You’ve Lost That Conceptual Feeling

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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 one)

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. Here is the result of that electronic conversation.

Joseph Cornell: Naples, 1942

Joseph Cornell: Naples, 1942

David: This show was a show that we were both very keen to see, and I don’t think either of us was disappointed. I wouldn’t say that I loved every piece, but the ones that caught my eye were intriguing, atmospheric and formally perfect. You would need to look at them for a very long time to really appreciate all their qualities.

You had a much better idea of his work than I did before we went – I was eager to go based on his reputation. And Cornell’s reputation is very strong among contemporary art audiences …I am curious about why that is. He is much more highly regarded at the moment than say Picabia or even Max Ernst and yet he seems to have been a one-off artist producing work in a slightly insular style. Some of the work in the show was from Jasper Johns’ collection and I think that might be a clue. Although I loathe the expression, is he an artist’s artist?

Richard: To American artists, I think he offers a link back to the European artists of pre-WWII – his work was included in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at MoMA New York in 1936 and he was friends with Marcel Duchamp, who (according to the RA’s exhibition leaflet) considered him one of the best American artists of the day.

I can sort of see why he might be more highly regarded than Picabia and Ernst at the moment – his work is, to a certain extent, hands off – Cornell doesn’t create the images or objects he uses, and it’s all about creating meaning and effects through juxtaposition. (So his work is not tied to a particular genre or movement and perhaps by being a one-off his work has a greater appeal, because he’s not so easily categorised. A lot of contemporary art has its roots in Duchamp’s readymades or Pop Art and Cornell’s work speaks a similar, although distinct, language. I can see him being an artist’s artist (and in one piece in particular an ancestor to Julian Schnabel’s painting), but I think he has a pretty broad appeal; the constituent parts of his works are easy to identify, what he’s doing is not baffling, but the magic he weaves is.

Shall we talk about Object (Soap Bubble Set)?

Joseph Cornell Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941 Box construction, 46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman (c) The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015 Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Press use is considered to be moderate use of images to report a current event or to illustrate a review or criticism of the work, as defined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Chapter 48 Section 30 Subsections (1) - (3). Reproductions which comply with the above do not need to be licensed. Reproductions for all non-press uses or for press uses where the above criteria do not apply (e.g. covers and feature articles) must be licensed before publication. Further information can be obtained at www.dacs.org.uk or by contacting DACS licensing on +44 207 336 8811. Due to UK copyright law only applying to UK publications, any articles or press uses which are published outside of the UK and include reproductions of these images will need to have sought authorisation with the relevant copyright society of that country. Please also ensure that all works that are provided are shown in full, with no overprinting or manipulation.

Joseph Cornell:   Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941

David: Well when I look at Object (Soap Bubble Set), quite a lot of things are happening at once – I see the overall object on the wall, I can identify particular ‘real world’ objects (the pipe here), I can perceive that some things are not real world objects but images (the shells), I get the reference in the arrangement of them to smoke rising from the pipe, I enjoy the subtle interplay of colours and enjoy the illusion of a frozen moment – movement seems to be stilled here. But there is more…the nocturnal, contemplative atmosphere is beguiling and there is also the strong and unique fascination of the box – which allows all this to come to life, but which we can never enter.

Cornell certainly had a strong sense of how to use colour. The limited palette of this piece is stunning.  The brown wood of the box and the pipe shaft with the warm whites of the ceramic and the cooler ones of the shells are simply very beautiful against the pure black. I think you’re right that juxtaposition is fundamental in Cornell’s work. And I was struck by how his work seemed to emerge from Surrealism – can’t think of any other American artist who got so much from that movement. ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella on the operating table’ – the only working definition of Surrealism for me – gives me a way in to Object (Soap Bubble Set), but that isn’t the whole story. How do you see it?

Richard: Cornell took from the Surrealists, but not much of his work (if any) is concerned with eroticism, fetishism or the abject, so there’s a difference in tone – as you say, contemplative. He’s not out to shock. He’s out to seduce and I think Object (Soap Bubble Set) is a very seductive work – it draws you into Cornell’s world. It’s a nice place to start and it was one of the first boxes in the exhibition. Apart from anything else, it’s beautifully composed – and presents itself as a peculiar, frozen moment. I wonder what significance each of the elements has for him, and want to decode the box (even though doing so would probably ruin the work). Does he want us to decode it?

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

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

David: I think Cornell uses very suggestive objects and images that while not perhaps fetishistic in a literal sense imply subconscious associations that can never be decoded by conscious thought. But I could be completely wrong about that because I know so little about him. I’m not good at decoding anyway. It reduces the power of art in the guise of demystification so that people ignorant of the actual practice and meaning of art (whether critics or art historians) can assume power over it in defiance of established social hierarchies.

Or something like that.

Perhaps it’s more ‘what sort of question could this be the answer to?’ His work does come from the golden age of psychoanalysis. Some of the works seem to me have a sort of theatrical Doll’s House Asylum quality – stages where puppets of the id and the ego could enact dreamlike fantasies or play out roles trapped in an eternal silence. I am looking at Untitled (Tilly Losch), The inspiration for this could have been an event or a person in his life – I don’t know. What remains in the work is a mute mask like figure, intriguing but distant. How do you see his use of the figure?

(end of part one – read part two here.)