Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future @ Tate Modern

This is a great exhibition, genuinely original, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a major retrospective of these two pioneering Russian artists which ranges from enormous installations, through large oil paintings, big wooden models and fanciful book illustrations, down to small and beautiful drawings.

Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933, just as Socialist Realism secured its grip on Russian artistic life. Twenty years later, he began his working career just as Stalin’s influence was at its height, society was completely stifled and the gulag labour camps were full to overflowing (N.B. Stalin died in 1953 but his baleful influence lived on for some years.)

Wisely, Kabakov chose to go into the harmless field of children’s illustration and spent thirty years making a living illustrating a range of books. In 1959, Kabakov became a ‘candidate member’ of the Union of Soviet Artists (he later became a full member in 1965). This status secured him a studio, steady work as an illustrator and a relatively healthy income by Soviet standards. In secret, he created more subversive and experimental works to be seen only by a close circle of friends.

The first thirty years or so of work are effectively solo pieces by Ilya. In 1989, as the USSR collapsed and Ilya for the first time travelled abroad, he was reunited with his distant cousin Emilia who had emigrated in 1975. They began working together and were soon married. So the second half of the show – and the title – reflects the fact that the works for which he is most famous – the large-scale installations – are collaborations devised and made by both of them.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

The smallest works on display here include a room of charming drawings and small abstract paintings from the 1960s, mildly in the style of Kandinsky, maybe. Later on Ilya developed the idea of creating portfolios of prints each dedicated to a fictional character – the Ten Characters series of albums. One whole room of the exhibition contains about twenty school desks, each with one of the portfolios on it.

Thirty years later the situation in Russia had significantly changed. It was still rundown, dirty, backward, grey and depressing. But Stalin was long dead, to be replaced first by Nikita Khrushchev, and then the long years of decline under Brezhnev (1964-82).

Conceptual works

During the 1960s and 1970s Ilya rented an attic studio on Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow where he created experimental works which were to make his reputation: conceptual installations.

This is Ilya’s first whole-room or total installation, which he created in his Moscow studio in 1985. It expands on the idea of the fictional narratives mentioned in the portfolios. Here he has imagined that a man has built a home-made space travel device from springs and rubber straps and has used it to propel himself free from life in his cramped filthy communal flat, through the roof, and up into space and freedom.

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

As you can see there’s more than a little of children’s humour in this idea. It can be read as a po-faced comment on the permanent housing shortage in the USSR; or it could be seen as a light-hearted Heath Robinson device designed to make us smile.

Next to it is a similar room-sized space in which Ilya has suspended from thin cords about forty household objects of the most boring kind, as found in all such shabby communal blocks of flats – a lot of metal pots and pans and mugs.

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

You get the idea. The clutter of pots and pans represents the endless confusion and bickering caused by cramped communal living in blocks of flats with permanently broken fixtures and inadequate living space. The large oil paintings on the wall are of natural scenery and presumably represent windows, either real or imaginary windows which some of the block’s inhabitants look through into a dream landscape.

A key element not quite visible in this photo is the music stand to one side which holds a written account of the scene. Text is important in all the Kabakovs’ works. Many of the early paintings contain big chunks of text, for example, By December 25 in Our District…

By December 25 in Our District... by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

By December 25 in Our District… by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This hyper-realistic painting of a half-built tower block, adrift in a sea of mud and building works, has Cyrillic text all down the left-hand side. The text is a list of all the buildings which the authorities promised would be completed by 25 December 1979. Since the artwork was made in 1983, four years later, it comes across as yet another example of the shabby, failing reality and broken promises underlying so much Soviet propaganda.

That said, I loved the two dirty shovels attached to the canvas. I love text in paintings and objects attached to paintings so I also really liked the four big paintings in an earlier room, which were realistic depictions of life in some Soviet new town but which had scrunched-up sweet wrappers glued on to them in regular grids like graph paper. Why? Why not?

Beyond the flying pots and pans is a big room devoted to an installation titled Three Nights (1989). Three massive paintings, each taking up an entire wall, refer to the theme of night – there’s a starry sky, a night scene and (a little disconcertingly) a huge nocturnal insect.

What makes the room striking, though, is the way that three massive plywood walls have been erected in front of each of the paintings almost completely blocking your view of them. For each there is only one gap in the plywood wall which visitors can see the paintings through.

In front of each of these gaps is a monocular ( a single-lensed binocular) on a tripod. If you bend down and squint through these monoculars you see…  that each of the paintings has a minute set of little white men made out of white paper, cut out and stuck on the surface of the paintings. Little white men?

Aha, we had seen some of these in the previous room, room 4, which included the piece Trousers in the corner (1989).

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilai Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Little white men? According to Ilya the little white men are inhabitants of a parallel world who can occasionally be glimpsed by human eyes. Now they’ve been pointed out to me I go back to some of the earlier works and, yes, sure enough, inside the rims of some of the flying pots and pans are twos or threes of tiny, white, cutout silhouettes. Maybe they’re everywhere? From now on you can’t be certain.

The commentary claims the mysterious presence of the little white men is part of the artists’ strategy to create ‘subversions of perspective and scale’, and gives other examples. Yes, no doubt. But it’s also funny. It bespeaks Ilya’s long career as an illustrator of children’s books. It makes you smile.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future

Following the night room is one of the biggest installations I’ve ever seen: a big long room has two rails through the middle, a mocked-up railway platform along the opposite wall from you and, at the far end of the room, the rear section of a train which seems to be leaving the station. Above the back door of the train is a tickertape digital sign reading ‘Not everyone will be taken into the future’.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This has a slightly complicated back story. The title derives from an essay Ilya contributed to a journal of Russian art published in Paris. It was an essay about the noted Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, the man who reduced painting to one black square and so, in his own opinion, brought Western painting to a full stop.

This huge installation imagines Malevich as a charismatic visionary selecting some artists to be taken into the bright shiny Future, while others will be discarded and forgotten – as symbolised by a number of canvases abandoned across the rail lines. Who will be taken and why? Who will be left behind and who will mourn?

This work is big, but I didn’t really get it as a work of art: it didn’t seem to be saying anything important or interesting; some artists and many many works of art will be forgotten and lost. Didn’t we know this already?

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)

The train work is quickly eclipsed by possibly the most powerful work in the show, the beguiling and entrancing Labyrinth from 1990. Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) consists of a maze of narrow corridors with an apparently endless series of abrupt turns. Like some of the earlier works, this is designed to evoke the shabby badly-lit corridors of Soviet communal housing.

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Each stretch of corridor has hung on the wall a series of large-ish prints which comprise photos of life in mid-century Soviet Russia, set on a patterned background with a fragment of typewritten text in Cyrillic attached. Propped up above each print is a translation into English of the Cyrillic text.

It turns out that the black and white photographs were taken by Ilya’s uncle and the texts are excerpts from a memoir by his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, describing the difficulties of bringing up her son in poverty. As you progress slowly through the maze of corridors, the sound slowly gets louder of Ilya Kabakov himself singing Russian romances in a low, depressed Russian voice… until you arrive at the heart of the labyrinth, to discover it is a derelict cupboard, the kind you keep brooms and dustpans in, with wooden planks across it, the floor covered in plaster crumbled from the roof. More symbols of Soviet dilapidation and… the failure of the utopian dreams.

In fact there are no fewer than 76 of these excerpts from his mother’s memoir, too many to read unless you want to spend several hours in here… and also a little difficult to read because they are propped on the picture frames about 6 foot from the ground. The gallery does offer a booklet which includes every single excerpt but other people had it when I went round. The fragments I read were evocative and moving. It would be interesting to read the entire memoir.

Contemporary oil paintings

The final few rooms are full of the enormous oil paintings the Kabakovs have been doing in recent years. These are completely figurative i.e. realistic portrayals of people and places with the catch that they all feature the same gag or idea – in that they are paintings of collages, portraying scenes from Soviet life as if torn up from magazines and pasted together, sometimes on backdrops of ‘classic’ European painting, to make the visual ironies all the sharper. So they are integral painted surfaces but made t olook as if they’ve been cut up and pasted together.

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

According to the commentary in these modern works ‘the artists layer scenes from different art historical moments to explore ideas of collective memory and cultural heritage’. Maybe. But after the scale and imaginativeness of the apartment spaceman, the floating pots and pans, the huge train station or the spooky labyrinth – ordinary oil paintings, no matter how inventive, feel less imaginative and impactful.

How to meet an angel

The final room changes the tone yet again, with a suite of works devoted to angels. Angels? It includes a harness of feathers which you could strap on to turn into an angel, some delightful pictures which have the feel of children’s illustrations of angels, a lovely little model of a common or garden stool positioned over a tiny model landscape with a tiny, tiny model angel suspended over it by a slender thread.

But dominating the room is a huge wooden construction, a tilting scaffold built up into the sky at the end of which a little wooden man is reaching out his arms and, not far away a much bigger wooden angel is stretching out his arms to meet him. Will they ever meet? Can we ever achieve our dreams? Can we ever escape from the grubby human condition?

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Who knows, but this huge exhibition, showcasing over 300 objects and works by these big confident conceptual artists, the first in the UK, curated and laid out with the advice of the artists themselves – suggests you can have a lot of fun trying.

The video

Tate made an extended interview with the Kabakovs at their studio.

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.


Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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