David Lynch, Andy Warhol and William Burroughs at the Photographers Gallery
Baselitz and his generation at the Strang print room at the British Museum
At this point it’s probably too late to do anything but notice, but it is remarkable that so many famous contemporary artists are hopelessly socially maladapted. Alienation from society seems a badge of honour for some its favourite icons. What does it say about us that we admire the art of those who are so profoundly alienated? These people are not good role models!
These two shows have an insight into the workings of their minds, rather than the finished, mature work. Perhaps we find artistic disaffection in others comforting, perhaps we identify with it, perhaps we just let the artists feel this stuff so we don’t have to.
William Burroughs’ name is a byword for a kind of unhinged sociopathy that inspires a respect before any words have been read. Burroughs must have been very entertaining to spend time with and this is somewhat reflected in what seems to have been a freeform photo diary that he kept. The notes politely acknowledge the almost total lack of influence of others on his work.
David Lynch’s Eraserhead remains the benchmark of modern angst and he has a dystopian view of life on tap. Yet his monochrome photographs of old factories are oddly pleasant. Well composed, interesting play of light and texture, they are modest objects. The might of industrial entropy is condensed here, much as victorian watercolours compressed the alpine landscape. It has something of the same quality of a diary of the sublime emotions felt while travelling in safety through a hostile environment, but it is the tourism of decay.
Andy Warhol seems well adjusted and normal next to them, but his persona and his obsession with becoming a brand are products of alienation from a depersonalising culture.The Warhol on show is just his photography, not his paintings based on photography. It sort of feels as if we are peeping behind the curtain of his life-performance although he would no doubt have been happy enough with that. This seems like source material – a vague Americana without focus: ephemeral street scenes, ads etc. His finished work re-packages this slight material in such a way that we feel the coolness of detachment and alienation from it. This is Warhol’s shallow but significant insight, a mask that we are allowed to peep behind in this show, but there is not a lot to see.
The Germans have their share of disaffected misfits too. In the cool dark atmosphere of the Strang print room at the British Museum, the heat of Baselitz’s Pandemonium manifesto is clearly a bolus of unfocused nihilism, directed at dominant (West German) materialism. False, hollow heroes predominate as a theme in Baselitz’s early works – they seem to inspire pity more than respect. Baselitz seems to be the most charismatic now that Beuys is no longer with us, but the rest of the gang of his contemporaries – Lupertz, Immendorf, Polke, Palermo – are no less at odds with their homeland, its history and their lives in general. Richter….well, let’s come back to him another time.