I have just visited Tate Modern primarily to see the Malevitch exhibition before it closes on October 26 as well as the Sigmar Polke retrospective which opened earlier this month. It is a good week to visit the Tate, though it leaves you a bit arted out. But it was the huge sculpture by US artist Richard Tuttle occupying the Turbine Hall which really grabbed my attention. It was good to see artwork back in that vast space after the gap which followed the decision by Unilever not to renew its sponsorship. With Hyundai taking up the baton, we can now look forward to large scale installations until at least 2025.
Tuttle’s work is the first and is coupled with a retrospective of his works at the Whitechapel Gallery. Tuttle is widely admired for his minimalist sculptures and work with fabrics; often he works really small. One of his most famous pieces is a three inch piece of rope.
At 40 metres, his Turbine Hall work is the largest he has ever done but has not been uniformly well received. “The American artist’s massive winged sculpture is beautiful to look at, but has all the depth and profundity of a Christmas garland” said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian
Over at The Telegraph,Alastair Stewart wrote,“The fundamental problem, though, is that the work represents no recognisable form, shape or thing. The best abstract sculpture eerily makes the suggestion of something figurative (is it a bird? Is it a plane?) – yet Tuttle’s evokes nothing whatsoever. It simply is what it is.”
Personally, I don’t have a problem with a work being simply what it is. But in this case I felt there were references; the work is not explained, so there is no way to tell whether I am right or wrong, but it appears to me to be a turbine, a turbine filling the Turbine Hall; what could be more fitting? Of course it is highly stylised; the wings are not circular; there is no central shaft; it is made of plywood, not metal; it is draped with fabric in strong red and orange. What for other than to look cheery? One could argue the case that there are metaphors in that as well: the generation of power leading to imports – the fabric comes from India, so referencing the British empire in India which ended in 1947 the point at which the Turbine Hall was being designed. Probably not.
Pretty well all the Tate told us is the title: I Don’t Know – the weave of textile language. There is a quote from Tuttle saying that he was not interested in size but in scale, which gives few clues. I didn’t feel any of that matters. What I find really clever about this work is how it uses the architecture of the Turbine Hall and incorporates it into the form of the sculpture itself. Look at the way the verticals of the girders seem to coincide with the wings of the structure – except that in fact they don’t; it is an illusion but one which works from both directions. The photograph here is taken from above.
But the same effect is noticeable when taken from below.
The line of the sculpture is also made more interesting by the line of the cross girder below and of the lights above. If those architectural details had been absent it would not have worked half as well. There are sculptures which look better in a blank or neutral space but Tuttle’s work really got me looking at the way the Turbine Hall is put together. Apart from girders and lights, I suddenly noticed shiny pipes; I appreciated the height and the breadth and the way that other people moved round the work and looked up at it and were dwarfed by it. The red and the orange of the fabric emphasised the greys and blacks of the building.
If Tuttle had no thought at all of his work resembling a turbine, that would be as interesting as if it were planned. It would suggest an almost evolutionary adaption had taken place driven by the form of the building itself. For me, at least, it was the perfect start to the new era.
There was a time when I used to visit the Chelsea Flower Show regularly before I finally admitted to myself that, while I enjoyed the act of creating a garden, I hated anything to do with maintenance. Art is better that way; paint a painting, make a sculpture and you don’t find two minutes later that ground elder has sprouted up in the middle of your work or that it needs pruning. Or if it does, and you do it, then it stays pruned. Anyway, in the days when I had garden ambitions, there was always that moment of recognition at Chelsea – “oh yes; there are the Delphiniums; there are the Californian Poppies; there are the Bonsai Trees. I was thinking of this as I went round Frieze. Oh yes; there are the sculptures in fake fur; there are the paintings which comprise statements about life in crudely executed block capitals; there are the works that look like Mickey Mouse; there is the loosely assembled arrangement of kitsch objects. There are the items you cannot imagine anybody could possibly buy – in this year’s Frieze, winners of that accolade were a length of yellow carpet adorned by a single piece of tape and a piece of old framed newspaper with some very small, apparently random, paint marks on it.
So, there is certainly a sameness about Frieze each year – not just in the artworks but also in the experience: the queues for the cloakrooms and tea at Gail’s Bakery, the breaking of the resolution to look round systematically, the frustration with poor labeling and insufficient artist information. But there are also discernible trends. A couple of years ago, neons seemed to be in vogue. This year there were far fewer, though I did spot one by Martin Creed. He was in a more conciliatory mood than in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where his work read ASSHOLES. In Frieze it said FRIENDS. What comes next? ROMANS perhaps.
There also seemed to be fewer videos, but my tolerance for shots taken with an unsteady hand-held camera, accompanied by flashing lights and electronic music is pretty low, so I did not seek them out. This year there seemed more performance art, particularly people walking around in linked hats; at one point there was somebody laughing hysterically on the floor, at another, people daubing themselves with paint. It must be a hard arena in which to perform because performance art requires concentration from the viewer, whilst the sheer quantity of works promotes a butterfly response. The performances I saw did not grab me sufficiently to get me to linger long. Maybe they were better than they appeared.
I started looking for other categories. This year there seemed to be an extraordinary number of works that looked from a distance like monochrome rectangles but which were revealed on closer inspection to have some variation in the colour or texture. Among them, one turned out to be woven beads; another was produced by a spray paint technique and looked a bit like a pleasing rectangle of bathroom floor; there were three near identical fabrics put together by three different artists, I loved a large photograph by Ryan Gander of a brown background and a very small memory stick as well as this work by Irma Blank. From a distance, the rectangles look something like framed denim. Close up, you can see that they actually comprise scribbled ball point marks. To produce work of this kind must require real obsession.
Shiny is an obvious category and there were plenty of shiny works about. I thought this portrait of Mao, Not Vital by Thaddaeus Ropac in the Sculpture Park particularly clever because it captured him with no features other than the hairline.
What could have been shinier than this hanging mirrored work by Thomas Saraceno which is hard to photograph as it captures its surroundings in this case a wall of cherry blossom, and so merges into the background.
Liz Larner achieved a different sort of shiny with this ceramic and resin piece. What makes it work so well is the rough break in the middle.
Every year there are items which make you laugh; this year, my favourites were the door complete with lock and key that was curled up like a piece of paper.
As we have had plumbing problems recently, I liked the perpetually running bath. It was leaking, you can see the wet patch in the bottom corner of the photograph. Sadly, it was unintended and they fixed it after a bit. To me the leaking bath seemed a better metaphor for life than one which did not leak.
Also in the amusing category were two works by Alexandra Bircken of motor cycle leathers cut open and mounted as though they were animal trophies.
On a personal level there is the long-admired category. Top on my list was Peter Buggenhout, whose work I have previously only seen in photographs. This is one of the Gorgo series; the label uninformatively said it was mixed media; usually the ingredients include industrial dirt and bits of animals, straw and other unidentifiable things. It was as interesting as I had thought it would be from published images but much smaller, a bit like the Mona Lisa. When you think about it, that’s probably the only time Buggenhout has been compared with Leonardo da Vinci
Another in my long admired category is Marc Quinn. I am always impressed by his diversity, I noticed this striking work first and then discovered it was by him.
Indeed The White Cube stand, as you would expect, had some particularly fine works. I was not so keen on the Damien Hirst fish but loved this simple piece by Theaster Gates.The photograph does not do it anything like justice. Made of wood, roofing rubber and tar, it is the shiny edible looking texture of the tar which gives it appeal,
Perhaps that is another category – works made out of odd things, in which case one has to include this fine unwearable garment by Doris Salcedo made of silk thread and sharp steel pins.
In contrast to the long-admired, were the many artists who were completely unknown to me. I particularly liked the way that Cameroonian born artist Barhelemy Togue manipulated acrylic paint making it flow like water-colour.
I was also fascinated by this painting by Puerto Rican artist Angel Otoro. He has developed a technique of allowing oil paint to dry on glass, at which point he removes it and collages it onto canvas.
There are other works on his website which I prefer chiefly because I am not totally convinced by the pink and silver, but in all his paintings I particularly enjoy the fluid folds that he achieves,. Another artist who manipulates paint in a non-traditional way is Mark Hagen. The interesting grey panels turn out to have been formed by forcing paint through burlap which was then presented from the underside. The coloured panels are made from computer components, providing a pleasing contrast and creating one of the most stylish stands in the exhibition.
Proving that Frieze gets you to see all kinds of connections.My final category is chains, Two works by two very different artists. This piece is by the Chinese artist Liang Shaoji, and is made from colophony, iron, polyurethane and silk. I particularly like the way that the silk partially obscures the links.
Meanwhile, Monica Bonvicini produced this extraordinary cube of chains set on a mirrored surface.
Surface is all I have been able to write about; it is the trouble and wonder with Frieze that there is so much. Ideally I would go back the next day, see it all more slowly, perhaps keep my resolution to do it systematically, Because of my wafty progress, I know there were works I missed. i read there was a sleeping gallery attendant – I would have liked to have seen him. Maybe two days next year? But then, could I face the queues for the cloakroom two days in a row?
I am in interested in works which sit somewhere in the overlap between paintings and sculpture, so when I noticed that the White Cube was showing works by the American artist David Hammons, which appeared to be just that, I was keen to see them in the Mason’s Yard gallery. David Hammons is known for his work exploring race, nationality and identity: his commentary on the Civil Rights movement in the US. Much of his work involves humour in some way from his African-American flag, the red white and blue being replaced by red, green and black, to the urinals he placed Duchamp style on trees in a wood. I like his 1983 street piece Blizzard Balls Sale, particularly the fact that they are each so beautifully made.
He has a reputation for eccentricity which some commentators have indicated is a euphemism for being generally difficult. He seldom speaks to the press. It clearly amuses him to play with the art world and collectors love him for it. Writing about him in 2009, Steven Stern commented in the Frieze Magazine, “Hammons’ notion of an artist includes a constant flirtation with notions of the illicit and the fraudulent – the ever-present suggestion that the whole business might be a scam.“
Being on the receiving end of something that might, or might not, be a scam has the potential to disappoint. If I had done a bit more research on what I might find in the Mason Yard gallery, I would have known that Hammons had shown similar works in New York. So what was there?
On the Ground Floor there were some drawings which I finally concluded I rather liked. Hung at an odd angle, they resembled dark rain clouds against a grey sky but closer inspection revealed intricate patterns. They were labelled Basket Ball Drawings and were formed by bouncing a basket ball on paper so the pattern must have been the texture you find on a ball, . The list of materials used provided the answer as to why they were sloping out from the wall as if they were on an easel. Harlem Earth on Paper with brown leather suitcase, the notice said. But there is no sign of a suitcase until you look behind the drawing and see that it is stuck to the wall near the bottom of the frame and is the reason why it hangs so oddly. I didn’t think the suitcase added much but it didn’t detract either.
I also liked the visual joke in the lobby – an African style mask, coloured orange and placed on a pile of canvases, it looked out of place and awkward, something of an anachronism. It was entitled The New Black. To get it, you need to have read the fashion pages; there has been a lot in the fashion press this year about orange being the new black.
I was far less impressed by Dirt Drawing. I could not see it at all at first, but one of the attendants pointed out that, in what looked like an empty space, there was a faint mark on the wall, outlining a canvas that had been there. It resembled the kind of marks that you leave behind when you take the pictures down on moving house. You hadn’t realised that was art had you? In this case, the dirt was not accumulated over the years but, so I was told, came from St James Park. A bit of a fraud that, I felt.
But I had come to see the reliefs. One was shown on the White Cube website on a quick-moving loop which moved on to other people’s artworks before you could look at it properly. In the fleeting glimpses obtained on the website, it looked interesting, but, it turned out, stationary and with time enough to study it, it seemed less so: merely a canvas, covered with a tarpaulin. There were five of them in all, each covered in different bits of stuff. That is not to say that there was not a certain aesthetic about the works. Indeed I rather liked the way that the tarpaulin was distressed; the blue colour shown here is pleasing; I like the way the yellow ropes dangle down and the way that in one of the works there were bits of plaster lying where it had apparently fallen off the wall.
So although I was expecting something more constructed, I might still have been impressed.The problem to my mind was what the tarpaulin covered. In the photograph you can see that it is covering something but you get no clear impression of what it is. So there is a sense of mystery.
That can work. One of my favourite works in the Pompidou is the Archives of Christian Boultanksi. It is an installation created in 1990 comprising 646 rusty biscuit tins containing, it is said, 1200 photographs and 800 documents from his studio. You do not know for certain whether the photographs or documents are really there or what they would be like. Part of the pleasure of this work is where it leads the imagination, but creating artworks in the observer’s mind carries risk.
In the Hammons exhibition you indeed speculate on what might be hidden by the tarpaulins. The problem is that judging from what one can see, I, at least, concluded nothing very exceptional. The gaps in the coverings revealed fragments of abstract paintings that seemed crudely executed in rather unsubtle colours. Did covering them with a tarpaulin raise their artistic merit? I thought not. Instead of imagining something good I was now imagining something poor. It was disappointing: the loop on the White Cube website had led me to visualise something so very much better.
You have to be a very successful artist and perhaps, more pertinently, a very rich artist to incorporate diamonds in any quantity into your work. Damien Hirst famously did so with For the Love of God, which has, unfortunately, given rise to the huge numbers of spangly plaster skulls and tee shirts, which are now sold in London tourist shops. Anselm Kiefer, whose work is currently showing at the Royal Academy in a major retrospective, also does so, though in a more restrained and subtle way. A little notice by the side of the paintings simply says ‘mixed media’; no mention of diamonds at all. It is only as you try to work out how he achieves the sparkly effect that makes two of his enormous paintings glisten like a night sky, and, in so doing, lean forward, so setting off an alarm, that you begin to wonder. Then you realise that you have crossed a discreet line on the floor and that – yes – they are real diamonds. Apparently quite a few other people did not realise what the line signified, or they were would-be diamond thieves, because the alarm seemed to go off pretty regularly throughout the time I was there.
With the exception of the diamond studded works, one of the joys of this comprehensive and hugely impressive exhibition is that it provides the opportunity to get really close and see how Kiefer manipulates his materials, paint, straw, lead, clay, sand, wire, electrolysis sediment, whatever that is, and even the odd sunflower plant. The works are massive and I was struck by the sheer energy and physical hard work that must have been employed in making them. Up close, the texture is riveting; you get drawn into the paintings. From a distance they appear dark, brooding, monumental, as indeed they are. They are nearly all in some way associated with his reflections on the horrors of the Nazi era and what he sees as his compatriots` tendency to erase them from the collective memory and carry on as though it had never happened.
The works shown in the Royal Academy range in time from the early paintings which include a water colour of himself making the forbidden Nazi salute, through the dark interiors with which Kiefer made his reputation, up to some large installations which were created specially for the exhibition.
Themes keep appearing and reappearing so the effect is cyclical rather than a progression. In particular the symbolic dark sun flower comes back time and time again. Some of them I liked; others less so, but they were always dramatic. It was particularly interesting to be able to see the iconic Ash Flower – a huge interior dissected by the dried stalk of a real sunflower turned upside down.
I had noticed that the Kiefer painting shown in the Royal Academy 2014 Summer Exhibition, though predominantly monochrome, included hints of colour and was interested to discover whether his work showed any sign of becoming less gloomy and more optimistic as the years progressed. After all, Kiefer was born in 1945 just as the war was coming to its conclusion. When he started working as an artist in the late 1960s, many of the people in authority from minor officials to members of the government would have been acquiescent to the Nazi regime. Today those who were born, as he was, as the war ended have for the most part retired; the generation who make the decisions in Germany now have no association with what happened then. There is not even the guilt of what their parents might have done. But it appears that it is difficult for Kiefer to forget the past. In the 2013 work Language of the Birds, the huge German eagle wings atop the pile of books or canvases suggests oppression and censorship; for the most part the colours in his recent work remain the sombre browns and black with which he is associated.
There was one interesting departure in all this. Towards the end of the exhibition was a room devoted to some water colours. They showed a model in a variety of erotic poses; they were lively, passionate,vibrant and unashamedly sexy. In some, the model was shown with her legs spread, in another she glances over her shoulder, giving us a knowing look. In others she seems to have been caught in the throes of ecstasy. The accompanying blurb cited some classical references but the paintings themselves avoided the intellectualism associated with most of his work. There is clearly another side to Kiefer apart from the angst; it suggests that he has other outlets for his energy apart from his art!
Anselm Kiefer exhibition is showing at the Royal Academy until 14 December