Sussex Mods

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion (Two Temple Place, 28 January-23 April 2017)

As an incomer to Kent, I’ve always had a guilty preference for Sussex. We lay claim to Turner (hence the Anthea Turner Gallery), Hamish Fulton walks down the road and H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad were locals, but after Tommy Cooper, Mary Tourtel and Peter Firmin there’s a sense that you run out of culture. (Tracey, I forgot Tracey.)

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Great Scotch!

Edward Krasiński (Tate Liverpool, 21 October 2016–5 March 2017)

I confess I walked through Edward Krasiński rather quickly on my first visit — I’d been delayed by a shop having moved and thus a late check-in at my hotel, followed by further delay as I tried to access my work email. And I wanted, at least, a look over the stunning Blake-Emin combo to see if it was what I feared.

Spoilers!

I was there to see Yves Klein, even if somewhere in my head it was Yves Tanguy. And I had just over an hour instead of the best part of ninety minutes. The next day, albeit again running late, I spent the best part of an hour in there.

But something had brought me up short — what looked like a broken ladder and then dangling black squares and a blue line.

Blue is beautiful.

Blue is best.

Did Tate Liverpool really schedule by the colour blue?

Krasiński’s early works are apparently Dadaist and surreal, but I assume that these are not on display. He seems to have been a late starter, with the works here dating from about 1960 when he was about forty. There are various small assemblages, too complex to be tagged Readymades (I feel the hand of Duchamp and Beuys on his shoulder), which are hanging on the walls. The materials include wood, metal, plastic, felt, acrylic and I get the sense that in part he is playing with the triangle set up between object, space and beholder. My understanding is that these would have been shown in darkness, a kind of labyrinth of art, but here the dark browns offset the whiteness of the walls and the bright light of this space. Later he would take photographs of some of his works on location, undercutting privileged vantage points (although a photo does fix one).

There’s also a large photo, Untitled (1996) of man in suit holding a hose coming off a roll — the end of the column column protrudes, next to a small piece of rope, and a bit of blue tape that I didn’t notice on my first go round. A relic of an earlier exhibition or deliberated short?

The second area has various solids hanging from wires (although I did wonder if these didn’t need to be less visible. Composition in Space 4 (1965) has a vertical suspension of black discs, each with a red to white colour red disc of decreasing size in each centre. There were also a numbers of broken spears, with the same dark brown, red, white colour gradation, suspended more or less horizontally, one looking like a broken rope ladder. And then there were a series of balls, not quite a Newton’s Cradle — and I wonder if Cedric Christie came across these works. There’s a capturing of time and space, a freezing of movement.

The third space — although I was quite clear of the trajectory, and I suspect Krasiński would lead us — had various small assemblages on white plinths, interventions, consisting of cords, cylinders, slopes and bits of wood. There’s a black cylinder, apparently filled with blue stuff, dribbling over the edge. J-4 (1968) is a tube going through a cylinder, cable in tube on curved white ribbon, from which the numbers 234567890 emerge. Where is number one?

But the breakthrough seems to have come with the Tokyo Biennale, when his sculptures were delayed in transit. He was going to send them a telex — the word BLUE five thousand times and this would be on display, on a coil of paper. To mark time, he arranged for a strip of blue Scotch Tape to be placed around the room: “After that there was nothing more I could do; it was so radical there was no turning back”

BLUE SCOTCH – WIDTH 20MM
LENGTH UNKNOWN
I STICK IT HORIZONTALLY
AT A HEIGHT OF 130 CM EVERYWHERE
AND ONTO EVERYTHING
WITH IT I ENCOMPASS EVERYTHING AND REACH
EVERYWHERE.
IT MAY OR MAY NOT BE ART,
BUT IT DEFINITELY IS
BLUE SCOTCH – WIDTH 20MM
LENGTH UNKNOWN.

We get sculptures of white and blue — a white rectangle, blue at the bottom, a blue cable dangling; two white books, one labelled A (and the other B?), a blue cable emerging, a blue surface between the books; a gutted white phone, dark blue wire tangled; the A/B opposite pages of an open white book with a blue tube emerging…

“I have lost the end” he says, in a photo of him trying to untangle some string or rope or cable.

The next room is of interventions — black and white axonometric drawings, unmasking the reality of the flat and the three dimensional, a kind of demented IKEA catalogue, with his now trademark blue stripe following the walls, weaving past a toilet chain and water pipe, giving illusions of depth.

the blue stripe is the intervention by the artist who is an on-looker/witness of the events taking place. It is an observer of changing phenomena that contain time. All that exists is time. Even inanimate objects are not extemporal: they are mutable”

… this leads us into the next space, which includes a false corridor, and a photographic and artistic replication of his apartment and gallery.

The artist Henryk Stażewski had invited him to live in his apartment and eventually left it to Krasiński. Art would be made there — or in his bedroom — and then shown in the apartment as gallery, with photographs of the space sometimes being shown in other galleries. The blue line continues across further axonometric drawings, and some white three dimensional objects, line with black. Photos of Krasiński’s acquaintances and other artists hang on cubes, striped blue, apparently making visual puns (although I didn’t get the joke). There is a token example of Henryk Stażewski’s work, black lines on a white background, like needles

And then there are sculptures of large, bent paperclips.

We’ve all been there.

The final intervention is a series of square mirrors, with black reverses, hung from the ceiling disrupting the space. They are utterly hypnotising.

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Krasiński’s art has a deceptively simple idea underlying it, but it was so seductive. On the one hand, a kind of minimalism, on the other complexity. It might be site specific — in that the meaning of the site it is found in is changed by the work. But the work could be everywhere.

There is a photo of Krasiński conducting the sea, a moment worthy of Klein, a musical Cnut. But he has such a strange power — a strip of blue Scotch Tape, 20mm,* at a height of 130cm, length unknown or unnecessary can turn anywhere into art.

* or 19mm. Imagine if Scotch Tape were to go bust. The end of art.

Blue is Beautiful, Blue is Best

Yves Klein (Tate Liverpool, 21 October 2016-5 March 2017)

In the photos of Yves Klein I sort began to do a double-take for Buster Keaton. He has a sort of deadpan look, aided by the wearing of a smart suit or a waistcoat and shirt, which is at odds with the performance of his art — he’s somewhere between a clown and a ringmaster.

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Halfterm Hockney Hideously Heaving

Hockney puts the queue in queer.

David Hockney (Tate Britain, 9 February-29 May 2017)

Several years ago, I travelled back to Nottingham for the opening of Nottingham Contemporary for an exhibition of Hockney’s early work; when I arrived on the Friday the queue was around the block. I never saw the RAA iPod exhibition as all the tickets sold out. I did see the prints at Dulwich Picture Gallery — and that was heaving. The portraits at the RAA were crowded, but I think I booked in advance.

So it was hardly surprising see that there were substantial queues for the Tate Britain exhibition — it had only just opened and it was half term. But if you want to go, book first. Use the cloak room. It’ll get hot in the exhibition.

It is sobering and instructive to realise that aside from a few pictures in the first and second rooms, you could have an entirely different retrospective of Hockney’s sixty years of work: there are the Rake’s Progress pictures; illustrations to Grimm; his prints; the bigger picture of the Yorkshire trees; the chair portraits recently shown at the RAA…

This is not to say that Hockney is a repetitive artist, indeed he is the opposite, constantly reinventing himself, but perhaps as a consequence he seems a difficult artist to pin down.

Which Hockney is on display?

I confess I found the crowd overwhelming — you see the art watchers not the work — and I went around rather quickly. I was a little surprised as to the size of the exhibition — the special exhibition space on the ground floor is normally four large rooms, much smaller than the spaces at Modern. But here we have a dozen rooms, I presume expanded into the final part of the walk through of British art. I will have to go back — maybe in members’ hours.

The first room is a little odd in its mix of periods, and you do wonder whether chronology is to be abandoned. Certainly interpretation is not there for you — each room is named, but the labels for each work are limited to names and dates. When we reach portraits, there is no biography, when we see the famous painting with the misnamed cat, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, you’re not going to find the real name, although some details are in the gallery guide.

The second room sees him on the edge of pop art — with canvas often visible around the paint, as if the paintings are unfinished, There are almost cartoonish figures, graffiti, obscenities, gay themes. We Two Boys Together Clinging is an obvious example, a nod to Whitman; was this the painting in Nottingham which was connected to Hockney’s obsession with the headline “TWO BOYS CLING TO CLIFF ALL NIGHT”, next to the royal insignia painting CR (for Cliff Richard)? We get the first signs of the obsession with America, which will turn into studies of swimming pools and sunbathers and boys lying on beds. Sometimes he is leaning in the direction of the abstract, sometimes a mix of the photographic (but curiously flat) and sometimes there’s a nod or two to Seurat and pointillism.

And then to photography itself, with pictures assembled from Polaroids and then 35mm, multiple viewpoints of the same topic, with a nod to Picasso perhaps.

This feeds back into paintings made on several canvases, landscapes that don’t quite connect, whether Yorkshire or way out west. Eventually this would lead to the Yorkshire trees that filled one wall at an RAA summer exhibition — but shown here only in preparatory paintings. Years later he would drive a landrover along a country road in each of the four seasons, constructing the landscape from several screens. On the one hand there are black and white charcoal drawings, on the other highly coloured landscapes that owe something to Vincent Van Gogh. It is as if he overdoses on colour and then revivifies himself with monochrome shapes and vice versa.

And in conclusion the iPad pictures, animated constructions, but from first sight not as interesting in completion as in execution. Somewhere we break from painting as time fixed on a plane from a single point of view to a reality constructed from multiple perspectives that foregrounds the time factor. Somewhere this ties back to his use of photocopiers and faxes and multiple layered prints (sometimes involving layer Perspex), none of which is on show here. His painting of space or the elimination of space.

And so, somehow, for all his apparent radicalism, Hockney like Alan Bennett has become a national treasure, packing us in. Somehow I need to penetrate his apparent shallowness — the depth of depthlessness. But it will take at least one more visit.

More than a Load of Pollocks

Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, September 2016—2 January 2017)

There’s a story that in the late 1940s, the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism. It was an exercise of soft power, from the people who funnelled money into the animated Animal Farm and exploding cigars. The Soviets were busy with their Socialist Realism, whilst the Americans were channelling the chap with the lily pads with bigger brushes. The AES paint big, really big, and it takes a lot to transport all those canvases around the world. In one version the Tate wasn’t able to afford a huge exhibition and an benefactor gave the money. The story is the money came from the CIA.

If Abstract Expressionism didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, then at least it came up with pretty cool murals.

It’s the sort of thing that can leave you cold, but if you surrender to it it’s pretty amazing.

Just like capitalism.

The cavernous spaces of the Royal Academy seem appropriate, although they’ve never quite got the walk through right. These are huge, abstract paintings, determinedly non-representation, yet in theory expressing an inner emotion. Of course, we don’t always know what that emotion is, but you can always supply your own.

The first room was a kind of overture, showing paintings from many of the big names prior to the glory days. Some of these are portraits, few of them are great, but you can see the roots in Barnett Newman’s green stripes on dark red. There’s a curious Mark Rothko, Gethsemane (1944), presumably alluding to the night of Christ’s betrayal, and sort of cruciform, but it might be an eagle with an American football. And a weird cloud flag.

Clyfford’s Still’s PH-726 (1936) has wobbly male and female bodies inscribed within a block — a two dimensional version of what Moore and Epstein were carving at about the same time. A new name to me, I confess, but one I will return to later.

And so the various stars come out — and the rooms which focused on one or two artists were stronger than those which offered dubious thematic arrangements. That being said, I don’t get on with Arshile Gorky, having bounced off his Tate Modern show a few years ago. A numbers of them look like oddly painted figures in a room — say Diary of a Seducer (1947) — and I see I’ve made the note to myself, “bad photoshop”.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, is truly sublime. I never quite wrote up all my notes from Liverpool, but the late, black pour, works feel like the figurative abstracted. Like Rorschach tests, you can find the sail boat if you squint right. He gives in to the chaos of the drip, somewhere between randomness, automatic painting and the unconscious at work. There’s a huge mural, designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, with “a prancing, bestial presence” which maybe you wouldn’t want to live with. You don’t get a lot of help from the titles — even Summertime (1948) isn’t that helpful, with its wide, short overlapping of colours and drizzles. The trajectories of flies on a summer’s evening? There’s his Blue Poles (1952), with its striking, vertical totems, daring you to distinguish figure from ground. There are other colours, of course, (black grey white) but it’s striking how often he returns to red, blue and yellow, as if he’s unravelled a Piet Mondrian.

[and there, tucked on one wall, is Lee Krasner, not quite the token woman — though it does have to be said that AE is a very blokey genre with its SIZE DOES MATTER statements in oil — who takes four years to come to terms with Pollock’s stupid death in a car crash, who only then can “wrestle” with his ghost to produce The Eye is the First Circle (1960), which inevitably has to be read as homage and imitation rather than the work of an artist in her own right. Later, we’ll come across Helen Frankenthaler, whose exhibition I missed at the Turner, with Europa (1957) although I saw no bull.]

Mark Rothko is glorious, as always, and the room of his work at Tate Modern can reduce me to tears. As always the paintings seem to ride the walls, rather than be hung on the them, the layers, the laminates of colour lumess and dammit that is a word. You are surrounded by them in an octagonalroom, dwarfed, and I was annoyed to see people taking selfies against them — not because of any objection to such narcissism, but because my instinct is to disappear into these canvas rather than superimpose myself upon them. There are exquisite vertigo.

I don’t think I’ve come across Clyfford Still’s work before, but I’ve put his museum in Denver on my long term to do list (when the US is more sensible about the TSA…). These are vast canvases, representing vast landscapes, abstracted into colours. My favourite was PH247 (1951), also known as Big Blue, a luminous canvas of many blues, interrupted by dark brown and orangish vertical strokes. This, too, is a room to get lost in.

Less successful is Willem de Kooning’s work, here dominated by his paintings of women, of which he wrote “I wanted them to be funny … so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls”. Gee, thanks. These are women as landscapes, rather than in, to my eyes deeply misogynistic. His other landscapes, notably Dark Pond (1948), which I misread as and viewed as Duck Pond, are better, but I don’t feel inclined to follow him up.

The shared rooms were on the whole less successful, with less of a chance to get to know the range of the artists’ work. A few women sneak in here — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel — and I suspect the only Black artist, Norman Lewis. I wanted to know much more about his work. A room of drawings, books, prints and photographs got a little unruly, as the labels and pictures were not always as clear as they might be in the crowds. The final room gives space to Joan Mitchell’s four huge canvases of Salut Tom, echoing Postimpressionism as much as Abstract Expressionism, and represents late work of some of the big names — although of course Pollock was long since dead.

One final room to draw attention to is the one of Barnett Newman and Ad Rheinhardt, who interrupt swathes of colour with zipped colours or focal zones. Rheinhardt retreated into the Malevich black square for fourteen years — 60″ x 60″ canvases painted all back. The spartan austerity is striking. But Newman was the revelation, and I wonder if he was the inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Eve (1950) is a mostly red canvas with a dark red stripe on the right hand side and its twin Adam (1951-52) is brown with three red stripes of different widths. I have know idea if they connect, but he somehow feeds into Bridget Riley‘s stripes. Newman writes “only those who understand the meta can understand the metaphysical and his paintings are as much their paint as anything else — the rich blues and reds.

Of course, these artists went through a whole range of political experiences from Pearl Harbor to Watergate, and I guess they mark the point when the art world shifts from Paris to New York, with Rauschenberg and Warhol waiting in the wings (and O’Keeffe‘s rather different abstracts predate, postdate and overlap with their heyday). They are, of course, always on the edge of being the emperor’s new clothes, just paint on canvas, randomness. But in the vast spaces of the Royal Academy most of the work transcends that caveat.

Beyond the Lady Gardens

Georgia O’Keeffe (Tate Modern 6 July-30 October 2016)

“you hung all your own associations with my flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as I think and see what you think and see of the flowers and I don’t”

“Miss O’Keeffe’s drawings … were of intense interest from a psycho-analytical point of view” Camera Work MDCCCCXII

Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a blistering anatomy of the ways in which critics dismiss female authors. I suspect the same is true in the way we treat female artists. So many of them are just plain ignored, not part of the history, whereas others get related to more famous (artist) husbands. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain is a case in point — the juxtaposition of her work with Ben Nicholson’s (much as I like him), risks privileging the influence in one way.

The muse is female. Continue reading →