You’ve Lost That Conceptual Feeling

 

Latham_01

Book burning Latham style…

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

2 Mar 2017 to 21 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latham_05

The Cosmos as envisioned by Latham

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

Latham_02

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

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

Latham_03

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

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

Latham_04

Conceptual door outside Serpentine gallery…leading nowhere.

Advertisements

Standing in the presence of The Goat

RR4

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.

RR2

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.