You’ve Lost That Conceptual Feeling



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.


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.


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.


‘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.


Conceptual door outside Serpentine gallery…leading nowhere.


Standing in the presence of The Goat


Robert Rauschenberg – Monogram

Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Bankside,  London SE1
Been away from the blog for a while – back now!

At Tate Modern to see the Robert Rauschenberg blockbuster on Friday evening. Tend to prefer it then – it’s usually quiet, but this time it’s packed. To me Robert Rauschenberg’s work has meant the triumph of creativity over ideology, of form over doctrine, of playfulness over conformity and I’m very excited to see this show, and clearly I am not alone.

In the first room it hits you straight away – you are in the presence of an artist who can draw from any idiom and use it to his advantage. Just in the first couple of rooms he offers us suprematist abstraction, gestural body painting, conceptual, kinetic and painterly work. And that is before we get to the printmaking, the Combines (Rauschenberg’s own word for his paintings that featured real things as part of them), the performances and the installations. The room is titled Experimentation but it represents more than that – it has a hunger, and a consuming energy that simultaneously sucks the marrow out of its sources and creates new avenues for development.

RR1Robert Rauschenberg –  Automobile Tire Print

Automobile Tire Print of 1953 stands out – a work I didn’t know – that seems to have the spontaneity of a watercolour together with an amazing conceptual and performance element but which ends up looking as striking as anything by Barnett Newman or Jackdon Pollock. It has that tension between the final image and our knowledge of that which created it – a simple almost commonplace insight about an everyday thing, stunningly rendered.  Next to it hangs the original of another extraordinary work – The Erased de Kooning Drawing from the same year. Another groundbreaking moment as one artist makes work by the subtraction of another’s.

He flirted with absolutes – white paintings, gold paintings, dirt paintings but moved on quickly. Working intuitively with out a manifesto or a destination. His approach reminds me more than anything of Dada – a quintessentially European movement, and RR is surely a quintessentially American artist. Everything about the work screams Dada though – the dynamic, off centre energy of the work, the heterodox approach to the fusion of materials breaking apart traditional (and contemporary) forms, and an underlying (and perhaps not completely focused) critique of authority.


Robert Rauschenberg – Gift for Apollo 1959

By the time we get to the Combines in room 3 we are already travelling at the speed of light toward the heart of the creative act. That is when we meet the goat. Standing smack in the middle of room 3 we confront Monogram. For me this is a work like no other. The Goat – an actual stuffed goat – with a tyre around its middle stands atop a collagy abstact canvas on the floor. The Goat remains enigmatic – is it enduring its place in art history with dignity or is it a wiling sacrifice annointed with the paint untidly daubed on its nose? The Goat stands as if at the gatetway of something vital – the ability to create, the tyre around its middle suggesting that random element of inspiration,somehow symbolising – probably the wrong word – embodying – life force, animus in collision with society. It is imprisoned by the detritus but somehow also rising above it. In pictures you see the installation view – complete, detached. But what it is to get up close and look it in the eye! It is a gripping piece of work.


Bed (1955,  also in a ludicrous perspex box) on the adjoining wall is almost sidelined. Yet that too combined the elements of the real and the hand of the artist in a hitherto unimaginable way. Looking at Bed and Monogram it should be perfectly obvious to anyone that Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin did nothing. Their attempts at this theme some fifty years after these trailblazing originals seem like a dumbed down GCSE version of it for really thick people who need to be battered over the head with something before they can see it. Here RR takes ideas but plays with them and adorns them with formal touches – his fecundity a massive two fingers to ascetic Duchampian conceptual constipation.



Rauschenberg – Retroactive 1

Following this the transfer paintings and silkscreens represent the flowering of his mature work. They are extraordinary images of the post war American world. They use techniques of reproduction through the transfer of photographic imagery and printing but they are also paintings with compostion, balance of colour and touch. The choice of imagery too is not merely a reflction of what is around him but chosen juxtapostions of power against sensuality and of armaments against art history that draw from surrealism and collage. The askew compostions and awkward looking brushwork come together with the photograpic elements to make a startlingly dynamic whole. It is a heady fusion of almost everything that the Twentieth Cenrty had to offer at that point.

Then almost as suddenly as it came, this extraordinary efflorescense of creativity is over.  The notes tell us that after winning the painting prize at theVenice Biennale in 1964 (amazingly the first American to do so) he called his assistant and ‘asked him to destroy any silkscreens remaining in his studio’. I then lose sight of him in a bewildering array of avant garde performances and other (very Dadaist) happening-style works. No doubt these were equally pioneering but to me they are impenetrable, the cold records available to us are dead echoes. When he does re-emerge in the 1970s he has lost the fire. Harder edge artists (it’s all in New York baby!) like Frank Stella and Andy Warhol  had seized the initiative – but they are much more didactic monocultural artists who lack Raushcenberg’s diversity and wide eyed creative approach. It’s our loss.

The works from the later years seem pointless bloated in scale and lacking in bite – now the marks seem arbitrary  where they once seemed free. Trying to recapture that skein of inspiration that he clearly took for granted as his birthright. It may be that moving to his studio complex in Florida he lost touch with the inspiration of New York which was clearly a big part of his best work. But for me there is nothing in the last forty years of his career to match the first fifteen. But then again the first fifteen contain some of the most amazing artworks of the last century so nothing to complain about really. Nothing except the brainless way these exhibitions are organised – a plodding, linear assembly of a few works from this ‘phase’, and then a few from the next ‘phase’ and so on. It is the approach of a dull archivist – putting everything in its labelled box. Mind you, if that goat was loose it could take over the world…


Wolf in Torus. Accidental riposte to Monogram I created at work yesterday.

The Golden Donut Award

Anish Kapoor at the Lisson Gallery, 52-54 Bell Street

...and the award goes to...

…and the award goes to…

Anish Kapoor has become one of the most established British Artists of today. A bit of an irony since he started as an ‘outsider’ to the art establishment of the 1980s.

But that was a time when merely being from a different ethnic group sufficed to make you seem an ‘interesting’ artist; apparently we did not expect people with Indian heritage to be making European style contemporary art back then. Although he was obviously not the first, he did synthesise the two cultures quite neatly. His use of loose pigment in bright colours on top of simple geometric forms displayed on the floor was fresh and appealing. The pigment recalled an Indian tradition, the forms a more modern kind of minimal European one.

Classic 1980s Kapoor. Image: Tate

Classic 1980s Kapoor. Image: Tate

The work was not overly intellectual or emotionally involving, but carrying just enough of the right kind of artistic baggage to be let into the Fine Art club. It was instantly recognisable and marketable – he became one of the golden stars of the Lisson Gallery pantheon, the success of whom made Nicholas Logsdail seem the Svengali of the minimal. Much art at the Lisson is very ‘cool’ in tone – detached and ironically self aware.

Spin the clock forward thirty years to this new Lisson Gallery show and there is something new on offer. Paintings of resin and silicon. Meant to suggest meat, flesh and blood they hang on the wall thick and overpoweringly heavy and red. The dense physicality of the resin stretching across these huge works does have impact: almost defiling that clean and ordered space. For contrast there are a couple of more familiar mirror surface curved forms and a couple of stone floor sculptures – very smooth and cool.

New work does not meat expectations...

New work does not meat expectations…

But it is all about the meat paintings. I say paintings, but really they are reliefs. They are not successful – they fall between various styles. Imagine a similar work done by Ron Mueck or the Boyle family – it would be rivetingly hyper-real. Or imagine it done by Leon Kossoff – it would have the full emotional impact of flesh riven from the bone. Or even dear old Damien Hirst. He would leave us in no doubt about the reality of the situation, or the sensual high to be had by examining the decay of our flesh.

There is none of this. The blurb invokes Rembrandt, Soutine and Bacon, it should not. These works are neither a visceral realistic recreation of meat nor an imaginative equivalent. The colours are wrong – too simple to be real and yet somehow to descriptive to be painterly. Instead we are faced with something akin to a slasher film which has no plot, and hopes that buckets of fake gore will do the trick. Some weak minded punters may get a cheap thrill, but even for them I suspect that feeling will fade real quick. You can’t condemn an artist for trying something new, but I don’t think he will be remembered for this work.

The qualities of the resin beguiled him into making this leap, but on their own they cannot support it – Kapoor would love to regard himself as a painter, but he has been too cool to get his hands dirty up to now, but now it is too late.

He appears very interested in surfaces. He is a superficial artist – in the best possible sense. He allows the surface more prominence than other sculptors. His form merely allows the surface to display its properties – colour, reflection, absorption and so on. A while back I met a fabricator who had worked for him when I was teaching a 3D modelling class. I remarked that some of the sculptures at his previous Lisson show (this was in 2007) looked like a Maya primitive object with one or two vertices pulled out and then carved or cast on a large scale in a material with a gorgeous surface. He agreed, and said that was pretty much the case. But in a way this allows the simple forms to speak, and that is all to the good.

Some say his work is spiritual, but I would say that it is – to me anyway – blank. Perhaps my spiritual life is void, but I would suggest any spirituality seen in this work is a cultural overlay brought by the viewer. Who cares though, when the surfaces are this delicious?

you can see the centre of the universe from here.

You can see the centre of the universe from here.

Talkin’ Serra (part two)

Concluding part of a visit to Richard Serra at the Gagosian Gallery in King’s Cross with David Cook and Richard Guest. (continued from here)

Richard Serra's Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

Richard Serra’s Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

Richard: Ha, ha, yes, that’s a fair summary – if I feel I know an artist’s work a bit (and in Serra’s case I think back to a big Saatchi show in the Eighties), I don’t particularly want to see more of the same; I want to learn and experience something new. With London Cross I had a strong feeling of “file under Richard Serra”. But like you say, it does have that sense of threat about it (but without the visceral thrill at the Saatchi show that these things could fall on you at any moment and squash you flat), and a scale that tells you there is something bigger in the room than you.

The walls of the room got me thinking – they (hardboard? Temporary. Painted white in an even rollered texture) are very similar to the ones in Tate Britain and Modern and Saatchi), don’t give you the impression you’re in a real room. I wonder whether this robs the work of its power to a certain extent – the threat is weakened because you are standing in an unreal space – you have temporarily stepped out of “reality” into a zone of art contemplation. How important do you think context is to these works?

An aside: Kim Gordon (visual artist and former member of Sonic Youth) in her autobiography, Girl In A Band (2014, Faber & Faber) (it’s an excellent read by the way), says that she knew Larry Gagosian as a teenager and at the time, “[Larry] sold schlocky, mass-produced prints of works by contemporary artists…in cheap, ugly metal frames”. Later she says, “He was…the last person on the planet I would have ever thought would later become the world’s most powerful art dealer.”

David: Well it makes it very clear that the gallery is really a showroom. This fact usually isn’t that manifest though – but because Serra’s work has the durability of Stonehenge almost, it makes the gallery seem very transient. Which it obviously is. I don’t remember thinking anything like that about the Saatchi show, which I also remember clearly. That was like being with some dangerous animals in an open enclosure. This show felt a bit more like a pet shop!

Some works are more self-contained though – they bring their own space with them and don’t rely on the space of the gallery in the same way. I am thinking in particular about ‘Backdoor Pipeline’ which is a work I think we both found intriguing. Two sheets of half-inch steel – corroded to a uniform brown rust colour – folded into a curved tunnel that you are invited to walk through. Is it too literal to view this as some kind of birthing metaphor? Or given the title are we being excreted when we walk out of the other end?

Richard: Given the shape of the entrance, I’d say Serra was strongly hinting at a birth canal. This is a very different experience to London Cross. Insomuch as a Serra can be seductive, this is. I can imagine sitting inside it for hours; the way the light from the other opening reveals itself and gently illuminates the interior curve is very satisfying. It looks as if Backdoor Pipeline has spent a lot of time outside in the rain – it’s a weathered-looking soft brown. The patina lends the metal a warmth the other works in the show lack. After the metal pseudo-graveyard which is Ramble, Backdoor Pipeline seems positively organic!

Richard Serra's Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook

Richard Serra’s Backdoor Pipeline photo by David Cook


David: Ramble for me is the least successful piece. It was just an obstacle between London Cross and Backdoor Pipeline. But it shares a slight hint of the representational with the latter. We both found that hint slightly atypical for Serra’s work and I think that is significant.

Overall I was struck by the muteness of all his work – of a lack of direct reference to modern culture, life and imagery. Air travel, the internet, photography: all are absent. These sculptures are as mute as the Easter Island statues, or Stonehenge. Like ‘Henge, the only real cultural reference it contains is the use of a very particular material – in Serra’s case rolled steel. This is something that future archaeologists will be able to trace to the late 20th Century, and probably to specific parts of the US. But as to why we transported these huge bits of metal across oceans there will be no clue.

I would be happy to use the word monumental to describe his work but the question is – a monument to what?

Richard: Yes, I think Serra’s work ignores all but the basic experiences of life: birth, obstacles, death. Maybe he thinks nothing else is worth confronting: no other subject matter would create the same visceral reaction in the viewer.

What makes writing about these sculptures so difficult is that a big part of the experience of seeing them is the sheer scale of the things. Without being in their presence, their power is greatly diminished – as ideas what are they?

David: They are difficult to write about because not only are they infuriatingly blank, but they do also have enormous presence. In the sense though that the humans walking around in the space are part of the work I think it is more akin to an installation than a sculpture, and that dictates the scale. I don’t think that is a factor when talking about Don Judd or Carl Andre whose work seems more about shape, arrangement, the play of light and so on. Serra’s work is more of a place than a thing.

Serra was born in 1939 and I think World War 2 has influenced his work. For some postwar artists it made human representation impossible and Serra, even though a generation younger than Pollock et al, saw no way to include any direct representation. But unlike say Judd or Andre whose work seems dedicated to formal beauty and harmony (feel free to disagree!), Serra is trying to monumentalise an abstract version of the human spirit. Or parts of it anyway. Almost as if he had been an alien trying to reconstruct us from radio telescope information without knowing what we looked like and then project it back to us in a way we can feel but we can’t see; bypassing the conscious part of the brain which is so obsessed with images and patterns.

David in Backdoor Pipeline photo by Richard Guest

David in Backdoor Pipeline photo by Richard Guest



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 [], 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?

The Wizard Who Made Ideas Disappear

Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

Polke 'Alice' ...the image is the disappearance of the image

Polke ‘Alice’ …the image is the disappearance of the image

Polke is the most enigmatic character in all of contemporary art. His work inhabits a phantom dimension between art and anti-art. A sort of artistic wormhole which distorts the usual values and perceptions, and in which a lesser talent would be crushed to nothing.

For many years I have wrestled with Polke’s work, seeing it and not seeing it at the same time. I just could not understand h0w any painting (and I am just interested in his paintings really) could be so beautiful and so ugly at once as his are. I don’t really know whether I like them or not and I am not sure that it matters. I think ultimately Polke only cared about stimulating a certain response in his viewers, which was a complex compound of dissatisfaction, questioning, aesthetic awareness and a kind of transcendental indifference to everything.

Like all good artists though, he didn’t care to repeat himself and his work takes many forms, and given his rejection of fixed points of reference it is hard to perceive the core, but it may well turn out that the core is rejection. Obviously if you reject everything all at once you won’t make anything, but he seems to have started with rejection of the Nazi past that was so recent for him (he was born in Poland in 1941), but followed that by rejection of post-war consumerism in the early 1960s, and by the time that he was rejecting perceptual reality in the 1970s through his drug use he had also embraced many rejections of new and traditional artistic styles in an exhausting contrarian Odyssey, and for the rest of his life (he died in 2010) he did not slow down or resolve into any obvious pattern, but he often backtracked and took on things he had previously rejected.


Polke’s bleak critique of his chosen vocation


Disintegration of patterns was for Polke suggestive of the disintegration of meaning – of photographs, of images in general. His use of fragmented images anticipates layers of computer graphics but also shows that using images in this way will hasten the descent into the void. To subvert the power and meaning of the images you are using even while relying on them for that very same power and meaning: he knew years before us all that photography was dead as documentation, and showed it reduced to entropic pattern.

varnishing day...

varnishing day…

He used a hundred different ways of making transparency and translucency on the canvas in order to make his work more opaque.

I don’t go to Tate Modern that often, about once a year I reckon. I am not sure about it I feel obscurely oppressed by its omniscient orthodoxy. This time I went in the evening, and it was the best it has ever been. If you are going to try to give some mental space to art, you need some physical space to do so. It was just us and a few glamorous Italians who were really very decorative.

Polke’s use of spillages and other accidental marks seems an echo of Pollock, but his use of ‘ready-made’ images and printed fabrics seems an echo of Duchamp. Between art and anti-art lives the wizard, and like trying to identify the location of a mythical place, clues are often misleading. For many years he claimed his work was dictated by ‘Higher Beings’. Was he joking? Polke has made an enchanted world without certainties, where everything is open to question. That is not an easy place to live, but it is a free one, and I will return.

polka showing his spills

Polke showing his spills


Love Lotta Holes

Dadamaino at S2

Dadamaino at S2

Dadamanio at Sotheby’s S2 (on now until January 16)

Lucio Fontana at Blain|Southern ( back in the summer)

Paulo Scheggi at Ronchini (back in 2013)


Was Lucio Fontana the first person to slash a canvas? I could just google it I know, but the point is that I associate it with him exclusively, like a trademark. But there were others just outside the spotlight who followed who developed his idea.

Fontana is easy to see as negative – attacking the flat surface of the picture rather than creating a sculptural object with a certain form. He was undermining the wholeness of the illusion of space through perspective on a picture plane that for centuries dominated in western art. Picasso and Braque had fractured the picture window with Cubism, but Fontana penetrated it, ripped a wound in it that can never heal.

Fontana Triple Slash

Fontana Triple Slash


On the other hand you could say that he was not attacking, but paring down the art object to its minimal conclusion if you can separate the work from the emotion of the gesture. I incline to the former position, but Eyeball Junior (who has only recently taken an interest in art) is more for the latter.

I do burn with curiosity about Fontana’s working day. Did he paint a canvas, then slash it. Paint up a few the night before and then slash before breakfast and spend the rest of the day with his feet up? One slash or three? On plain canvas, or orange? How did he decide? What were his thought processes?

Anyway, what of the other artists: followers, contemporaries? I was fascinated by the show at the Roncini gallery last year featuring the work of Paulo Scheggi, of whom I knew nothing. He died sadly aged only 31 in 1971, but created some fascinating work. He often layered canvases with holes, organic and mechanical which sit in the area between sculpture and painting – a kind of minimalist relief. They are subtle and generate wonderful shadows and rhythms with layered depth.


Paulo Scheggi

Paulo Scheggi

The echoes of op art are plain, but this is not about illusion. It is about cyclical relationships, a very sculptural reality exploding from the wall – home of the flat picture.

Dadamaino (Edoarda Emilia Maino) is an interesting artist too. Experimenting with these ideas and taking a little from earlier artists like Arp they are quietly sensual works that retain the coolness of minimalism.

Dadamaino 'Volume'

Dadamaino ‘Volume’


As Bart Simpson reminds us ‘The hole’s only natural enemy is the pile…’ but Dadamaino has works that use projecting objects as well, like these gently turning cubes…they catch the light beautifully and again the shadow seems an integral part of the picture – a genuinely exciting idea to me.




Do these works grip me like Picasso or Pollock? Well, it has taken me a while to get to like this kind of thing, but sometimes quiet works speak more clearly than noisy ones.