorder (1979) and Hoover Breakdown (1979) which made me laugh out loud, and Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame including Handlebars (1981). A florid example is TV Blind (1979) where the elements derived from smashing in the screens of seven televisions are arranged to spell out the words ‘TV Blind’. Ah the good old days when smashing up a TV was an act of rebellion against the culture industry, or something. A long time ago, a quaint gesture in these days of smartphones, ipads, laptops and desktops which stream TV live or recorded everywhere, to everyone, night and day.

This room put me in a brilliant mood: every artefact was funny, clever, shrewd, well-made, doing what I love most about modern art, showing the incalculable depths of beauty in the everyday. I stood in front of a vast wall-sized sculpture made of bicycle frames arranged into a cross between a family tree and a totem pole and felt glad to be alive and in a world so bursting with opportunities for beauty and invention – Bicycle Frames (1980).

3. Back to sculpture Apparently, his tremendous output during these years, and the inventiveness and originality of these series cemented his reputation, when he made a surprising career move. With success comes money and the ability to experiment in new media and Woodrow took the opportunity to learn more about bronze and steel, precisely the materials used by the previous generation of monumental sculptors and which his generation, born in the 40s and 50s had rebelled against. Along with the more ‘finished’ feel of these constructed works goes a move towards narrative: the pieces tend to be telling some kind of story.

Future Perfect (1988) For Queen and Country (1989) Regardless of History (1998) Cell (1997). The key element in the earlier work was their ‘foundness’ – the viewer shares the imaginative leap of seeing a swallow in a shell, a beetle in a teapot, a satellite in a spin dryer – and the roughness of finish, their punk ethos. Both elements disappear in the later work, which is designed, planned and ‘constructed’ not found – and has a high degree of finish, immaculate metalwork covered in immaculate paintwork which gives many of them an antiseptic, sterile feel.

The sterile feel is worst in the NavigatorEvaluatorRevelator series. Here the white skulls of large animals are placed on smooth blocks of woods, each painted a nice Farrow & Ball colour. Completely failed to engage me, it felt like walking around a  display room in John Lewis or Ikea. Revelator series (2006), Ultramarine Navigator (2005), Kimono Navigator (2005).

Also, in the earlier work the ‘political’ aspect, or the social comment, was implicit in the works: the mere act of dismantling consumer goods is a statement, but a statement implicit in the act. In the later works the social comment or author’s message becomes more obtrusive, and the more obvious it is, the more it risks appearing trite.

There is a beekeeper series, designed to show the delicate balance between nature and man or something – hence Beekeeper and Four Hives (1997). The images, the work, don’t justify the message. Something like Rack 14 (2007) is very well-made but, like the immaculate later Damien Hirst, who cares.

In the final room were a number of new series, the most striking of which were the Inuit series and the Anaconda series. Anyone who labours to tell us that the eskimo way of life is under threat from rapacious western oil companies is on a level with the people telling us the Amazon rainforest is under threat. It is not so much art as visual slogans, the art equivalent of a Guardian pullout or Channel 4 documentary. Far from filling me with a sense of wonder and surprise, as the cutouts did, these works gave me a heavy sense of thumping inevitability.

On this page of the BW website you can click to see the six works from the Black and white series which feature 3-inch high models of Inuit eskimo (made of bronze, painted white) going about their business thumping seals or building igloos or steering sleds, on layers of white ice based in pools of black. That’s the oil sitting under their habitat which wicked western companies want to tap. Geddit?

The Anaconda series from 2009-11 is more inspiring. These also use realistic human figures, these ones a foot or so in height, looking like native tribesmen and, in the various pieces, carrying either a very long anaconda or individual anacondas wrapped round their bodies – Anaconda (2009). For me these had real mystery and strangeness about them and one in particular, of figures carrying snakes waist-deep in water between big lilypads, seemed rather marvellous – Victoria Amazonicanaconda (2011).

Conclusion Bill Woodrow continues to create new works. Go see the show or any new shows you hear about. Check out his website. And make your own mind up.

Bill Woodrow talks to Studio International about his exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts, London from studio international on Vimeo.

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