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Mark Rothko, at the Philips Gallery

Jonathan Jones, that no nonsense, speak your truth art critic for the Guardian, reported on his visit to the new Tanks interactive art space at the Tate Modern:

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett’s contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the “screening process”.

It’s probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

A certain class of art has moved “the art experience” closer to entertainment. I’m not against the easy pleasing of a confectionary offering—something light and fun can be a worthwhile distraction from the heavier parts of life—but at some point there is a need to advocate for the other end of the spectrum. Contemplative engagement with art rarely garners the same coverage as playfully theatrical events, events that are conceptually driven but often conceptually shallow.

There is room in our world for lots of types of expression. and I don’t think it is excessively curmudgeonly to ask for equal time.

Jones seems to agree:

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I’ve done my interactions.

Jones nails a nagging discomfort I have felt repeatedly. A set up like the one Jones describes IS patronizing. And it is that particular form of condescension that frequently turns me off when I visit similar interactive exhibits. Respect me as a viewer, please. The way a great painting respects me.

So yes, I’ll take that hour in front of a Rothko.


View from Keswick, in the Lake District

My time in the UK was split between the timelessly serene Lake District (and former haunt of Wordsworth and Coleridge) and the frenetic expanse that is London. It is the perpetual longing for the both/and that I have come to know as elemental, similar to the paradox captured so poetically in that famous line from D. W. Winnicott: It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.

Lots of plays, lots of art, lots of time with friends. I’ll offer up a few highlights over the next few days. When it comes to special exhibitions currently on view in London, this is a singular moment in time in that the three biggest shows with the longest lines are all by artists in their final years: Lucian Freud was 88 when he passed away last year, Yayoi Kusama is 82, and David Hockney is 74. All of them are almost dizzingly prolific and tirelessly exploratory. No laurel resting, no slowing down. Very inspiring.

I’ll start at the top. My favorite of the three was Kusama’s show at the Tate Modern. I’ll talk about the other two in future posts.

Kusama has a memorable back story. From a review in the Guardian by Tim Adams:

All art is attention-seeking, but few artists have ever taken their demands to be noticed to the extremes of Yayoi Kusama. Now 82, and resident by choice for the past 35 years in a psychiatric care home in her native Tokyo, Kusama is currently seeing all her wishes come true. Not only has she been granted this obsessive-compulsive 14-room retrospective by the Tate, one of her career-defining Infinity Net paintings sold for $5.1m in 2008, a record for a living female artist.

Success did not come easily. Born in patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan of the late 1920s, even the idea of becoming an artist, as a woman, must have taken a supreme effort of will. To become an artist quite as liberated from convention as Kusama must have felt a lot like the insanity she has always feared – and to some extent nurtured – in herself…

She seems to have been drawn to surrealism, but given it a less playful, more psychologically unbalanced field, an edge perhaps explained by the fact that at the same age as she was seeing her visions, she was forced by her mother to spy on her father in bed with his string of mistresses and geishas. She developed a loathing of phallic images, and an overwhelming fascination with voyeurism.

Her response to these disturbing, formative forces seems twofold: she sought a kind of self-obliteration, covering herself and everything around her with her trademark polka dots – there is, among many other spotted surfaces, a fabulously spacey suburban living room here in which the edges of objects, sofas and tables are blurred by primary-coloured circular stickers, picked out in a psychedelic light. Elsewhere, mirrored “infinity rooms” take these points of colour into more dimensions than the eye can easily cope with. Almost nothing has been immune from Kusama’s dottiness: horses and cats, buses and houses, trees and fields and rivers, she has camouflaged them all. Damien Hirst’s outsourced efforts look decidedly spotty by comparison.

The range in this body of work is extraordinary. One room is full of her early paintings—obsessionally patterned and subtle in the absence of saturated color—and are reminiscent of early aboriginal paintings that use dots to reference the mystical landscape of central Australia. She moves from paintings of minimal tonality to obsessive phallic sculptures, also understated chromatically, to color used in an almost fetishist manner. Colored dotting soon becomes her signatory style but it does not come across as cheesy or inauthentic. Kusama’s work feels like it came from “complete necessity” (to quote my favorite line from Roberta Smith*). I loved every moment of the show.

Not without irony, Damien Hirst‘s Tate Modern show opens soon. A master of marketing and self promotion, his work almost never passes the coming from necessity test. Sure, that’s not the only measure for engaging and compelling art. But it has come to be an issue of increasing importance to me.

A room full of exquisitely subtle Kusama early paintings

A closer view of the painting surface

Phallicizing every object

Wild phallic landscapes as well

Infinity Mirrored Room. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

* Roberta Smith’s plea for what she longs to see and feel in contemporary art exhibitions is outlined here.

(Photo: Tate © The artist)

Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art at Yale and commissioner of the 2007 Venice Biennale, has written about the Per Kirkeby exhibit at the Tate Modern. The first paragraph of Storr’s commentary is actually one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions I’ve read of the current “exercises in anachronistic classification” that bedevil the art world today.

I’m also including the second paragraph as well where Storr states his point that Kirkeby does not fit any of the current buckets as they are now constituted, even though Kirkeby was “a polymath in tune with his times, which is to say a well-educated man and an improviser all at once.”

This is a well deserved focus on a major (and under-appreciated) artist and worth the complete read. (Note: Another excellent review of the show by Laura Cumming from the Guardian can be read on Slow Painting.)

A good deal of the art history being written today isn’t art history at all. Rather, it consists of exercises in anachronistic classification in which artists are assigned tags and lined up in groups according to ideological and stylistic genealogies. The rubric of Conceptualism,for example, becomes the catch-all basket for a disparate array of aesthetic practices, notably textual art, appropriated and manipulated photos, the hard core performance art, video, installation art, readymade sculpture and allied subgenres. When it comes to identifying the antithesis – if not nemesis – of Conceptualism for those who deem it the only true path for progressive postmodernists, the usual suspect is painting. It would appear equally obvious to such pro-pomos that painters have nothing much to do with Conceptualism, although licences to paint are issued to, among others, artists such as Art & Language, John Baldessari and Gerhard Richter, that one-man undoer of all dogmas.

Still, the art historical record seldom reflects many of the more intriguing anomalies buried with current customs of classification. Take the case of Per Kirkeby, and, for contrariness sake, begin at the beginning of this Danish artist’s long career with a group of works that are usually ignored, and a few pertinent facts that are habitually glossed over when his name comes up. The paintings, few in number, are square mixed-media works on masonite dating from 1968 and 1969. Kirkeby was just entering his thirties at the time, having abandoned the university study of natural history he began in 1957 to enter the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen in 1962, a year after it was opened as an alternative to the Royal Academy. Already behind him was intensive work as an academic and field geologist – as Lasse B Antonsen writes in one of the best synoptic accounts of his early career, Kirkeby took part in two expeditions to Greenland in 1958 and 1962. Ahead of him at the Experimental School were life-altering encounters with recent and current vanguard art, notably that of the paintings of Wols, the drawings and poems of Henri Michaux, the music of John Cage, the multi-media events of Fluxus and the art and mentorship of Joseph Beuys (who Kirkeby first met when both showed up a day early for one of Beuys’s actions at the Royal Academy). In short, Kirkeby was a polymath in tune with his times, which is to say a well-educated man and an improviser all at once.

“Mild Winter II” (Photo: Galerie Michael Werner)

This weekend I found Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian of the new Per Kirkeby show at the Tate Modern. (It is also posted on Slow Painting.) Well known in his homeland of Denmark, he’s a painter whose work does not get as much visibility (IMHO) everywhere else as it should. Hopefully the show at the Tate will change that trajectory. He is also a writer of poetry and essays, a filmmaker and a sculptor, so his sensibilities bleed over into a number of different forms.

Here’s an excerpt from Cumming’s review:

Kirkeby’s colour – radiant violet, cobalt, glowing ochre – is like a gift, a compensation for the complexity of his art. For he never offers any easy statements. None of his paintings is sewn up, resolved, and very often you feel more certain of the mood than the subject matter. His early work has been compared to that of contemporaries such as Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz, but in its primitive and irreducible pleasures seems more connected to Cy Twombly.

Though there are, of course, those who just find it annoyingly resistant and obscure; which is the occupational hazard of the abstract artist. With abstraction, there has to be some kind of affinity, some vocabulary or tone of voice that the audience may recognise as it recognises the content of figurative art. In which respect, the relative unfamiliarity of Kirkeby’s work is a boon.

For it allows one to see the paintings clearly, uninflected by the judgments of others, to meet them like relative strangers. And this show is the ideal encounter, for it has been very subtly arranged to display the fullness of their character. Rich, earthy, spearing, dynamic, fiercely inquiring, solemn, droll, sceptical and yet abundantly romantic: perhaps a portrait of the artist as much as his art.

Per Kirkeby (Fotograf/Copyright: Peter Beck)