Monday, 21 November 2016

BOOK REVIEW: TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE

 


 
 
JANE ENGLAND: TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE
 
 
Black Dog, Nov 2016 - £29.95




Berlin and Jimmy, West Kensington, January 1977


Resisting obvious puns on her name, Jane England’s Turn and face the strange takes its title from the lyric of David Bowie's song Changes. It’s a time capsule of the 1970's into the 80's, when the Australian, more recently known as a gallerist, worked in editorial and fashion photography. 130 handsomely presented black and white photographs, drawn from her parallel personal practice, document the various countercultural characters from her bohemian lifestyle. Adrian Dannatt's introductory essay makes much of the differences between 1975 and now: London’s transition from poverty to comparative wealth; low rent to high rent; empty plots to oppressive density; characterful to sanitised; rebellious Londoners moving from rupturing conventions to expecting their discontinuity. Underlying all that is the difference between pre- and post Thatcher…
 
 

 
Drag Ball, Porchester Hall, November 1976

             
There’s something in all of that, but I was more struck by how England conveys the way a ‘scene’ comes together as people run into each other, a few big personalities, locations and events (the Notting Hill Carnival, the Drag Balls at Porchester Hall) form a focal point, and the resulting loose community takes on an internally focused importance out of all proportion to how transitory it’s bound to be. The difference from now, in that case, lies more in a point not emphasised by Dannatt – the move from pre- to post-Internet has revolutionised the dynamics of how such groupings form. If you go to the wonderful show of Picasso’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, you get a sharp flavour of how artistic communities developed in Barcelona and Paris at the turn of the last century, and it feels pretty comparable with 1970’s London. Is it different now? I suspect so, in which case the change in how commonality is established, and any consequent change in its nature, may be the most profound shift from what is captured by Turn and face the strange.



Eileen Agar, Holland Park, 1987

England’s photograph’s are informal but predominantly posed: we see how people put themselves forward, rather than glimpsing them unguarded. Both the photographic style and the performative self-presentation of this demi-monde's personalities tend towards the cinematic, and Film Noir in particular. That, no doubt, partly reflects the contemporary interests and subsequent image selection policy of the one character we don’t see in the photographs: England herself. Consistent with that modesty, her photographs generally  give the subjects, rather than their interpreter,  centre stage. Most of the people we see are little-known now, though there are some famous artists (Eileen Agar, Conroy Maddox, Gilbert and George...) - most of whom are comparatively old, so that the role of inter-generational influence is made clear.


Agnes, Chiswick, September 1977



 
England herself provides well-judged anecdotal commentaries on the individual photographs, revealing either an exceptional memory or thorough note-taking at the time. We learn, for example, that the tall model Agnes Toro was of royal African blood, and that when Idi Amin concocted a story about Princess Elizabeth of Toro and invented the sex euphemism ‘discussing Ugandan affairs’, she responded by wearing – sadly not in the book - a T-shirt emblazoned with the words 'Amin de Mood'.
 

Jordan Outside SEX, February 1976




England has also updated the life stories of many of the subjects: Paul Beecham, shown in customised skin tight tiger-skin trousers, went on to become prop master for the English National Opera; and 'Jordan' (Pamela Rooke), photographed as the iconically punk shop assistant, muse and model at the McLaren/Westwood shop SEX in the Kings Road, is now a vet in Seaford. For all that several died young of AIDS, we’re reminded that for many this was just a phase from which they - like society as a whole - have moved on. Again, England captures the cyclic as much as the specific. That makes this evocative and diverting slice of time travel worth thinking about beyond the routine ponderment of how we lived then.

 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

PAUL'S ART STUFF ON A TRAIN 181-190

‘Plurality Please!’ Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #190

 

 Juliette Mahieux Bartoli : installation with ’Erato Silver’ and 'Eurydice Purple', both 2016 
 


rimg3029-juliette-2

Juliette Mahieux Bartoli with ‘Ananke Calliope Coral’, 2016

 
Perhaps things will change post-Brexit, but there’s a healthy internationalism in the London art scene at present. Franco-Italian Juliette Mahieux Bartoli says her paintings (‘Pax Romana’, shown by Norwegian gallerist Kristin Hjellegjerde in Wandsworth to 21 Dec) reflect the impossibility of cultural singularity in our hybridised world. She should know, having grown up in Washington DC, Paris, Geneva and Rome before studying in London. She arrives at fragmentation of the classical by applying Photoshop to images of herself in performance, which inspire pellucid oils which bring eras together. Mahieux Bartoli also has a rather cunning means of generating titles which – consistent with her internationalism – vary according to the country of display, but the main thing is they look stunning in the (grey) flesh. Evy Jokhova is a notably wide-ranging multi-media artist who also fits the mixed nation model: born in Switzerland to Russian parents, she splits her time between London, Vienna and Tallinn. Jokhova has just taken over the gothic revival Chapel in the distinctive House of St Barnabas in Soho with an installation of three sculptures constructed largely from materials made for their acoustic properties, and drawings of the building’s plans which form the scores to generate music (with James Metcalfe) so that the space can be said to create its own sound (‘Staccato’, presented by Marcelle Joseph Projects, to 4 Jan by appt). I say we want to keep these internationals welcome in London!


01-e-jokhova-staccato-install-shot-mjp-photo-credit-jan-krejci


                          Installation shot – Evy Jokhova, ‘Staccato’, 2016 (photo Jan Krejci)


staccato-pv-photo-credit-malcolm-mackenzie


                   Evy Jokhova in ‘Staccato’ (photo Malcolm Mackenzie)


Most days art Critic Paul Carey-Kent spends hours on the train, traveling between his home in Southampton and his day job in London. Could he, we asked, jot down whatever came into his head?
 

‘International Smooth’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #189

 

ks048-1

‘Krishna and his Kin dallying with their Wives and Courtesans by the Sea Shore at Pindaraka’, c. 1810-20


It shows the richness of London’s gallery scene that you can – as always, it seems – see easy as you like an impressive selection of late 20th century Italian art (at Cortesi, Thomas Dane, Luxembourg & Dayan, Mazzoleni, M&L, Partners & Mucciaccia, Robilant + Voena and Tornabuoni) and also, during this ‘Asian Art Week’, a wide-ranging survey of a different market sector. The exquisite selection of Indian miniatures at Francesca Galloway (to 11 Nov) includes ‘Krishna and his Kin dallying with their Wives and Courtesans by the Sea Shore at Pindaraka’ – which I definitely love for its intricately energetic organisation of shape and colour; lively sense of movement, including the underwater figures; and possibly also I suppose out of some fellow feeling for the life of the princes shown, who seem to have things pretty easy. The abstract-looking cloud paintings of Jiang Dahai at the Mayor Gallery (‘Diffusion’ to 17 Dec) aren’t such a contrast as might appear, as there are many colours (in up to 15 layers) applied by a spray-fine brush-speckling technique you can see at www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2014-11/19/content_18943545.htm. He’s one of many Chinese artists who’ve settled in France after going there to train traditionally, only to turn their knowledge to other ends. Wang Keping is another, but I was unable to see his distinctive wood carvings at the Aktis Gallery as advertised due to a three hour closure to prepare what must have been a rather elaborate event. Ah well, we wouldn’t want it too easy…

rgb_jiang_dahai_harmony

Jiang Dahai: ‘Harmony’, 2016

One Work: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #188


rimg2521

Robert Therrien: No title (pitcher with yellow spout)’, 1990


Enough of exhibition reviews, I’ll look at just the one work this week *. LA artist Robert Therrien is best known for playing with fabricated scale so that, for example, saucepans tower above us, recharging our inner child’s sense of everyday wonder (and daftness: are the cooking utensils ‘awe-dinnery’!?). Parasol unit, though, concentrates (‘Robert Therrien: Works 1975-1995’, to 11 Dec) on earlier handmade works, which seek related effects by different means. Take this deep and shaped wall-mounted construction of enamel and wood. Is it a sculpture, or (punningly) a picture of a pitcher? Or even of a bird with a yellow beak, simplified a la Brancusi? Therrien likes to give solid form to the unstable or impermanent (snowmen, for example, or clouds, including one which is fitted with taps). That triggers our awareness of the pitcher’s function as predicated on instability, for it stands ready to be tipped, to pour like a cloud. All of which makes it sound somewhat comical, when actually my first impression was of a combination of triangles driven by abstract concerns, balancing large white against small yellow, playing off area and intensity. And later I fixed on it as an archetypal jug with some of Morandi’s reverence for such items, inscribed in how carefully approximate it is in the making. From gnomic to comic to platonic, a simple form proves hauntingly complex.

* hats off to the Afterall series of whole books which focus on one work

parasol-unit-robert-therrien-3

Robert Therrien: installation view showing ‘No Title (cloud with faucets)’, 1991


Most days art Critic Paul Carey-Kent spends hours on the train, traveling between his home in Southampton and his day job in London. Could he, we asked, jot down whatever came into his head?

‘No Need to be Trendy’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #187

WAT_270916 001
Juliette Losq: ‘Lethe’, 2016 – Watercolour & ink on paper, 100 x 174 cm

Not every interesting show is at a ‘hot’ gallery. The current shows at Waterhouse & Dodd, better known for their secondary market activity, and Long & Ryle, who have a somewhat conservative roster, are cases in point. The former has Juliette Losq’s technically impressive watercolours (‘Terra Infirma’ to 12 Nov). Losq finds a modern space for the picturesque in London’s zones of marginal nature, somewhere between the romantic sublime and its modern corruption. The latter is often represented by graffiti made painterly, though in the most radical piece it’s the patterns of pylons which appear on the side of a cabinet rendered function-free by plywood paintings cascading like tongued vegetation from the drawers. 
At Long & Ryle David Wightman’s apparent subject (‘Empire’ to 11 Nov) is imagined mountains by lakes, which he collages out of shapes cut from textured wallpaper. The textures, which Wightman paints over in acrylic, can be read as geological strata or rippling waves. Are the paintings bland substitutes for the wallpaper they incorporate? Wightman sets up the possibility in order to refute it: his colours are intrusively improbable as decorative schemes and more suggestive of pollution than of nature. Celestine iv sets an ice cream mountain against a sulphurous pool and an ink-dense sky. Joseph Albers and Michael Craig Martin come to mind as we see how the same landscape template can be varied by changing both colour and textured pattern. It turns out that the paintings are, primarily, abstractly-motivated experiments with a language.

david_wightman_celestine_4

David Wightman: ‘Celestine iv’, 2016 – acrylic and collaged wallpaper on canvas, 70 x 105 cm


Most days art Critic Paul Carey-Kent spends hours on the train, traveling between his home in Southampton and his day job in London. Could he, we asked, jot down whatever came into his head?


‘Where Are They Now?’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #186


rimg1653-brownWhy must people get in the way when I’m photographing paintings? Ah, I see it is Alice Browne herself, I guess that’s OK

You have to stay alert to find the galleries at this time of year: several reopened in new premises ahead of Frieze. Limoncello is onto its fourth permanent space – the biggest yet, and though the address – Unit 5, Huntingdon Industrial Estate – sounds forbiddingly off-track, the gallery’s is the first door you come to if you walk north from Shoreditch High Street Station. It has reopened with Alice Browne’s big Dante-inspired paintings (‘Forecast’ to 5 Nov – see also http://fadmagazine.com/2016/10/05/225376/), which features abstract-looking views of the never-finished chaos of hell alongside paintings of futurologists whose heads are turned back to front so that, in Dante’s account of their tortures, ‘tears coming from the eyes / Roll down into the crack of the buttocks’.
Dalla Rosa, formerly in Clerkenwell, is now in Chalk Farm, where Jessie Brennan’s socially engaged account of a community garden in Peterborough, told through testimony and cyanotypes (including a rather touching dead robin), also makes for a strong opening (‘If This Were To Be Lost’, 3 Leighton Place to 29 Oct).
Skarstedt (8 Bennet St) is only 200 yards from its former location, but has more room for one of the best shows in London, pairing David Salle and Cindy Sherman as if that were always meant to be.
Cabinet, after what seems (and probably is) years of building, have migrated from Clerkenwell to Vauxhall; Andor from Hackney to London Fields; Purdy Hicks from Bankside to Kensington; and Project Native Informant from Mayfair to Holborn Viaduct. And I dare say there are others…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Jessie Brennan installation at dalla Rosa

‘Super-late-ive’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #185


tanning-floribunda
Dorothea Tanning: ‘Victrola floribunda’, 1997

Proof, perhaps, that that being an artist isn’t a proper job is that you don’t normally get to retire. There’s plenty of evidence in London now. Georgia O’Keeffe (Tate Modern to 30 Oct) lived to 98, and lots of her best work was late. The show opposes the interpretation that her flower paintings are sexual – a line started by her husband Alfred Stieglitz, but denied by her. Fair enough, but it seemed to me that – whether O’Keefe meant it or not – the whole show had a sexual aspect,, what with fleshy mountains, views through pelvises, folds and openings everywhere… Flowers were the least of it… But in the case of Dorothea Tanning’s production from her late eighties (which was recently at Alison Jacques) flowers are all you get: big, lush, not unsexy, imaginary. They’re superlative, and enhanced by Tanning asking poets to name her invented blossoms and write a matching verse*. Come to that 76 year old Araki (Hamiltons to 27 Nov) is quite clear about his flower photos standing in for genitalia. But all those florists are trumped by the late-blooming Japanese-Brazilian Tomie Ohtake at White Rainbow (to 12 Nov): most of the show was made in her last year, ie after turning 100!

araki-flower
Nobuyoshi Araki: ‘Flowers’, 2007

* For example Victrola floribunda by John Ashbery

I am always shaking deliquescent bonbons
out of my hat. Is that a hat-trick?
I have never known what “hat-trick” means,
though I am sure there are many who do
and many more who do not.

‘250 heads are better than 1’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #184


paloma-varga-weisz
Paloma Varga Weiz: ‘Dreigesichtfrau’, 2005

Frieze week is busy enough – see my choices at paulsartworld.blogspot.co.uk – to make me wonder whether a fulltime job is such a good idea. Maybe the answer would be the multiple self – think how many Rachel Macleans there are in her films, that would be handy. Certainly one head seems unduly restrictive, and as it happens Shezad Dawood’s show at Timothy Taylor (to 22 Oct) includes a double-sided head among its impressive virtual reality effects. Not so far away, though, in the Phillips auction exhibition, I came across a three-faced woman in glazed plaster by Paloma Varga Weiz (estimate £8-12,000 if you have your bidding head on). Then came five-heads at MDC. The highest impact figures in Matthew Monahan’s alluringly sinister 2 and 3D de- and re-constructions of the classical (‘Shut-ins and Shootouts’ to 12 Nov) are faces shot through from the back and sculptures half-hidden in dark mesh boxes. But I also liked the mysteriously titled drawing ‘Tera Flop Club’. Now, I thought, we’re getting somewhere. The Lisson Gallery felt like arrival. Tony Cragg’s extensive new show (to 5 Nov upstairs and down in both the Bell Street spaces, and outside!) includes the rather atypical ‘We’. This bronze cone incorporates, in whole or in part, around 250 cragg-heads. Ideal: that’s pretty much one self for each exhibition which can be visited in London this week.

Matthew Monahan: 'Tara Flop Club', 2016

Matthew Monahan: ‘Tara Flop Club’, 2016


Tony Cragg, Installation view at Lisson Gallery (27 Bell Street), London, 1 October – 5 November 2016
Tony Cragg, Installation view at Lisson Gallery (27 Bell Street), London, 1 October – 5 November 2016

Most days art Critic Paul Carey-Kent spends hours on the train, traveling between his home in Southampton and his day job in London. Could he, we asked, jot down whatever came into his head?


‘After the Binge’: Paul’s Art Stuff on a Train #183


jerwood-2


I was surprised to hear from Professor Anita Taylor, Director of the Jerwood Drawing Prize, how the three strong panel of judges* chose the 61 drawings included in the 22nd prize exhibition (Jerwood Space London to 23 Oct**, then touring to Bath, Leigh and Poole). All 2,537 entries were gathered for physical inspection of the original in a two day binge, no pre-sifting, no jpegs. Then, not only were the judges not told the names of the artists, they weren’t given titles, nor any statements about the work – so the focus was very purely on the drawing. They did well, then, to light on quite a few interesting processes and subjects which I’m not sure I’d have worked out without the helpful summaries written subsequently for the catalogue. Would I have deduced that my favourite work here – Nathan Antony’s video ‘Black Friday’ – was made by applying a hair dryer to the thermally sensitive surface of a till receipt, then letting it unroll naturally? That Julia Hutton’s subtle lines were made by burning as the sun streamed through her studio window? Would I have guessed that the figures-come totems in Michael Hancock’s ‘Allotment 3’ are decayed Brussels sprout roots? The £8,000 first prize was awarded to another filmed process, Solveig Settemsdal’s ‘Singularity’, nine minutes following white ink suspended in cubes of gelatine.

* Artist Glenn Brown and museum directors Paul Hobson and Stephanie Buck

** The London venue has the bonus of Jasmine Johnson’s installation bringing African wildlife into the café courtesy of the world’s largest collection of game shot by one man, which turns out to be at the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent.

jerwood-view

Most days art Critic Paul Carey-Kent spends hours on the train, traveling between his home in Southampton and his day job in London. Could he, we asked, jot down whatever came into his head?

‘Near-Death Experience’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #182


gretchen_faust_09

Gretchen Faust: Installation view of ‘Aint Wet Paint’

Corvi-Mora and Greengrassi are unusual – possibly even unique – in sharing a building and swapping, from show to show. between its large lower and smaller upper spaces. The current pairing works well. Upstairs is Gretchen Faust (Greengrassi to 8 Oct), possibly the only German-sounding American artist who teaches yoga in Devon. An introductory joke – unopened puzzles posited as art unless the purchaser unseals them, when they revert to puzzle status – leads in to a wall of 5,000 hyper-delicate doilies. Cut from gold-sprayed tissue paper, they flutter under breath. It was meditatively therapeutic work, said Faust. They’re all different but ‘if anyone mentions snowflakes’ she went on devilishly, just after I’d mentioned snowflakes, ‘I have to kill them’. Diverting Fuast by asking where her text’s words come from – St Francis of Assisi – I lived to tell the tale. Downstairs is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s set of paintings ‘Sorrow for a Cipher’, an array of eight men, seven lolling on large linen grounds, and just the smallest standing more assertively on canvas. Yiadom-Boakye’s explained that although she’s known for completing pantings on a single fresh day, that applies only to work on canvas. Linen’s more absorptive properties suit the process spreading out longer. So she seems to be moving in a slower direction here, except that the quickness of a canary perched on a hand on linen was the highlight. Greengrassi / Corvi-Mora supply rather good soup at their openings: add the stimulating art, and my visit was more sustaining than fatal in the end.

lynette-yiadom-boakye-inst-01

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye installation view

‘Beauty Beyond the Name’: Paul’s ART STUFF ON A TRAIN #181


yun-1991

Yun Hyong-keun: ‘Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue’, 1992

Are you a namist? I only ask because I’m pretty sure I can be. Dash Snow, Zipora Fried, Jack Strange – I immediately want to know what lies behind such names. David Smith, Sarah Jones, Ralph Brown – the urge, quite unfairly, diminishes. And for Anglophones the problem increases with foreign names. Koreans, for example, can all sound confusingly similar to the western ear. Cho Yong-ik, Chung Chang-Sup, Chung Sang-Hwa, Kwon Young-woo, Lee Dong Youb and Yun Hyong-keun are luminaries of the Korean school of Dansaekhwa, but if you’d asked me to name Korean abstractionists a month ago I might only have come up with Lee Ufan and Park Seobo. That partly because Ufan (who’s represented by Pace and Lisson and better known for his connections to the Japanese Mono-ha group) and Seobo (recently featured at White Cube) have shown the most widely. Whether or not that reflects the comparative merits of their works, I suspect their relatively memorable names play a role too. Anyway, even if slowed by namism, Dansaekhwa (literally, ‘monochrome painting’) has been picking up interest lately, and Yun Hyong-keun now has his first London solo show at Simon Lee. His mature style is narrow but intense: water and dirt are invoked through washes of ultramarine blue and burnt umber which combine to form a glowering near-black and bleed out at the edge of geometric forms, generating a trembling beauty due to the differential absorption of the various layers of thinned paint.

yun-install

Yun Hyong-keun installation view at Simon Lee

Sunday, 6 November 2016

FROM THE WORLD OF INTERIORS

It ought, I think, to be better known that The World of Interiors has excellent visual arts coverage, with a mixture of book reviews, exhibition previews and well-informed gallery recommendations. So I'd thought I'd gather up my own contributions here (all are  
© The World of Interiors/ Condé Nast Publications)  



VICTOR PASMORE: TOWARDS A NEW REALITY
Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham 26 Nov- 19 Feb 2017; Pallant House, Chichester 11March - 11 June 2017

The story of many 20th century painters turns on their passage from a relatively conventional representational mode into the mature abstract style for which they become famous.  On the face of it, Victor Pasmore (1908-98) fits the expected narrative particularly well. Born in Surrey, his progress was slowed by the sudden death of his father in 1927, which forced him to earn a living as a civil servant rather than attending art school. Nonetheless, by the time war broke out in 1939, he had established himself on an amateur basis as a painter of assured landscapes, figure and still-life, and was a respected figure in the London art scene focused on the Euston Road School.


Pasmore at the Festival of Britain, 1951


Anne Goodchild, the curator of this survey of Pasmore’s work from the 1930’s to 60’s, says that ‘nothing seemed to suggest the radical change in direction his work was to take’. Yet, though it was very much against the London current of the time, that’s just what we do expect, looking backwards. Who, after all, who would remember Pollock or Rothko had they stuck to their early academic styles? What the 50 works brought together in Nottingham demonstrate is that Pasmore, more unusually, was a significant and original painter both before and after prior to his move to abstraction, and made many of his finest works in the transition. 
 
Snow Scene, 1944

 
Pasmore’s 1930’s work is attractive but in thrall to its post-impressionist sources. By 1942, though, he had forged a personal style. Snow Scene, 1944 is typical with its atmospheric calm counterpoised by vertical rhythms without reducing what Patrick Heron called ‘the vital communication: air, light, space’. Pasmore could have pursued such lyrical use of abstract patterning within representation to become a figure equivalent to, say, Sutherland or Piper.  Pasmore could have pursued such lyrical use of abstract patterning within representation to become a figure equivalent to, say, Sutherland or Piper. But in 1948, he discovered a painting made up only of coloured squares by Paul Klee – not essentially an abstractionist – and ‘decided straight away that this was the objective point from which I could start again’.
 

Spiral Motif in Green, Violet, Blue and Gold: The Coast of the Inland Sea, 1950

 The great spiral motif series of 1948-51 bring full abstraction to paintings organised as if they were landscapes.  These gave way to reliefs constructed from preformed industrial materials, embracing the machine age to ambiguate their space with quiet drama. Still, there’s room for doubt: they are in debt to the Bauhaus and, as John Berger said at the time, ‘remain slightly funny – looking like bathroom fittings’.
 
Relief Construction in White, Black and Indian Red, 1961
  
Pasmore’s constructivism was well suited to interacting with architecture (as at the Pilkington Staff Club) or feeding into buildings:  he spent much of 1955-75 designing housing units, road systems and the controversial but celebrated Apollo Pavilion for Peterlee New Town. That became the focus of his innovation: in the art there’s more of a sense of working through the discoveries of his ‘hot period’ of 1943-52 than of striking out afresh; and after moving to Malta in 1966, his paintings settled – perhaps a little too comfortably – into poured or sprayed colour leaning towards organic forms.  Yet that key decade, so evenly balanced between figuration and abstraction, makes Pasmore a significant figure in the history of British art.
 
Mural Relief 1958 at Staff Centre Pilkington Glass Works St Helens
 



Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

My Last Door, 1952-4

Various curatorial agendas might underpin a survey of Georgia O’Keeffe. Does she justify her status as far and away the most expensive female artist at auction (£29m for Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, 1932)? Are her flowers sexual surrogates – a reading she consistently rejected, but which Alfred Stieglitz influentially asserted on the back of their passion as a couple? Is she making a case for female empowerment? Was she, secluded in New Mexico for her last 37 years and more fêted outside the art world than within it, an outsider artist of sorts?

Tate looks to put all that aside in favour of the question that matters: how good a painter was she? That hardly any of O’Keeffe’s pictures are normally in Europe underlines what an exceptional chance this 125-work retrospective provides for Britons to make a broad judgment. O’Keeffe had a long and productive life: 1887-1986, covering 17 US presidents. Yet she remains famous mainly for a small minority of her 800-odd canvases: flowers and animal skulls, with their surreal aspects open to erotic or existentialist interpretations. Those, though, are just two among many subjects that resonated with her, and which she abstracted in order to isolate their essence. Indeed, she pushed that agenda much further with her less familiar motifs: desert landscapes, the pelvis, views from an aeroplane (e.g. Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962) and 20 versions of a wall with a door in it and paving stones in front (such as My Last Door, 1952-4).

Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962

O’Keeffe said that she actually bought her rambling home in Abiquiú, New Mexico ‘because it had that door in the patio, the one I’ve painted so often. I had no peace until I bought the house’. That suggests the critical importance to her of an observational starting point, of working from the outside in – as opposed to her fellow New Mexican isolate Agnes Martin, who worked from inside out to distil the feeling of a place. The catalogue makes much of the anticipations in O’Keeffe of Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field painters, but one can see why Clement Greenberg didn’t buy into what he called her ‘pseudo-modern art’: O’Keeffe was coming from a different place. The same place, pretty much, as Ellsworth Kelly, as she herself acknowledged. But where Kelly dispensed with surface effects to investigate the painting as sculptural object, and pushed on to a point at which his works’ origins in the world became fully hidden, the mature O’Keeffe retained both painterly inflexions and explicit and eponymous subjects.

Pelvis I (Pelvis with Blue), 1944
What all those near-empty subjects lend themselves to is the projection of infinity, and the effect is reinforced by the way in which O’Keeffe moves directly from foreground (the bone of the pelvis, say, in Pelvis 1, 1944) to distance (the sky seen through the gap in the bone) with no middle ground. Where the flowers pitch us into a vortex, the more abstract works open out our perceptions. For all their differences in approach, much of O’Keeffe’s best work turns out to arrive somewhere not so very far from Rothko and Martin.


GEORGIA O’KEEFFE runs until 30 Oct, Mon-Thurs, Sun 10-6, Fri, Sat 10-10 


Dan Flavin in Birmingham

There’s something of a paradox at the heart of Dan Flavin’s work. He’s famous for arrangements of commercially available fluorescent light units in four standard lengths and ten standard colours -  pretty much all he produced from 1963 to his death in 1996, and all you’ll see at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery (13 April – 26 June). Flavin insisted on his work’s literalness, saying – as cited by the show’s title –  ‘It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else’. And yet, in spite of his simple and consistent means, complexities accumulate.  

Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963
 First there’s the sheer variety of effects Flavin was able to generate once liberated – as it seems – by self-imposed constraints. For example, Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963 uses just one unit to disrupt our perception of space by eliminating the darkness from a corner. That contrasts with the chromatic riches of untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977, for which the corner placement gives Flavin the room to mount six vertical fixtures facing back onto six horizontal fixtures facing forward, so that hot pink and yellow stands against a cool penumbral glow of blue and green – while both colour zones bleed to the side. Differently again, the comparatively austere series dedicated to the utopian revolutionary spirit of Vladimir Tatlin explores the many possible configurations of seven white units to build architectural effects.  


untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977

Then there’s the matter of pinning down exactly what we’re looking at. Is it sculpture, drawing, painting in light, installation or just the functional means of illuminating the surrounding space? The primary aspect varies: untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 has many of the qualities sought by colour field painting, whereas Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968, shows Flavin as one of the first artists to think in terms of whole room installation: it illuminates a space from which we are barred, deflecting our attention to the architecture, and to the play on Lichtenstein’s 1961 painting I can see the whole room! ….and there’s nobody in it! The voyeurism of Lichtenstein’s man looking through a spyhole transfers to us.  


Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968

Those examples also illustrate the role played by Flavin’s titles, which alternately refer us to possible parallels, suggest meanings personal to Flavin, or make dedications to other artists which hover between homage and dry self-awareness of the potential for overblown comparisons. After all, Flavin’s style of “monument” – hence the quotation marks round those to Tatlin – has inbuilt impermanence: they can be turned off at any time and their parts need regular replacement. Is there also a spiritual aspect to Flavin’s eloquence? Light has a central symbolic role in the history of art, and even if he hadn’t trained as a priest before taking against religion, one can read Flavin as evoking ecstatic or transcendental states, whether divine, meditative, trippy, or even – as Pink out of a corner may suggest - sexual. 


"monument" for V. Tatlin, 1964

Is Flavin’s art, then, so straightforward? The Ikon provides a chance to decide whether we go along with his self-assessment - and the show’s own curatorial emphasis, or would sooner advance the counter-cliché ‘wishing doesn’t make it so’.




Phaidon's Ellsworth Kelly Monograph

Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973


This timely doorstep of a monograph (Phaidon £75, 368 pages, 350 colour illustrations, five contributors, 3 kg) provides a comprehensive overview of the painting and sculpture of the late Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2016), known for a 70 year production of rigorously colourful forms which brought him fame without ever quite placing him centrally in the story of art. Lead author Tricia Paik, assisted by Kelly’s collaboration and the availability of his archive, lucidly explains his development and critical reception over four chronological periods (leaving a quartet of renowned writers to focus on themes).  Her account of 1923-48 sets out Kelly’s background as a shy, stuttering boy from New Jersey, keen on bird-watching and drawing, who spent 1944-45 in the ‘Ghost Army’ of camouflage experts which deflected the German intelligence through such ruses as inflatable tanks. 1948-54 saw Kelly remain in France just as the New York art scene was taking off, facilitating the development of an independent style which came to maturity in New York City, 1954-70. Recognition was slow, but substantial by the time – in tune with his love of nature – he then moved upstate.

Blue Curve, 1994


Kelly has often been miscast as a follower of Mondrian or as a minimalist.  Yet Grünewald, Audubon and Picasso meant more to him. With none of Mondrian’s spiritual bent, the wellspring of Kelly’s art was always the world from which he abstracted shapes with the aim of catching the essence of an ‘already-made’. “My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said, meaning that he avoided graphic depictions of what he saw, “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.” That’s the logic of multi or joined panel works, such as Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973; and fits how , for example, the relationships of form and colour in Kelly’s snapshot of a paper cup squashed underfoot can be traced to the typically voluptuous Blue Curve, 1994.

Spectrum V, 1969

Three main achievements emerge. First the sensuous derivation of abstraction, while avoiding the expression of the artist’s own hand which one might expect to go with that, is Kelly’s own. Second, he has a way with clarion colours. There isn’t a system (“I don’t know what I want”, he said, “ my eye does”) but as Richard Shiff points out in his essay, Kelly seems unusually able to ensure that his colours reach uniform saturation within such works as the Spectrum series or Yellow with Red Triangle, with its equal colour values. Third, as Gary Garrels explains, Kelly took masterful account of how his paintings engaged with the wall which formed their ground, and with their setting as a whole. That led him increasingly into sculpture and majestically-scaled intersections of art and architecture.



Ailanthus Leaves I from Suite of Plant Lithographs, 1966

That third achievement points to a limitation of this volume, as illustrations tend to make Kelly’s paintings look more like the minimalist works they aren’t. The spatial encounter with Kelly can’t be fully captured on the page, of course, though a higher proportion of installation views might have helped, plus perhaps a section on the plant drawings. Those, which Kelly made for over 60 years, provide a parallel history of how looking fed his simplifications. This book, then, is no substitute for the work - but if you want to make the most of experiencing that, here’s how.


Alexander Calder at Tate Modern 

The work of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) has rather disappeared in plain view: we’re used to the fact that every major museum has one of his famous mobiles, but find it easy to pass by without feeling particularly challenged. Tate Modern’s new show seeks to remind us of the radicalism behind making the sculpture move for us instead of us moving round the sculpture. It excludes the static ‘Stabiles’, which feature monumentally in many public squares, and the vibrant gouaches. Nor are there any films or re-enactments of how Calder employed his sculptures in dance and opera. The focus is determinedly on work interacting with the viewer: a substantial selection of Calder’s 200 mobiles, and the wire sculptures which led up to them.
The Brass Family, 1929

Calder was born – in Pennsylvania – into a lineage of sculptors, but delayed following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, training as a mechanical engineer before something of an epiphany on a naval voyage to Guatemala in 1922: the sight of the sun and moon rising and setting simultaneously on opposite sides of the ship started him painting, and he enrolled in art college in New York. That awakening stayed with him; the basis of his work, he said, remained ‘the system of the Universe’, in that ‘the idea of detached bodies floating in space… some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form’. 


Red and Yellow Vane, 1934

Calder’s second source of fascination, arising from a journalistic sketching assignment in 1925, was the spectacle and choreographed action of the circus. He re-enacted its sequences through the 70 models of Le Cirque, 1926-30, which he housed in a suitcase to facilitate travelling performances.   Calder had begun using wire to bring his drawings of animals into space: Le Cirque uses this technique within its mixed media, and separate, larger works employ just wire. The Brass Family, 1929, is typical of those, both for wittily exploring the analogies between the balance of acrobats and the balance of sculptural weight, and for an erotic edge which led Calder to describe himself as ‘more ‘Sewer-realist’ than Surrealist’
Triple Gong, 1948


Those two inspirations meshed with the influence of the artists he met in 1920s Paris: Miró and Arp played a part, and Duchamp proposed the term ‘Mobile’ – but it was a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930 which led Calder to turn his love of motion and play towards abstraction. Now, too, his feeling for the interaction of the skies returns to temper those ludic instincts with an intimation of elemental energies. There is a long tradition of sculpture in movement – in religious processions, for a start – but Calder was the first to make sculptures perform by themselves. The restless mutability of his mobiles might stand for the experimental approach driving his art as a whole, which varies immensely across an oeuvre of 16,000. The most celebrated mobiles are delicate metal structures suspended from the ceiling, painted in primary colours and designed to move gently with the airflow like clouds drifting by (as there are no fans, the curators have taken pains to ensure that visitor movements will be sufficient to create the right degree of draught*). Other mobiles, though, are fixed to the wall or mounted on bases – such as Red and Yellow Vane, 1934, which is also simpler than most. The Tate’s show, then, is a chance to assess afresh the variety of spatial and kinetic effects Calder achieves through his universal circus of orchestrated movement over and around us.

* This was a preview: as it turned out, Tate failed miserably in this aim, delivering an embarrassingly static show

© The World of Interiors/The Condé Nast Publications 


About Me

My photo
Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09)and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, The Art Newspaper and Border Crossings. I have curated five shows in London during 2013-15 with more on the way.Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.

Followers