Monday, 22 June 2020


It ought, I believe, 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  exhibition previews, © The World of Interiors/ Condé Nast Publications) 

Felix Gonzales-Torres Project, May 2020

Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1990 
By the time Felix Gonzales-Torres (1957-96) arrived in New York from Cuba in 1979, the clean, repetitive geometric language of 60’s minimalism had been inflected by, for example, the tremulous presence of the hand in Agnes Martin’s paintings and the organic variability of Eva Hesse’s serial forms.  Gonzalez-Torres's multi-media works from his last decade added an emotional pull to the aesthetic.  Take one of his ‘candy spills’ – endlessly renewable individually-wrapped sweets piled into gallery corners. Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1990 derives its poignancy from starting with an ‘ideal weight’ equivalent to that of Gonzales-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, before he fell ill with AIDS. It has three typical characteristics.
First, it draws attention to the gallery space, and allows that to influence the form it takes. The Felix Gonzales-Torres Foundation’s new site will emphasise that aspect by documenting numerous examples of how the same piece has been installed differently. Gonzales-Torres invited such adaptations – most explicitly, perhaps, with the beaded curtains and strings of bulbs which he left curators to deploy as they wished – and now, in a special global initiative organised by the Andrea Rosen and David Zwirner galleries, a thousand people have installed “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, in locations of their choosing.

Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990 in Karen Ziegler Smith's home, 2020
Second, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) lures the viewer into participation – through the pleasurable and illicitly-tinged act of eating the art. ‘Without the public’, said the artist, ‘these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in’.
Untitled" (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990
Third, Gonzales-Torres foregrounds the politics of gay rights. The consumption enacts the loss of weight associated with AIDS – and hints at how those in power ignored AIDS, hoping the problem would disappear like the sweets… were the supply not ongoing. In 1992, the year after Laycock died, Gonzales-Torres used billboards to display a photograph of two indented pillows on an unmade bed, implying the absence of lovers and subtly but pointedly bringing gay sex into the public realm.  The pairing of identical battery-operated clocks – in “Untitled" (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990 – similarly finds a romantic and elegiac place for queer subjectivity: the clocks are synchronised in the knowledge that they will in time diverge.

Untitled” (Double Portrait), 1991

Formally, the clocks are echoed in “Untitled” (Double Portrait), 1991, one of the ‘stack’ works in which hundreds of sheets of renewable paper make up a minimalist block which viewers can remove: each sheet features an image of two circles printed in lustrous gold. Other ‘anti-monuments’, as Gonzales-Torres termed the mutable stacks, carry charged messages – such as the details of 464 people killed by firearms during just one week in "Unti­tled" (Death by Gun), 1990. Gonzales-Torres explained that he liked using newspaper snippets ‘because you read it twice and you see these ideological constructions unravel right in front of your eyes’. Look twice at Gonzales-Torres’s beautifully condensed and affecting works, and what you’ll see unravel is how white heterosexual norms represent just one way to construct reality.

"Unti­tled" (Death by Gun), 1990

Roy Oxlade at Alison Jacques, London 

15 November 2019 - 11 January 2020

Yellow Profile, 1992

Many female artists are now being re-evaluated, often after male partners overshadowed them: take this year’s London exhibitions of Dorothea Tanning, Lee Krasner and Dora Maar. Something more complicated has occurred with the reputations of Roy Oxlade (1929-2014) and his wife of 57 years, Rose Wylie. Go back to 1970’s and Rose was little known – indeed, she had stopped painting while she concentrated on bringing up their three children – but Roy was an influential writer and teacher whose paintings were highly regarded.  By the time he died, Roy had slipped from view somewhat – whereas Rose had leaped to prominence with shows at the Jerwood in Hastings, Tate Britain and the Serpentine Gallery. Roy’s obituaries spoke of the danger that he would be remembered primarily for his role in the partnership endearingly documented by the award-winning film ‘Rose & Roy’ (2015).  Just recently, though, Oxlade has also had a widely admired solo exhibition at what is now Hastings Contemporary. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that – having shared a studio in Sittingbourne, Kent for decades – the couple’s virtues are similar: a wittily primitive way of painting which crackles with spontaneity. Rose is the story teller, typically through memory, film and the news. Roy applies his painterly language to the here and now: what’s in the house and studio – including Rose herself.
Black Saucepan and Dish

Oxlade’s second show in quick succession with Alison Jacques presents paintings and works on paper from 1978 to 2006. Roy had a serious career: he studied – like his contemporaries Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach – with David Bomberg, and was himself an outstanding teacher and prolific writer. His paintings, however, emerge playfully out of looking around the studio without preconceptions and – in Rose’s description – ‘pushing the paint and then finding the focus’. Oxlade said his paintings ‘start as a rectangle in a jumble of art history I relate to’ into which he ‘puts some other stuff, some characters, some actors - tables, pots, colours, easels, lamps, scribbles, figures and faces to interact with each other’.  That often leads to cheerfully absurd irruptions. The ostensible subject of ‘Black Saucepan and Dish’ is subsidiary to colour shapes which could be food-related but may just be paint. Most of ‘Yellow Profile’ pushes similarly towards abstraction behind the eponymous, but exceptionally summary, face of Rose.  In other works the figure of Roy’s muse – sometimes upside-down, sometimes naked – dominates the objects named by the title.
Potato, Rose c. 1982

Oxlade’s true subject is the process of representation, how that can reveal the world anew as it simultaneously generates abstract pleasure and balances of form. That method of discovery is rooted in drawing, which Oxlade believed should be ‘unknown to the artist until it emerges, comes out as a controlled wildness’. That’s consistent with Oxlade’s critical rejection of most modern art – Matisse was one exception, praised germanely for his ‘synthesis of innocence with awareness’.  Oxlade, then, reaches an unusually well-informed brand of unsophistication through the actions of drawing and painting. Let the rediscovery of husbands proceed!

Song Dong: Same Bed Different Dreams

Pace, London: 1 Oct – 5 Nov

 Conceptual art can seem esoteric. Will it consist of instructions rather than visible works, or foreground theoretical constructs? It may – but Duchamp is the starting point, and his work tends to be firmly rooted in the everyday:  a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, jokes about sex.  Song Dong, the most euphoniously named of the Chinese artists who came to world attention in the 1990’s, is a conceptual artist of that type. He doesn’t separate art from life, he merges them. Song - who still lives in the hutongs of Beijing where he was born in 1966 - has, for example, shown 10,000 items hoarded by his mother. ‘Waste Not’ laid out a whole life reduced to poverty by the Cultural Revolution.

Song’s show of old and new work at Pace will turn on such mundanities as food, water and shelter. His 1999 self-portrait photographs have the frankly quotidian title ‘Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Sleeping’. A new version of ‘Eating the City’ is an urban panorama made of sweets and biscuits, which visitors will be invited to consume over the first week. ‘The smell and taste is really delicious’, says Song, ‘but it’s bad for you… It is an illusion. It is not really food. People use desire to build up the city, but they also use desire to destroy the city’.

The real life destruction involved in development will be the focus of the ‘Usefulness of Uselessness - Varied Window’ series, which gives fresh life to windows rendered useless by their buildings' demolition. Song arranges them with coloured mirror inserts to make striking abstractions. The wistfulness will be amplified in ‘Different Dreams on the Same Bed No. 3’ (2018), in which household objects are presented behind salvaged window panels. We are invited to look into the pasts of those displaced by a vision of the future.

The flux of existence is evoked by the ‘Mandala’ series (2015), in which intricate patterns are made from pulses, seeds and spices.  Song refers to the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of constructing such circular images from tiny pieces of crushed stone, only to sweep them up once complete. That’s in tune with his own practice: ‘Writing diary with water’ relates to his having written in water daily on the same stone since 1995. The stone may – Song says – be ‘thicker by the day’ with his thoughts, but there’s nothing to see.

Song’s conceptual play makes us aware of how we are constrained. We might be reminded of the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ – which holds that individual experiences can be traced to one’s location within a system of power relationships. We can see Song Dong’s varied and prolific practice as showing, not how male power plays systematically into women’s lives, but how state power runs through the day to day in the context of China’s fraught political history and sudden modernisation. Taken that way, ‘Waste Not’ critiques Mao; the water diary is a cautious medium, as it cannot fall into the wrong hands; and ‘Eating the City’ and the window constructions call attention to what is lost in the current leaps forward.

Turner Contemporary, Margate: 26 Jan - 6 May 2019

There are plenty of ways to make bad art, but two of the more reliable ones are to strive visibly for a poetic effect; and to seek too directly to address a topical issue. The Scottish artist Katie Paterson graduated from the Slade in 2007 with a piece which transcended those traps: for Vatnajökull (the sound of) you could call a mobile phone to be connected to the live sound of a rapidly melting glacier. The means were economical, the poetry revealed rather than insisted on, the message a natural function of experiencing the work.

Over the subsequent decade, Paterson has pulled off such combinations repeatedly. Indeed, she seems so full of them she has taken to making Sterling Silver wall texts: ‘an ice rink of frozen water from every glacier’, ‘a beach made with sand from hour-glasses’ or ‘a place that exists only in moonlight’ (from Ideas, ongoing). Perhaps these works will only ever be imagined, but if actualised they will be unmistakably Katie’s.

The logistics of Paterson’s realised projects are scarcely less challenging than the Ideas. No wonder she calls on experts in science and technology to collaborate. For Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky, 2012–14, a meteorite was cast, melted, re-cast into a new form, and then returned to space by the European Space Agency. 

History of Darkness (2010-ongoing) is a slide archive of thousands of images of darkness from different times and places: the void meets infinity and the iconicity of Malevich’s black square alongside the comic twist that the pictures all look the same. 

There’s a touch of humour, too, in 100 Billion Suns, 2011: the 3,126 known gamma-ray bursts in the Universe (which can burn 100 billion times brighter than our sun) are reduced to 3,216 pieces of appropriately coloured paper to be fired from a confetti cannon. 

Candle (from Earth into a Black Hole), 2015, is a scented white candle that burns down over 12 hours to create a journey through space via scent: old stars smell of petrol, for example, and interstellar clouds of mothballs.

The Turner Contemporary retrospective will provide the best chance yet to assess what difference it makes not just to read about Paterson’s investigations of our place in the universe, but to experience them physically. And it comes with two extras: Katie will choose some 20 of Turner’s watercolours to intersperse with her work – expect some of the late near-abstractions which share her taste for the ethereal; and Margate will be one of 25 coastal locations for a project which picks up on the connection of sand with time. 

For First There is a Mountain, participants will sculpt beaches into thousands of sandcastles using buckets in the shape of mountain ranges, evoking geological erosion and showing, in Paterson’s words ‘the extraordinary existing in ordinary things, everywhere’. That might be the underlying theme of her monumental yet understated practice, along with how we are part – an insignificant part in cosmic terms - of something bigger, and ignore that at our peril.

Lee Bul: Crashing

HAYWARD GALLERY Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London SE1

 30 May-19 Aug 2018


           Sternbau No. 32, 2011

South Korean artist Lee Bul has shown little in the UK, despite a 30-year international career during which, as the Hayward’s retrospective will reveal, her work has developed with impressive logic. Bul, born in 1962, had a traumatic childhood. Her parents, intellectual dissidents in the Korean dictatorship, were constantly harassed and forced to move house. This led Bul to feel a disconnection from society, which fed into her confrontational early performances in which she used her body as a battlefield where political and social issues – including expectations of women – collided. She hung upside-down, bound and naked, to talk about the experience of abortion; and made unannounced street appearances dressed in freakish fabric outfits that appeared to be sprouting body organs (Cravings, 1989). 
Sorry for suffering–You think I’m a puppy on a picnic? 
12-day performance, 1990

If such work was about Bul herself being rendered half-human by the constraints of society, then the sculptures which followed were of half-human forms. Her surreally inspired series of Monsters (1998-2011) could have emerged from a metamorphosis gone wrong. The female Cyborgs (1997-2011) posit humans reaching perfection by merging with machines – yet their missing limbs and heads suggest that the ideal is far from achievable, even before they mutate into deviant hybrids of flora, insects and machines (Anagram, 1999-2005). 

 Cyborg W1-W4, 1998

In 2005 Bul’s focus moved on from inventing fictive bodies to realising imagined architectures. The larger environments expand Bul’s interest in spaces for the body to inhabit to encompass the whole of society. They’re built with liquidly baroque exuberance, but are ruins, consistent with a further failure of utopian aspiration. Instead of sculpting half-humans, Bul now pulls the actual bodies of viewers into the labyrinthine mirrored structure of Via Negativa II (2014) and fragments them into otherness through multiple reflections. 

Via Negativa II, 2014

There are echoes of Modernist buildings in these works, which will set up resonances with the cleanly restored Brutalism of the Hayward, the exterior of which Bul’s work will partially envelop. Bul is interested in ‘how people in the past envisioned their utopian future’, albeit from the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s point of view that grand narratives of progress and liberation are no longer possible. Stenbau No. 2 (2007), for example, is directly based on Bruno Taut drawings of implausible glass cities in the Alps; and the metallised zeppelin balloon of Willing To Be Vulnerable (2015-16) points up the failure of that particular fantasy of travel. 

Willing To Be Vulnerable, 2015-16
Installation view of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, 2016

We might also think of JG Ballard’s vision of achieving completeness by being subsumed into technology, as in his 1973 novel Crash, which is driven by how flesh meets metal in car accidents. Perhaps that’s why Bul has characterised her way of synthesising ideas as achieving ‘Crashness’. Bul’s paintings, too, are semi-organic, for she uses hair, leather and other animal materials: velvet manufactured from the excrescence of silkworms, the mother-of-pearl which shellfish secrete. 

Though Bul’s themes are serious, indeed rather melancholic, they give rise to complex and rich combinations of shinily seductive materials. The public may be perplexed as they ponder the half-human, the concept of the self in the modern era, and our attitude towards the future – but they will also be wowed. 

LEE BUL: CRASHING runs 30 May-19 Aug, Mon, Wed, Fri-Sun 11-7, Thurs 11-9 $ PAUL CAREY-KENT is an art writer and curator based in Southampton – you can follow him on Instagram at

Monika Sosnowska: Structural Exercises

Hauser & Wirth, London: 1 Dec 2017 – 10 Feb 2018

There are plenty of reasons for artists to be interested in architecture, even if they didn’t train that way – like, for example, Francis Alÿs, Pedro Reyes and Tomás Saraceno. . There’s the character of building materials, for a start; think of Carl Andre’s emphasis on the qualities of brick. Then there are the aesthetic crossovers between two parallel streams of modernist practice – the frequent starting point of Ellsworth Kelly’s intense simplifications. Other artists might delve into the psychological effects of the built environment (Bruce Nauman’s charged appropriation of the corridor, for example) or its echoes in history or society (Cyprien Gaillard’s explorations of the consequences of architectural failure). And, as we all grew up in architecture, there are links to personal histories, too (a motorway bridge is the designated portal to childhood memories in the work of the 2008 Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey). The Polish artist Monika Sosnowska engages with all five of these strands.

Untitled, 2012

1:1, Venice Biennale  2007

Returning to her native country in 2000 after studying abroad, Sosnowska criss-crossed Warsaw, photographing the architectural impact of the upheavals following on from 1989: hasty, and largely cosmetic renovation alongside neglect, dereliction and – sometimes regrettable – demolition.  Those images formed the source for a sculptural practice which plunged viewers into changed spaces alluding to the dramatic post-Communist reshapings of city and society. For 1:1, at the Venice Biennale in 2007, she bent and buckled an enormous and awkward black-steel frame, based on models for postwar estate housing, to jam it into the classical structure of the Polish Pavilion. It should look, she said ‘as if two buildings have been constructed in the same space and have to live in symbiosis, or rather to parasite on each other.’  Such a potentially uncomfortable cohabitation suggests how the present cannot entirely escape its past. 

Stairway, 2010

In other whole-room installations, Sosnowska’s distortions can appear unconstrained by gravity, as if to mock the aspirations of soaring towers. Recently, she has mixed these large-scale interventions with groups of smaller works. That throws more emphasis on the construction materials used – concrete, steel beams, reinforcing rods – and how they are warped and misplaced (by, incidentally, fabricators who normally make the same objects ‘straight’). Sosnowska subverts the functional logic and underlying geometric aesthetics of market vendor’s stands, which seem to have been kicked in for Untitled, 2012, or Stairway, 2010, which bristles insectoidally while leading nowhere.  Untitled, 2015, works the other way round: a plant seems to be overtaken by built elements, inverting how nature colonises an abandoned building.  

Untitled, 2015

At Hauser & Wirth, Sosnowska’s forms will emerge from fabric of the gallery – exploiting a particular advantage of architectural art: it can be integrated seamlessly into its setting, turning site specificity into a natural state.  Sosnowska’s surreal and edgily comical parasites will be like larvae burrowing out from within, threatening the very stability of the building and, by extension, society. ‘Architecture arranges, introduces order, reflects political and social systems’, Sosnowska has said, ‘My works are about introducing chaos and uncertainty.’ That purpose acts as an analogy for the personal and social impacts of where we live and have lived, for how – as Sosnowska has said – ‘Architecture creates life, in a way’.

Structural Exercises at Hauser & Wirth, London - Photos: Alex Delfanne.

Untitled, 2017 at Hauser & Wirth

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933

Tate Liverpool  2017

Otto Dix: Self-Portrait with Easel, 1923 - mixed media on plywood

The combination of August Sander  (1876 – 1964) and Otto Dix (1891 – 1969) contrasts a painter and a photographer to generate a richly varied overview of Germany’s glamorous yet troubled  Weimar period, forever set in position by the tragedies which came before and after.  Both sought to depict its people objectively, but there is another contrast here between Sander operating ‘from outside in’, and Dix working ‘from inside out’.
 August Sander Photographer (August Sander), 1925

Sander, a mining apprentice who discovered his passion when asked to guide a visiting photographer, operated commercially before embarking on his life project ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ from 1910 onwards. He cycled round Germany seeking archetypes which he classified into seven sections, such as farmers, skilled tradesmen, and women. 

That schema fitted with a contemporary fashion for physiognomy, the belief that character and circumstance could be read into people’s faces. Sander recorded his subjects, typically with direct eye contact, against whatever background was convenient. He believed truthfulness depended on rapport, and seemed able to put people sufficiently at ease for private individuality to break through their public facades. Not everyone looks good - but, said Sander, ‘I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves’.


 August Sander: Turkish Mousetrap Salesman c.1924–30

The pox-marked ‘Turkish Mousetrap Salesman’ (1926) illustrates the dignity afforded the lowly. He is poised yet seems fearful, drawing us into dark eyes behind which it is easy to imagine a troubled life as we speculate from outside in.

August Sander: Young Teacher, c 1928
The village schoolteacher looks somewhat stiff in the jacket and tie indicating his relatively high status in a rural community, but his dog – ready to bound into the woods – has a potential energy we might read across to his master, even if we don’t ask: is he a future Nazi? 

Dix trained at the School of Arts and Crafts in Dresden, then volunteered and spent the war fighting on several fronts. That, together with reading Nietzsche, reinforced his bleak view of humanity. Nor did lack of money help:  ‘I have no need of recognition from the narrow minded middle class’, he asserted, ‘but I do need the narrow-minded money’.  Marriage to the wealthy Martha Koch helped, as may be suggested by how he looks to her in Sander’s photograph of the couple.

August Sander: The painter Otto Dix and his wife Martha, 1925-26

Dix, who was among the ‘New Objectivity’ artists seeking to depict the decadence and hypocrisy of post-war society, relished the chance ‘to shock those with weak nerves’ by focusing on social extremes. His paintings of prostitutes, for example, can be seen as exposing the base instincts behind the conventional ideal of love, with that standing in turn for the realities behind all aspects of life - and death.

Otto Dix: Woman on a Leopard Skin, 1927 - mixed media on canvas

Dix was known for his exacting technique, typically drawing ith egg tempera before applying mutiple layers of oil. 'He was the only Old Master I ever watched using this technique', said fellow painter George Grosz. Yet his much freer watercolours are just as accomplished in a different way.

Otto Dix: Servants Girls on Sunday, 1923: watercolour and graphite on paper

It was Dix, not Sander, who claimed that ‘The essence of every human being is expressed in his ‘exterior’… In other words, exterior and interior are identical.’  Yet when his most iconic images pin down a character for inspection, he purposively distorts that exterior.  A woman on a leopard skin rug, unhealthily pallid yet muscular and devilishly keen-eyed, stares brazenly, perhaps accusing, back at us:  we feel Dix is working from inside out to show not as a straight transcription of her appearance, but as his concentrated assessment of her being. Where Sander communicates the humanity in the humble, Dix celebrates, even as he critiques, the grotesque.  Putting the two together draws attention to dualities exaggerated in Weimar Germany, but present in all times.


'A Centenary' runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester - 
1 July - 1 Oct 2017


John Minton (1917-57) is known – though he’s hardly famous nowadays – for his troubled, abbreviated life and as a leading neo-romantic, one of a loose group (often taken to include  Sutherland, Piper and Nash) who sought to return to symbolic and visionary evocations of the English landscape tradition.
'Children by the Sea' 1945
That seems correct of his life: a melancholy undertow feeds, albeit sweetly, into the work – even though he was born into comfortable circumstances, and at 26 his grandfather, director of DH Evans, left enough for Minton to act as the ebulliently generous funder of his friends’ entertainment (when passing the department store in a taxi he’d yell out of the window: ‘We’re spending your money, darlings!’). After being denied conscientious objector status, Minton had a quiet war – but his brother was a fatality, which affected him deeply, the more so as his father and elder brother had already died young.
Time Was Away – A Notebook in Corsica, 1947

He didn’t seem terribly conflicted about being gay – a sexuality shared with many of his circle of artists – but he never found a lasting relationship. His liaisons included six years living fractiously with Keith Vaughan, and two with the East End wrestler Ricky Stride, the latter indicative of taste for transgressing the class as well as sexual norms of the time. Despite commercial success and the admiration of his students, Minton seemed unable to settle, travelling almost obsessively around the Mediterranean and Caribbean when term was out. He was alarmed by the nuclear threat and out of sympathy with the emerging agenda of abstract expressionism. He drifted into alcoholism and committed suicide at 39.

Landscape Near Kingston, Jamaica, 1950
The art, on the other hand, doesn’t really bear classification as quintessentially English, and is more uneasy and libidinous than nostalgic and romantic. True, Minton admired Blake and Palmer, and used ruins as a favoured trope even before the war made them omnipresent. Yet he spent most of 1939 in Paris, and  more enduring influences proved to be de Chirico, early Picasso and three French-based artists, also known as neo-romantic: Christian Bérard and the Russian-born Eugène Berman and Pavel Tchelitchew.

Fishing Boats in Corsica, 1948 - lithograph

Minton was highly productive and wide ranging. He was a particularly fluent draughtsman with a natural sense of design which made him an influential illustrator. There are surrealist aspects to the peopled landscapes of the 40’s. His precise and somewhat angular portrait style was different again. A late move towards history paintings saw him take on increased complexity and scale. He wasn’t notable, despite that range, for formal innovation. Minton believed that the choice of subject was ‘paramount’, calling for ‘a love of certain things’ that was ‘no souvenir, no memory, but the thing itself made again in paint’.

Jamaican Village, 1951

His own most fertile subjects, built on the many drawings he made when travelling, were exotic and homo-erotic. His 1950 trip to Jamaica was particularly productive: he responded to the tropical colour and the chance to depict semi-naked black bodies with an understated, but undeniable, charge of desire. Yet Minton also discerned ‘a disquiet that is potent and nameless’ – and palpable in Jamaican Village, 1951. Ultimately that’s what makes Minton worth re-examining: he was a natural existentialist, one who laid his self bare through instinct rather than theory.

Self-Portrait, c 1953


Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham 26 Nov- 19 Feb 2017; Pallant House, Chichester 11 March - 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 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

Mural Relief 1958 at Staff Centre Pilkington Glass Works St Helens

Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern - July-Oct 2016

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 2016

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, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.