Standing in the presence of The Goat

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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.

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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.

 

RobertRauschenbergRetroacti

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…

monogram2

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

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

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.)

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 [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?

Alien Santa Has Landed

Matthew Barney2

Matthew Barney – Crown Victoria

 

Matthew Barney Crown Zinc   at Sadie Coles Hq

The centrepiece of the show is the large sculpture ~ Crown Victoria

It looks like a prop from the unmade Alien Christmas special. The one where Alien Santa comes down from space with some rather scary black reindeer and drops egg pods at the foot of children’s beds.

What I find disturbing is the very obvious influence of Joseph Beuys (whose undying fan I am as all readers of this blog should be aware). But it seems very literal and half digested here. Beuys was a genuine sociopath and his psychic bond with the strange materials he used was instinctive, charismatically shamanistic. Felt, tallow, brown floor paint etc – these were fetishes in a shamanistic sense of having a devotional quality that connected the artist with the wider reality. This use of materials made Beuys a unique artist, it gave him power that other artists using traditional materials (oil paint, stone etc) or randomly found materials could not match.

Ah! The vitrine...

Ah! The vitrine…

Here Barney seems to be trying to develop the same level of mania as Beuys for his materials but it’s not compelling, and it does not feel genuine. The drawings feel mannered and derivative. The use of the vitrine feels false. The evidence of some sort of chemical processes (oxidation and crystallisation) likewise. The show is very well presented – it brings out the best aspect of the work and the works themselves must be achingly expensive to produce – some pieces are cast in silver, zinc and brass. But it feels literally and metaphorically too polished. The metaphor of alchemy is apt – showy, promising much but ultimately without basis and doomed to barren failure.

Beuys’ art came from a very deep visceral place. Some of it made absolutely no sense even when, perhaps especially when, he explained it…but you could feel the connection of the earthly, the human and the transcendent. This is clearly what Barney is aiming at – because there is a large chunk of the blurb devoted to Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings – an overwritten factional tome about ancient Egypt. This conscious evocation is not enough. We need to sacrifice a goat, a virgin…anything at all. Without it there will be no divine answer for this unworthy prayer.