19 May, 2009

Arte Povera makes history come alive at Tate Modern

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Arte Povera and the staggering works of Anselm Kiefer make Tate Modern’s new displays a triumph

You forget how big Tate Modern is. Looking up in the Turbine Hall yesterday I was suddenly overcome by its scale, its excess. Not many works of art can stand out against such vastness.

Well, the museum has laid its hands on just such a work. Anselm Kiefer’s 2006 installation Palm Sunday is part of a superb collection of contemporary art acquired for the nation from dealer Anthony d’Offay, and is now going on show here as a series of “Artist Rooms”.

But before I praise it, let’s take a look at Tate Modern’s new sequence of free collection displays called Energy and Process, of which it is a part. The previous exhibits in these rooms on Level 5 revolved around 1960s minimalism. Now the Donald Judds are out of there and the central hall is occupied by post-minimalist and anti-form artists of the late 60s and early 70s. There are compelling works such as a molten heap by the sculptor Lynda Benglis, which looks like runny ice cream but is in fact lead, epitomising the moment when the grids and boxes of minimal art made way for sloppiness and unpredictability.

This was also when Europeans made a comeback in modern art. From the 1940s to 60s the avant garde was dominated by the US. Yet, as these displays demonstrate, the rise of Arte Povera in the 60s put Europe on the map again. It’s funny: the Americans at the heart of this show – Benglis et al – are icons of the art history books, darlings of theory – but the Europeans knock them sideways. Most people will walk away thinking not about Benglis but about Giuseppe Penone and the other Arte Povera sculptors in these rooms. Above all, they’ll think about Jannis Kounellis. There is a wondrous room dedicated to him, an enchanting gallery where dry-stone walling, sacks of grain and rice, and a painting that includes part of the score of St John Passion by JS Bach bring a sense of real life, organic and ancient, into the museum. Like the Kiefer installation, this is another of the Artist Rooms acquired from the collection of Anthony d’Offay.

The attraction of the Arte Povera artists lies in their passion for the natural and the archaic. Penone’s trees contrast with American works that reek of the big city. Suddenly, the antiquity of Europe hits you, as artists from the old continent reach back to peasant worlds. Kounellis places oxidised, ancient-looking bells on an old table. He takes stones of the sort that might be found in a farmhouse wall in Greece and uses them to block a gallery doorway.

But nowhere is art’s return to history and landscape more spectacular than in the work of Anselm Kiefer. There are many good artists in the Arte Povera displays, but Kiefer looks like the greatest, if also the darkest. His Palm Sunday is staggering. The size of this graphic work is in keeping with his colossal paintings, but the matted, tragic textures, the desert poetics of the palm pictures, have nothing authoritarian about them. Palm Sunday is a surreal transfiguration of natural history. It makes you wonder what Tate Modern might look like as a science museum. It’s simply a great work and Kiefer is the peer of Cy Twombly.

See this. And see the best collection display ever staged by Tate Modern.

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