You’ve Lost That Conceptual Feeling

 

Latham_01

Book burning Latham style…

John Latham at the Serpentine Gallery/’Speak’ at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (Tania Bruguera, Douglas Gordon, Laure Prouvost and Cally Spooner)

2 Mar 2017 to 21 May 2017

John Latham is an artist whose repuation rests on nothing. Or very little. This show – a survey of his most exhibitable works – puts the late artist at the centre of the minimalist conceptual movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement embraced counter cultural vaules, is uncomfortable with the production of objects, mistrusts the art market and  attempts to achieve transfiguration through ideas. Latham conceived the concept of the Noit – the ‘No It’ – as a motif, or indeed a motive, for his work. He was very thin.

I decided to go for a little trip to the Serpentine today – didn’t know what was on, but it’s one of the few galleries to open on a Bank Holiday Monday. While parking my bike I heard someone walking round the outside who had not been in say to their companion, actually say out loud: “…conceptual rubbish, Emperor’s New Clothes…”. I cannot think of any other single phrase that irritates me as much. If I hear it I know that person is not only unwilling to approach new ideas but is unable to think up an original way in which to flaunt that ignorance.

So I was feeling quite favourably towards John Latham as I walked in. He is an artist that will test your patience though.  When I go to a gallery I like to think, but not necessarily just ‘What the hell is that?’

In truth I have not always been a fan and I’m probably still not. Mostly because I know he burned a lot of books, and I find that troubling. Joesph Beuys was a fan though, and I am a huge admirer of Beuys. But then again Joseph Beuys was bonkers. I strongly suspect Latham was bonkers too. In this revealing interview he seems oblivious to the obvious impressions the book burning would make and focuses instead on secondary formal considerations: how the book stuck out of the canvas, how the open pages at once denied the time based notions of reading but exposed the ‘strata’ of the book. I don’t know if they were good books or not, but book burning still has its authoritarian censorship stigma. Latham was making these works when Pol Pot was rounding up anyone who wore glasses in Cambodia, so he cannot have been unaware.  This peversely oblique attitude to how his work might be received is one of Latham’s many opaque attributes. Burning a stack of Encyclopedia Brittanica in London in 1966 surely had obvious symbolism and it disingenuous to ignore it. The burnt book works remain Latham’s most iconic output.

Some of these works are genuinely powerful and arresting such as his reworking of El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz, (1958). This painting is surely as good as anything Rauschenberg was doing at the time.

Somewhere in the second part of last century the mirror of art splintered into the bewildering array of fragments that we see today. Not just different styles but different modes of activity altogether. Matisse and Mondrian for example had very different ideas and approaches but they expressed them through the same medium – paint on canvas. If you remove that commonality and allow art to be made of anything – or nothing – artists have less and less in common with one another. Some people are making objects, striving to make them original and new. Others are making more of a cultural commentary of that historical moment.

Latham_05

The Cosmos as envisioned by Latham

Latham stands at the root of this bifurcation or at least of one splinter. He is a maker of objects, aesthetic ones too – but they are tangential to his practice. Really they are nothing more (or less) than a snapshot of his lively but rambling mind; so the show is pleasantly full and varied. Given that we are living in the post-conceptual age, this show with videos, floor based objects and things hanging on the wall looks familiar and almost traditional. Moreover you can feel these works were the product of a lively (if somewhat deranged) mind. There is a lot of cosmic subtext to the works and a time-based element. There is the inevitable film that I did not have time for, but seemed to evoke Norman McLaren – it seemed quite playful and sensual, lots of abstract form and colour. Not what I expected from the Godfather of Minimalism at all.

Latham_02

Stars and stripes featuring ironically on a Latham roller blind painting.

The paintings on roller blinds seemed conceived in a spirit of fun also – time based mutational paintings which sardonincally reference the giant unstretched canvasses of colour field painting then in vogue. Ah…so he was mates with Barry Flanagan. Now it makes a bit more sense! There are a number of ‘One Second Drawings’ leaning on a characteristically grubby white shelf. Black dots on a white ground – they do have a sort of negative cosmic intensity to them, a snapshot of an artistic black hole you are looking at for a lot longer than it took him to make. God filling the void, first mark best mark. Pollock redux. It is all of those things and none of them: either you buy the link or you don’t. At the other end of the scale there is monumental land art – The Five Sisters – which although simply shaped and iconic is anything but minimal in scale. All these seem a pointed and sarcastic responses to the land grab of the artistic high ground by abstract expressionism and its children – by American art in other words. Along with his (in)famous ‘Still and Chew’ (1966-7) where he invited his students to chew and regurgitate Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Culture’, it makes his cultural position very clear in place and time. It is a rejection of received wisdom and authority in the first instance and then a further rejection of the Transatlantic respawning of it – a rejection of the whole process of authoritarian paternalistic culture’s self-regeneration. The ghost of Dada permeates this as many other things – not least his American contemporary Robert Rauschenberg – and the description of Dada as ‘a little yes and a big no’ also fits Latham pretty well.

Latham_03

‘One Second Drawings’ leaning on a characteristically grubby white shelf.

Latham’s talk of ‘skoobs’ – backwards ideas of books – and ‘noits’ sound like words from the Bizarro universe. They suggest that he was great at unravelling ideas but not so great at stringing them together again in a comprehensible way. He comes over as a sort of English Duchamp – but without a manifesto,  an English eccentric rather than a French Revolutionary or an English Beuys – a sardonic dreamer rather than a charismatic radical. The white wood mounts for some of these works are showing their age and quite a lot of scuffs and fingermarks from handling that speak of a history. They are a bit projecty and charming – they are objects, objects from which the ideas have blown away and what remains is just the husk of the work. Charming, yes, but it can’t lead me anywhere. This feeling is confirmed when I wander up to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery for ‘Speak’: a disparate and unengaging tribute show featuring contemporary artists’ response to Latham’s iconic minimalism. But sadly anything times zero will always be zero.

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Conceptual door outside Serpentine gallery…leading nowhere.

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Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part three)

Jasper Johns Target with Four Faces 1955

Jasper Johns: Target with Four Faces 1955

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the final part of that electronic conversation – you can read part two here.

Richard: It’s a fine line. But I think Cornell is so involved with the process he discovered that the work comes across as warm, genuine and generous. He’s working hard at making poetic images. The evidence is in the work. Everything is considered.  To me, Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953 looks like an embryonic Louise Bourgouis work. I wonder how much of an influence Cornell was on her. There are other works that remind me of other artists. Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950 is strongly reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces, 1955  (and we know he was aware of Cornell’s work, because he is a lender to this exhibition), and there was at least one work that made me think of Julian Schnabel’s monumental paintings. Do you think Cornell’s work has had influence beyond the art world (And become a “standard” in the way Sinatra made standards of particular songs)?

David: In my professional area I think Cornell has been massively influential, or has at least become iconic. If you Google ‘Cornell Box’ you will see it is a name for a test rendering environment for global illumination and radiosity (diffuse interreflection) environments. Which is to say computer lighting that plausibly imitates real world lighting behaviour by bouncing light rather than just direct illumination. The set up of these (usually just cubes or spheres) objects in a plain white box allows the usually unobserved interplay of surface and light to be seen is a good way to evaluate the behaviour of a render engine with certain known values (of reflection, refraction etc). This is one I made in my favourite renderer, Arnold.

Cornell Box, Rendered in Arnold

Cornell Box, Rendered in Arnold

I find the comparison with Schnabel a bit beyond me though – his work seems so opposite to Cornell’s. Loud extroverted exhortations to the art world to notice him – Cornell’s quiet poetry is a million miles away, a flower growing unobserved in a shady wood. I think I see a connection with the broken surface of the plates to the world within a world of the boxes – but it really seems a loss of innocence, because I believe Cornell’s motivation was pure (I know that sounds laughable) and I am certain Schnabel s a cynical charlatan.

I really like the idea of art ‘standards’. Although they get so mangled it’s only the crazy old Jazzers who can recognise them half the time. That’s us in a couple of years!

Richard: There was one work (quite a small one), which unfortunately I can’t remember the name of – it featured a painted abstract shape that was reminiscent of Schnabel’s brushwork and the way he constructs some of his big abstracts. We’ll have to disagree over Schnabel – I think there’s poetry there – it’s Beat poetry, but it’s there (and perhaps I’m naive, but from interviews I’ve seen and read with him he’s anything but cynical).

Ha, yes! Hope I make it to be an old jazzer. I love it that Cornell’s influence has become part of the greater culture – I’ve just thought of another example: William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer (a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre) has Cornell’s work at its heart.

Neuromancer

It’s interesting that the idea of Cornell’s work has had as much influence as its form. I like it that playing with Arnold or reading Gibson’s book might lead to someone discovering Cornell’s work. Cultural feedback – perhaps something that does not happen with Schnabel…

David: I am not sure that most good artists would like their followers; just as well that they usually come posthumously. Yet it is inevitable where someone has a really strong style like Cornell that some people who are short of ideas or short of ability to put their ideas into form will pinch the superficial aspects of it. In a way that how your style becomes A Standard, (or a cliché possibly) but it can’t help but water down the impact of the original.

Tetsumi Kudo

Tetsumi Kudo at Hauser and Werth

I saw the Tetsumi Kudo show at Hauser and Wirth the other day and this piece seemed to me an insult to Cornell, probably unfairly, but it is surely a tribute to Cornell that I thought of him first and not what I was actually looking at. Like using subject matter that is a bit overpowering, a strong influence can overshadow a work sometimes. None of us can avoid them but we need to mix them up carefully, a bit like seasoning food!

Richard: Yes, this looks blunt and obvious in comparison with a Cornell box. One last thing I’d like to say about Cornell’s work is that it creates its own time. The Kudo work seems to contain a “blink and you’ll miss it” concept, whereas Cornell’s work seems to exist outside the normal pace of life – his boxes draw you in and hold your attention in some kind of suspended space/ time, while the world carries on around you.

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part two)

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the second part of that electronic conversation – you can read part one here.

Richard: Except in a broad sense, I don’t see autobiography in Cornell’s work. He did not travel much outside Flushing, New York – he was a carer for his brother and mother, and a lot of biogs refer to his reclusiveness. So, I think a lot of the boxes are products of isolation – they spring from a yearning to escape the day-to-day routine. Although some titles refer to specific events or people, I don’t think Cornell had any connection with many of them beyond fantasy. For example, I Googled Tilly Losch – she was also known as Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon (she was a dancer, choreographer, actress and painter).

In Untitled (Tilly Losch), I wonder whether he is projecting his idea of what Tilly’s life could feel like. There is a lightness, a buoyancy to the image – the (puppet theatre) figure (who bears no resemblance to Tilly Losch) is held aloft by the strings of an unseen hot air balloon, floating above a barren mountain landscape, and seemingly anchored to  her spatial coordinates by a small, compositionally perfect, red bead. Could it be Cornell’s equivalent of Heat magazine? There, I’ve done it – gone and ruined a work…

David: Not ruined… but it does rather make Cornell’s work (and a lot of other art) a sort of fascinating by-product of unhealthy emotional conditions, like a geological specimen or mutant plant that occurred only because of a freak circumstance. It is not degenerate art, neither does being emotionally unbalanced make you creative. Sometimes though, a combination of a creative person and severe emotional repression results in the creation of works that can contain and embody that displaced love and energy. This does make the work quite escapist: inside the box you are in a wondrous place. If you don’t completely escape with Cornell into the box though, you are left outside it dissecting a bunch of obscure images and objects that may have no connection other than the aesthetic.

Falls the Shadow...lighting in the gallery

Falls the Shadow…lighting in the gallery

Although some of the works did draw me in, some of them left me out in the cold and I wonder whether that might have been to do with the way that they were displayed. The very clinical mounting of the boxes inside display cases made them feel very dead and the hard top lighting was also unsympathetic, with the top of the box frame often casting a very hard shadow over the contents and detracting from the composition. Do you think they might have benefitted from different staging? The show could have boldly remade the gallery as an archaic apartment or some other non-artworld place rather than the standard paint it white and put it all in order approach, which was what we got here.

Richard: Yes, interesting idea. I’m not sure the white cube was the standard exhibition design when Cornell was making the bulk of these works, so I wonder what he would make of such stark, harshly lit surroundings. A hard shadow changes the reading of delicate compositions like these quite significantly. And there’s a distinct lack of playfulness in the RA display. The work suggests Cornell liked to play: both visually and with ideas – I wonder where he thought the boxes would eventually reside? I’m guessing the private home as a Surreal surprise amongst the ornaments (and where the lighting would be softer and more conducive to dreaming). The actor Tony Curtis was a big collector of Cornell’s work; I wonder how he displayed the work…

There are works that don’t work at all for me either – and I’m not sure if it’s just the lighting. Could the images and materials Cornell used be too far removed in time and cultural association to chime with us in the twenty-first century?

David: I’m not sure they are too far removed in time, but it may be sometimes that the objects are a bit too curious in themselves. It could be that those things like clay pipes, jars of gold pigment and butterfly wings etc may have been more commonplace back in the middle of the last century but I doubt it. These objects were not part of the common vernacular like a Brillo box or can of soup. They belong to a world that is a deliberate illusion, looking back at those theatrical magicians of the past – the alchemists whose biggest secret was that they had no secret. The objects seem very deliberately chosen to evoke this world. Pharmacy(1943) seems clearly to reference this tradition. The danger is that these objects are very loaded and can overpower a lot of the more subtle formal elements in the work. This is not a problem unique to Cornell, and he does seem to have been aware of it and often eschews the more outlandish curios in favour of a more restrained palette of objects.

In Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953. Cornell manages to evoke a very intense emotional space with just a few relatively abstract forms. I think the more image based objects are a bit of a smokescreen and for a long time put me off his work to tell you the truth, but he clearly is superior to those artists who are just making endless montages of found objects.

Toward the Blue Peninsula - for Emily Dickinson

Toward the Blue Peninsula – for Emily Dickinson

Talkin’ Serra (part one)

A visit to Richard Serra at the Gagosian Gallery in King’s Cross with David Cook and Richard Guest.

Gagosian Gallery intercom by Richard Guest

Gagosian Gallery intercom by Richard Guest

Richard: This is a space I’ve not visited before; you told me it was big, so I was anticipating scale. And Serra’s work is big and heavy and metal and I was fully expecting lots of slabs of steel resting against each other in precarious, dangerous-looking ways. Only one work disappointed me by living up to this and that was London Cross.
Given that the siting of Serra’s work is so important, I found the entrance to the exhibition really interesting. You enter the gallery through a reception area with a desk to your left. There’s a shop/ office next to it, and straight ahead openings to two exhibition spaces. To your right a spiral staircase suggests there is a second floor (but it’s closed to the public), and beyond this lies another opening/ doorway. No work is immediately visible.  It’s a curiously blank way to begin an exhibition – the lighting is cold – it filled me with a kind of sense of funereal expectation.  David, you’ve seen other shows in this gallery – was the set-up similar with them or is this something specific to the Serra?
David: I have seen three shows here before – Cy Twombly, Georg Baselitz and Jenny Saville. All painters and all working to a scale directly aimed at institutional buyers (by the gallery if not by the artist). I find it a pretty cold space to be honest, but the calibre of artists cannot be ignored. I think that there are similarly huge spaces now with a bit of character and warmth, but this feels like a temple of high seriousness. Richard Serra is in many ways a perfect artist for it.

I think it is very hard not to have preconceptions about Serra’s work once you have seen a couple. It is very uncompromising and monolithic. Or monometallic. It causes spaces to be constructed around it rather than fit in to existing ones. I think that is a huge plus – it stakes a claim for art to be in the modern world, to occupy space. Art is very easily marginalised and made into decorative or bland wall covering. Serra’s work stands its ground and so tends to divide opinion.

This show consists of only four pieces. The space, as you say, is huge: but it is very amply filled by these four works. I find that simplicity very refreshing. He is not trying to spin his themes out into untold variations, but seems content to let each one speak.

Richard: I like it that the exhibition is so pared down – simplicity makes it memorable. And it functions as a showcase: each of the four works acts as a representative of a distinct strand of Serra’s work (each with its own scale). The walls are white, the floors poured, polished concrete; it looks like an art institution. All of which makes the gallery seem like a shop built for the busy buyer. You made a very interesting point when we were walking around about imagining the works in a carpeted space – it’s very difficult to see these works being owned by an individual. Who do you think would buy these works?

David: Well, someone with more than a big garden and an understanding partner. Quite a few of his big works are commissioned – and not just by plutocrats who put them in front of the offices they own to intimidate their employees. Although I think there might be a bit of that…a few of the public commissions have been controversial like Tilted Arc, because of his ‘marmitey’ quality. And that raises the question of who art in public spaces is really *for*. Does it have to be so bland that no-one dislikes it even though it means no-one actually likes it? Or is it the taste of an elite being oppressively imposed on those of us who live/work/study in these places?

Interestingly (at least according to Wikipedia) the top price for a Serra sculpture is only $1.65m (and that was back in the 1980s). So compared to some artists of lesser stature he is a bargain! But the imposing character of the work makes it difficult to live with I guess… although, interestingly, the drawings are relatively expensive. Easier to live with, obviously. But it bucks the otherwise universal trend of bigger = more expensive. Almost all art obeys this, but maybe there is a point on the size graph where the price per artistic square inch goes down?

London Cross by David Cook

London Cross by David Cook

Richard: That’s a really interesting notion – is there a maximum size beyond which an artwork becomes de trop and therefore in some way suspect? – like a balloon with a potentially dangerous volume of gas inside.

Anyway, the first room we entered contained London Cross. This for me was the least successful of the four works. It did what I expected a Richard Serra sculpture to do – it was big and flat and heavy and looked precariously balanced. What I remember talking about in this room was how the work had been installed…

David: I am fascinated by your reaction to this piece because as far as I can tell, you are disappointed because it met your expectations! For most people I think, the works they like best in any show are the ones that conform most closely to the ideal of their expectation. They come to a exhibition with a pre-imagined experience and live it out when they are going round the gallery. And I don’t exclude myself from that either. Sometimes it’s hard for a viewer to spontaneously absorb non-canon works where an artist moves away from a core style, but that is what a creative artist who is not stuck in a rut will do!

London Cross is from the core Serra style, and the room had clearly been constructed around the work – and in a lot of ways the work is more solid than the building that supports it. The cross piece hangs overhead in a vaguely threatening way, but as it is obviously well supported it is an abstract threat. Its weight, material and scale suggest it is more than simply a way of dividing space.

Perhaps our image of Serra in the UK is a bit narrow and very much shaped by the Broadgate sculpture [http://www.broadgate.co.uk/art/Fulcrum], because looking at his work as a whole the other pieces in this show are not in fact so atypical. Am I/we really so parochial?

My best mate’s a genius…

…does that make me one too? Er, no.

Self – Bacon Hirst Koons Picasso at Ordovas in Cork St

 

Hard to hold the camera still when you're throwing up...

Hard to hold the camera still when you’re throwing up…Jeff Koons

 

By hanging one work alongside another in a high end gallery it is clearly implied that the artists are of equal stature. Perhaps for some Jeff Koons is the equal of Picasso, and Damien Hirst is of the same stature as Francis Bacon. The blurb talks of  ‘Four of the greatest artists of the 20th Century’. I am not convinced.

 

What is on show here is actually the yawning chasm between art and anti-art. There are five self portraits on show – two by Hirst, one by each of the others. Picasso’s is the best (you knew that already didn’t you?),  at  sketch for the wonderful ‘Yo Picasso’ from the first flowering of his youth in Paris in 1901. This is a work so full of life, energy, dynamism, flair…Spanish passion mingling with French sophistication. This is a Life being Lived.

Bacon - looking a bit lonely

Bacon – looking a bit lonely

The Bacon is a fairly middling specimen by comparison. From 1969, it is interesting but seems to be missing the other two thirds to make it into one of the triptychs of which Bacon was so fond. Looking at one single image I think I know why he liked them. Fascinated as he was by movement, the three panels are just enough to suggest the frames of a film or the sequential photos  of Muybridge. With three paintings your attention is divided between theme  and the sliding and abraded flesh seems alive. Here the single image does not have this power, but it is still commanding.

self-hirst

The Hirst images are a photo of himself as a grinning teenager in an anatomy museum with a severed head, and an X-ray of his skull. They are essentially mute. They represent a decision to not portray, to hide behind a camera. There is a tragic emptiness here, but it is one of impotence. Being hung alongside Picasso does not flatter him

The Jeff Koons work is a marble bust of himself in the sort of style that would suit a North Korean leader, but with more emphasis on the nipples. It is idealised to an absurd degree which we are presumably meant to find ironic. He is shown as if ascending to an imaginary heaven, the sort of heaven children imagine their pets going to. It is pretty nauseating really. And doubtless fabricated by a team of ludicrously skilled sculptors, who are no longer the artists.

Here is the crux of it – the hand is no longer the artist’s hand. If you can accept this you have a chance at being able to accept contemporary and (post) conceptual work. Anyone who has paintings that Damien Hirst painted himself knows that it was a penance for him – to purge himself of his feelings of unworthiness at his hand’s inability to do his mind’s will. Merely another layer of desperate narcissism that gallerists and critics would no doubt describe as a ‘strategy’.

This gallery seems able to field museum quality pieces, and is always worth looking into. I suppose not everyone will have enjoyed the Auerbach/Rembrandt juxtaposition either. But that seemed worthwhile to me. Not least because Frank is almost too aware of his artistic forbears and is in a constant dialogue with them in his work. Koons and Hirst represent the scorched earth policy of contemporary art – we are asked to believe that they sprang fully formed into the world to save our artistic souls from work with actual content.

Koons is the art world equivalent of artificial sweeteners – the illusion of taste, but with no nutritional value whatever.

Stuff with stuff in it.

Jim Lambie at Sadie Coles HQ in Kingly St

 

Jim Lambie and the lamps

Jim Lambie and the pots

The art object is not always an object nowadays. But when it is it can be an object in itself, or it can sometimes contain other objects.  This is a fairly modern notion: re-presenting an everyday object inside an artwork can suggest many layers of meaning.

What’s that I hear you say, cultured readers? Wasn’t it Marcel Duchamp that originated the use of the ready made back in 1913? Groans. Yes, probably – but he was just being contrary and sarcastic. He had no idea what would come through the floodgates he opened. Since R Mutt’s urinal there have been many more significant and subtle uses of found – or indeed purchased objects. So much so that is almost its own genre at this point.

Jim Lambie - Answer Machine

Jim Lambie – Answer Machine

 

Jim Lambie’s show sits squarely at the crossroads of this genre. On one hand combining clothes and lamps as formal pictorial and sculptural elements, but on the other using them to suggest something else; abandonment perhaps, like the contents of a discarded suitcase.  He is in a tradition both playful, and with an ironical undercurrent.  It involves making aesthetic objects from commonplace consumer items. They are not simple readymades – they interact with more plastic elements – canvases and frames, but because they escape the picture plane they take on a sculptural quality, sort of. The hanging and leaning works suggest Morris Louis and John McCracken – both intensely abstract, but hanging these objects from them the work seems more dynamic and engaging as if the world were somehow penetrating the closed bubble of art creation.

 

Jim Lambie plugs in

Jim Lambie plugs in

The hanging wire pieces also fall into that slightly less satisfactory class of stuff that looks like it should do stuff. It has a machine aesthetic in other words. But imitating the design of functional things in art objects is a strange thing to want to do and it’s a hard trick to pull off. But the other pieces seem fresh and alive – art history and the contemporary world are quietly coming together in them. It’s stimulating rather than life changing, but it is good.

The transmuted object has taken on several guises. The Picasso bull slaps you in the face with pure form, abstracted from two totally familiar objexts. Picasso at once masters and dismisses this whole genre as joky and bafflingly easy.  The Surrealists going the other way – including objects for their subliminal associations and playing with them through inappropriate juxtaposition. John’s work playing on the tension of making things that really look like real things, but are clearly just art. Or Tony Cragg using the detritus of the consumer society to represent it. This work sits among these, feeling its way to new uses of the real world in its own representation, maybe the consumer society demands consumer objects in its reflection.

Duchamp did break the ice at the Armory Show. Until that radical moment, art was made just from paint, stone or clay – pro to stuff. Now this seems outdated. We require art that contains plastic quotations of our everyday lives. These have replaced the literary or biblical references of past centuries, we simply cannot understand that language anymore. The trouble is, we are struggling to understand this new one as well.

 

I am that Dead Hare

Joseph Beuys - Nachts auf dem Flugplatz, der Schakal

Joseph Beuys – Nachts auf dem Flugplatz, der Schakal

Joseph Beuys died in 1986 at the height of his reputation – in the UK at least, partly as a result of the German Art in the 20th Century. Some thought that his work might fade without his charismatic presence, but he still seems to be at the top table.  There is a show now at a new space called S2, or S|2 even – part of Sotheby’s functioning as a ‘selling exhibition’ rather than an auction.  It showcases a small number of high quality smaller works by Beuys and has a film of his wonderful, crazy and iconic performance ‘How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare’ in St George Street just off Hanover Square.

The smaller works are on paper and very collectable. Once your eye had tuned in to the eccentric way Beuys draws, they are very pleasing to look at. He is one of the handful of 20th Century artists who could use animals as a theme in his work without it seeming contrived and irritating. In one piece he uses a slice of raisin bread to suggest a jackal over a ground of his favourite brown floor paint. The slightness of the actual piece of bread on a piece of paper delicately invoking his absolute relation with nature in all its forms. A contrast to the many overblown canvasses with animal themes, mostly done by artists who are tourists in the natural world.

Joseph Beuys - How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare

Joseph Beuys – How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare

In the last space there is the film of How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare. Beuys mutely ushers the dead hare, which is really quite large and really really dead around the gallery. I had only ever seen one still image of this performance before. The film is arresting – it is small scale, there are some people in attendance though not many and you see them in their dated clothes and hairstyles outside the door, outside this holy moment. Although the film is in black and white, the gold leaf on Beuys’ face has a metallic sheen and he does have a shamanic intensity, his clear blue eyes for once in deep shadow and unreadable behind the mask.

In a way the performance can seem like an ironic prophecy of the rise of the priesthood of critics who intercede between the artist and the viewer to explain art and cannot. Beuys was a visionary, and his vision was extraordinary, unique. But he also possessed gifts of communication that, while they could never wholly explain his vision at least were fascinating enough entice viewers, dead or alive.

Beuys’ 1985 installation Plight was an important show for me – it made me realise what potentially could be done and how narrowly we had all been thinking. Yes, there had been performance and installations before, but this was a mature work not some lazy ephemeral event. It had deliberation behind it and it had a distinct atmosphere that I can still recall vividly even after all this time. Very very few exhibits have ever affected me as much. So I am that hare, mute and limp in Beuys arms as he lovingly, but implacably holds art in front of my unseeing eyes. I can never repay him, never thank him, perhaps never even understand him – but his work is to explain art to me nonetheless.