17 May, 2009

Now doesn’t that look better?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Tate Modern ignores art history in favour of themes, say its critics. This refreshing rehang will certainly confound them

Turn your back for a moment and there is a whole new museum of art! That is what I always dream of when they rehang Tate Modern. Out with the late Rothkos, down with Matisse’s sprightly Snail – the museum’s main attractions when there are no gigantic spiders or slides – and in with some of the many thousands of works sprung from the lock-up.

It is possible that this may one day happen. I seem to remember some early promise of perpetual revolution, possibly to counter the complaint when Tate Modern opened in 2000 that its permanent collection looked patchy. Certainly there have been innumerable comings and goings, retunings and additions, more or less emphasis on Latin America, Asia or Russia, on video or installation or arte povera, for instance, so that one loses sight of that original objection in all the chassis. But a total purge was never on the cards, so no chance of seeing swaths of fresh work ever appeared likely – until now.

From tomorrow, Tate Modern has a new wing or, rather, new work in an old wing. Energy and Process replaces Idea and Object. Glum and gormless titles both, but do not be deterred. Go to Level 5 and you can have one of the best possible experiences of Tate Modern.

Richard Serra’s colossal steel slabs balance on a knife edge like some fatal house of cards, filling the space with pressure and the viewer with anxiety. On the opposite wall, Tate Modern’s only Malevich syncopates dazzling triangles against squares, their hard edges vibrating against a pure white ground and again you feel the frisson like a jolt in the brain. Can it really be almost a century since this Russian revolutionised abstract painting?

Kurt Schwitter’s painting seems to be growing out of its frame, turning back into wood. Günther Uecker makes a meadow of windswept grass out of a bed of old nails. The flip-books in John Latham’s Film Star flicker back and forth in their silent movie and Lucio Fontana discovers space with a single slit to the canvas – outer darkness made visible.

The point about this particular room is the transformation of painting. Call it wild ways with a substrait. Niki de St Phalle glues bags of pigment to the canvas and then has her friends shoot them with a pistol. Alberto Burri, the Italian artist Tate Modern has justly championed since his death in 1995, stitches sacking to the canvas, the saturated scarlet pigment above the tatters a hot sky above a harvest. Burri aimed for abstract beauty rather than figuration, but the eye cannot help finding both.

Onward, ever onward! That has been the steady objection to Tate Modern’s displays ever since 2000, the criticism that everything is chosen for its quick-fire impact, each hit raising a craving for more. And it is true that each of these works is exhilarating – but also absorbing. The careful arrangement of each room this time, what is more, allows for a much more contemplative pace.

A charmingly awkward chorus line of drooping wires by Eva Hesse languishes against a tall wall. Giuseppe Penone carves the trees back out of two vast logs. The sculpture court is full of 20th- century connections. Elsewhere, four of Giacometti’s minuscule women perch on top of a pedestal the size of a high chair, appearing as remote, perceptually, as wrens on a wire. In the next room the viewer shrinks beneath Robert Therrien’s sky-high dining table and chairs.

Therrien fills one of three Artists Rooms, courtesy of Anthony d’Offay, along with Jannis Kounellis and Anselm Kiefer whose immense installation of words, images and objects, including a whole uprooted palm tree, evokes the dust, death and legends of the Holy Land. And though one might not wish so many of d’Offay’s duff Warhols on Tate Modern, the museum has found a perfect match for them alongside Jeff Koons’s cut-outs of dumb, shiny animals.

There are still a few of those notorious juxtapositions – Rodin’s Kiss blocking a Bonnard, Matisse appallingly paired with Maurizio Cattelan’s three-arm fascist salute – that set the teeth on edge. But the old claim that art history is travestied here surely cannot linger.

For the museum has brought works of the same period together in a way that emphasises their uniqueness as well as their mutually advanced ideals.

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