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.

Epilogue

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

Every room in Tate Britain (part two)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a striking neo-classical building (opened 1897) complete with columned portico and grand steps leading up to the entrance, which faces out onto the river Thames. To the left of the main entrance a ramp and steps lead down to the lower floor, which holds a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened in 1987) – nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s enormous collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a small room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Haunting, scattered sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, to walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of the main chronological sequence are seven or eight single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1910

I left off my coverage of every room in Tate Britain (part one) with the advent of the Great War, half way through the 1910 room. The second half of the room includes post-War art:

  • Alfred Wallis St Ives (1928) Wallis was a ‘naive’ artist, a retired sea captain who took up painting on scraps of cardboard or wood he could scrounge. He was discovered and taken up by professional artists Ben Nicholson, was exhibited in London and became a sensation.
  • Eric Gill The East Wind (1929) Gill was commissioned to create relief sculptures for various public buildings including the BBC building in Portland Square. This is a scale model of one of a series commissioned for London Underground headquarters. I venerate it for its combination of medieval and modernist influences.
  • Stanley Spencer The Resurrection (1927) From my visit to Cookham and the Stanley Spencer gallery there, I got a powerful sense of Spencer’s very English, eccentric reverence for his birthplace, which he saw as an earthly paradise suffused with God’s presence. Thus his resurrection is placed in the homely graveyard of Cookham church.
  • Frank Dobson Sir Osbert Sitwell, Bt (1923) Both Dobson and Sitwell were part of the packed but somehow second-rate literary and artistic world of the 1920s. This is modernism watered down to become Art Deco.
  • Charles Sargeant Jagger No Man’s Land (1919–20) The wall label makes the interesting point that in the immediate post-war years there was a flood of memorials. Jagger served and was wounded twice. His most famous memorial is the stunning Royal Artillery memorial (1921–5) at Hyde Park corner.
  • William Roberts The Cinema (1920) Typical of the way the Futurist and Vorticist experiments on the eve of the war were turned into a formula afterwards.
  • Wyndham Lewis Edith Sitwell (1923-35) I’ve loved Lewis for thirty years. This comes from his later ‘portraits of poets and writers’ phase, when the harsh Vorticism of the pre-War had been softened right down to create realistic though still beautifully stylised portraits. Apparently the sittings were fraught, with Lewis unable to conceal his growing contempt for Sitwell and her brothers and the shallow English dilettantism he thought she epitomised.

Just in this one room I think you can see the damage the Great War did. On its eve there was a tremendous sense of excitement and anticipation as the European figurative tradition was rejected and transcended by artists in Paris and London and Rome and Moscow and Berlin and Vienna. But, apart from killing off many of these artists, the War somehow damaged Modernism. The post-War saw a great retrenchment and retreat from the heady visions of its eve. Moscow was taken over by revolutionary utopianism; Berlin was characterised by the bitterness of the losers, Grosz and Dix; Paris saw a bewildering confusion of styles; and here in England, although Modernist mannerisms and styles dominated, they somehow feel secondary, lacking the first fine careless rapture. Compare and contrast the phenomenal excitement of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (1913) with the smooth professionalism of Dobson’s Sitwell (1923).

  • Related maybe to Spencer’s naive view of the English landscape but rerouted into an uncanny proto-surrealism is the work of Paul Nash, demonstrated here by Landscape at Iden (1929). The discretely placed, carefully spaced, unconnected objects are reminiscent of the strange dream landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, only in a bucolic Sussex landscape not the Italian’s eerily emptied Renaissance piazzas.

Henry Moore

There are two rooms dedicated to Henry Moore, one of England’s most famous twentieth century artists, one of the most successful, prolific and easily recognisable. Typifying the philistinism which crippled the nation’s art collections in the 1920s and 1930s, the Tate’s then Director, JB Manson is quoted as saying in 1938 that Henry Moore would enter the Tate over his dead body. The wall label quietly crows that Tate now owns 634 works by Moore, who ended up a director of Tate, as well as a Companion of Honour and Order of Merit. The first three acquisitions were:

It may be blasphemy but seeing two rooms full of his work assembled like this gave me the overwhelming impression how morbid and dated Moore is. His international reputation was sealed when he won first prize at the 1948 Venice Biennale and from then onwards commissions flooded in and work poured out. The first room is long and narrow, with half a dozen smaller works and some of the wartime sketches of Londoners sheltering in the Tube during the Blitz. The second room contains a video of the artist at work and half a dozen enormous sculptures such as Draped seated figure (1958). Je n’aime pas.

One of the wall panels shows how one of his works ended up on the windswept Stifford council estate in Stepney and photos of the proud councillors in suits and ties and pearl twinsets and horn-rimmed glasses standing nervously around this object from another planet. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition included sections showing how Hepworth, Moore and their contemporaries’ work was in part driven by utopian hopes for a new, more egalitarian or even socialist society, after the sufferings of the Second World War. Their sculptures are part of the world, the mindset, the culture of the exciting new high-rise flats of the 1950s and 60s. Is the art as much of an optimistic failure as the utopian and now discredited architecture?

1930

  • Edward Burra Snack bar (1930) Burra is undervalued, an English combination of the strange detachment of surrealism – then flourishing in France – with the biting social satire of a Georg Grosz.
  • There are several examples of Ben and Winifred Nicholson’s pallid white relief sculptures.
  • Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (c.1931) A traditional technique applied in unpropitious times, the darkness of catastrophe creeping in from the East. It’s an oddly haunting image.

The room is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940–1), the other works barely exist next to it. Monumental primitivist sculpture is one of the enduringly successful strands of the first half of the century of catastrophes, as practiced by Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, Epstein.

1940

In my opinion something bad happened to English art during the 1930s and 1940s and lingered on into the 50s. Although there is a wide range of works on display, most by people I’ve never heard of, the main works by the main figures all seem to me depressed, dark and murky. The overcast climate, the windswept streets, the London fogs become part of the terrible political situation, which went rapidly downhill into the horror of the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, in a vortex which seems to have dispirited and demoralised so much art from this period.

  • Graham Sutherland Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (1940) the reproduction makes this picture appear more interesting than it is, in a science fiction-y kind of way. In fact it is a good specimen of Sutherland’s horrifying distortions. I like his portrait of Somerset Maugham (not on display). It’s fitting that Churchill’s wife destroyed Sutherland’s portrait of her husband, it was so revolting. But much of his painting seems damaged, stricken, scary.
  • David Bomberg Bomb store (1942) Compare and contrast with the same artist’s phenomenal Mud bath from 1914. Hasn’t there been a tragic decline from clarity and excitement into static murk?
  • Alan Davie Entrance to Paradise (1949) You can’t blame them for being depressed but a lot of the English work from this period is black, psychologically and pictorially. Paradise looks like this?
  • Francis Bacon Study for three figures at the foot of the cross (1944) It may be a masterpiece and Bacon a vast presence in post-war English and international art and it’s hard not to respond to its power and horror. But I don’t like it. It adds to the circumambient murk the added flavours of despair and nihilism.
  • Stanley Spencer Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937) Spencer had the same naive approach to painting himself, his wife or mistresses naked as he did to painting Jesus preaching in Cookham. But I find it depressing that even he shares in the ‘human beings are hunks of meat’ mentality epitomised by Francis Bacon’s screaming, tortured beasts. There was something dehumanising about the times, which light, politely experimental pieces like Ben Nicholson’s white reliefs struggle against in vain eg White relief (1935)

1950

  • R.B. Kitaj Erasmus Variations (1958) Kitaj, an American, moved to Britain in 1958 to study art after serving in the US Army. This is, therefore, a very early work. Interesting, but unrepresentative of what was to follow.
  • F.N. Souza Crucifixion (1959) Born to Catholic parents in the Indian state of Goa, Souza moved to Britain to study art. 1. It’s noticeable that there is more explicitly Christian art in the Tate’s display of the 20th century, than in the displays of previous 400 years. 2. This is actually a strikingly modern work, with its consciously third World feel. Alternatively, you could say more recent works by artists from former colonies haven’t progressed much beyond where Souza was in 1959. Dark, though.
  • Lowry The Pond (1950) Last year’s big Lowry exhibition crystallised why I don’t like him. For some reason people in the North see him as some kind of advocate or champion of their culture, when the art very obviously embodies a faceless, anonymous, grey-skied, depressive worldview, fully reinforced by interviews with the miserable old so-and-so.
  • Peter Lanyon St Just (1953) This painting is darker, murkier in the flesh. I’d have dismissed it as another 1950s abstract in the dirty greens I associate with Graham Sutherland, but for the lucky coincidence that I happen to have visited the smashing exhibition of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings earlier this week and saw how his work would evolve into bigger, brighter, happier pictures.

1960

An explosion of talent, which contemporaries must have experienced with tremendous excitement.

  • Anthony Caro Early one morning (1962) His unashamed use of industrial materials must have blown a few minds.
  • Bridget Riley. My understanding of Riley was recently improved by the exhibition of her early work at the Courtauld Gallery, so that I enjoyed and appreciated her two works here as among the most original and exciting in the 1960s room: Hesitate (1962) and Late morning (1967-8), both examples of her interest in optical effects or Op Art.
  • John Hoyland 28. 5. 66 (1966) A kind of missing link between Riley’s clean and precise line paintings and the shimmering blocks of colour made by Mark Rothko, which I recently saw at Tate Modern.
  • Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) Born of Italian parents, Paolozzi was a sculptor, collagist, printmaker, filmmaker and writer. The Tate search engine suggests they have nearly 400 of his works. He’s represented here by Konsul (1962) a big, impressive abstract sculpture, reminiscent of the found materials used by the Italian Arte Povera artists.
  • David Hockney is here of course, represented by the early Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) which is Pop but ruined by a very mid-century urge to deform the human figure, and the later A bigger splash (1967), one of his countless California swimming pool series.
  • John Latham Film Star (1960) The books are stuck to the surface of the canvas and stick out prominently. I like art with stuff stuck to the surface, from the cubists onwards, as if the art is enacting the struggle to emerge from the actual world of junk and rubbish which surrounds us.
  • Patrick Heron Azalea Garden : May 1956 (1956) I don’t know much about Heron but this was a welcome relief from so many dark images.
  • Peter Blake is associated with happy shiny Pop Art so it comes as surprise to see just how dark are works like On the balcony (1955-57) and Self portrait with badges (1961). Very dark. Painted at night.

1980

  • Gilbert and George England 1980 Either you like G&G or you don’t. I find the scale, the brightness and the humour of their stuff a terrific relief from the murk and darkness and nihilism of so much of the painting of the 1940s to 1970s.
  • A case in point is Leon Kossoff. This reproduction of Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground (1987) in no way conveys the three dimensional nature of the painting, with its gloops and loops of oil rising above the surface like muddy waves in the North Sea.
  • Prunella Clough Wire and Demolition (1982) One of the stories of these rooms is the steady increase in the number of women artists. I know nothing about Clough but I liked the brightness and kookiness of the composition.
  • Richard Long has been making walking art for decades, either creating art works along the way of his massive hikes across the UK or in remote foreign locations, then photographing them; or bringing raw materials back from his trips and creating generally simple geometrical shapes with them. The sculptures are genuinely connected to the source locations. In the middle of the 1980s room is Red Slate Circle (1988) and very wonderful it is, too.

1990 and 2000

After a series of same-shaped rooms, the space devoted to the 1990s and 2000s is much larger, irregularly shaped, brighter, with bigger sculptures and installations as well as bigger, more brightly coloured paintings and several videos.

  • Damien Hirst Forms without life (1991) One of his many vitrines or cabinet pieces. There it is. Hirst is the Henry Moore or David Hockney of our generation, an initially exciting and liberating presence who has turned himself into an international brand amid an unstoppable torrent of output, of never-ceasing product.
  • Jane and Louise Wilson Blind landings (2013) These sisters produce black and white photos of ruined buildings and sites. I learned about them via Tate’s exhibition of Ruin Art, which featured their massive and hugely evocative photos of abandoned Nazi defences on the Normandy coast. What’s not to like, indeed love, about their beautifully framed and shot and composed images of architectural desolation?
  • Howard Hodgkin Porlock (2012) Born in 1932 Hodgkin has been a presence in English painting for 60 years. Lots of his work is big and bright and colourful so it’s disappointing he’s represented by this brown and grey daub.
  • Martin Boyce Suspended fall (2005) Anyone who’s visited Tate Modern’s Alexander Calder exhibition will know about the history and evolution of the ‘mobile’. Instead of lovingly crafted organic shapes, Boyce has smashed up a modern chair and suspended its pieces from metal brackets. An apt image of English vandalism.

One-off rooms

  • Charlotte Moth Downstairs, next to the cafe, is the Archive display room. This is currently given over to a display by Charlotte Moth, born in 1978. According to the wall label Tate has over 1 million items in its archive and 800 full collections. Moth was given free run of it and came up with a show titled ‘Inserts 2015’. It consists of 10 vitrines ie glass-fronted cabinets displaying photos, magazines, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera from the 1930s to the 1960s, inspired by and often depicting the staging and positioning and unveiling of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth. Plus a ten-minute video, Filmic sketches, taken in places mentioned in the cases. My favourite was a b&w photo of a clutch of civil dignities uncomfortably posed around a lean modernist sculpture in front of a new red-brick civic centre. Standing there in their black suits and ties and twin pearls and horn-rimmed glasses, how they hope it will all somehow make sense. But it won’t. 15 years later, the Sex Pistols will be playing in that civic centre, the failure of the post-war dream converted into sonic fury.
  • Bruce McLean This room is dedicated to a a 23-minute black and white film McLean made in 1970 titled In the shadow of your smile, which consists of the artist sitting behind a desk with bits of studio bric-a-brac in vision, talking into a microphone about how he is struggling to create work in the shadow of his art school teachers Anthony Caro and such like, with deliberate bad edits, sound interference, drifting in and out of synch with shapes or tape damage appearing in the image. Phenomenally dated.
  • Gustav Metzger (b.1926) Metzger was born of Polish Jews in Nuremberg. He was lucky enough to get out of Germany on the eve of World War II but, obviously, a lot of his family will have been murdered along with tens of millions of others between 1939 and 1945. This room is devoted to the idea of Auto-Destructive Art which Metzger developed right at the start of the 1960s, art made on transient, destructible media like wood or cardboard. He was a vociferous political activist who managed to get arrested a few times. The act of making things and then destroying them is as important as displaying them, so there are photos and pamphlets and brochures about his work. Images of auto destructive art.
  • John Gerrard The room is devoted to Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oklahoma) (2009) consists of one continuous tracking shot around the Sow Farm of the title, an industrial buildings isolated in a perfectly flat landscape, looking like… well, you can bring your own associations to this flat, silent, eerie moving image.
  • Tracey Emin This small room contains My bed (1998) looking as dirty, unmade and surrounded with detritus as ever, along with several Francis Bacon paintings which she’s chosen – Study of a dog (1952) and Reclining woman (1961), and some of her drawings, apparently of a female nude. To quote the wall label: ‘By virtue of bringing the domestic into the public sphere, without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.’
  • Art Now: Vanilla and concrete In a room off to the side near the main entrance is an exhibition of art now, comprising works by three women artists:
    • Marie Lund Stills What look like big brown abstracts but, on closer investigation, turn out to be four large canvases painted to convey the effect of curtains. Raising the vessel, a couple of attractive bronze plates each with what looks like the impact of a meteorite denting them. Loads a bunch of sacks cast in concrete with polyester sewing. Not so impressive, rather like Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts.
    • Rallou Panagiotou A Pop Art-ish interest in mass-produced everyday objects. These made me smile, what a relief after the murk and Bacon pieces of meat. Liquid Degrade white is a straw and lessons in eye liner is two eyebrow shaped black swirls stuck to the wall.
    • Mary Ramsden Her work, according to the wall label, is inspired by the smears and traces left by fingers on touch screens and smart phones. Hyper modern subject matter, but I felt I’d seen many, many abstract works in the preceding galleries which looked just like her paintings, so I liked her least of the three.

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