Monthly Archives: January 2007

Albers and Moholy-Nagy, From the Bauhaus to the New World, Tate Modern

Exhibition held in Spring 2006

Inspired by the Bauhaus and by the relentless development of the early twentieth century, Joseph Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy were extraordinary visual innovators, continually rearranging abstract forms through a bewildering range of media. The wide variety of material on which these artists depicted their generous family of shapes – shapes such as circles, twists, blocks and orbs – document not only modernist invention, but stand as a virtual timeline of industrial innovation; as each material was developed – aluminium, perspex, sandblasted glass – so Albers and Moholy-Nagy jumped on it and turned it towards their own visual needs.

Josef Albers, Structural Constellation, Transformation of a Scheme No.12, 1950, Tate Modern.

But innovation is not quite a guarantee of artistic quality. Many of the modernist branches they followed may have initially appeared interesting but soon appeared to be dead ends. To an extent, Albers’ experimentation counted against him – he tried so many different routes that it is hardly a surprise that some of them would turn out to be false paths. For example, the works done with sandblasted glass or the later Structural Constellations created from engraved Vinylite. Initially impressive, above all because of their smooth jet-like finish, they soon become lifeless objects, rearranged according to the same formula. The initial idea is appealing but there is little to sustain the variations – you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. As visual designs they are interesting (like many of Albers’ works they would make for affecting album covers) but as artworks their sustained repetition brings little beyond the original conception.

In actual fact, it was Albers’ stated desire to move art and design closer together, so maybe we should be praising him for executing this strategy within his works. One can see the enormous influence that Albers, vigorously inventive in its geometric concepts, has had on later design styles. For example the illusory set of rectangles in To Monte Alban which anticipates the op-art inspired designs of the sixties and seventies; or the nervous but excited lines on the blue background of in open air which seem closer to reflecting the hedonism of the sixties than its actual year of creation of 1936.
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Filed under Albers, Modernist Art, Moholy-Nagy, Tate Modern

Gerhard Richter – Atlas, Whitechapel Gallery

Exhibition held in 2003

Given the pressure to publish and make a name for themselves, art historians are tending to uncover more and more sources over which to discuss and pontificate; thus not only is there interest in the work of an artist, but there is interest in the artists’ correspondence, her theories, her lovers, her lovers’ theories, her lover’s washing bills etc. Judging by Gerhard Richter: Atlas at the Whitechapel Gallery this is true for the museum world as well. The focus of the exhibition was not Richter’s artistic output but his working ideas. During the course of his career, Richter has been taking own Polaroid photographs, jotting his own notes and collecting other visual materials, and, according to the exhibition blurb, these have formed a backdrop to Richter’s artistic productions, inspiring, illuminating and motivating him.

There are justified reasons for thinking this a good idea for an exhibition. Art historians may glean some novel biographic facts. It might provide stimulation for other artists, or indeed anyone else involved in the creative process. But above all it might help reveal something more about Richter the artist. Richter’s work as a painter revels in exploring the relationship between the painterly and the photographic. Not just examining the different textures of photographs and paintings, but exploring their content, their significance, their means of communication, and investigating how all these elements overlap and steal from one another. Therefore any exhibition which focuses on his working methods, and his in particular how Richter benefits intellectually from his scrapbook of photographs should be useful.

richter-candles.jpg

Candles, 1982, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Sadly, this was not to be. A few photographs showed content which echoed with some of Richter’s most notable paintings, a photo of a flickering candle being one of the most apparent. Yet precisely in being photographs, in being incomplete artworks, these worked lacked a spark of interest. Printed on cheap, glossy, flat material, the photographs of the candle appeared ordinary. Compare this to Richter’s candle paintings, imbued with ambiguity and mystery, but above all opening up a box of questions about what it means to be a painting and what is means to be a photograph. Much less can be achieved by just showing the photograph on which the painting was based. Indeed showing just the photograph seems to be taking the art away and leaving a rough approximation of an artist’s idea, communicating only to the artist himself, and little to the spectator.

The collection of smaller photographs on the ground floor of the gallery lacked much of a theme for the visitor to grab onto. Elements from family life, travel trips and other parts of Richter’s visual diary were pinned to the walls. Possibly for someone with a strong knowledge of Richter’s oeuvre this would be useful stuff, allowing for the illumination of some of his paintings. But for the casual visitor, this was pretty senseless stuff, about as much interest as overhearing an anonymous conversation about pets on the Monday morning trip to work, or indeed going through somebody else’s holiday photo album. The photographs are all obviously significant tools for Richter to create his artworks, but as artworks themselves they have little intrinsic interest.

A feature of art is that provides a glimmer of coherence amongst the random clutter of reality. The focus of Atlas, unfortunately, was on the random clutter.

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter, Whitechapel Gallery

Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design, Victoria and Albert Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum

Most exhibitions lead you somewhere, taking you through a series of rooms that trace some kind of artistic development. Early years, maturity, late style etc.. You can wander through at leisure, going back and forth, and decide what you like best. Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design has none of that. The entrance queue snakes through a small foyer, and then wham! You’re there, right at the heart of things. One glowing room, two long, long display cabinets, encrusted with Leonard’s manuscripts, whirring animations of the drawings projected overhead, and the faithful processing past in silent reverence, much as they would pass by the tomb of a much esteemed monarch. With Leonardo, one is getting to the very heart of things.

Leonardo, Manuscript in Queen's Collection - more info needed!

Leonardo, Manuscript in Queen’s Collection

This is hardly surprising. Leonardo’s up there with Michelangelo and Raphael, the cornerstones of a Renaissance that established a framework for human creative aesthetic achievement. Fragments, excerpts and sketches from the exhibition are familiar because Leonardo is so often cited as part of this achievement. But then the exhibition reminds you how strange this arrangement is. Leonardo has astonishing artistic facility, but what we see is the engineer, the stage designer, the mechanic, the biologist. Of course, we all know Leonardo’s abundant skills in these areas, but one is jolted into asking why Leonardo is placed within the artistic canon. Surely we should see Leonardo in other canons relating all the other subjects he covered? But of course it is an institution like the Victoria and Albert that has the links with the Queenís Collection and the British Library; the administrative grease that lubricates such an exhibition.

Exhibitions tend to show finished works, professional studies, work done for dukes, merchants, banks, rich aesthetes. Here we see a personal world of notebooks, thoughts, sketches, investigations, and unfinished moments of fantasy. Itís a raw, unpolished form of communication, and one can see Leonardo trying to formulate a swarm of intellectual sensations as ideas. Itís a far distance from the artistic impulse to creating objects that others can admire and appreciate. The communication here is not with others, but with the self, as it experiments, ponders and defines. All of us, I suppose, conjure up and toy with ideas, shift them around in our heads or make rapid jottings on paper, and then leave them half-finished. But to see this done with such invention and facility is strange and moving.

But more than providing the means for seeing Leonardo go through mental motions that everybody else does, the exhibition highlights his individuality, his strangeness, and his quirkiness. There’s the secretiveness, the insistence on the compact, small dimensions, the refusal to expand. The mirror writing and the neat margins tell one story but then the drawings tend to break into their own universe, fracturing the tight lines of text. There’s the ambiguous sexuality, familiar through his portraits, but also visible through his intriguing portrait of the mechanics of sexual desire – the phallus standing to attention – although the exhibition is at pains to point out that this may be a later addition. The tiny cinematic figures crouching, jumping and stalling are remarkable for the physical dynamism they exhibit, despite being crushed within such tiny dimensions. I’m not quite sure how to interpret such an array of minuscule figures decorating the page – maybe Leonardo just made them small so that he could fit plenty on one piece of paper.

Such incongruity is part of his drawing style as well. While Leonardo the proto-empiricist trumpeted the wonders of observation, there was an obviously stylistic bent to his drawing. Spirals and curves appear everywhere, in eddies of water, in storm clouds, in handrails. While the content of Leonardo’s work can be used to frame him as a symbolic forefather of mechanics, science and progress, the manner in which it is expressed tells of a very distinct, and peculiar, individual.

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Filed under Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance, Victoria and Albert

Fischli and Weiss, Flowers and Questions, Tate Modern

A tyre progresses along a dirty floor. It knocks another tyre, sitting on a ladder tilted slightly upwards. Amazingly enough, the bulky rubber tyre rolls up the ladder (courtesy of some cunningly positioned weights taped to the inside of the tyre) and bumps into another tyre, which does the same. This tyre hops over a couple more rungs and then knocks over a plastic bottle of water sitting at the top of the ladder. The water spills over and into a bucket sitting underneath. After a brief delay, a miasma of steam, in the form of dry ice, erupts from the bucket and begins, in billowing clouds, to traipse along the floor. One fluffy cloud of dry ice finally arrives at a bar of soap, which rests under a chair leg. The soap is gradually eaten away and the chair falls over, setting in motion a tray of ballbearings … and so the contraption continues, incorporating more marvellous forms of rockets, inflating balloons, miniature fireworks, see-saws and whatever else you may wish to include.

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986, T and C Film, Zurich

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986/7, T and C Film, Zurich

Part schoolboy physics, part spectacular marvel, this motion machine is documented in Fischli and Weiss’s The Way Things Go, a grainy video shot over roughly 30 minutes in an otherwise abandoned warehouse, and, for the sheer childish interest it generates, is the star of the show at the Tate’s eponymous exhibition.

Next to The Way Things Go runs a complementary video (Making Things Go), showing the artist’s experiments, failures and tests while building the machine. Though not nearly as interesting as the machine projected on the left hand side of the wall, the inclusion of this secondary video reveals one of Fischli and Weiss’s ‘concerns’ as artists (and one of their strengths). Rather than glorifying the artists it shows them simply trying to solve the technical problems they have set themselves. At a more conceptual level, the secondary video, rather than showing the production of art as something, secret, fantastical and touched by invisible genius, shows art being made, and the ‘everydayness’ of this task so often shrouded in the mystical glow of creation. One sees Fischli and Weiss (plus colleagues) approaching all these difficulties of engineering the motion machine in exactly the same way anybody else would. The artists have no special gift to bring to the occasion but their own hard work. Failure, confusion, the comedy of errors (e.g. the errant rocket, the recalcitrant rubber tyre) are just as much a part of Fischli and Weiss’s creative output as the motion machine. And juxtaposed with the video of the motion machine, the title ‘The Way Things Are’ seems very apposite – talking not just about the final product, but the creative process too.

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986, T and C Film, Zurich

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986/7, T and C Film, Zurich,

The other work I found particular engaging is one already owned by the Tate, and remarkably, a work of tenor almost directly opposite to that of the motion machine. Contemplative, silent, opaque in meaning, Visible World is a set of three high-definition television screens, slowly looping through an astonishing number of travel photographs, full of bright forceful colours. Without any kind of sound or commentary, there is a Zen-like feel to this piece, aided by an extremely slick method of moving between the photos. At a slow, almost imperceptible pace, one photograph morphs into another, a process that lasts for around fifteen seconds; for the majority of this period it is difficult to tell which photo is which. I found it tremendously hypnotic (although others are free to point out the similarities between hypnotism and somnolence).

While one should not forget this slickness of presentation (Fischli and Weiss are never quite as honest as they seem), one also needs to note that Visible World has a truthfulness about it that recalls The Ways Things Go. Fischli and Weiss do not have a story to bring to the table – they are simply showing photographs they have taken round the world (i.e. the way things are)

Often a distinct set of photos (say ten or fifteen in a row) would be of the same place, but would reveal not a logical progression that one would expect to see in a professional documentary. Rather, they are redolent of the work of an amateur snapper, who attempts to record the majestic quality of a place by the sheer quantity of photos, e.g. the mountaintop vista from eight points that are only fractionally different. Neither is the type of content too unfamiliar; nothing different from the photos you or I might take. Broad landscapes of impressive rural views, panoramic cityscapes, bright colours, atmospheric alpine shots, but nothing abstract, eccentric or (initially) ambiguous.

More generally, there was little in the way of a relationship between the photos in any one screen, or the three screens as a whole. While not random, there was little concern about framing some kind of narrative or message; the photos just were. Any time I tried to make an interpretation about the photos another set would arrive and would puncture the idea I was formulating. The absence of central characters also contributes to this lack of narrative. Any persons appearing tended to do so as incidental characters. Fischli and Weiss’s work is rather remarkable in insistence of avoiding both abstraction and figurative narrative.

Other parts of the exhibition I found less engaging. Sketches, preparatory works, props from performances are more documents than works of art. But in their approach towards revealing the artist and the world in the two works I have mentioned above, Fischli and Weiss provide a refreshing tonic to the cod-confessionalism or faux high-level art games played by some other contemporary artists.

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Fischli and Weiss, Tate Modern