26 Aug, 2009

The great modern art roadshow

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Artist Rooms is Britain’s newest and best collection of contemporary work – and it is currently in galleries across the nation from Stromness to St Ives

Dazed after leaving London first thing in the morning and landing before noon on an island that seems more Scandinavian than British, I ask the taxi driver taking me across Orkney if the tractor turning up brown matter is cutting peat. “Ah no,” comes the sing-song reply (Glaswegians think Orcadians sound Welsh). “That’s manure spreading.” I settle back to spot megaliths and burial mounds, continuing a journey that started with a stone doorway at Tate Modern.

London’s modern art museum currently houses some of the best displays in its history. You can see Anselm Kiefer’s installation Palm Sunday, a colossal, uprooted palm tree surrounded by oversized and earth-encrusted botanical images. Nearby is a room dedicated to the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis: there are none of the live animals he is famous for putting into galleries, but there are striking things nonetheless – oxidised bronze bells on a wooden table; and that stone doorway, a door-shaped aperture cut into the gallery and filled with a dry-stone wall.

These outstanding displays form part of a relatively new public collection called Artist Rooms. Its core is made up of 725 works once owned by the art dealer Anthony d’Offay, who sold them at a fraction of their market value in 2008 (they are now owned jointly by Tate Modern and the National Gallery of Scotland). D’Offay’s gift is, of course, a huge asset to these galleries, but this is not all: the rooms I saw in London are just part of what amounts to a contemporary art show now running the length and breadth of Britain, from Cardiff to Woking, from St Ives to Stromness. Key works by some of the most important artists of the 21st and late-20th centuries have been loaned to a staggering variety of galleries and museums. D’Offay wants the pieces to be seen by as many people as possible, especially the young; he has also asked that each artist’s work be shown together, rather than scattered through thematic displays.

Artist Rooms was launched earlier this year, but is it actually working? Do the people of Woking really want their own exhibition of Jenny Holzer’s work? Are Robert Mapplethorpe’s portraits what Inverness has been waiting for? I decided to take the measure of Britain’s most ambitious new public collection by travelling to three very different rooms, to Bexhill-on-Sea on the south coast of England, to Wolverhampton, and to Orkney.

The Kentish sea is green and warm, furling into foam on the pebbly beach in front of Bexhill’s white De La Warr Pavilion. Opened in 1935 and restored in recent years to the modernist glamour intended by its architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion is proof of Britain’s long fascination with modern art. Before Mendelsohn fled Hitler’s Germany, he had built the expressionist Einstein Tower in Potsdam, a crazed homage to relativity; at Bexhill he chose the more orderly International Style, closer to the Parthenon than to Einstein. In fact, the clean, bright De La Warr is an unlikely stage for the hermetic and brooding sculptures of Joseph Beuys, whose Artist Room it hosts. Brown, honeycombed gunk, once a thick layer of fat, implodes on a wooden chair. A blanket of felt lies over a bed equipped with enigmatic machinery. On a wall of posters recalling the artist’s campaigns, performances and jokes, Beuys leads demonstrators on a campaign for direct democracy. “Professor Joseph Beuys,” reads a nameplate on a door. “Speciality Buttocklifting.”

If it is true that Mendelsohn wanted this building to celebrate a liberal reason – even a seaside Britishness – at a deliberate remove from the excesses of Germanic culture, then Beuys is the De La Warr’s nemesis. He revived German art in the 1960s, in the most daring of ways; he reclaimed for it the landscapes of myth, fantasy and spirituality that seemed to have been dragged to hell by Nazism. It seems amazing now that critics attacked Beuys – a prophet of green politics – as a “fascist”. Today, his decaying layers of fat and felt shrouds seem unmistakably to speak of the devastation of German history, evoking second world war uniforms and concentration camp dormitories.

Beuys is one of the highlights of the Artist Rooms’ collection: Bexhill has been able to mount a big and complex show drawn almost entirely from it. The trouble with our public collections in the past has been that, when it comes to modern art, cash-strapped museums have settled for buying illustrative, so-so examples of an artist’s work. But you can’t fall in love with an artist on the basis of second-order works. For instance, the Tate can boast only Summertime from Jackson Pollock’s best period of work – a nice but definitely not a transcendent painting. This new collection has given the nation some of those special works, the pieces that could make you fall in love.

Kiefer’s Palm Sunday is one of them. Beuys’s Neapolitan Ladder is another. At Bexhill, this stands alone in an airy, square gallery, defying the sceptics. It consists of a narrow wooden ladder, gnarled and timeworn, hanging bravely in the sky, supported by slender cables fixed to two giant cannon balls. I was reminded of William Blake’s drawing of a ladder being pointed at the moon, with the caption “I want! I want!” The work’s longing for the infinite is moving, but you can’t help noticing that Beuys’s ladder achieves its miracle with the help of two massive weights. We go up, we come down.

So what has Beuys done for Bexhill, and Bexhill for Beuys? Beuys Is Here, the exhibition is called, and it sounds a bit like a German parachutist touching down in Dad’s Army’s Walmington-on-Sea. On the day I went, the gallery had a fair sprinkling of elderly visitors, who said it wasn’t their cup of tea. But there are plenty of people here, many of them enjoying Beuys, locals as well as well-heeled weekenders. As I leave I hear a family deep in conversation, seeing a reference to the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder in the Neapolitan Ladder.

Wolverhampton looks as if it is weathering some of the worst of the recession. Its splendid municipal art gallery is surrounded by boarded-up shops and cafes. Andy Warhol would have felt at home. He came from Pittsburgh, and grew up on canned soup. Now he has an Artist Room here, downstairs from a tremendous Gainsborough and the gallery’s Wright of Derby portrait of Erasmus Darwin.

The Warhol room strives for accessibility, with the Velvet Underground piped in and computer screens where you can create your own “Warholised” self-portrait. I wasn’t sure this worked: the teenagers trying on silver wigs looked nothing like any of the art on display, and seemed to make everyone else there self-conscious. Warhol doesn’t need gimmicks.

But there was a portrait I had never seen before: Robert Mapplethorpe, staring back at you, blinded by the light – a hugely magnified Polaroid turned into a whited-out painting. It’s daunting; a portrait of an artist as a frightened rebel, fading into illness and shadows. Now it belongs to the nation, along with Warhol’s paintings of skulls in lurid variations of expressionist colour, and his diabolically reddened self-portrait with a death’s head on his shoulder.

I found the posters less interesting than Beuys’s, if only because Warhol’s ephemera are better known. The Mapplethorpe aside, the room seemed only too happy to recycle a generalised myth of Warhol the film-maker and celebrity-hound, instead of taking a fresh look at what are some of his most important later paintings. But there is a twist. The best thing by far is Warhol’s achingly emotional silkscreen painting of Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral. It is not part of D’Offay’s collection, but was bought in the 1960s by Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Our public museums do have some modern masterpieces tucked away, after all.

The most remote and unlikely Artist Room of all is currently an exhibition of video art by Bill Viola, in the Orkney harbour town of Stromness, population circa 2,000. The gallery is on a stone pier, perched over the cold sea. Standing inside, watching a screen, I hear an icy crash. A fully clothed man has just fallen into a tank of water and hangs there for a moment with his arms spread, making himself into a silvered figure of the crucifixion. Then he starts to sink, leaving a cross of glistening bubbles – until the body naturally rises and floats back up towards the surface. Just short of safety, he starts to let out air in big shiny spheres, until his lungs empty and he sinks for good – it seems. We go up, we come down. (What distinguishes D’Offay’s taste, I realise, is its seriousness; there isn’t much in this collection you could call trivial.)

On a row of five small screens, a woman is spending a day in a monastic room – meditating, writing, lighting candles, sleeping. The raftered roof of the gallery is similar to the one that encloses her little world. Bill Viola’s works, Ascension and Catherine’s Room (the former a loan from his studio, the latter from the Artist Rooms collection) draw you into a private, cooled, meditative frame of mind, one that is strangely in tune with the Orkney landscape. Outside Stromness there is a neolithic burial chamber called Maes Howe, its severe and perfect architecture achieved through dry stone walling. Here, in a room dedicated to the contemplation of the infinite, a shaft of light breaks in once a year on the Winter Solstice, making this one of the world’s oldest pieces of time-based art. Viola, too, wants to give us grave encounters with light and dark.

The Pier Arts Centre was founded to house a collection of British abstract painting and sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and their contemporaries; these are shown in intimate rooms overlooking the harbour. But it also owns a wall text by Turner prizewinner Douglas Gordon, a neon by Ross Sinclair that says “I Love Real Life”, and work by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The Orcadians I met spoke warmly about the gallery, and its exhibitions are a good fit with an island that is genuinely remote yet proudly international.

The gallery’s director told me that the Artist Rooms collection is a good illustration of what binds us: ownership is shared between an English and a Scottish gallery, in defiance of the accelerating fragmentation of Britain (admittedly, this observation comes at the end of a long night in the pub). I think what really matters is the strength of the works, and the fact that Britain’s museums, large and small, can now draw on such a high-quality treasury. It’s inevitable that Tate and the National Museum of Scotland will ultimately hog it, but this national tour is a very special moment, a celebration of the work and of Britain’s many great art spaces.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the original post on Guardian Arts & Architecture

No Responses to "The great modern art roadshow"

Comment Form


Flickr PhotoStream

    Fairy of the middle of Winter/ Яварь Середина-Зимыnozzle head trioLars MikkelsenCountry house and waterfalls - The majolica cloister of Santa Chiara in Naples (years 1739-1742) - Architect Domenico Antonio Vaccaro - Painters Giuseppe and Donato MassaCyborg Dude with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro & iPadKnock Out Game175. The Carlyle Hotel, South BeachPájaro N°3Quasi PrimaveraFfunny FfriendsCatch!American DreamA Blessing


HaggBridge.com brings you a daily update of news from art world, focused on UK based artists, exhibitions, and galleries.