Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part two)

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Jasper Johns  ‘Flag’ (1958)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result. 
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Richard:
I think the subjects are very specifically chosen – they have deep roots in the Western psyche – a target is for shooting at, so we think about the implications of that image; numbers underpin our lives and shadow our activities in all sorts of ways (data, economics etc), maps and flags signal ownership of land. These objects are all so much a part of everyday existence for so many people that they are taken for granted, but they hold fundamental meaning – road signs, logos, labels are ephemeral by comparison. So, I wonder whether Johns used the maps, flags, numbers and targets to stimulate some kind of intellectual/ tactile reverie in the viewer. If so, to what end? I don’t think his concerns were ever aligned with those of the Pop artists; he was looking beyond labels and design at deeper human experience.

David:
They certainly are very old and as near to universal as you could wish for. On the other hand he chose that particular flag (Stars and Stripes), and that particular map (of the U.S.A). As far as I know he stuck with them. Similarly he has never varied the typeface for 0 through 9 – it’s always the same typeface that is depicting the numbers. A font so old from the days of stencils it probably doesn’t even have a name. It’s almost as if what started as an unconsciously chosen symbol has evolved a deeper aspect and what we have ended up with is a series of portraits or views of a specific landscape – like Frank Auerbach painting the same models for fifty years or Cezanne or Hokusai revisiting the same landscape in different seasons or from different viewpoints. Is it possible he finds them somehow almost as real as people…in some way anticipating a kind of abstraction or virtualisation of our physical lives?  Johns’ work somehow embodies the moment the standard of living in the States was suddenly way better than anywhere else on the planet, but without depicting a refrigerator or a Lincoln Continental. When the materialist ephemera of our culture has long disappeared, it Johns’ work a fitting encapsulation of that moment, a monument to it even?

Richard:
Not a monument. Or an encapsulation. I think both terms are too static to capture the nature of the work. The work is simultaneously a part of and comment on the time – Johns is right in the thick of things – the US cultural debate – questioning his times and positing ideas for a future. His art lives and breathes still – its meaning changing with the political, social, cultural tides. This is another difference with Pop, which for the most part represents a fixed point in time in terms of what it’s saying. Johns’ work somehow embodies a complex representation of the American experience. On the one hand, it is complicit with capitalist values (the art market being a  model of the system in microcosm, and the soaring value of his work within it) and on the other it seems to undercut it, by pointing to objects that define everyday life and saying here are your rulers: discuss. The hand of the artist is in the service of these iconic/ monumental images, and is necessarily humble, which I think raises a question of scale.


David:
One thing for sure is that he himself never attempts to explain his work, its origins, its ideas at all. It’s not his job. He is the master of the unhelpful artist-on-the-subject-of-their-own-work quotation. Here are a few:
“One works without thinking how to work.”,
“I don’t know how to organise thoughts. I don’t know how to have thoughts.”
“I have no ideas about what the paintings imply about the world. I don’t think that’s a painter’s business. He just paints paintings without a conscious reason.”
“I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter –- that would be my life.”

I don’t think he is being deliberately unhelpful here, (although bizarrely it made wonder how Marcel Duchamp would have fared on the Graham Norton Show), I just think his angle of attack is so oblique relative to almost any other artist it is very hard to explain it in simple terms. This is perhaps more revealing:
“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.”

This hints at the transcendent quality of the work. The borrowed starting point (the real thing – map, target, flag etc ) kick starts the work, before Johns takes it over and remakes it in art. The process through which the canvas is covered by the addition of paint is also a process of reduction – if the supplicant is honest and without ego. What remains has the essence, the life that the artist was seeking to put there.

It’s not cerebral – in the sense you need to think about it to understand it – but it HOLDS the mind. It is not a concept that has been merely executed, (a sense of the death of an idea there), but an idea that has been allowed to take flight – or to become manifested through – a (to me) surprisingly traditional and intuitive process of painting.
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Jasper Johns: ‘Painting With Two Balls’ (1960)

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The Deal With Real

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Boom For Real Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican Jan 2018

There is nothing like instant success to polarise opinion about you – Jean-Michel Basquiat arrived at the pinnacle of the New York Art Pantheon almost overnight in 1983 and he has as many detractors as admirers. I was excited to see this show to judge for myself, as I had seen so few of his paintings for real. Wandering around the Barbican Art Gallery how does the work feel – vital and raw or superficial and fake? It’s really not easy to say. There is rawness, but also a very deliberate and grating false naivete that casts a long shadow over it.

Here I wanted to take a more measured view of the work, and try to disentangle it from the fame, the tragic early death, the myth and the identity politics. But I was not able to. There are questions we need to ask ourselves about Jean Michel Basquiat: about the man, his work, and our reaction to it.

‘Boom for Real’ was his catchphrase we are told. It implies that the real and the authentic in art were of primary importance to the young Basquiat. SAMO© – his (shared) graffiti persona that brought him attention of the downtown NY artworld was an invention, and the suspicion remains that his later work was also the product of an invented or assumed persona.

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1981 New York was boiling over, bankrupt and chaotic but creatively having some of its best times. Punk, New Wave, the twilight of Disco and the birth of Hip Hop were all happening at once. The streets were full of energy and graffiti was a big part of that of the aesthetic – dystopian – appeal of the city.

You can almost, even at forty years remove, hear sharp New York entrepreneurs thinking about bringing all that energy into the polite world of the gallery. There must be one artist, (they surely thought), one at least in this city, to lionise, to fete, to shock the bourgeois with. To build up like a pop star, and to exploit, you might also think.

Indeed it seems that Basquiat was initially discovered by the Impresario of the Mudd club – (in)famous downtown hangout of the time. He was the graffiti artist brought in from the street. Here we engage with the myth, the worst myth of all, but maybe there is no avoiding it. The Starving Artist myth: out there somewhere is a genius – unappreciated, and of course ludicrously undervalued. Americans in particular seem susceptible to this – just think how they love Van Gogh. Basquiat offered them the chance to get in on the ground floor of their own piece of a fine art history legend right there in New York. We – the audience for art – wanted him to be a genius, because it meant we had the sense and taste to appreciate genius in the raw.

Although that is obviously illogical and based on nothing, we basked in a kind of liberal reflected glory.

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Basquiat’s story is a Cinderella Romance, but unless we decide the meaning of art is indeed about celebrity, about individuals ‘making it’, the story alone is not enough. What is the work? There are some photographs of early graffitti and some panels carried in wholesale straight off the street. There are some paintings, not overlarge in scale, which vary in energy and premeditation. And an awful lot of background material – photos of people from ‘the scene’, books and records owned by Basquiat, films of people talking about him etc. Not all of this is bad – the graffiti covered fridge is awesome, but it takes the focus away from the paintings themselves. They have to stand alone or not at all.

Black identity expressed in music, we are used to. Black identity expressed in painting, not so much. I suspect Basquiat exploited this rarity somewhat knowingly at the beginning of his – brief – career, only to find himself trapped by it. Patronised and imprisoned in a caricature he had rapidly outgrown, he was tantalised by the prospect of what he might become – achieve – with his new status. But like all enfants terribles who suddenly find themselves pushing against nothing, there is nowhere to go after a while and they risk vitiating the impact that the original work had by repeating it to a tame audience. Basquiat was confronting this, but had not come out the other side.
Bewildered by fame, and no doubt riding the wave of the hedonistic NY scene, his paintings vividly capture a raw cultural mix. They are a picture of a mind in flight, but without anywhere to land.

Music – in the form of Jazz and early Hip Hop provides the touchstone for the paintings that worked for me- they feel quite animated and lively and their elements do have contrasting timbres: a jagged red shape against a smooth outline or spray painted element against a scrawled pencil word. It feels spontaneous, expressive, free. When other references to literature, philosophy and the history or art creep in it is not so convincing. Often literature is reduced in Basquiat’s painting to a lot of names written in that faux naif script (although his own handwriting was perfect). They are signifiers of ‘high’ culture; invocations of a magician speaking the words of a spell that he doesn’t quite understand, or the tags of a graffiti artist claiming a new territory for his own. Clearly he was stung by being represented as a crude caricature. This was one response. Another was to try to outdo the caricature, by portraying himself in his paintings as a ludicrously over-Africanised totem.

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Basquiat did not live long enough for us to know how these strategies of self representation would have played out. It is clear though that his struggle for his identity through  painting was genuine and personal, Although in death it has been hijacked by those who put identity politics ahead of self-expression and those with nostalgia for that New York scene, if we keep looking hard we can glimpse the real Basquiat fleetingly.

I will leave the last word to Deep Purple…

“Nobody knows who’s real and who’s faking
Everybody’s shouting out loud
It’s only the glittering shine that gets through…
Where’s my Robin Hood outfit?”  (Ian Gillan – No One Came 1971)

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Photo credit: Basquiat_Boom for Real_Barbican_Photo Tristan Fewings_Getty Images_The Estate of Jean Michel Basquiat_Artestar

The Biggest Load of Bull

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The arresting Minotaur head that opened the show.

Picasso: Matadors and Minotaurs Ran from April to August 2017 at the Gagosian Gallery W1, curated by Sir John Richardson.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by John Richardson, (pub. Knopf 1999).

I am catching up with myself slowly! This show – back in the summer – was a stunning assembly of some of Picasso’s finest work featuring both sides of the Bull theme.  I can’t recall seeing a finer Picasso show in London since Picasso’s Picassos at the Hayward decades ago. Continue reading

Michael Andrews: A Conversation (Part Three)

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School IV -Barracuda under Skipjack Tuna, 1978

Part Three of my conversation with Richard Guest about Michael Andrews.

Read part one here & part two here!

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David: There were a number of large underwater paintings of fish swimming in the upstairs galleries. I was wondering how they fit into this…fish are potentially a banal subject. Obviously there is the parallel of floating, and a kind of luminosity to the surface and again the ambiguous relationship to photography. What do you make of them?

Richard: The fish paintings really do look like nothing so much as pretty paintings of fish. I’ve been staring at the painting above for a while and I’m getting nothing else from it. It’s very relaxing – like a fish tank. I feel distanced from the subject matter and it holds little to no meaning for me in art historical terms – it doesn’t fall into any of the usual categories/ genres. There’s just the emptiness you talked about (and I can see why you mentioned Alan Watts. And the artist’s hand is missing – no expressive marks to muddy the waters.). Were the fish paintings the latest? Perhaps Andrews was always working toward this empty space. A moment for a tired patron to clear away their mental cobwebs. Matisse’s philosophy taken to its logical conclusion? What do you think was Andrews’ attitude to the selling of his work?

David: He once wrote: ‘I don’t paint for money, but I do sell for money’. Seeing as James Kirkman and Anthony d’Offay were his dealers, I would say his attitude was pretty clear. He certainly wasn’t about to flood the market – he certainly never felt the need to make multiples or anything like that – all we have is the paintings. I am not sure that he envisioned where the paintings would end up too much, but to the extent he did, I think would have wanted them to be a place to lose yourself (or your Self) momentarily.

What is the difference though between his work and that of a talented amateur – who might well paint fish, or a landscape from a photograph? They are not like Gerhard Richter’s blank photo paintings. Richter’s use of photography undermines its documentary properties and generally reflects on the truth of the perceived image, whereas Andrews seems more about using photographs for what he can take from them – more like Bacon. They are reference but he is happy to forget them too. There are passages in the fish paintings in the backgrounds which are breathtakingly beautiful pieces of abstract composition, but he always frames them within a figurative context. That contrast is not the work of an amateur.

School I, 1977

School I, 1977

I think he is always flirting with analogy though – the fish are called ‘School’ and he was apparently hinting at human behaviour, conformity, predation etc. But it can really only be described as a very loose analogy that is submerged in formal play of light and texture.His thought process was often unclear. He was aware of this and did not want it to intrude into the paintings, where his visual intuition ruled. But there is a conflict and tension between the two that feeds this sort of intertwining between the figurative and the abstract, the traditional and the modern, in his work.  If we ignore the connotations of the subject and concentrate on sensation – a lot of which is about lightness, floating, flying etc we will approach the work more closely.

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Thames Painting – the Estuary, 1994-5

You say the artist’s hand is missing, but I would say it is invisible. He certainly hasn’t removed it – he made all the paintings by hand – even when he was stencilling or using a spraycan. Everything is delicately felt. Can we finish by talking a little bit about ‘Thames Painting – the Estuary, 1994-5’ – his last painting? In Estuary he had the painting on the floor and washed piles of mud and fine stones over the canvas with turpentine – like a real estuary in miniature. There are sharp depictions of old fashioned lightermen and fishermen combined with a streak of varnish that seems to have escaped from a Sigmar Polke painting…does it seem like the summit of his work?

Richard: It’s my favourite of his paintings. It teeters on the edge of total abstraction – like an English take on Tachism, its structure hidden in the blasted, dark, land and seascape. The figures are little more than silhouettes seen from a distant cliff edge. The paint marks that describe the estuary are spectacular in scale by comparison. The figures could so easily be wiped out with a brushstroke, or a spill of varnish. The land and sea look like shots of the Earth taken from space.  And yet the landscape’s very subtly described – there are no hard outlines. It’s a vertiginous experience as if the viewer is being tipped head first into the picture. The dark patch at the centre of the painting is enthralling, and appears to be drawing the rest of the painting into it (but I love negativity, so I would see that). I wonder if he knew this was his last painting.

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Michael Andrews: 30 October 1928 – 19 July 1995

Michael Andrews – A Conversation (Part Two)

 

Lights VII – A Shadow, 1974

Part Two of my conversation with Richard Guest about Michael Andrews. Part One here.

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David: One thing Michael Andrews does not do is clearly set out his intention. I don’t think he has a program which is one of the reasons he appeals to me. The fusion of contemporary imagery (often through photographs), with a painterly surface and traditional, directly observed drawing further masks his thought process.

The Lights series is not really a series in a strict sense, but it is linked by the balloon viewpoints. This sensation of floating above things clearly appealed to him – of apprehending a very wide and distant view with nothing in the way and having a god-like clarity.  Lights VII seems to have the composition and handling of a Rothko, and the palette and light of a Corot. Abstract Expressionism pulling against a representational landscape ‘view’. The shadow defines scale and space but the drawn elements are evanescent – only just there. It’s a really unusual fusion of these disparate artistic strands that shouldn’t be able to live together; yet it seems so natural. But what is in front of us feels like air and not abstract pictorial space. Or is that just all in my head?

Richard: No, I don’t think it is. And, it’s a great sensation. This is the first picture in the exhibition to make me wonder if Andrews’ concern is purely with picture-making, that the dialogues and tensions in the works are him merely trying to resolve pictorial challenges. This painting in particular seems not so much about intention as exploration – the balloon being a good vehicle (no pun intended). I’m trying to discover the content – is there any, or is this picture-making for its own sake?

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Lights I – Out of Doors (1970) Installation view at the Gagosian Gallery

David: I think that question came up because we were talking about that painting in a formal way, rather than just exploring feelings. It brought me up short because I really can’t say for sure. One thing we can clear him of is having a Manifesto. He is not trying to lay down a set of formal rules for painting for the next thousand years, but although Andrews deliberately avoids Expressionistic or overly dramatic subjects I don’t think this means they are devoid of content. I think the content is essentially quietly spiritual – which is an inadequate word for something so rational and secular. It is a space between the painting and the viewer for resting a moment with clarity of mind. It is especially manifest in this picture (Lights VII). To confirm this feeling I did what I very rarely do and read something the artist said about his work – in this case an interview Andrews did with William Feaver. He seems to have been taken by the phrase ‘skin encapsulated ego’ that comes from R D Laing (this was the 1970s, remember), and simultaneously an image he saw in a newspaper of a balloon – that seemed to him a perfect image of this. It was a serendipitous visual metaphor for the shedding of the weight of ego. In other pictures in the series you see the balloon or part of it, but in this painting (number 7- the last of the Lights pictures), the balloon itself disappears leaving only its shadow.

Richard: It’s about nullification then – it makes a lot of sense – the Rothko-like composition, the slightness of the image and gestures. Back to feelings, looking at the paintings again, there’s a sense of loss about a lot of them, a lack, a not-quite-thereness, or some kind of imbalance with a resulting sense of unease. I’ve been trying to work out what distinguishes them from straightforward landscapes and I think that’s what it is.
David: I think you’re on to something there – this work is far more complex than it first appears. Partly I think that is because there is a recognisable image that has not been grossly distorted we unconsciously underestimate the ‘artistic’ content and just look at the pretty picture. In Andrews’ case this involves a paring down – of the subject and also of the thickness of the paint on the canvas. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Like many 20th century painters Andrews preference was to diminish the artist’s hand in his painting – he was just subtler and more successful in his approach at blending into the background of his work than most. In a sense there is no real foreground in his painting. The foreground in Lights is somehow where the viewer is.

‘The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad’ as Salvador Dali used to say…similarly the difference between a Michael Andrews landscape and a normal one seems to be everything and nothing. And going back to your previous question I don’t think this is picture making for its own sake but a supremely skillful use of painting as a medium of expression. What we are offered is not a portrayal of the landscape as such but the definition – almost the synthesis – of a feeling. I think there are ideas from Zen and Alan Watts floating about here from what I can gather, but while that might be obtrusive in most people’s work Andrews seems able to weave it into the structure without the painting becoming a riddle with an easy philosophical key. That idea of creating openness in the structure of art is very wonderful – it leaves space for the viewer. It is not the same as just producing unresolved work.

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Continued in Part Three

Michael Andrews: A Conversation (Part One)

Andrews, Michael, 1928-1995; The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock)

The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock), 1987

Earlier in the year, I visited the Michael Andrews show at the Gagosian Gallery in London with Richard Guest. We spent the next couple of months exchanging thoughts about the show. Definitely one of our toughest assignments: here are the results!

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David: I first came across Michael Andrews’ through his Ayers Rock paintings in the mid 1980s, some of which are in this show. I didn’t know quite what to make of them, but I was intrigued and have always tried to see his work when I get the chance – not that often. This is a really great show covering his entire career – an amazing show for a private gallery to mount. It’s clearly a sign that, twenty years after his death, his reputation is at last reaching the level it deserves. For too long he has been eclipsed by his better known friends (Bacon, Auerbach et al). Is this the first time you have seen a retrospective of his work?

Richard: The first time I saw a lot of his work was at a 2001 retrospective at Tate Britain. I was working there, which meant I got to see the exhibition several times. It was a shock to discover a British artist who was so interesting and prolific, and who I’d somehow overlooked. The only work I’d seen up to that point was the Ayers Rock paintings (and that was on TV).

This show is the right size, I think, it needs to be big so the viewer can get an idea of who he was and what he painted – his subject matter and approaches are quite diverse. Shall we talk about one of the early paintings?

David: I’m not sure that he was all that prolific. Apparently the sixty four paintings in this show represent about a quarter of his entire output. Which might go some way to explaining why he isn’t better known. The art market is driven by volume, not quality.

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The Colony Room I, 1962

 

This painting shows us inside the Colony Room – a drinking club on Dean Street in Soho that was famously the haunt of Francis Bacon and others keen to drink the afternoon away. I always wanted to be a member, partly I think because this painting made the prospect appear more glamorous than it really was. The way Lucian Freud is staring out at us makes him look like Hugh Grant – but I think in reality it was a bunch of lost souls trying to draw strength from each other’s loneliness. Perhaps only Bacon could really do this – I am not entirely sure that Andrews perceives the Baudelairean depths of desperation in the scene before him. It seems urbane, and the hideous institutional green gloss of the walls is softened into a kind of Soho pastoral. It’s a fascinating painting though with a lot of movement and life. Some people are sharply in focus and recognisable, others are painted out – faceless nonentities. It has a slightly drunken quality – unsteady but riding a wave. It certainly contains the tension between representational and non-representational painting that is such a key feature of Andrews’ work.

Richard: Yes, I think we can see Francis Bacon with his back to us on the right-hand side of the painting. For me it doesn’t look urbane and glamorous so much as claustrophobic, oppressive and suggestive of German Expressionist painting. There’s quite a lot of black in the mix and the figures tend to melt into the dark background. There are a few anxious faces. And an overwhelming sensation of things slipping away – expressions, detail, light. And time, and although he apparently spent a lot of it there I’m not sure from this that he really enjoyed it. It’s an interesting painting in this show, because there’s nothing else like it. I think the composition and colour hint at the landscapes to come. Do you think of Andrews as primarily a landscape painter?

David: He certainly has a very strong connection with landscape, but his approach is too varied and oblique to call him a landscape painter which sounds, (to me anyway), slightly pejorative. Some paintings appear to be pure landscape:

SAX A.D. 832 – First Painting, 1982

On the face of it this seems to be almost the opposite of the urban Expressionist tinged Colony Room painting: quiet, bucolic, quintessentially English. The muted palette of grey and green… it is as though we are moving through a large landscape almost like light itself, still but effortlessly distant. Perhaps all this is deceptive though – the angle is clearly from a low flying perspective, possibly that of a bird or a balloon. (Have subsequently found out he was up a telegraph pole). The road cleaves the landscape in two, but the only thing that might be on it – the horse – turns away from it. It’s the sort of thing that could be significant or merely happenstance when Andrews took the photo – it presumably was a photo – for reference. He has an ambivalent relationship with photography – he  uses it but feels its limitations. He did paint portraits from life but I am not sure about his landscapes. There seem to be some watercolours and sketches but I am sure these use photography too as pretty direct reference and some of the paintings have a distinctly photographic look – although still feel painterly, which is a hard trick to pull off. Should we be aware of paintings’ sources, and if we are should we care?

Richard: Not necessarily – I think it depends on the artist’s intention. Is he drawing our attention to his source material? In the case of SAX A.D. 832 – First Painting, the composition doesn’t look like it would be possible without some kind of photographic source. The landscape suggests that a hill where the viewer is standing would be unlikely – the road looks flat, there’s no suggestion of a rise, which leaves the possibility of a bridge being the vantage point. But the height above the track or road looks wrong for someone standing on a bridge (painting at an easel). It could just about be right for a photograph taken from a car seat passing over a bridge. It makes sense that it was taken from a telegraph pole. It’s a really odd vantage point. Andrews has presented a painting with an “obvious” photographic source – no one could paint up a telegraph pole. So, why has he done so? Perhaps he is trying to ask us how we perceive our landscape post-photography, and what this shift in perception means.

 

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.