Giacometti @ Tate Modern

Giacometti was born in 1901 in an Alpine village in Switzerland, the son of a post-impressionist painter.

His subject was always and only the human face and body. This massive exhibition of some 250 sculptures, sketches, paintings and a video of the great man at work, is the largest retrospective of Giacometti for a generation. And in it there was only one object I could see which wasn’t a human body or face – one solitary non-human entity – a dog.

The first room is full of naturalistic busts of friends and family he made as a precocious teenager and continued to make throughout his life.

The second room shows his turn from naturalism to incorporate the interest in non-European sculpture, of Oceanic and African art which arrived in Paris in the 1900s, filtered through modernist sensibilities like Brancusi.

This was my favourite room because, for good or ill, one of my favourite styles is the Vorticist, the angular, the virile and energetic clash of abstract forms and volumes in sculptors like Gaudier-Brzeska or Jacob Epstein.

Like everyone else in the 1930s he got caught up in the Surrealist movement, joining the group in 1932 and participating in exhibitions, group photographs, contributing to their magazines. A display case shows numerous art and literature magazines from the period.

The sudden German attack on France in May 1940 caught Giacometti in Switzerland and he spent most of the war in a hotel room in Geneva. In 1943 he met his wife-to-be, Annette Arm, working for the Red Cross. She became his most important female model. Partly due to the lack of material, Giacometti’s war sculptures are often small. He himself said he was transfixed by seeing a friend of his quite a distance down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and realising how small she looked. He was trying to capture that sense of distance, of dwindling, which brings with it an enormous poignancy. He is quoted as saying:

By doing something half a centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky.

Certainly, one of my favourite pieces in the whole show was ‘Very small figurine’, a spindly human figure about a centimetre tall. It does give a sense of tremendous distance, like a figure lost in a science fiction fantasy.

In 1945 he returned to set up a studio in Paris and began to produce the elongated, emaciated, human stick figures for which he quickly became well-known and then world famous. Bereft of individuality, their surfaces the opposite of smooth, gouged and hand-shaped, roughly finished, helpless spindly shades, they instantly struck a chord. Contemporary commentators interpreted them as:

  • survivors of the Holocaust
  • survivors of the atom bomb – certainly the jet black colour of the metal casts gives the impression of humans who have been incinerated and reduced to something less than skeletons
  • survivors of the complete collapse of values in western civilisation

An exhibition in New York in 1948 had an introductory essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher-superstar of the era, which clinched Giacometti’s reputation as the artist who summed up the turmoil and collapse of the post-war world. Sartre used key words from his existentialist philosophy like ‘anguish’ and ‘alienation’, but you didn’t have to read the essay to feel how Giacometti’s figurines represented humanity reduced to degree zero.

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Giacometti had found his look, his voice, his brand, and he stuck to it for the twenty years up to his death in 1966, producing figurines large and small, some in bronze, some in the raw plaster, some in clay, some striding or bent in movement but most of them tall and straight, mute witnesses to some awful catastrophe.

He was as representative of that time and place and era in European culture as his friends Sartre and Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. Humanity redux, homo minimus, man and woman stripped not only bare, but stripped of their flesh and fat and bones, burnt away to their irreducible elemental structure.

Alongside the figurines went his portrait paintings. Giacometti produced hundreds of these, obsessive variations on the same full frontal facial pose, many of his close friends and family, but most of  his wife, Annette, and then during the 1960s of his new young mistress, Caroline.

Not so long ago I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of scores of these Giacometti portraits. I hate to be a philistine but once you’ve seen a few of them, it does feel like you’ve seen them all. Once you’ve got the image, received its parameters, its technique, its aim and its impact – seeing another 5, 10, 20 or 30 doesn’t add much.

In fact, after a while the interest, in the portraits as of the figurines, is their obsessive repetitiveness. Giacometti lived on into the era of radio and then TV documentaries and so there are quite a few films of him at work and being interviewed. He routinely admits that he is never satisfied with a work – he has to start again, try again, keep on.

Reading several expressions of this dissatisfaction reminded me of the famous quote from Samuel Beckett’s play Worstward Ho:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Of course, the exhibition is followed by the shop where you can buy not only books, postcards, posters and fridge magnets, but mugs, t-shirts, carry bags and pillows bearing Giacometti images. Not so harrowing now, his imagery has been totally assimilated into the great shopping mall of art history, the vast continuum of images among which we move and live.

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The Tate Modern shop had a section devoted to David Hockney, with lots of blue swimming pools, bright green foliage etc, and it occurred to me that the shift from Giacometti to Hockney – roughly from the 1950s to the 1960s – was like the move from black-and-white to colour television. It reflected the shift from austerity to a mass consumer society, to a world where growing numbers of people could not only afford televisions, but washing machines, fridge freezers, but could go on the new ‘package holidays’ to the sun, buy cheap reproductions of famous art, and so on.

One minute everyone wanted to look like Albert Camus with his collar turned up against the Paris fog, smoking a Gitane, intensely pondering the futility of existence – the next everyone wanted to be on the West Coast soaking up rays by the pool and partying every night.

The world went Pop and, overnight, Giacometti, Camus, Sartre became vivid, powerful but utterly dated figures from the black-and-white post-war moment of European history. A moment vividly and viscerally revived in this massive and evocative exhibition.


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Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power @ Tate Modern

Back to the 1960s, again

America again (after American Prints at the British Museum, America after the Fall at the Royal Academy, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, Alexander Calder at Tate Modern). Can’t have too much art from America.

And the 1960s again (after The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern and You Say You Want A Revolution at the V&A). The 1960s are art curators’ favourite decade, a brief period when words like ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ actually seemed to mean something.

Let’s just take it for granted that the averagely-educated person knows that the 1960s were a time of ‘turmoil and change’, especially in an America racked by the escalating tragedy of the Vietnam War which led to an explosion of student activism and widespread popular unrest etc.

Various key figures were assassinated – John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968) – adding to the sense of permanent crisis. The counter-culture of drugs, folk, jazz, poetry, experimental theatre and film which had existed in tiny beatnik enclaves in the 1950s went mainstream, reaching a heady climax in the summer of love of 1967 by which time free love, LSD, flower power and all the rest of it were widely publicised in music, film, newspapers, magazines, TV and on the streets.

There was an explosion of experimentation in all the arts and especially in popular music, which is more enduring and accessible than any other art form – the songs of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, through Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and hundreds of other groups and singers – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan – immediately recall for most people a decade and a time very few of us personally experienced, but which we have been exposed to again and again in celebratory documentaries, biographies, albums, movies and adverts as a kind of peak of creative endeavour.

Afro-American clichés

A major strand of the general outburst of popular culture and protest was the ongoing demand for equal civil rights by a wide range of Afro-American organisations, voices and artists.

As indicated above, it is pop music which endures longest in the collective imagination and so most of us are familiar with the brilliant achievement of countless black recording artists (and behind them the network of black writers, producers, agents, clubs etc) such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, the whole Motown stable as well as the amazing array of great jazz artists, the obvious ones being Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Anyone with a TV will have seen the world-famous images of the Civil Rights movement as replayed over and over again in documentaries about the time (such as the video at the American Prints exhibition which gave a three-minute whistle-stop tour of America in the 1960s to a soundtrack of The Doors) – Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, black teenagers being hosed down by Alabama cops, and so on. (The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played on a loop on a bank of TV monitors positioned just outside the exhibition, alongside information panels about black cultural icons of the time like Malcolm X and James Baldwin.)

Here’s a clip from it, just in case you’ve never heard or seen it before.

Soul of a nation

So given our over-familiarity with the period and most of its obvious cultural products, it comes as a genuine surprise to realise the scale and breadth of black art during this period. For this exhibition turns out to be very successful at going beneath the popular images of the decade to exhibit the specifically Black art of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work linked with the political movements for civil rights – from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and so on.

No fewer than 65 black artists feature in the exhibition, working across a bewildering range of styles and media.

Rather than attempting to summarise it, you’d best take a look at Tate’s own room-by-room guide to the exhibition. (Realising the importance of contemporary black music, this walk through the show includes recommended listening from contemporary musicians.)

The 12 rooms of the show range from a number of movements, galleries and artists in New York, to the very different feel of West Coast black artists.

There’s a room of black-and-white photos by a range of photographers: apparently Roy DeCarava was the big daddy of black photographers but plenty of others are on show; I especially liked the shots of jazz musician John Coltrane and his drummer Elvin Jones, since I’ve been a big fan of both since discovering them as a student. But there are also evocative b&w shots by plenty of other black artists, the terrific street scenes of Beuford Smith and the more politically engaged photos of Herb Randall.

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

There are icons of blackness in a room titled Black heroes. This includes a series of semi-naive figurative oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks.

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a room dedicated to the work of Betye Saar, an artist who works in wood, found objects and carving with a primitive vibe. The more I looked, the more I liked.

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Betye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

At the start of the show many of the works are directly political, referring to specific incidents of police brutality or discrimination. A good example is Dana Chandler’s powerful sculpture of a life-sized bullet-ridden door to commemorate the shooting of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in his Chicago apartment in 1969.

A number of photo-montages create a disconcerting sense of poverty, anxiety and dislocation, reminiscent in technique of similar cut-ups from the Weimar Republic back in the 1930s.

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Anger and political activism, a refusal to take any more white racism, violence and discrimination leap from many of the exhibits, which commemorate both specific outrages and negative events as well as celebrating positive moments, political heroes and speeches and gestures of resistance.

Did the bear sit under the tree by benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Did the bear sit under a tree? by Benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

There was a room of sculptures referencing Black African traditions, variations on the kind of wooden fetishes studded with nails which you can see in the British Museum. I liked the works of Noah Purifoy, including Totem and various untitled fetishes.

And hanging on the wall of room 4 (titled ‘Los Angeles Assemblages’) was a series of great twisted metal sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

I have nothing against political art – I enjoyed the exhibition of Peter Kennard‘s highly political art at the Imperial War Museum – and like a lot of the stuff here, but it’s also fair to say that looking at umpteen images of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X sometimes has the same effect as looking at the dusty old album covers in the V&A’s 1960s exhibition – it seemed to emphasise how long, long ago all this revolutionary fury was. And all this hope for change.

Repeated invocations in titles and works themselves of ‘the revolution’ and ‘revolutionaries’, references to the revolutionary writings of Malcolm X or the revolutionary activism of Angela Davis, all remind us just how dated hopes of some kind of social revolution along Soviet or Maoist lines now seem.

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

For as with all exhibitions from the 1960s, we now view these works over at least two seismic historical dividing lines – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the War on Terror in 2001. ‘Power to the people’ is a rallying cry from a long-distant time.

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

The curators raise, or mention, a number of ‘issues’ which were hotly debated at the time – ‘Is there a distinct Black aesthetic?’ ‘Should a Black artist’s work focus only on the Black struggle?’ ‘Should the Black artist address only a Black audience, or a universal audience?’ and so on. My son has just taken his A-levels and all these ‘issues’ have a kind of rounded, academic A-Level feel to them.

Certainly, many of the works here do focus on the Black experience, take Black people as subjects, try to create a Black art, an art of Black protest and an art of Black celebration, and so on…

But, on this visit, on a bright summer’s day, I ended up liking the far more abstract (and larger and more colourful) work to be found in room 7 (titled ‘East Coast abstraction’) and then room 10 (‘Improvisation and Experimentation’).

Some of these were huge and, if they had political or social undertones, they tended to be eclipsed by their sheer size and power as works of art. Very big, colourful works by Frank Bowling appear in both rooms 7 and 10.

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Next to this one was an enormous work by Melvin Edwards (the sculpture whose Lynch fragments I liked earlier on). It is a huge curtain made from dangling strands of barbed wire, joined along the bottom by chains. A reference to slavery? Probably. But also just an awesome object in its own right.

Also in the same room was a huge canvas, painted abstract shapes and colours but designed to be knotted at the top differently everywhere it is hung. Doesn’t sound much but it is big, covering an entire wall.

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Nearby sits a huge lump of ebony-black smooth wood, a sculpture titled Self by Martin Puryear. Ominous, absorbing light, filling the space, a meditation on blackness, a threat, a calming influence – make of it what you will.

There’s a lot of anger, the reminders of horrible atrocities, racism, murders and violence in this exhibition. There’s a lot of defiance and pride and rejoicing in black icons and heroes. There’s a lot of fist-clenching and right-on rhetoric about the revolution — I think the average educated person will know about these ideas or issues already.

Where this exhibition scores is in showing the sheer diversity, range and imagination of all these Black artists, creating art for all occasions, impassioned and political, or cool photographs of street life and jazz musicians, or huge awe-inspiring abstractions. There’s something for all moods and all personalities. Go see which bits you like.

Maybe part of the reason I like the bigger abstract works is because they suggest that the response to racist atrocity needn’t itself be full of anger and hate. Alabama is a piece of music John Coltrane wrote in response to a terrorist attack which shocked America, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite and a timing device under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and injured 22 others. How stupid, wicked and evil racism is. What extraordinary beauty Coltrane – and many of the Black artists on display here – managed to extract from it.


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Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 @ Tate Modern

Tillmans and Tate

Wolfgang Tillmans is German – as you’d expect from the name – but has spent a lot of time in the UK. He studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in the early 90s, then moved on to London and, although he’s had spells in the States (New York, of course), he still has a studio in London and divides his time between here and Berlin.

Also, although photos of him from the 1990s make him look like a punk or street kid, a member of the hoody generation, Tillmans has in fact created a tidy place for himself within the British art establishment.

  • Between 2009 and 2014 Tillmans served as an Artist Trustee of the Tate Board. He is also a member of the museum’s Collection Committee and the Tate Britain Council
  • Tillmans was the first photographer – and also the first non-British person – to be awarded the Tate annual Turner Prize, in 2000
  • In 2014 Tillmans won the Charles Wollaston Award, the main prize of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
  • In 2015 Tillmans was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal and an Honorary Fellowship
  • In 2015 Tillmans was commissioned to create the official portrait of retiring British Museum director Neil MacGregor

Quite the establishment darling then, and with a very close connection with Tate which is – uncoincidentally – now giving him this huge 14-room exhibition.

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans’ photography

Tillmans was born in 1968 and so is a youthful 48. His career consists of ‘explorations of the possibilities of modern photography’. As a young gay student his early works depict bohemian men and, apparently, he was hailed as a chronicler of that queer boho scene – something he’s been trying to escape ever since.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

In fact the show reveals a determination to explore and diversify, to range over a huge variety of genres – portraits, still lifes, sky photographs, astro-photography, aerial shots and landscapes.

But he is just as interested in the presentation of the works as the subject matter, and this is one of the main themes of the show. It is emphatically not just a series of huge glossy photographs. Instead, there is a systematic exploration of the tremendous range of the media, of shapes and sizes and styles and formats, which the photographic image can come in.

There certainly are the big colour prints he’s famous for, but also photocopies and black and white prints, some enormous, some tiny – some expensively framed, some not – some are enormous and formally hung, some are in a cluster of Polaroid-size snaps just pinned up to the wall.

Also there are rooms full of display cases showing the range of arty or fashion magazines he’s worked for. Other rooms show collections of articles from newspapers and magazines concerning ‘issues of the day’, juxtaposed with relevant or related photos.

How we consume the image is as much a part of the show, as the images themselves.

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Every room an installation

Quite quickly you realise that ideas and issues about photography are just as important as the images themselves

Thus, right at the beginning we are told that each room is a separate entity; each room has been individually created and curated – ‘specially configured’ – to address specific issues or themes or topics. The intention, then, is that each room (as a unique assembly of images) serves a double purpose – addressing varied issues and subjects but also exploring the wide range of formats which images can come in, ‘exploring’ the nature of the photographic image.

Operating on the basis of the fundamental equality of all motifs and supports, through this continual re-arranging, repositioning, questioning and reinforcement, Tillmans avoids ascribing any ‘conclusions’ to his work and thus subjects his photographic vision to a perpetual re-contextualization

To professional theorists of photography and the digital image, for all art and media students generally, this show is a goldmine of conceptualisation and theory. To ordinary gallery-goers simply curious to see arresting, beautiful or imaginative images… maybe not quite so compelling.

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Read the booklet

Indeed at the entrance to the exhibition the visitor attendant on the door tells us there will be no wall labels giving context and information, as is usual in most modern art exhibitions. Instead, the visitor is told they must consult the free booklet given out at the door to read up on what each room is about, what it is trying to say, the idea behind the installation.

There are 14 rooms so that’s 14 short essays. That’s quite a lot of reading, quite a lot of information processing to be done before you even look at anything.

And the only snag is that, the more you read, the less impressive the concepts and ideas become. As early as room 2 we learn that Tillmans spends a lot of time in his studio, making prints, planning exhibitions, collecting materials, gathering ideas and so on. Thus room 2 contains photos of… his studio, which, like most workplaces these days, consists mainly of computers on messy desks, with odd shots of cardboard boxes full of bottles, a colour photocopier taken to pieces and so on. It looks, in fact, like a really boring office.

But the commentary tries to gee it up by quoting from the man himself. Among other things it tells us that Tillmans has often described the core of his work as:

translating the three dimensional world into two dimensional pictures.

Wow. Profound. Isn’t this a tad… obvious? Do you think there has been any artist since about 1300 and any photographer since about 1850 who hasn’t been aware that they are engaged in transferring the 3D world onto a 2D surface?

In room 3 we learn about Tillmans’s project to travel the world and deliberately spend just a few days in each place photographing his first impressions, untainted by any understanding or knowledge of the local culture. He did, we are reassured, use ‘a high resolution digital camera’. And this approach led to some pretty impressive revelations, to a number of ‘shrewd observations about contemporary worldviews’.

For example? Well, he noticed that the shape of car headlights has changed in the past few decades. Herr Tillmans detected that car headlights are now much more angular than they used to be which, giving them, as the booklet helpfully explains:

a predatory appearance that might reflect a more competitive environment.

Golly. He spent four years travelling round the world and discovered… that car headlights are more angular than they used to be. Do you see what I mean by the ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ underpinning the show not being that…. impressive. Don’t get me wrong: the photos of car headlights are beautifully shot, big, perfectly in focus, very much like… well… high def adverts for car headlights.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight (left)

Room 4 is devoted to a series of display cases showing a project titled truth study centre which has been rumbling on since 2005. Photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, objects, drawings and copies of his own images are laid out in cases to highlight the revelation that – the media sometimes contradict themselves, politicians sometimes make statements about things they don’t understand, scientific knowledge is limited and partial, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

I’m helping my daughter revise for her GCSE Media Studies exam. I know for a fact that these are the kinds of ‘insight’ which are quite literally taught to every 15-year-old schoolchild in the country.

It began to dawn on me that if you expect people to spend a lot of time at your exhibition reading about your ‘insights’ and ‘concepts’ – it would be a good idea to have something worth reading about. By room 5 I stopped reading the booklet for any ‘insight’ it gave me, but purely as a source of unintentional comedy.

Another example of the overconceptualisation of the stunningly banal is room 7, a nice-sized room with roof-height windows looking out over the Thames. In it are placed a very expensive sound system and some state-of-the-art loudspeakers which are playing a loop of tracks by Colourbox, an English band from the 80s that Tillman likes. And some benches to sit on.

That’s it. The idea seems to be that bands spend months in music studios recording music on incredibly hi-quality digital equipment – and then lots of people listen to this music through dodgy headphones via their mobile devices. The Big Idea seems to be: doesn’t that seem a bit of a shame?

I sat staring out at the view, tapping my feet to Colourbox and reading the rest of the booklet in a private game of ‘bullshit bingo’, spotting pretentious clichés and choice examples of curator-speak (otherwise known as ‘art bollocks’). According to the booklet the music room – ahem, I mean the installation entitled Playback Room – is:

An example of Tillman’s curatorial practice, he has chosen to include it here to encourage others to think about how recorded music can be given prominence within the museum setting.

Well, I bet nobody’s ever thought of playing music in an art gallery before. Truly we live in an age of exciting innovations!

The Painted Word

In his blistering satire on the 1970s New York art world, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe describes how it suddenly dawned on him – as the new movements of minimalism and conceptual art became prominent in the early 1970s – that the concept, the idea, the project, the word, had now become the truly creative part of a work of art – and that the actual painting or photo or sculpture, was merely an appendage, an afterthought, a kind of dubious, oh-do-we-really-have-to illustration of the idea for the work.

The idea, and its formulation in words, was now the creative achievement. Hence his title – the insight that a lot of modern art is merely a sort of painted word. I couldn’t help thinking of Wolfe as I was obliged at the start of each one of the 14 rooms here to read the short essay in the booklet to find out what the devil the room was on about. Increasingly ignoring the text, I had the subversive idea of looking closely at what was actually on display.

Four thoughts

1. Abstracts Once you actually focus on the art, then a number of the really large abstract prints, in the series named Silver and Greifbar, really stand out. Large swirls of colour which are apparently created without using a camera but by manipulating light and chemicals directly onto photosensitive paper. Big bold and attractive – though maybe because they look so much like the abstract expressionists I’ve been reading about recenty. They are a sort of cross between abstract expressionism and a funky advert for ice cream being mixed. Or maybe shots of campari or whiskey being twirled in a glass.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Greifbar 29 (left) and a portrait of a guy picking his toenails (through the doorway)

Good, aren’t they? And massive. Immersive. And immensely familiar because you feel like someone somewhere has surely been making pictures like this for decades, but you can’t quite remember who. Maybe they haven’t. Either way, big and very relaxing.

2. Ugly A lot, in fact every single one of the many, many portraits sprinkled throughout the exhibition, are ugly. Some of the famous people – the usual arty suspects like Vivienne Westwood or Patti Smith or Morrissey – are fairly old and raddled to start with, but even the various-sized portraits of his young gang, his mates, scruffy sneaker-shoed arty types in dodgy-looking flats and apartments, gay men, gay women, young boho types, ALL of them are done with a deliberately unflattering, anti-romanticism.

In this respect Tillmans combines, to my mind, the deliberate willful ugliness of much modern photography and contemporary art, with an extra helping of the traditional German taste for the grotesque, a lineage which stretches from Dürer, through the German Expressionists, to George Grosz and Otto Dix and on to Joseph Beuys – a lot of German art has foregrounded ugliness, crudity and ungainliness. No grace. No poise. Scruffy unshaven blokes in duffel coats. Clunky hairy people with all their spots and pimples.

Given his queer punk credentials it’s a little surprising how few sexually explicit photos there are here, but it’s entirely characteristic that the two really rude ones – of a man’s bollocks and a woman’s pussy – are hairy and unglamorous. Shrewdly composed and framed, alright – beautifully in focus – technically perfect – but determinedly, almost brutally, real. (See below) The aesthetic is in the refusal to retouch, soften, smooth out or prettify. In cold white light, in perfect focus, in unforgiving colour –this is what it is.

3. People reading the booklet instead of looking at the art Half way round I noticed just how many of the visitors were standing heads-down, intently studying the curator’s booklet and not looking at all at the supposed ‘art’. As a private joke, I began to take photos of visitors reading the booklet instead of looking at the art. I like to think this is a new artistic genre which I have just invented – ‘Photos of visitors to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition who spend more time reading the booklet about the exhibition than actually looking at the works in the exhibition’. Maybe I’ll enter my portfolio for the Turner Prize.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #5

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #5

4. ‘Practice’ Usually in the commentary on a contemporary artist we learn that they are challenging, subverting, investigating, questioning and engaging with contemporary issues – more often than not these days, issues of gender and identity, the favourite subject of artists and curators alike.

Tillman does all that, of course, but I couldn’t also help noticing the obsessive repetition of the word ‘practice’ in the booklet:

  • … these elements [photographing everyday life and contemporary culture and displaying the prints as whole-room installations] remain central to his practice…
  • … cultural attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality have become more open over the three decades since he began his practice…
  • [the sound room is] an example of Tillman’s curatorial practice…
  • [since his high school days Tillman] has found ways to resist the idea that the photograph is solely a direct record of reality. In 2011, this area of his practice was compiled for the first time in his book Abstract Pictures
  • An acute awareness of fragility endures across Tillmans’s practice in all its different forms…
  • Since 2014 he has allowed performance to become a more prominent strand of his practice…
  • Portraiture has been central to Tillmans’s practice for three decades…

This word ‘practice’ always reminds me of GPs or vets – probably because, looking after two children and two cats as I do, I spend a LOT of time either at the vets or the GPs’ – and so I kept finding myself standing in front of big or little photos, of the sea, or a dusty car, or a garden weed, or ships in China or a roll of paper or someone’s bollocks, with the titles of James Herriot’s vet books drifting through my mind in ironic counterpoint.

If Only They Could Talk

If Only They Could Talk

Let sleeping vets lie

Let sleeping vets lie

It shouldn't happen to a vet

It shouldn’t happen to a vet

The sea

The final room contains two huge photos of the sea. Like lots of Tillmans’ giant pics, what’s not to like? Big bold beautifully shot, nicely framed.

However, because none of us can be expected to really get these photos unless we’ve read the booklet and had the curators properly explain to us what we’re looking at, I quote the relevant paragraph in full:

Symbol and allegory are artistic strategies Tillmans is usually keen to avoid. The State We’re In, A 2015 is a departure from this stance: the work’s title is a direct reference to current global political tensions. Depicting the Atlantic Ocean, a vast area that crosses time zones and national frontiers, it records the sea energised by opposing forces, but not yet breaking into waves. Differing energies collide, about to erupt into conflict.

Now do you understand this photo? (And thanks for the tip that the Atlantic Ocean is vast and crosses several time zones. I might pass that on to my daughter for her GCSE Geography exam which she is taking tomorrow. The Atlantic Ocean is very big. One to remember. Where would we be without artists, curators and their amazing insights?)

Conclusion

Although most of the text and installation paraphernalia was bollocks, I actually enjoyed this exhibition. The music room was nice and relaxing and the really big abstracts (the Silvers and Greifbars, the series showing rolls of paper as abstract shapes) are wonderful. The enormous photos of the sea or a market in Africa or a dusty car or the messy desk in his studio or two guys playing chess in China are all very quaffable, easy on the eye, slip down a treat.

I spoke to another visitor who commented that it was all very ‘cool’ in the older sense of the word – there was absolutely no emotional affect in any of it. Once you realised that the ‘concepts’ and ‘installations’ were based on incredibly simplistic schoolboy ideas (pictures are 2D representations of a 3D reality, it might be nice to have music in galleries, cars are sleeker than they used to be, attitudes to gender and race are more relaxed than they were thirty years ago, some of the stuff you read in newspapers isn’t strictly true) you felt free to ignore them completely, and just drift among this haphazard selection of all kinds of photographic images – large and small, colour or monochrome, framed or tacked to the wall – and like whatever takes your fancy.

And without the verbiage of the booklet – if you consciously ignore the attempt at conceptualisation, the frameworks of the installation and so on – then the real message that comes over is one of enormous randomness – haphazardness, aimlessness, arbitrariness. Sea, a weed, a car, some random people, a computer, big abstracts, rolls of paper, magazines, more random people – it’s like going for a walk through Google Images – each done to technical perfection, with a high gloss finish, perfectly in focus, made with Germanic precision – but completely odourless, uninflected, unaffecting.

In fact it bears out one of the few bits of the booklet which had any real purchase – that Tillmans believes in ‘the fundamental equality of all motifs’. Everything is the same. As an old boss of mine used to say, When everything’s a priority, then nothing’s a priority. Alles ist gleich. The apple tree outside his window, Hannah the lesbian, the Atlantic Ocean, a cardboard box, some Chinese guys, some Pakistani guys, a desk, a waterfall, a shiny red car, the Director of the British Museum, some students in a room…

It all goes into the Tillmans machine and comes out wonderfully and completely bereft of meaning or significance, entirely inconsequential – and so, all taken together, producing an effect of great calmness.

A very relaxing and soothing experience – and if you throw in a game of bullshit bingo or watching-people-read-the-booklet, very funny too.

Vielen Dank, Herr Tillsman.


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The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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Robert Rauschenberg @ Tate Modern

This exhibition is a gas, I can’t remember laughing so much at a show for ages. It’s a big one, the biggest retrospective of Rauschenberg’s art for a generation, and he worked for six decades – from the 1940s to the 2000s (his dates are 1925 – 2008) – covering a lot of ground, producing a huge body of work.

I’ve recently read history books about the Second World War in the Pacific, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The major theme which emerges from all of them is the incredible, overwhelming power and wealth of America as it emerged from WW2 to be the first superpower in world history, capable of projecting bottomless economic aid and phenomenal military force right around the world, from Korea to Greece and Turkey.

Seen against this historical backdrop, the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg’s generation, and then the Pop artists, represent three waves reflecting the unstoppable economic and military power of their country. As the recent show at the Royal Academy showed, the Abstract Expressionists were very interior, psychological artists, traumatised by the war, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, stuck in their new York lofts painting huge blocks of rough-edged colour or splattering the surface of the canvas with flickering expressions of existentialist angst. The Pop artists from the very end of the 1950s/dawn of the 1960s conveyed the sense of a society drowning in its own consumer products, sometimes with unironic adulation (Warhol), comic book fandom (Lichtenstein) or ironic questioning (Hamilton).

Rauschenberg falls in middle. His works are more fun, open-ended and disruptive than the serious AEs, but deliberately lack the sheen and finish of Pop. They include ready-made objects and junk found in the streets, magazine articles, random objects, and a randomised, carefree approach to cutting and combining materials and objects together. He wanted to bring the outside world into the artist’s studio.

The exhibition is in 11 big rooms which take his career chronologically introducing us to key themes and sets of works in different forms and media.

Photographer

Rauschenberg had an excellent eye as a photographer and at first considered photography as a professional career. An early set of works used photographic images and X-rays to produce experimental images of the human body.

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Beginnings

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 and grew up in Port Arthur Texas, surrounded by big open spaces and the oil industry. Enrolled in the US Navy he saw his first art gallery in California, used his G.I. Bill money to travel to Paris where he studied art and met his wife-to-be, Susan Weil. Back in the States she enrolled in the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina where Rauschenberg quickly became a major player.

Hundreds of books have been written about the college, founded by exiles from the Bauhaus in Germany, who taught a complete integration of all the arts, with no gap between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’. Experimental poets, playwrights, artists, painters, sculptors, composers and choreographers worked together and exchanged ideas. It was the setting for the first ‘happenings’ and multi-media experiments which were to become so widespread in the 1960s.

Here he met the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Rauschenberg created sets and backdrops for performances of avant-garde dance to Cage’s avant-garde scores, and was to remain involved in dance for decades. He painted a set of pure white canvases, using industrial paint and rollers to achieve no surface texture. The idea was that the art was the change of light and shadow, the drift of motes of dust, across the surface. Apparently this helped inspire Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”, in which the performer comes on stage, opens the piano and sits there without moving. The ‘art’ is in the audience being forced to pay attention, not to the silence (for there is never silence) but to the ambient sounds around them. It creates a Buddhist-style act of attention and focus.

‘The world around him’ could have been Rauschenberg’s motto. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists for the most part stayed inside their New York loft studios, Rauschenberg opened the windows and doors to let in the big dirty world, and went out a-walking through it to see what he could see, and then to create works which brought the ‘outside’ into art.

Hence Automobile Tire print (1951) in which he got twenty or so bits of common or garden typewriter paper, glued them together, then rang up Cage and asked him to come round in his Model A Ford. They applied black paint to the car’s tyre then Cage drove very slowly and carefully along the paper. Voilà!

The audiocommentary for this show is brilliant and nods to Rauschenberg’s love of collage, cutting up and mixing and matching, by having voices of the various curators interrupting each other, contributing questions and answers chopped up and sampled, alongside snippets of Rauschenberg himself from old interviews.

What comes over most is the laughter. Like Cage, Rauschenberg seems to have hugely enjoyed life and saw ‘art’ as a way of extending and exploring that enjoyment. He tells us it was a rainy day, and it was damn hard to get the paper to stay glued together.

The sense of humour comes over in what came to be known as the ‘Combines’ series, paintings made ‘awkward’ by the addition of objects. An example is Bed, a duvet and pillow stuck to a canvas and then spurted with oil paint, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish. Rauschenberg gets a laugh on an interview snippet on the commentary by saying that up till then the quilt had been used to put over the radiator of his knackered car to keep it warm in the New York winter.

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Junk and Arte Povera

The artist’s poverty is a running thread. The small set of boxes containing found objects, nails, insects, in room one are really the function of extreme poverty. The ‘Combines’ include works which have electric light bulbs, radios, fans, and alarm clocks embedded in them or tacked on them.

Her worked with what came to hand, what was outside on the streets, junk, wood, the cardboard boxes which are the material for a whole set of works later, in the 1990s, wood, tyres – the detritus of America’s booming consumer society.

A standout work from the period is Monogram. He came across a stuffed angora goat in a local junk shop and persuaded the owner to sell it to him, though he couldn’t afford the full $30 cost. Back in the studio he knew he had to do something to make it into ‘art’, and so tried painting its face. wedging it against a combine painting backdrop, or on a combine painting, but none of it really worked. In fact it was only a few years later when he had the idea of using a tyre which was lying around in the studio, slipping it round the goat’s belly that, he says, the thing was finally finished and – as he says on the audioguide, to appreciative laughter – the various elements of the work ‘lived happily ever after’.

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Performance

Mention has been made of his involvement in ballet productions, and he went on a world tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, creating sets and backdrops, often spontaneously from objects found near the theatres. In the later 1950s Rauschenberg staged performances, especially in the creation of ‘combines’. We are told about one which he created in front of a gallery audience using paint and all sorts of objects, including an alarm clock which he set at the start. When the alarm clock rang, the work was finished.

Silk screens

In the late 1950s Rauschenberg discovered that if you apply lighter fluid to the images in glossy magazines, place the page on blank paper and rub it, the image transfers to the white paper, often distressed. Do it with multiple images and you have a collage. Using this technique he created a set of drawings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Inferno, and 20 or so are on display here. They look a bit scrappy at first, but if you look carefully, images begin to emerge, of police, weightlifters, American street scenes, which have a strange appropriateness to Dante’s visions of hell. (Compare and contrast the recent exhibition of Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante. Of course, contemporary references and events is precisely the point of the Divine Comedy)

In 1962, at the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with making paintings using silk screens, a technique previously restricted to commercial printing. Whereas Warhol’s silks tend to be of one iconic image (Botticelli’s Venus, Marilyn Monroe, Mao, Elvis) Rauschenberg’s are always collages of multiple images and use a far wider range of imagery, including political and social imagery. To the casual viewer (like myself) these are probably his best-known works and the image chosen as poster for the show, the best-known.

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Having a roomful of these works all together allows us to see how snippets or individual images are re-used: for example, the classical painting of a woman looking at her own reflection is repositioned as the main feature of Persimmon, the Army truck at the top reappears in other images, and several works feature the same image of mosquitoes, recast, recoloured, with different croppings.

It’s difficult to pin down what makes these works so arresting. First and foremost they are already acute and carefully chosen images, themselves the result of other people’s professional labours – for example, of the photographer who took the Kennedy image and then the newspaper or magazine designers who cropped and positioned it – and many of the other magazine images – just so.

But the assembly of these already-burnished images together creates strange emotions – in one mood they can be experienced as vibrant and exciting depictions of America Superpower, with its go-ahead young president, its space-age technology and so on. But the same montage can also be deeply poignant, recalling a vanished era, with its vanished hopes, assassinated presidents and failed technology.

Performance

In 1964 Rauschenberg broke with the Cunningham Dance Company and formed a new company with his partner, dancer Steve Paxton. Initially he created the sets, as usual, but then experimented with choreography and even performing himself. A video here shows an entrancing work called Pelican where Rauschenberg and another performer move around the stage on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs. It looks wonderful.

A big space is devoted to the installation titled Oracle (1962-65), ‘a multi-part sculpture made from scrap metal which contained wireless microphone systems, which could be moved around and choreographed in any configuration’. The showerhead in the middle actually spouts pouring water, and concealed loudspeakers play noises and snippets of radio music. This reminded me a lot of John Cage’s hilarious Water Walk as performed live on American TV in 1960.

You get the idea. The richness and power of America isn’t represented by diamonds and tall buildings: the opposite; a lot of this stuff is ramshackle and jimmy-rigged in the extreme. It’s the confidence of these artists, that they can now do whatever they want to, having completely thrown off the chains of the European tradition. If Cage says sitting at a piano without doing a thing is art – then it is, dammit! In another room in the show, if Rauschenberg builds a big metal tank containing 1,000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with mud, through which pipes blow air which spurts and erupts as geyser-like bubbles on the muddy surface and calls it ‘art’ – then, why not?

After the 60s

Like a lot of artists of the time, Rauschenberg was exhausted by the end of the 1960s. In pop music I think of the famous performers who all managed to die in and around 1970 (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison). The whole culture seemed to have become too frenetic and cluttered. Bob Dylan and John Lennon who in their different ways had contributed to the sense of clutter, of psychedelic lyrics packed with references and images, both eventually rejected the whole thing, rolling back to simple folk in Dylan’s case, or a man dressed in white in an empty room playing a white piano, as in Lennon’s Imagine.

In art music, the impenetrably complex mathematically-derived music of serialism began to give way to the repetitive rhythms and simple harmonics of New York pals Philip Glass and Steve Reich which would become known as minimalism. In American art, an art movement also known as minimalism, led by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris, represented a wish to declutter and simplify.

In tune with the mood of the times, Rauschenberg left New York City, his home and inspiration for 20 years, to resettle in Captiva of the coast of Florida, in what looks like an amazing house built on stilts in the ocean.

Deprived of the endless bric-a-brac to be found in New York Rauschenberg chose his materials more carefully and used them to create large, spare, simpler works. One series became known as the Cardboards, for the way they are made of cardboard boxes reworked into large shapes and patterns. Didn’t do much for me. On the other hand, I really like the series known as ‘Jammers’, inspired by the colours and fabrics he encountered on a trip to India in 1975.

Untitled (Venetian) could be a work by one of the Italian Arte Povera artists, which feature elsewhere in Tate Modern, made from large-scale industrial cast-offs and waste material.

One of my favourite works form the show was Albino (Jammer) – four bamboo posts leaning against the wall. On the wall is a rectangle of white fabric and each of the posts is wrapped in the same white fabric. Simple as that. It obviously relates back to the white canvas squares from early in his career, but now more mature, deeper. For me the quietness, dignity, simplicity of the rectangle is beautifully dramatised and energised by the leaning posts.

Abroad

The pop culture I grew up with was all played out by the early 1980s: prog rock, heavy metal, glam rock, disco gave way to punk then post-punk, industrial, Goth and so on. I was struck by how John Peel’s successor Andy Kershaw left the European tradition altogether and, along with other intelligent rock lovers of the period, began to explore world music, and anybody who turned on Radio 1 late at night was likely to hear music from Burundi and Mali. The trend was crystallised by Paul Simon’s best-selling album Graceland, for which he went to South Africa to find inspiration beyond the American tradition and work with vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Room nine in the exhibition tells us that Rauschenberg undertook a campaign of travel to exotic countries as part of a project he titled the ‘Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange’. Between 1982 and 1990 he visited China, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, Russia, East Germany and Malaysia, collaborating with local artists in exploring their materials and traditions, one work from each stop donated to local museums, the rest accumulating to form a travelling show. The products of this project included in this exhibition are mostly collages featuring images from local magazines.

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Much more striking is the ‘Gluts’ series. Rauschenberg revisited his hometown in Texas in 1985 and was shocked by the extent of deindustrialisation, abandoned oil wells, derelict gas stations.

The automobile was a potent symbol of American economic power, and the shameless creativity of industrial design in the 1940s and 1950s and as such is a recurrent motif in his work (think of the Tyre work from back in New York City). After two oil crises in the 1970s, those days of boundless prosperity and cheap cruising along endless highways were gone. And so was the happy-go-lucky liberalism of the 1950s and 60s. It is the 1980s of Thatcher and Reagan. Rauschenberg is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant.’ While  crooks on Wall street made undreamed-of fortunes, lots of industrial America fell into terminal decline.

The ‘Glut’ works use scrap metal, gas station signs, decayed car and industrial parts to create a series of wall reliefs and freestanding assemblages. I grew up in a petrol station, with the smell of petrol in my nose all day long, the oily sheen on the puddles out front, piles of knackered tyres out back of the tyre change bay, the sound of compressed air pumps which inflate the inner tubes and the machines which derimmed old tyres. I’ve always liked art made from the wreck of our ruinous industrial civilisation. The Glut series do this in excelsis, and are all the more poignant for hearkening back to Rauschenberg’s earliest inspirational use of the junk he found in the streets around his New York base.

Glacial Decoy and Photography

In 1979 Rauschenberg embarked on a 16-year collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown. In one example of their work, Glacial Decoy, four performers dance in front of an enormous screen onto which are projected four large black-and-white stills of photographs taken by Rauschenberg. New slides appear every few seconds with a very audible click from the projector.

A whole darkened room is devoted to this slide show, each photo projected onto the wall ten or twelve feet tall. There were 620 slides and they are a revelation. They show that Rauschenberg was an extraordinarily talented photographer. All the images are very good and a lot of them are brilliantly evocative – poignant black-and-white images of brick walls, wooden steps, abandoned tyres, lilies, freight trains, roadside flagpoles, on and on, a wonderfully rich and haunting cornucopia of images of American life.

For me these slides revealed the bedrock of Rauschenberg’s artistry, which is his extraordinary ‘eye’ for composition, for imagery, for finding and combining beauty in the everyday, in magazine pictures, found objects, industrial bric-a-brac, cardboard boxes, car speedometers, the readymade junk of our civilisation.

Scenarios and Runts

Rauschenberg’s perfect judgement of how to combine, crop, place, position and work images is still very much in evidence in the final works in the last room, in which photography in fact became more central and prominent in his practice. Using newly developed water-soluble printing techniques, he mounted prints onto polylaminate supports before transferring them to the very large final works – enormous digital photograph montages.

Right up to these final paintings you have the sense of an artist who really did experiment, push the boundaries, try out new things, determined to bring the whole world into modern art and, whenever you hear snippets of him being interviewed, laughing and joking and enjoying himself hugely in the process.

This is a wonderful, eye-opening, life-affirming exhibition.

P.S.

60 years of art and not a single naked body, no tits or bums anywhere: human faces or human bodies are only included in works as semi-abstract shapes, as elements of composition. This near absence of the human face or figure emphasises Rauschenberg’s focus on the man-made, 20th century, industrialised world around us, a really genuinely modern art of the world we step out our front door and start tripping over.


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Other reviews of Tate exhibitions

Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern

Georgia O’Keeffe lived a long and fruitful life, from 1887 to 1986, dying aged 98. She is, according to the exhibition blurb, a ‘foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’. This is an appropriately big exhibition, filling 14 rooms with works representing all periods of her career and covering all her major ‘themes’, taken in more or less chronological order. It also includes contemporary books and magazine articles about her, as well as the work of several of the major photographers she knew or worked with.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Room 1. The early years O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age. She came to New York in 1907, studied with various teachers, and first exhibited in 1916, having her first solo show the following year. The early work includes many abstracts. She was experimenting with colour and line, influenced by her precocious reading of Kandinsky – she was one of the first readers of his classic Concerning the Spiritual in Art which was translated into English in 1914. And by the notion of synaesthesia – that music can be perceived as colour and vice versa.

She also made a number of drawings in charcoal, abstract swirls and flowing designs, which I found among the most compelling works in the show.

Room 2. Abstraction and the senses O’Keeffe lived in New York from the Great War till the Wall Street Crash (1929), experimenting with her own personal brand of abstraction and struggling to establish a name. The audio commentary emphasises from the start the struggle O’Keeffe had in a predominantly male art world. She hated being called a woman artist and rebelled against the criticisms and limitations of the male artists and critics of the day, especially those who deprecated watercolour as a soft, ‘woman’s’ medium. In fact she made lots of attractive, swirling, abstract watercolours.

Here in room 2 we meet an early crux of this issue of ‘gendered’ criticism, the painting she called Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow. Some critics at the time said it resembled a woman’s genitals, and used this ‘insight’ as a launch pad to discuss – and belittle – all her work in the same sexist terms, much to the artist’s anger and frustration. The audio commentary tells us that this ‘gendered’ interpretation was revived by a new wave of feminist artists and critics in the 1970s, who asserted these kinds of works were bold and innovative depictions of female sexuality.

To be honest, if the commentary hadn’t drummed home this line of interpretation, I don’t think it would have crossed my mind. But once it had been raised, and repeated a number of times, I found it harder to ‘forget’ that she was a woman artist. Particularly as O’Keeffe herself was quoted on the wall labels or on the audio commentary repeating her criticism of the male artists and critics of her time as bombastic, blinkered, limited and ignorant of ‘the real America’.

Room 3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their circle In New York O’Keeffe fell passionately in love with the pioneering art photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). He was 54 and married, so she became his mistress until he finally managed to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry her.

Stieglitz was a well-established presence on the New York art scene, apparently single-handedly making photography into a respected art form, and he also ran galleries which promoted a range of other artists. This room contains a large number of his striking photos. He did a series of studies of clouds, grouped under the title of Equivalents which I found very attractive.

There are contemporary books by artists and writers he knew, manifestos and magazine articles, all conveying the artistic activity of the period. During this period Stieglitz also did a series of black and white studies of his lover, O’Keeffe, in all sorts of poses, close-ups of hands, of her face, wearing different clothes and costumes, with masks and props, as well as a series of striking nude studies. According to the commentary these are ‘the most important nudes in US art history’.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles ©The J. Paul Getty Trust

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Stieglitz included the nudes in an exhibition of his photos in the early 1920s. Not surprisingly, for many critics and viewers O’Keeffe’s name became associated with these candid and striking photos of her naked body. There was a gap of a few years before she had the next exhibition of her paintings, whereupon the first thing critics and viewers associated her with was the nudes. A naked woman making paintings which look like vaginas – it is sad but true that O’Keeffe spent decades trying to throw off the limitations and gendered stereotypes which were created in these early years.

Room 4. New York cityscapes The 1920s were the Jazz Era and skyscrapers were going up all over New York, which became a byword for urban energy and excitement. O’Keeffe made lots of paintings trying to capture the energy and excitement of the city in bold vibrant colours. There are roughly two types of painting in this room. Much the more attractive are the stark blue and black night scenes:

Less interesting are the daytime scenes of the city, seen as a rather grey, smoky conurbation. These reminded me of the dreary the urban landscapes of L.S. Lowry who, as it happens, was born the same year as O’Keeffe.

Again the paintings are set against contemporary b&w photos of the city by Stieglitz and other art photographers. The best of her night pictures are more vivid than any of the photos.

Room 5. Lake George The Stieglitz family had a summer home near Lake George in upstate New York and room is devoted to paintings of the lake and the landscape and the house.

By this, the fifth room, I was beginning to get a feel for the variety of subject matter in O’Keeffe’s work, and for her tendency to make the subjects simpler and more colourful. But this room for the first time included works which seemed bland and under-powered. Looking back I realised the early abstracts are sort of nice but nowhere near as creative and fanciful as contemporary works in Europe by the likes of Kandinsky or Klee. The New York cityscapes are colourful, but lack the Modernist angularity of the European tradition. And now some of these lakeside paintings looked positively amateurish.

Room 6. Flowers and still lifes Room six is devoted to examples of her most famous subject, flowers. The commentary tells us that Jimson Weed (below) recently sold for $44 million, the highest price ever fetched by a ‘woman artist’ – before going on to tell us that the phrase ‘woman artist’ is one O’Keeffe herself would have angrily rejected. Why use it, then?

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

But you can see why images like this or Oriental Poppies are so popular: big, striking, colourful and completely undemanding.

There is an obvious continuity of style between the gentle abstraction of Grey Lines, the simplified clouds in New York Street and the stylised leaves and washy blue background in Jimson. Simple design. Bold, though pastelly, colours.

However, although there are 20 or so canvases of flowers in this room, not many of them are as big or as striking as the two mentioned above. If you google “O’Keeffe flowers” you get hundreds of images – big, bright, wonderful pictures which could fill lots of rooms.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that the exhibition, though comprehensive in scope, maybe doesn’t include O’Keeffe’s best work.

Room 7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde Like many other artists, O’Keeffe discovered the American South-West in the 1930s. This room features her paintings of the bleak, arid, desert landscape, with its stark adobe churches and primitive settlements.

There is a bright simplicity to all these paintings, but I was unimpressed by the lack of energy or excitement in them, with their unadventurous composition and flat placid colouring.

The room features the work of contemporary photographers of the same landscape and subjects taken by her friends Paul Strand and Anselm Adams, which I found much more forceful, more angled, more highlighted and distinct and interesting.

Room 8. From the faraway, nearby: the skull paintings In the desert she found skeletons picked white and clean. She took to juxtaposing accurate depictions of the skulls of deer and other animals against her stylised landscapes. There’s a great quote, repeated in the commentary and on the wall, in which she belittles all the men she knew in New York who were talking about the ‘Great American’ this, that or the other, when none of them had even been across the Hudson River – whereas O’Keeffe saw herself as a pioneer, out in the desert, in touch with the ‘real’ America, discovering ‘the Great American things’.

All the skull paintings in this room are good, in an often surreal way (though she and the commentary deny she was ever a surrealist). But – I don’t really know why – none of them grabbed me or arrested my attention, made me think Wow!

Room 9. Ghost ranch The ‘ghost ranch’ was a real place, a ‘dude’ ranch where Easterners came out West to play at being cowboys. O’Keeffe came across it in 1934 and was entranced by the powerful views from it. She rented a house on the property from 1937, and bought it in 1940. This room contains paintings of the surrounding landscape.

Maybe it’s me but I began to find all these semi-abstract, simplified landscapes to be increasingly samey. The commentary describes her increasing interest in ‘seriality’, by which they mean doing paintings of the same subject over and over again. When does repetition topple over into repetitiveness?

Room 10. The black place and the white place The commentary tries hard to convey to the listener the mystique O’Keeffe clearly felt for the hills and ranches and locations she painted. There was the ‘white place’, a stretch of limestone cliffs along the Chama River, and the ‘black place’, apparently a fold of black rock in some hills. But there’s not much to latch on to. The blandness of the names tells you something.

I also became aware of the lack of any people in the paintings, and the absence of any cultural reference. There’s nothing about the myths or legends of the local peoples (had they all been killed off by the time O’Keeffe settled there?) or pioneer tales of the white people who settled here.

In Hollywood this was the era of gripping films noirs, of big cities, wise guys, classy dames, noisy shoot outs. Of wide-finned automobiles and Coca Cola bottles. None of this whatsoever, nothing of contemporary American life, is in these paintings – which retail a landscape emptied and depopulated, bereft of any forms of organic life, no birds, no animals, no humans – nothing alive.

Instead – lots of series of more or less the same views.

Room 11. The series: Abiquiú patios, pelvis bones and cottonwood trees She worked more and more on ‘series’ of the same subject. In this room are examples from three series: the patio of a house, the blue desert sky seen through the hole in the pelvis bone of dead animals, and numerous versions of the local cottonwood trees.

The pelvis bones have a certain stark simplicity which quickly grows a little boring. I disliked the wishy-washy leaves and foliage of the trees series.

Room 12. The South-West According to the commentary, O’Keeffe’s ‘practice’ in the American Southwest involved ‘penetrating what it meant to find the essence of America’. Well, that essence seems to consist of desert landscapes emptied of all people. You could say it represents a wholesale and complete turning-her-back on the actual nature of American society in the 1930s (Great Depression), 1940s (Second World War), and 1950s (Cold War and atomic threat).

Instead, this room displays the series of paintings she made of ‘kachinas’, figurines of spirit beings which the local Indians carved in wood. But nothing anywhere of the actual Indians.

Room 13. Late abstractions and skyscapes By the 1950s O’Keeffe was flying to and fro across the skies, as were increasingly wealthy Americans generally. On one flight, looking down on the great carpet of clouds below, it seemed to her almost as if she could open the plane door and step out onto a soft woolly carpet. As my son put it, ‘that must be one of the most unoriginal observations ever made’. She also noticed that, seen from a plane, landscapes often seem like abstract patterns. Not unlike her paintings. And so this room of late abstracts collects paintings based on these rather under-powered ‘insights’.

Thoughts

After initial interest I became steadily more underwhelmed by this big exhibition and, by the last few rooms, I was impatient for it to end. In the whole show I liked the Oriental Poppies and the Paul Strand and Anselm Adams’s b&w photographs of the South-West, and found almost everything else very ‘meh’.

Searching Google Images for many of the links above, I’ve been struck by how many of the paintings which show up in the search results are much more bright and interesting than anything in the show, especially the flower paintings. It’s just possible that, although the show is a very thorough overview of her entire career, many of the best paintings are in private hands or for one reason or another, simply not available.

That might explain why, although she may well be ‘a foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’, not many of the individual works here really justified that large a claim.

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Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

Performing for the Camera examines the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition engages with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera. (Press release)

This is a good exhibition to visit if you like arty photographs or bare boobs. Several points emerged:

Saturation

1) 500 images across 14 rooms is too many to take in: either you begin skipping whole walls of images in search of something, anything, novel and distracting, or you’d have to give each image and each set of photos a really thorough scientific scrutiny, but be prepared to come back on several visits.

2) This links into the broader thought that almost all these images come from the golden era before the internet. Nowadays, we are bombarded, saturated, awash in countless billions of images, as well as being able to take limitless selfies with our phones and tablets, to crop and treat them an infinite number of ways, to post them in a million places or send them to anyone, anywhere. The images on show here come from Before The Fall, from when taking photographs was an achievement, a distinction, and they carry a certain aura of privilege and authenticity.

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

People It’s fairly obvious but took a while to sink in that the exhibition’s focus on photography and performance dictates that the images are overwhelmingly of the human body, clothed or unclothed. No buildings, trees, landscapes, cars, architecture, nature, seas or forests. 500 photos, almost all of them black and white, of people people people. You can get a bit bored of photos of people.

Performance Also, strikingly, there were relatively few photos of what most people might first think of when they hear the word ‘performance’ – almost no photos of actual theatrical or film performances, no famous actors or performers.

Art stars, yes – Warhol, Koons, Beuys, Man Ray, Duchamp. But this is ‘performance’ defined in quite a narrow, art-school kind of way to mean 1960s ‘happenings’, Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp-style posing, and scores of ‘art performances’.

Take, for example, the African photographer who takes self-portraits of himself dressed as iconic black figures; the Japanese photographer who took a series of images of himself in the bath; another Japanese photographer who took a series of a young man almost naked who, in each successive photo, has an additional playing card stuck to his body until he is completely covered in cards; the women photographers who take shots of themselves naked with various props.

Performance in that sense. Performing for the camera.

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Series And a bit more reflection made me realise the sheer number of images follows naturally from the way the photos come in series and sets. The photos recording performances and ‘happenings’ – a bunch of young people strip naked and are painted with psychedelic swirls and circles in some 1960s happening; Japanese art students carry placards across a road junction in Tokyo then trample them to the ground; some other Japanese students drop objects with small parachutes from a tall building – naturally require quite a few shots to convey the full action events, so it is not unusual to come across series of 20 or more photos, whole walls covered with images recording one ‘event’.

Naked women

1. There were quite a few images of naked women. Less than half the total, probably less than a quarter of the images, but still a steady stream of boobs and loins and shapely female bodies, which prompted a few thoughts.

2. Without exception these were young white women, ablebodied, in their 20s and 30s. There are shots of  two or three happenings taken by male photographers – notably the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender who became well-known for photographing avant-garde and counter-cultural performances. But most of these images of naked women are self-portraits of the photographer by herself.

3. The wall labels go to some lengths to explain that these naked ladies set out to ‘subvert’ conventions, raise issues of gender identity, and the other half dozen or so phrases used on these occasions. But what you actually saw was a lot of images of scantily-clad young women. In the first three rooms I counted 43 photos of naked women. Later highlights included:

Hannah Wilke made a number of 1970s ‘performative works’ of herself in which ‘she used her own body to challenge ideas of spectatorship and desire’. In the series, Super-T-Art (1974), we see 20 b&w images of her wearing a toga which, oops, slips off her shoulders and exposes first her breasts, then all of her. With the best will in the world I don’t see how this is challenging anything: it looks to me like it is wholeheartedly taking part in the opposite of challenge, in the marketing and distribution of images of naked women and, worse, of images of a perfect, very American, healthy young female form, precisely the kind of image which helps to create the general social environment in which most women feel some measure of guilt and anxiety at failing to live up to this kind of idealised image of femininity and sexuality.

Adrian Piper took 14 self portraits of herself – Food For The Spirit – some in a dress, some in panties, some butt naked – the twist is they are very underexposed so at first sight appeared to be completely black. Only on by peering quite close to the print could you start to make out the image of the artist – and suddenly realise you are looking at a skinny young naked woman.

In 1999 and 2000 artist Jemima Stehli asked male art critics to sit in her studio while she stripped naked in front of them. The critics had control of a camera which was placed behind her as she stripped, an angle which catches the critics full face, squirming with embarrassment or grinning with enjoyment and captures her slowly declothed body from the rear. Strip consists of 56 big colour images of Stehli taking off her jeans and bra and panties until she is standing splendidly naked, apart from black high heels which make her look exactly a Bond girl from a movie poster. Apparently this work ‘explores themes of voyeurism, spectacle and control.’ I admire the phrasing and the art school rhetoric of this explanation, but Stehli is also a stunningly shapely woman, and she chose to strip off, photograph herself and hang scores of images of herself naked on gallery walls. As my son pointed out, so she’s making a career out of selling naked photos of herself? Er, yes. In case you were disappointed at the way all these shots are of her rear, Stehli has thoughtfully published numerous photos of herself naked from the front as well.

Carolee Schneemann: Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963). The artist naked adorned with various props and paints found in the studio. The density and clutteredness and the abandonment of the poses (and the density of her pubic hair, something not seen so much these days) dates the images to an era when graphic full-frontal nudity still had the power to shock.

4. There were some naked young men in the 1960s ‘happenings’ photos, and some scattered elsewhere throughout (particularly young Japanese men). But it was a room dedicated to the way art superstars of the 70s and 80s used photos to dominate press and PR, in the form of posters and magazine covers featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Joseph Beuys, that brought home to me the contrast between the naked women and the clothed men.

Contrary to all the claims in the wall labels that women artists taking their clothes off somehow ‘subverts’ convention, it in fact screamingly asserts and confirms society’s worst sexist assumption, which is that women, asked to be creative, to do or say something, can only start with their bodies, use their bodies, think of their bodies first. Whereas men asked to do something creative have ideas, insights, make things external to them, come up with gags or performances or plays or art works – and remain fully clothed throughout.

Warhol, Koons, Beuys, photographers Martin Parr and Lee Friedlander – all fully dressed, having creative, insightful, novel ideas.

Amalia Ulman, Jemima Strehli, Hannah Wilke – when prompted to do art – take their clothes off, resulting in the same tired old images of lovely, young naked women. Just a few score more naked women to add to the tens of millions of naked women who overflow the internet, newspapers, magazines, adverts, TV, film, everywhere.

I’m not saying this is true of these women artists actual practices and achievements. I am saying this is the unfortunate impression which this selection and this hang and this exhibition gave this viewer on this particular visit.

Fully clothed women

It was a relief to see the work of women photographers who had not got their kit off, such as the wonderful sequence Seven Twists by Dora Maurer, one of the standout pieces of the Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitehall Art Gallery.

There was just one photo of/by Sarah Lucas, Fighting fire with fire, enough to convey her wonderful ‘fuck you’ attitude. Could have happily seen some more.

Cindy Sherman was represented by a number of photos she took of herself mocked up as stereotypical characters from fictitious movies; and a different series of her with no make-up shrouded in a dressing gown which was constantly threatening to fall off her naked body. Looking her up online I got a sense of Sherman as much more interesting than the selection here made out.

Some of the naked exhibits

Twenty two b&w photos of Yves Klein’s 1960 art event, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, in which several gorgeous women stripped naked in front of a po-faced audience wearing formal evening dress, and then painted their naked bodies and pressed themselves against canvases to create art.

Man Ray – Erotique Voilee. There were a few other tiny Man Rays later, one of his portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressing up as a woman. You’d have thought Man Ray’s entire oeuvre consisted of stunning ‘performances’ and so justified hundreds of entries here, but no – two was your lot 😦

The Anatomic Explosion i.e. 20 or so b&w photos of naked young men and women on Brooklyn Bridge in the heady 1960s, along with another sequence of young people getting naked at a party in a studio, both shot by the cool, avant-garde team of Harry Shunk and János Kender.

Jimmy de Sana’s sequence of stylised art photos of male and female nudes in odd poses from the 1980s.

A whole room was devoted to Francesca Woodman who started taking photos as a child and took reams of photos of herself as a young woman, clothed, half clothed or bare naked, often posing in derelict, empty rooms. To her, personally, this may have been a brave voyage of self-exploration – and I am sensitive to the eerie, disconnected atmosphere in many of the photos, which are genuinely haunting.

But to the viewer who has already seen several hundred bare boobs by this stage, Woodman risks, in a photo like Untitled, just falling into line with all the other nubile young women in our culture who seem so keen to get their kit off. Half of them do it for the Sun and ‘glamour’ mags and are looked down on; the other half do it for ‘performance’ and ‘art’ and have respectful feminist monographs written about them. The vibe I got off these photos of unhealthy self-obsession was joltingly confirmed when I read that she committed suicide aged 22. The more I looked at her photos, the more powerful I found them…

Orphée by Tokyo Rumando, a sequence of black and white photos of the artist standing in front of a mirror which ‘explore Anxiety and fear, dark desire and pleasure, decadence and madness, and then death and the void’ — but for which it’s important that she is often topless.

Whatever else they are meant to be ‘questioning’, ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’, absolutely none of these photos question the fundamental axiom that the best kind of body is young, white and female, a whole, taut, streamlined, slender female body with brown-tipped nipples and prominent pubic hair. The old, the fat and ugly, the disabled, the disfigured, women with mastectomies or C section scars or the countless other marks of time and disease – are 100% absent from this large selection.

The most contemporary work seemed to be Amalia Ulman‘s series including Excellencies and Perfections (below). Once more a woman photographer is ‘exploring’ something or other by taking countless photographs of herself and her body in all manner of costumes and poses, often very scantily clad. Probably this does reflect contemporary selfie culture which, more than ever before in human history, foregrounds and values and sells perfect young, smoothly unlined women’s bodies in unprecedented numbers – except the ones doing the posing, packaging, commodifying and distribution are no longer the male publishers of porn mags, but the young women themselves. Maybe that’s progress…

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Exhibits with their clothes on

Eikoh Hosoe‘s b&w pictures of rehearsals for plays or films stood out because of their exotic setting and the foreign dress and faces of the performers. Also featured is his Kamataichi, a collaboration with the choreographer and founder of the Butoh movement Tatsumi Hijikata, from 1969. There are extraordinary shots of a male performer running wild in the rice fields, leaping in front of traditional houses, grimacing and leering into the camera. Incomprehensible but tremendously dynamic. What is the meaning of the man in make-up with a parasol on a wooden bridge?

Nadar, the most famous 19th century French photographer, active in the 1850s and 1860s. Stage performers came and posed in his studio, in an era when performance meant putting interesting costumes on instead of taking all your clothes off. The 20 or so photos here include shots of Charles Deburau acting out poses as the character ‘Pierrot’ and Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth.

A sequence of photos showing how Yves Klein’s over-familiar leap into the void photo was prepared, staged and manufactured.

Many of the performance sequences were shot by the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender, two of the most important photographers to have worked with performance artists. Their photos of various ‘happenings’ in the New York of the 1960s show how sweetly and naively young people from that time thought that taking all their clothes off said something or changed anything.

Chinese art superstar Ai Weiwei (beneficiary of a recent massive retrospective at the Royal Academy) is represented by the iconic trio of photos of him dropping and smashing a supposedly valuable Chinese vase. The prints are vast, over 6 foot tall, maybe 5 wide, as merits Ai’s outsize reputation. The only other images as large were those of Warhol and Koons and Beuys in the PR and marketing room, making you realise that Ai is the contemporary equivalent of those masters of press and marketing.

I liked Erwin Wurm‘s photos of instant sculptures, people imaginatively using household props to create unlikely poses e.g. lady on oranges. Tate invited Wurm to give two events explaining and showing visitors how to create one-minute sculptures.

Two of Wurm’s pics here were from a separate sequence using the supermodel Claudia Schiffer. They’re fun and creative and the best thing about them is the way she keeps her clothes on, so that she comes over as a person and not as a body. I like the orange motif. Who suspected that oranges could open up a whole new world of performance art?

Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits 2008, in which the artist photographs himself in the guise of iconic figures like Malcolm X and Miles Davis. The hang affects your perception of the images. These prints were a) very big, 203 foot tall b) hung as a regular grid (as opposed to a row of pics or an irregular patterning, as some others are). The effect was to give them a pleasing sense of order and symmetry before you even considered the subject matter.

British photographer Martin Parr (who also has an exhibition of photos, Unseen City, at the Guildhall Art Gallery) was represented by Autoportraits, a series of images where he’s superimposed his very English, slightly gormless-looking face onto a variety of the trite, kitsch backdrops found in photographers studios around the world. Charmingly eccentric. Note the way comedy or surrealness comes over better in colour.

In a break from the overwhelming majority of black and white photos, there was a series of sepia prints by Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism. The wall label was a bit difficult to follow, but I think these are simply photos of himself, wife and friends on holiday in the Crimea, during which they amused themselves by ‘posing’ as people on holiday, playing up to stereotypes of tourists and holidaymakers, performing for the camera. If anyone who plays up for the camera in their holiday snaps is an artist then the world is over-run with them.

I liked Keith Arnatt’s series of gardeners in their gardens  but I wondered what they had to do with the theme of ‘performance’. If you call gardening a ‘performance’ then almost any kind of activity can turn out to be a performance and the word ceases to have much meaning.

A wall of unsmiling self portraits by veteran American photographer Lee Friedlander. He captures himself in different poses, as anybody who takes a selfie does. Whether these qualify as ‘performances’ I couldn’t quite decide. Certainly he has an ‘eye’ for an arresting composition…

Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is represented by a series of images of his wife in various clothes on various days seen from the window of their apartment – From Window (1974). I’d like to add something clever and intellectual but it did seem to just be a series of photos of his wife going off to work wearing a different outfit each day.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

He is also has a separate series of b&w pics of himself in a bath – Bukubuku (Bubbling) from 1991.  Very tight close-ups of his face, above the water, under the water blowing bubbles, half-submerged, and so on. I particularly like the one of him wearing a dapper hat, shades and smoking a fag in the bath. With art school pompousness his Wikipedia article describes these as ‘Fukase’s last great work, a whimsical if somewhat morbid game of solitaire that charts new territory for the photographic self-portrait.’

Niki de Saint Phalle appeared in the Global Pop Art exhibition in these very rooms a few months ago, represented by her shooting art works where she filled sacks with poster paints, tied them to canvases and covered the lot in whitewash. She then invited friends and fellow artists round to the shooting gallery at the rear of her studios, where they were given guns and told to shoot the canvases. The Pop Art show included some of the resulting whitewashed canvases covered with spurts of colour paint. Here we have a sequence of b&w photos of her making the canvases, shooting the guns, organising her pals into firing squads and so on. Everyone is wearing clothes. Odd, really, that these works were all about chaotic spurts of colour and yet all the records of it are dully monochrome.

Favourites

  • Charles Ray’s Plank Pieces I and II. Simple, clean, elegant and powerful.
  • Harry Shunk and János Kender’s sequence of 27 photos of Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe rehearsing and performing. Here the blurred or somehow treated outlines of the human form assume a science fiction otherness. Can’t find any of them on the internet.
  • David Wojnarowicz’s sequence Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Wojnarowicz printed out the French poet’s face from the iconic Étienne Carjat 1871 portrait of him, cut it out and attached elastic to make it a strap-on mask, and got various native New Yorkers to wear it in their everyday settings. Simple, funny, stylish.

Conclusions

The press release claims the exhibition ‘shows not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.’ OK.

It was possible to look at all the photos, read all the wall labels, read the programme and press release and assimilate all the information, insights, opinions and interpretations and still emerge with your understanding of the basic axioms of photography completely unchanged: Naked or scantily clad young women are artistic. Black and white is artistic. (Colour pics are less forgiving, more tacky, better suited to irony.) Men doing wacky things is artistic (jumping out windows, dropping vases, playing bubbles in the bath). The rule seems to be: Men do, women strip.

Oh, and the 1960s and 70s overflowed with avant-garde art most of which is now, frankly, embarrassing.


Related links

Other reviews of Tate exhibitions

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture @ Tate Modern

This is a much more fun, exuberant and uplifting exhibition than I expected. Also more varied.

Born in Pennsyslvania in 1898, the son of a sculptor father and artist mother, Calder showed promise in art from an early age but took a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919. During the 1920s he got work sketching for various periodicals including the Police Gazette, for which he sketched the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1926 he moved to Paris to study art and quickly became friends with various masters of Modernism, including  Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp. Apparently, many were first attracted by his model circus in which he got various scale models of performers to put on circus acts, contraptions and wind-up devices with a charming Heath-Robinson air to them.

Much later, in the 1950s, a film was made of Calder recreating these early performances – the full 43 minutes is yours for £22 from the Tate shop.

But at the same time, Calder was also experimenting with larger scale subjects and with mediums and materials. In particular he was systematically exploring the potential of creating figure from wire and room one contains some striking examples of his early experiments. He seems to have leaped completely free of the Western tradition before the exhibition even starts: the earliest samples show him using strong wire to create very evocative three dimensional shapes, outlines, silhouettes:

Flat 2D photos don’t do any justice to their lightness, the way the works are (obviously) completely transparent, yet shaped so accurately and cleverly that they are brilliant evocations of their subjects. Also, many of them were cunningly made to move. At the bottom right of Goldfish you can see a bit of metal sticking out which is actually a handle: turn it and, via a simple cog mechanism, it turns the horizontal wires further up which make the goldfish rotate. Strongly related to the Heath-Robinson mentality of the Calder Circus, it marks an interest in moving sculpture which lasted  his whole career.

Room two is a small one with just one work, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/3), basically two balls suspended from the ceiling on string or twine, and a few boxes and bottles of wine on the floor. You push the heavier ball and it and the other one begin to rotate and move in a series of unpredictable movements, knocking against the objects, creating sounds, thuds and notes.

You can see from this the interest in sound and sculpture, in movement, in abstraction.

Room three goes back a bit to explain Calder’s ongoing fascination with the circus and performers. Quite a large room it contains about 20 examples of his early wire frame versions of the human figure, of wonderful circus performs, intersperesed with amazingly evocative portraits of his friends in the avant-garde, Léger, Varèse, Miro and so on. Both circus performers and portraits are brilliantly done.

Their brightness and (literally) openness, their naivety and cunning, reminded me of the poetry of ee cummings.

Room four tells the story of Calder’s visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian in 1930. At a stroke Calder grasped the meaning and potential of pure abstraction. (As a side note, Calder apparently said to Mondrian, wouldn’t it be great to take his coloured squares and set them in motion; Mondrian was seriously shocked and, apparently, replied: ‘My painting is already fast enough.’ Fast. What a brilliant description of Mondrian’s utterly static images. What an insight into his perception of them.) Suddenly Calder began applying all his figurative and engineering skills to making wire and colour abstract sculptures.

  • Object with red ball The white horizontal rod can be moved up and down. The strings holding the red and black balls can be moved forward or back.
  • Small feathers (1931)
Red and Yellow Vane (1934) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

Red and Yellow Vane (1934) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

In these works you can see the wire bending and twisting technique of the earlier figures redirected into creating abstract objects, coloured with primary colours. Experiments in shape and form, just as countless Modernist painters were experimenting with the same. But what if he combined these abstract designs with his interest in mechanisms, clockwork, rails, cogs and pulleys, which had featured so heavily in his famous circus contraptions?

Room five brings together a collection of shapes cut in metal, coloured black and red and yellow, some on spindly mobile hangers but other consisting of sheets of metal or blocks, all of which have hidden mechanisms to make them move, rotate, corkscrew, up and around, pinging and looping in as many directions as he could devise. Kinetic art.

Disappointingly, all of them are now too fragile to work. Frankly, I’d have expected Tate to have the resources to recreate one or two actual working replicas, most of them were only a couple of feet big. Also,interesting though they may have been when they moved, static they are just assemblages of metal with half-concealed machinery. The exhibition commentary said Calder tired of the limited possibilities of mechanical sculptures. I’d have thought he also realised how limited it was in size.

It was, apparently, in a visit to Calder’s studio in 1930 that notorious modernist Marcel Duchamp described these works as ‘mobiles’. They moved. In 1933 Calder moved back to the States, buying a big farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut with his wife, Louisa.

After the move, Calder became interested in hanging coloured shapes themselves against a coloured background or block. The curators are pleased that Room six brings together a number of these works which have rarely if ever been exhibited before.

White Panel (1936) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

White Panel (1936) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014

They have the abstract, vaguely zoomorphic feel of Matisse’s cutouts, and the same bright primary colouring. It is calming to stand in front of them and watch the shapes, suspended by wires from horizontal bars, slowly twisting in the slight ambient air movement in front of more bright colours. Relaxing, interesting – but you know this isn’t yet the full thing, the works he’s famous for.

The narrow Room seven also has an interim feel. It records Calder’s display at the 1937 Pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the International Exposition in Paris. There was a massive photo of Calder standing beside the abstract fountain he created to run with mercury, and in front of Picasso’s Guernica, at its debut.

In 1939 Calder exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. For this he created maquettes for proposed enormous sculptures of abstract shapes which would have moved and animated in choreographed movement. From his earliest Calder circus via the hand-cranked wire figures and the mechanized shapes in room 5, Calder consistently showed interest in sculpture that moves.

Room eight is dedicated to mobiles with the theme of the universe, stars and planets and solar systems. He made a series of Constellations, featuring pieces of painted wood connected by steel rods.

Along one wall are objects which look like astrolabes, globes of wire, with blocks and objects attached. The most commentaried work is Universe. Along circles of wire, two small balls move in different timings thus creating a complex cycle which, apparently took 40 minutes to completely finish.

Calder is quoted numerous times saying how much the notion of moving parts, objects, elements in a sculpture fascinated him. This made it all the more frustrating that all the works in this room, as all the mechanical examples earlier, are completely static. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to create an actually moving version of Universe for us to marvel at.

Interesting though all the previous work has bee, it is only in room nine that you feel you have finally arrived. It is a big room and it is packed with the final, mature version of the classic mobile design – ‘an elegantly balanced network of wires and painted pieces of metal, suspended from the ceiling’ (as the catalogue puts it). The room holds a dozen or more large, abstract, impressive, slowly moving mobiles which create an overwhelming impact.

This is the room to loiter in and slowly walk from one work to the next, savouring their shapes and achievement, for it is fascinating to see these mature mobiles after having followed the evolution of Calder’s work, the development of his thinking, his experiments with all sorts of unconventional sculptures – all to get to this point.

Antennae with Red and Blue Dots (1953) by Alexander Calder. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Antennae with Red and Blue Dots (1953) by Alexander Calder. Tate © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Free of the limitations of motors or cranks, therefore free to be as large as the main cable can bear, free to move but in complex and unpredictable interactions. Of about 15 big examples which fill the room, maybe the highlights are:

It’s amazing how completely finished and achieved and right these works feel, slowly slowly rotating and barely spinning in the cool air movements of the gallery. Like Miro he has achieved a completely persuasive language of abstraction, hinting and gesturing towards all kinds of other things and yet entirely self-contained. It feels like a universal language, a language anyone can speak.

Music or the incorporation of sound, as well as movement, had always been an interest of Calder’s. From early abstracts like Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere through various musical collaborations. Much earlier we were shown the large abstract set designs Calder created for a production of Erik Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate. In the 1940s Calder created mobiles incorporating small gongs of different pitches, with small beaters on nearby suspensions so that the movement of air produces random notes. I guess the domesticated version of this is the common wind chime.

The gong works are part of the long interplay Calder had throughout his career with avant-garde composers: remember his wire portrait of Varèse from one of the earlier rooms, and the commentary points out he worked with chorepographer Martha Graham and was part of the circle including experimental composer John Cage, the great proponent of randomness and chance in composition.

Triple Gong (c.1948) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

Triple Gong (c.1948) by Alexander Calder. Calder Foundation, New York, NY, USA. Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015

In fact, for the exhibition Tate recreated a piece Calder worked on with composer Earle Brown, titled Calder Piece from 1963. The music was designed to incorporate Calder’s mobile piece Chef d’orchestre, and the whole was staged and performed in the Turbine Hall in November 2015.

Room eleven contains one really big specimen, Black Widow, three and a half metres tall, designed to fill the atrium of the Institute of Architects in Sao Paolo. What a journey the exhibition has taken us on from cranky little handmade circus figures in the mid-twenties to monumental sculptures fit to set off official architecture, less than twenty years later.

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The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern

Pop Art is not exactly a neglected movement. As recently as two years ago the Barbican hosted a comprehensive exhibition of Pop Design while at the same time Tate Modern was hosting a vast Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. In the spring of 2014 Tate Modern did a big Richard Hamilton show and earlier this year the Barbican’s exhibition about artists’ personal collections devoted a room each to the artifacts hoarded by Andy Warhol and Peter Blake. Who hasn’t heard of Warhol, seen the Elvis or Marilyn silk screen paintings or doesn’t know about Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper cover?

In this blockbuster show, The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop, Tate Modern turns its back on these well-worn artists and familiar images to examine the impact of pop everywhere outside the bubble of Britain and America, taking a comprehensive look at Pop Art from around the world. Thus the show brings together over 100 colourful, exuberant works from Latin America and Asia, from Europe and the Middle East.

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection) © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood
Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection). © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Art in the USA and Britain was essentially free, artists could more or less say or do anything and had the machinery of pop music and consumer adverts to play off against, to incorporate into their work and (the Beatles, the Velvet Underground) to help propagate their images.

If the exhibition says one thing it is how untrue this was of most of the rest of the world, where whole populations and their artists languished under all manner of dictatorships and repression: the entire communist bloc frozen by Soviet domination, southern Europe and a lot of Latin American nations ruled by traditionalist military juntas, African nations torn by civil wars (Biafra 1967-70), Pakistan heading towards the catastrophic Bangladesh genocide (1971), China about to experience the persecution and chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the war in Vietnam spilling over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. And looming behind it all, the ongoing Cold War confrontation between the superpowers with the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Pop offered a new idiom with which to capture the absurdity of living in a society increasingly dominated by adverts for glossy lifestyle products while the whole world could be blown up at any moment.

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) Acrylic on canvas MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund Photo: Tony Coll © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund. Photo: Tony Coll. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Thus the global Pop Art the curators have gathered here is far more confrontational, troubled and often explicitly political than the Campbell soup tins and dated album covers of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. If Pop was an orgiastic celebration of the fabulousness of consumer culture here in the West, in most other places it was a language of protest, using the language and imagery of consumer goods and popular culture to satirise the repressive regimes of the artist’s homeland, to ironically comment on the shallow values of the fabulous West, which very often shaded into mild or not so mild anti-American sentiment.

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Bombs in Love 1962 Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

The 100+ works are packed with ideas and references, but several themes emerge strongly:

  • Satirising American consumerism The basic premise of Pop Art is its re-use of the explosion of new consumer products, advertising and popular culture in the post-war USA, seen at its most fatuous in the 1950s, and satirised and mocked from the mid-1950s onwards. The early 1960s saw the creation of several iconic pop images including Warhol’s Marilyn silks and Lichtenstein’s Wham. The effects of the post-war boom and the use of imagery from popular culture – cartoons, film posters, adverts, TV stills – to celebrate and/or undercut it ripple outwards from the Anglo heartland: what is loving homage in the States (cans and cartoons) becomes mild mockery in England, and turns to satire, scorn and sometimes overtly anti-American feeling, in further flung countries, typified by French artist Bernard Rancillac‘s savege At Last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist.
  • Pro-revolution pro-communist imagery, texts, works, ideas – power to the people, Maoism, the cult of Che Guevara, exemplified here by Henri Cueco‘s Large Protest, a room-sized sculpture using comic-strip silhouettes cast in metal of figures enacting the glorious Revolution.
  • Anti-communist works voicing rebellion against the dead hand of actual communist regimes in the countries of the Eastern bloc eg Jerzy Zielinski‘s Without Rebellion or Sanja Iveković‘s Sweet violence.
  • Feminism 1960s-style eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellÁngela GarcíaMari ChordàJana Želibská.
  • The Triumph of Youth

1. The Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment was in the air throughout the 1960s, leading up to the strikes and civil disorder across much of Europe which climaxed in ‘events’ in Paris in May 1968, when students joined with striking workers to create a crisis which came close to overthrowing the government. Throughout the 60s and well into the 1970s, the rhetoric of revolution dominated the thinking of many writers and artists.

The wall labels and the audioguide reflect this, echoing the rhetoric of the time and reiterating the rather samey sentiments about this or that ‘radical’ artwork ‘subverting’ or ‘engaging with’ or ‘ironising’ the values of ‘patriarchal’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘consumer’ culture. Each time I read another label about a work which encouraged the overthrow of capitalism, supported the Revolution, heralded the dawn of a classless society, romanticised guerilla fighters and marching strikers and the May 1968 événements, I thought how very, very old all this now sounds and how completely these attitudes and approaches have been vanquished.

In our time, from China to Brazil, hyper-consumer capitalism rules the world, underpinned by the all-powerful banks, implemented by the all-pervading digital culture which most of us have voluntarily signed up to. Instead of overthrowing American corporations, we have welcomed them into every aspect of our lives (Google est.1998, turnover $66 billion, Facebook est. 2004, 1.5 billion users, Twitter 300 million users). The often fading paintings, creaking sculptures and flickery videos on display here come from a distant time when people thought there was an alternative to the finance capitalism and all-encompassing American corporations which now dominate our lives.

2. Communist oppression

Looking back, one of the massive contradictions or ironies of the period was that all the radical artists in the West wanted a communist revolution to overthrow beastly American capitalism, while all the dissidents in the East wanted to escape from the stifling straitjacket of inefficient, repressive, brutal and philistine communist regimes to the wonderful freedom of the West.

The exhibition displays works from the two halves of Europe (and the world) next to each other as if they were both the same kind of ‘subversion’ and criticism, but I don’t think they were: the conditions of their production and the mindsets of their producers were drastically different.

Anti-capitalist movements linger on into our day as ineffectual student-style groups like the Occupy movement; ‘third wave’ feminism endures in all sorts of forms; but the struggles of dissident artists and samizdat writers under communist regimes have completely disappeared and it’s hard to now recall what that world was like.

I can discuss feminism with my teenage daughter because she is learning about the exploitation of women at school, I can discuss the power of multinational banks and corporations with my teenage son because he’s got accounts with some of them and reads about their tax avoidance, criminal miss-selling of products etc on a daily basis.

But if I try to explain that when I was growing up all of Eastern Europe was under Russian communist control, and enormous fences topped with barbed wire formed the border between capitalism and communism, that anyone trying to escape over them was blown up by the landmines or shot dead by the guards, that artists and writers who protested against the state were locked up in psychiatric institutions or disappeared into prison camps, they look at me as if I’m mad.

There are plenty of artists from the Eastern bloc in this show – one even has a room dedicated to him, the Romanian Cornel Brudaşcu. But I felt the extremely difficult, often dangerous, conditions of producing any kind of art in the Eastern Bloc could well have justified a room to itself, a space which really tried to recreate the terrible claustrophobia and fear of the time. This could have described and examined the situations in the different countries (Poland, East Germany, Slovakia etc), whose regimes and cultural traditions were often quite different. This would have given much more depth when it came to describing the strategies specific artists adopted to circumvent the censors and the authorities.

Maybe there are the seeds of an entirely different exhibition here: ‘The Art of the Eastern Bloc 1945-90’.

3. Feminism

Feminism, the women’s movement, women’s liberation, is a very big presence in the show, with three of the ten rooms dedicated to women’s issues, women making up about 26 of the 60 or so artists, and a lot, if not all, the women artists, ‘engaging’ one way or another with the problems of gender.

In the 1960s women intellectuals and artists began to rebel against all kinds of constraints society placed on them: against the way advertising used women’s bodies to sell products, against the way society confined women to stereotyped gender roles – having to be ‘the mother’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘the perfect hostess’ and so on – while depriving them of involvement in a great swathe of social activity, from business to politics. Society was dominated by all-male establishments which women challenged in all manner of ways, from the courts to the classroom.

What emerges from this exhibition is that many of the women artists featured here seemed to think that merely being more forthright about the reality of women’s bodies was a kind of ‘subversive’ and liberating act – that if women themselves created, controlled and published images of the female body, it would liberate them from the prison-house of the ‘male gaze’ and assert the autonomy of female sexuality and therefore of the female subject.

For example, according to the wall label, Evelyne Axell (Belgian, 1935-72), thought that ‘Space represented an emancipation site for women’. Her striking work, Valentine, represents Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. The helmet taped to the screen represents the space part, the stripper-style silhouette with the fabric rising up off the picture as it comes unzipped to reveal her breasts and pubic hair beneath, represent her female sexuality. She is, according to the commentary, ‘a feminist heroine and a monument to female eroticism’.

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Valentine 1966 Collection of Philippe Axell Photo: Paul Louis © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Collection of Philippe Axell. Photo: Paul Louis. © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

I understand celebrating a woman pioneer. I understand and like the helmet tacked to the canvas. But I didn’t so much understand why the outline of a sexy woman whose zipper is coming undone Austen Powers-style is liberating. To me, it conforms to all the sexist stereotypes of the era, precisely the commodification of an absurdly idealised woman-as-sex-object which I thought we were meant to disapprove of.

Fifty years later any sense of irony or empowerment at the display of naked women has surely long vanished. Instead of the ‘subversion’ and ‘irony’ which the commentary and labels attributed to much of this imagery, I just registered lots of female artists depicting the female body, legs, thighs, breasts and a number of vulvas, in photos, silhouettes, realistic or abstract painting, in satirical videos and even – strikingly – in mirrors (see Jana Želibská below).

Presumably, at some point, it dawned on women artists and women more generally, that displaying images of naked or semi-naked women in ‘art’ really just amounts to displaying naked or semi-naked women. The particular audience who view them (‘art lovers’) are just a tiny, statistically insignificant, sub-set of the great naked-women-viewing public, who don’t get the joke. It doesn’t change anything. In fact, surely it’s just another way of packaging and commodifying the female body.

4. Young and old

The exhibition’s achievement in including women artists and foregrounding women’s issues tends to mask another 1960s theme, maybe the theme of the 1960s, so that it goes strangely unremarked. It was the decade of Youth. In all spheres the 1960s saw the rebellion of the young against the old. ‘Hope I die before I get old‘ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30‘ were the catch phrases of the time. So for me the striking thing isn’t that there were lots of breasts, bellies, thighs, vulvas, sexy silhouettes and licking lips on show – it is that they are all young, fit and nubile breasts and hips etc.

Dorothée Selz could create a series of photos of herself copying the poses of scantily-clad glamour models from magazines because she herself looks like a model. The outlines of women which dominate Jana Želibská‘s feminist work Kandarya-Mahadeva look like they’re from the title sequence of a James Bond movie.

A lot of the dolly bird nudity on show here doesn’t make much sense if viewed through a feminist paradigm because it seems so obviously self-defeating: but it does make sense if seen as part of the overthrow of the Fat and Old by the Young and Beautiful. In this context, taking off your clothes proves you are on the right side, immediately shows you are on the side of the young and beautiful, man, we’re going to get rid of war and capitalism and all that bourgeois crap, man, and all those creepy sexual hangups our parents had, we’re going to get naked and get high and come together and create world peace.

Thus Evelyne Axell‘s work The Pretty Month of May in which she paints herself naked, is surely a failure if it’s seen as a ‘feminist’ work, seeking to ‘subvert the male gaze’, since all I can see is a young naked woman whose patch of black pubic hair deliberately emphasises her sexuality. But it does make sense if we recapture the spirit of 1968 and see it as a typical gesture of openness and honesty and frankness about sexual pleasure, all of which (at the time) put her on the side of the angels against the stuffy, repressive older generation.

(For the attitude to parents, to businessmen, to accountants in bowler hats, see The Beatles track The Piggies (‘Everywhere there’s little piggies, leading piggy lives/You can see them out to dinner with their piggy wives.’). For the attitude of the cool sexual revolutionaries, listen to Come Together, which ends, as so many songs from this time, in a simulated orgasm. The orgasm was a political gesture, symbolising the overthrow of capitalism/the old/the bourgeoisie and all their controlling repression of sexuality, which should be free and unfettered, shared and liberating.)

5. The missing black artists

The three women curators have included lots of women artists and lengthy explanations of women’s issues throughout. This is a striking achievement and an enjoyable introduction to many artists who were new to me. In fact, all the works I liked best were by women artists eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellDorothée SelzEulàlia Grau to name a few.

But towards the end of the show I realised I hadn’t seen a single black Pop artist. Maybe there weren’t any. And I don’t think there was a single artist from Africa, 10% of the global population in 1970, in a show which is meant to be about global art. a) In the industrialised West, especially America, were there really no black artists who could have been included? b) Was there really no African art which could have been included, especially considering this period saw a large number of independence struggles/civil wars across the continent which would surely have fit into the Mao and Che-themed revolution sections?

Fun

If all this sounds a bit earnest, it is and the wall labels do tend to be full of ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’.

But most of the works themselves are lots of fun – bright, confident, experimental, exuberant – men and women from around the world playing with a western idiom and transmuting it for their own purposes. Some pieces seemed to me weak (I didn’t like the folk art room, the works of Beatriz GonzálezParviz Tanavoli or Raúl Martinez – details below – seemed to me drab and dull); lots of others are great or great fun, for example, the strikingly clear and bold ‘American interiors’ of Icelandic artist Erró – American Interior 1; and much I couldn’t quite decide what I thought, leaving me puzzled or thoughtful. Altogether there is plenty here to discuss and mull over.

Some reviews have criticised the curators’ decision to paint the walls of each room bright primary colours, but I thought it was funky and accurately reflects the dayglo, plastic world of Pop: it is entirely fitting that the final room is completely covered in a tongue-in-cheek ‘subversion’ of consumer capitalism, Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle, made up of multiple copies of the famous cheese logo. As subversion it scores 0 – as funky wallpaper, 10.

And then the shop…

And if you had any lingering doubt about art’s complete inability to change society, you emerge from the last room (‘Consuming Pop’, full of works ‘subverting’ consumer capitalism) into the exhibition shop! Here you can purchase a whole range of desirable consumer products – Pop mugs, Pop posters, Pop tea towels, Pop books, Pop cushions, Pop scarves and Pop bags – to adorn your dream home and impress your friends.


List of artworks

Room 1 – Introduction

Room 2 – Eulàlia Grau (1946-, Spain) and Joe Tilson (English)

Room 3 – Pop politics

Room 4 – Cornel Brudaşcu (1937-, Romania)

It was good to have a room devoted to the enormous subject of art in the communist bloc but I’m not sure the four or five big paintings by Brudaşcu could quite carry that much burden. They are coloured solarisations of images mined from pop sources eg newspaper photos, album covers.

Room 5 – Pop at home

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968) Private Collection Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm © Teresa Burga

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968), Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. © Teresa Burga

Room 6 – Pop bodies

Room 7 – devoted to one work by Jana Želibská (1941-, Czechoslovakia)

  • Kandarya-Mahadeva – based on a temple in India, consists of a massive rectangular pillar constructed of 48 panels, each one depicting the silhouette of a woman’s body in a Bond girl pose, clad in the outline of skimpy bra and panties. BUT the subversive thing is that at the crotch of each woman is embedded a mirror! Ha, gotcha, male gaze! According to the audioguide, the mirrors ‘virtually put a woman’s sexuality right in your face!!!’ Take that, male chauvinist pigs!!
  • The room itself is lined with swags of orange and white paper flowers and the walls painted with enormous baby pink silhouettes of naked women also with big mirrors in the crotch.

I like breasts and vulvas as much as the next man but by this stage I’d seen quite a few, and occasionally it’s nice to think about something else, so it was a relief to walk into a room which was not dominated by images of women’s bodies.

Room 8 – Pop crowd

Room 9 – Folk Pop

Room 10- Consuming Pop

All the walls of this room are covered with the Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle. That’s sticking it to international brands! I wonder if Vache qui rit ever approached him to use it.

  • Boris Bućan (1947-, Croatia) Bućan Art – a series of images spelling ART in the styles of various corporate brands. It ‘denounces consumerism and global brands’. a) nice idea, quite funny, though zero impact on brands (unless they rip the idea off for publicity) b) note the Vache qui rit wallpaper in the background.
  • Sanja Iveković (1949-, Croatia) Sweet violence (1974) This five-minute, black-and-white video stitched together adverts from communist Yugoslavia and superimposed prison bars over them, a brave thing to do at the time.
  • Toshio Matsumoto (1932-, Japan) Mona Lisa, experimental 3-minute video using then-revolutionary techniques to phase and overcolour the image.

The final taboo

Trawling through the biographies to create the list above, I came across several women artists saying, sadly and alas, that their work ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘exploring issues of gender and femininity’ are just as relevant – as necessary – today as they were 50 years ago. The rather tiresome quote from Einstein comes to mind: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If some of the women artists ‘exploring issues’ around the ‘representation of sexuality and eroticism within a social context’ genuinely think little has changed in 50 years, maybe they should consider changing their tactics. Or consider that there might be some kind of biological basis for the social structures and attitudes they have spent 50 years failing to alter.

Their comments tie up with one of the main learnings from the show, which is the complete failure of all the revolutionary hopes of the majority of the artists. Capitalism wasn’t overthrown. It has a stronger, more pervasive grip on all aspects of our lives than ever before. Everything is being monetised.

Which prompts a further uncomfortable thought: maybe the ultimate taboo in art is not (as one of the wall labels asserts) creating images of the vulva, or of the penis or of shit (Gilbert and George have made some very nice images of shit) or any other bodily parts or functions, come to that.

Maybe the ultimate taboo, the dirty little secret that artists and curators dare not mention, is that art subverts nothing. You can assert that it ‘questions’ and ‘engages with’ and ‘interrogates’ whatever you fancy, till the cows come home – the result is nothing. Nothing except more exhibitions, more commentaries and more audioguides, more subject matter for the ever-increasing numbers of people doing MAs and PhDs in art criticism. A small clique of art professionals who have a vested interest in believing – or persuading or reassuring themselves – that art plays a critical role in society, and isn’t – as all the evidence suggests, as the Tate shop suggests – just a decorative hobby and shopping opportunity for the well-heeled middle classes.

Could it be that there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ about art, not today? Soviet art, communist art, conceptual art, dada, surrealism, stuckist art, shit art, minimal art, heads made of blood and handprints of child murderers, piles of bricks and sharks cut in half, all these were done years ago, some over a century ago.

Instead, the audio commentary and wall labels of this show come close to proving that art and art criticism today merely play with ageing tropes of ‘revolutionary’ politics or feminist ‘subversion’, talking a special language to itself about ‘engagement’ and ‘questioning’ and ‘situating issues’ and ‘negotiating paradigms’ – while leaving the actual power structures of society, the economic constraints we all live by, the concentration of money into fewer and fewer hands, the infiltration of every aspect of our lives by surveilling digital technology, the indignities of ageing, the difficulties of earning enough money to pay for rent, heat and food, completely unchanged.

In the commentary of this and other shows about twentieth century art, I get the feeling the curators are nostalgic for a time when art did have some kind of impact, when artists really did suffer for their art, when they genuinely risked being arrest and imprisoned, when art genuinely did ‘subvert’ various forms of authority, patriarchy, western consumerism etc.

Now you’d be hard pressed to create a work of art which won’t be bought up by Russian billionaires or sovereign wealth funds looking to diversify their investment portfolio. Very difficult to escape form the process whereby everything becomes an investment, everything is monetised.

Art’s irrelevance

According to a press release, all the Tate locations had a total 7 million visitors in 2013/14. This is an extremely impressive achievement – especially the standout fact that Tate Modern is the most visited gallery of modern art in the world. Respect to the enormous achievements of Tate’s leadership and staff in reaching out to more people than ever before.

But I also read in today’s paper that Snapchat reported 6 billion views of videos on its digital platform, every day. It is sneaking up on Facebook which claims some 8 billion video views per day, and that some 500 million people use its video app every day. When I told my teenage son, he said had I read Pornhub’s results (much shared among his mates, apparently)?

Pornhub claims to be the world’s number one porn website and allows users to upload and share pornographic videos. In 2014 about 50 gigabytes of porn video was uploaded to the site every second. Over the course of the year 78.9 billion videos were viewed, 11 for every man, woman and child on the planet. The top two search terms were ‘teen’ and ‘lesbian’.

I love art and will continue to go to art galleries and support artists. I love the space, the quiet, the opportunity to admire beauty and reflect on interesting ideas. But when you situate traditional ‘art’ – small paintings and silent sculptures – in the context of this unprecedented tsunami of images, an unparalleled explosion of imagery flooding out of every screen into everyone’s faces all across the planet, the art of all of these artists doesn’t just not seem subversive: statistically, it doesn’t exist. Its impact is immeasurably tiny.

Judy Chicago’s funky car hoods, Jana Želibská’s dolly birds with mirror crotches, Dorothée Selz’s small photos of herself adopting glamour model poses – I like them: they’re funny, attractive to look at, inventive, cheeky, maybe they played their part in changing attitudes for the better. But to imagine that they are subverting anything in our time seems to me the height of self-delusion.

Related links

Agnes Martin @ Tate Modern

Potted biography

I’d never heard of Agnes Martin – knowing nothing about an artist being the best reason to go to an exhibition of their work. Turns out she was an American abstract painter who lived from 1912 to 2004, a long life. She was originally from Canada, went south to the States and took to painting late, not completing her Master of Arts degree till she was 30. Her early work shows the influence of all the contemporary currents (surrealism, Picasso and so on) in paintings of biomorphic loops and striking abstract sculptures. She moved to New York in the early 1950s just as the Abstract Expressionists were taking off – grouped together in a cheap area of south Manhattan were living and working Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and a lot of other guys inventing a distinctly American form of painting.

She always lived frugally and at one point in the later 1960s packed in art altogether to go traveling for five years. She finally settled in New Mexico where she built her own adobe house and studio, living in primitive simplicity (no electricity, no running water) and she died there, far from the bright lights and the big city, full of years, fame and the praise of her contemporaries.

[Her biography is amply told in the Wikipedia and Tate web pages, listed below]

Potted career

The exhibition, in 11 big rooms, starts with Martin’s early zoomorphic work, along with some striking abstract sculptures, but it was in the later 1950s that she abandoned all figurative art to work in the repeated patterns, the mathematical grids, which were to become her trademark. In the early 1960s she found her voice, creating a series of grid patterns in square canvases 72 inches by 72 inches. The size would vary, but the addiction to grids of straight lines lasted the rest of her life.

Over time her colour palette became more muted. By the 1970s it was very pale pastels. The show has one room devoted to massive grids coloured only with grey. Another room has one of her few ‘series’ – 12 big square canvases painted white with such faint pencil lines creating rectangles and squares, that you can’t see them from across the room. The net effect is very relaxing. In fact the exhibition as a whole is very calming, muting, slowing, meditative. I heartily (no, I quietly) recommend it.

1963

Agnes Martin, Friendship 1963 Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Friendship (1963)
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1973

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day (1973) Parasol Press, Ltd. © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day (1973)
Parasol Press, Ltd.
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1974

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3 (1974) Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3 (1974)
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1977

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977) Private collection Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977)
Private collection
Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1999

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday (1999) Tate / National Galleries of Scotland © estate of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday (1999)
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© estate of Agnes Martin

2003 – Just at the end of her very long life, Martin returned to non-grids, albeit still mathematical shapes, but more colourful and non-griddy than anything she’d done for 50 years.

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (2003) Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (2003)
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interpretations

Tate have made a short film featuring Martin herself and curators commenting.

Her dealer, Arne Gimcher, suggests a good approach when he says the paintings reflect the viewer (Art is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but rather more than usually for Martin). As I walked around these big white rooms hung with abstract grids and patterns in pastel colours or no colours at all, I could feel my heart beat slowing down and my thoughts wandering. The commentary/guide labels on the wall suggested different phases of her work and mentioned aspects of her biography. These were enough to plant seeds of thought, interpretation, speculation, idly flowing, projecting onto her empty canvases…

Lesbian

She was, apparently, a lesbian, though she never, apparently, formed a permanent relationship [Wikipedia: ‘She lived alone all her adult life.’]. Her gender, possibly, explains the absence of forcefulness, or drive, of tiresome grandstanding and showing off, which you find in many male artists of the mid-century, from Picasso to Pollock.

But insofar as she didn’t seem to form any private attachments – with no husband or lovers or children, with no ties of any sort – Martin was free to follow her private vision. And her art is a kind of logic set free: rows and columns and lines and rectangles silently inhabiting their own space, with no distractions.

Zen Buddhism

At Columbia University where she studied art, Zen Buddhism was taught by scholars and professors and becoming better known. She was interested in it for a while. As far as I can tell she didn’t become a devotee or practitioner, but you could argue that her entire oeuvre is an invitation to sit in silence and meditate.

This is especially true of the series she titled The Islands, twelve large square paintings in white acrylic paint and graphite, each with a unique use of horizontal lines to divide the surface, but so pale as to be barely visible from across a room. They’re there, but not there. They appear as you move forward, vanish as you retreat. They are what you make of them…

Schizophrenic

‘Throughout adulthood, Martin suffered from schizophrenia.’ This striking piece of information is revealed in room 5, and can’t help influencing the viewer. Were these tremendously ordered grids a way of controlling and managing a troubled mind? There is absolutely none of the stormy angst of a Jackson Pollock – the extreme reverse, emotionally flat surfaces laced with an orderly, patterned serenity.

In the film about her, Martin says we experience all kinds of emotions which we don’t express. Do these paintings express any emotion at all? I found the opposite: they are orderly empty spaces into which we project what we want.

Nature

The most misleading interpretations offered by various commentators seemed to me the several artists and colleagues who think Martin’s work captures ‘Nature’. For example, artist Ann Wilson is quoted from 1974 saying, ‘The colour in Agnes Martin’s work can be like the colour in rock at dawn, at noon, at sunset, depending on where your perceptions are when you see.’

Of course the colour of some of the pale reds in some of the grids may be the colour of sunset light on rock. Or a newborn baby. Or a weak Bloody Mary. But I find the griddiness of the grids outweighs any reference to nature. Nothing in nature is like this. Martin’s paintings have a purity, a mathematical fixity which is entirely unnatural, a unique product of the human mind.

Techno 1960s

As it happens I went for a walk in the countryside around Milton Keynes last weekend, the archetype of a planned urban environment, which was designated a ‘new town’ in January 1967. I was struck, like any visitor, by the preciseness of the geometric grid the central streets are laid out in, an obsession with squares, rectangles, right angles, grids and matrices reflected not only in the street layout but in the design of almost every building, whether brutalist concrete, or 60s and 70s office blocks, or the shiny facade of the long glass-fronted train station itself, built in 1982, and which extends down to the decorative detail of mosaics, air conditioning extractors, ducts and grilles and vents and vast areas of rectangular paving stone.

The 1960s was the decade of technological innovation – in England this took the form of Harold Wilson’s rather laughable ‘white heat of technology’, of the Post Office Tower and Concorde – in America of the space programme, and an explosion of ‘space age’ gadgets – and all around the world new towns, cities and capitals were being created in rational, mathematical grid layouts, visions of a brave new, rational, liberated society.

To what extent were Martin’s grids a reflection of this broader culture vision, specifically of the optimistic rational architecture, of the 1960s? And, if not directly influenced by contemporary grid-like thinking, to what extent did her work become successful because it replicated in oil and canvas the architecture of the day?

And did the transition from the bright grids of the 1960s to the quieter – and eventually colourless, grey – grids of the 1970s reflect the transition from the psychedelic 60s to the more internalised 1970s, the Me Decade, obsessed with self-improvement, cults, fads and self-expression?

Computers

Like most modern people, a lot of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer (as I am now), and I happen to deal with the obvious programs, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint, Word, Microsoft Project. Could the modern world be any more griddy?

If you take the worldwide web as an archetype of a network or matrix, would it be true to say we live in an Agnes Martin world now? (Another way in which, I think, her vision is the opposite of ‘natural’ or organic).

Pencil

Last point: the grids weren’t created by machine or computer. She used a metal rule and masking tape and graphite pencils to draw her lines herself. All very manual and personal. Seen close up, really close up, you can see the imperfections, the wobbles, nubs and bumps of the pencil over uneven canvas. This most mathematical and abstract of painters is, paradoxically, when seen close up, touchingly imperfect, subject to happenstance and contingency, wonderfully human.

This is a great, a liberating, calming, stimulating, refreshing show.

Related links

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