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.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

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

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

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

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

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

The Painted Word

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

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big money and high art

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

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

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

A cartoon history of modern art

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

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

The battle of the bergs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Turbulence Theorem

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

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

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

The return of the repressed Boho

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

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

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

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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