Saturday, 31 December 2016

Turner Prize 2016:Junk, bums, toy trains, and cash.

It didn't take me very long at all to look round Tate Britain's exhibition dedicated to the 2016 Turner prize. In fact it may've been the shortest amount of time I've spent during my (almost) annual visit to the show. They didn't even have that room at the end where the nominated artists carry out video interviews explaining what their work is about - and this year they really could've done with it. Because it was pretty confusing.

I'd been slack so I knew the result before I arrived. Helen Marten had won. Just like she had in this year's inaugural Hepworth prize for sculpture. I'd been distinctly underwhelmed by her show at the Serpentine Sackler gallery this summer and had been looking forward to reassessing her work at the Tate. I'd felt that though it wasn't unpleasant to look at it wasn't resonating with me on a deeper level. All the plaudits her work was receiving was making me think I must be missing something. A second look, alas, didn't shed any further light on it so I remain in the dark. I'm either ignorant or the Queen is in her all together.

For all the talk of becoming archaeologists of our own times and viewing familiar items as if I'd never seen them before I just didn't get it - and I really wanted to. I guess I'll keep trying with her but for now all I can do is congratulate her on her victory and hope that one day the penny drops for me.
 




No such problem with Anthea Hamilton. Whereas Marten's work seems to pay dividends if you spend time with it (and you're not as lazy and stupid as me) Hamilton's appears as an instant fix. A quick chortle. One for the kids.

According to the board on the wall research is at the heart of Hamilton's work. Research into art nouveau design. Hamilton talks of being strongly influenced by the early 20th century French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud and his call for the physical knowledge of images. What this translates as is a giant gold bum. A giant gold bum and an inevitable photo opportunity.

It's funny alright. But is it art? Sadly, Hamilton's room is probably the most interesting in the entire exhibition. She seems to be the only artist to recognise that the Turner Prize is now a theme park more than an art show. No-one gets outraged any more. People come along hoping to be outraged and, therefore, little can actually upset them. Hamilton seems, at least, to be having fun with this state of affairs. The golden bum, the suit of bricks in a room of bricks, and a pair of metal pants hanging against a mocked up blue and cloudy sky. They're all fun. They all take no longer than two minutes of your day up.




Josephine Pryde's model of a train covered in graffiti suggests more of the same. This is the centrepiece of a room that also features works made on domestic kitchen worktops that are then exposed to sunlight in Athens, Berlin, and London. So she at least gets to travel. Unlike her train which would definitely be better if it was whizzing round and round a track.

There's also a selection of wall hanging enlarged photographs that were so spectacularly dull I only took a photo so I could include them on this blog. Even then it was hard work trying to establish which were the least boring.
 




I moved through this room pretty quickly. All the artist had been women so far and I wondered if they'd gone for an all female shortlist this year. They hadn't. The last room was given over to Michael Dean. An artist whose work begins with writing that is then given over to the physical form. He creates moulds and crafts of his words, abstracting and distorting them into an alphabet of human size shapes using materials easily recognisable from our quotidian lives. The results are not massively dissimilar to the works of Helen Marten.

These were interspersed with 'United Kingdom poverty line'. Strewn across the floor of the gallery was the amount of money the government states is the minimum that a family of two adults and two children need to survive for a year in the UK. When installing the work Dean removed one coin thus rendering the amount one penny below the poverty line.

It's nice to have a political piece, no matter how simple, in an otherwise self-congratulatory collection of art.  It probably means Dean has done the most pertinent piece on show but as it's a prize and there has to be a winner I'll give it to Hamilton and her gilt buttocks. Not for making anything particularly beautiful, relevant, or even interesting but understanding that the Turner Prize is now, and has been for a long time, a distraction to what's really important in the art world, let alone the real world. A little bit of fun. With the emphasis on the 'little'.
 




So though the art, on the whole, disappointed, and I couldn't watch the non-existent videos the notes that punters pinned to the board, as ever, provided much deeper laughs. Needless to say the big bum cropped up quite a lot. It seems people really like bums. Much more than they like art.




Fear and love in Holland Park.

My friend Owen was over from Los Angeles and wanted to take some culture in while he was here. I was glad he did as I may well have been tempted to be very lazy during the festive break. He was keen on having a look at the new Design Museum in Holland Park and so was I. I'd never even been to Holland Park. Let alone seen the new museum.

I loved the old one down by Tower Bridge. Not just for its clean white lines but also its location that enabled riverside walks and cheeky pints in the pubs of Shad Thames. What it lacked though was much of a permanent collection. In fact you had to pay to visit a temporary exhibition if you wanted to go any further than the shop.

The new museum has got a much more extensive, interesting, and free permanent collection which we enjoyed a good nose around and I'll no doubt return before long. We thought we'd try one of the exhibitions though and opted for Fear and Love:Reactions to a Complex World. It seemed quite apt considering the year we've all been living through.


The gist of the show was a selection of newly commissioned works exploring a spectrum of issues that define our time. These included sentient robots, networked sexuality, slow fashion, and settled nomads. Needless to say that, other than design (surely a prerequisite in this museum), there wasn't a lot to link up these disparate works. Best viewed as a series of individual pieces really.

First up are a bunch who call themselves the Rural Urban Framework. Their piece, City of Nomads, looks at the urban expansion of Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, and how this affects the already challenging lifestyles in the city. It's an interesting look at lifes lived very differently to ours and it's fascinating to see and hear ordinary Mongolians go about their day to day business but it doesn't offer much in the way of solutions to the increasing problems being experienced there.




Andres Jaque's Intimate Strangers, despite coming from a very different place indeed, also suffered with similar problems. A room full of small televisions and one large screen mapped out the history of gay dating/meet up app Grindr. Of course I sniggered when reading messages like "Hey you, how's it going? Fancy sucking a dick tonight?" but the story of the logistics of Grindr and the social impact it's having was highly engrossing. Towards the end of the film we heard the story of a Syrian refugee who'd managed not to ruin his phone crossing the Mediterranean and, once holed up in a Dutch camp, immediately put it to use to find nearby sexual partners. Even in the face of death, it seems, sex is never far from our mind.

Not everyone is looking for a quick fix though. Ma Ka was the most successful fashion designer in China when, ten years ago, she decided to stop producing commercial clothing. She established Wuyong, meaning 'useless', a design studio and social enterprise dedicated to traditional ways of making clothes. A kind of antidote to China's rapid industrialisation and the hyper-consumption that has followed in its wake. Ma Ka often works with women from the mountainous regions of southwest China. Their wooden looms can take months to produce a single item of clothing. It's an almost ritualistic process of planting, reaping, hand-weaving, plant-dying, and hand-stitching. There are several pieces us visitors can ponder and they're all lit very well. So much so that even if I was able to get a pretty decent photo. I'm actually very proud of this one.


Something, or someone, called OMA/AMO, in the wake of this year's disastrous Brexit vote, decided their contribution to this exhibition would be a statement in support of Europe. Their simple, but utterly wonderful, idea was The Pan-European Living Room. A room furnished with pieces from each of the 28 member states of the EU. Anyone looking at it would surely concede that the strength, and beauty, that comes from togetherness is far stronger and more beautiful than that which comes from isolation. Go back to the picture of Ulan Bator if you have your doubts.

Nina Campbell's Peony Place wallpaper represents the UK. Rama Carpet's Greek 'flokati' rug is surmounted by a French mexique coffee table on which stands a Romanian ERO coffee pot. Dieter Rams' Braun clock (representing Germany) surveys Hans Wegner's Danish sofa made more inviting by the presence of a traditional Lithuanian cushion. I liked it so much I wanted to live in it. Much like the EU itself. 


Not sure I'd want Mimus as a neighbour though. This giant industrial robot is very curious about the world around her. But she gets bored very easily too. Reminds me of a few people I know. Mimus has no eyes but she uses embedded sensors to see everyone around her simultaneously. She comes in for a closer look, follows you around for a bit, and then gets fed up and moves on to somebody, or something, else.

The thought behind Mimus is that she (not sure why she's a she, rather than an it) is responding to a commonly cited social fear of robots taking work from humans. Madeline Gannon, Mimus's mum, prefers to see robots as companion species rather than competitors for jobs. With this in mind maybe Mimus should be free to travel around the exhibition, museum, and even Holland Park itself, rather than being couped up in a zoo like cage! Whatever. It was fun to watch people make goofs of themselves interacting with her.


One thing these robots won't need a lot of is food. The rest of us do and one of the planet's most pressing, and obvious, concerns is how to provide that. The population is growing (though if we keep electing psychopaths to power that will surely change soon) and, though there are about 50,000 edible plant species on Earth, most of our human diet is built around just a few grains. Muji art director Kenya Hara has employed artists to paint these grains. They're rendered in hyper realistic form so that most visitors will initially assume them to be photographs. If the staff (in their rather odd black dungarees that made them look like they were on their way to a shift at an abattoir) hadn't given us the heads up I'm sure we'd have too. I took a photo of a chapatti and a naan bread. They looked almost good enough to eat.


The grains and the robot rather sidelined a somewhat dry exhibit (empathy.global) from Metahaven about the undoubtedly good work the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd continue to do. It made some interesting points about our obsession with creating newer, and ever more powerful, forms of artificial intelligence whilst, at the same time, allowing the continual slaughter of highly intelligent animals like whales and dolphins. It's a pity there wasn't a bit more room given over to this. Maybe it's one for the Natural History Museum and Science Museum to cover in a joint-venture.

Shoved into an even tighter corner was Chalayan's Room Tone. This time I thought rightly so. The thinking behind their piece was that London was a more stressful place than other world cities. I didn't really buy into that premise and, therefore, I didn't really buy into the piece that sought to monitor mental stress as folks went about their day to day business. It was, for me, the most disappointing thing in the show.

I soon moved on to Potocinema's Arquitectura Expandida which sounded much more up my calle. I'd visited Bogota in 2015 and liked the city. As I was on holiday though I didn't visit the neighbourhood of Ciudad Bolivar. One of the poorest and most violent areas it's a self-built community settled by rural migrants fleeing the ongoing conflict between the government and various paramilitary groups and drug cartels. It's a conflict the Colombian government held a referendum to end this year but the electorate voted for it to continue. If one thing has gone down in stock this year it's the value of referendums. That and the pound.

Arquitectura Expandida's commission for the museum wasn't as interesting, initially, as its back story and the work it's done in the local community. All we got to see was some televisions but further investigation revealed they were telling the story of how Expandida had used their commission to build a school for the Ojo al Sancocho collective which teaches young people to make films but, until now, had no space to do so. The installation was a small scale replica of the school built from bamboo and polycarbonate sheets. It was, in retrospect, the most touching (and the most useful) work in the whole show.


Although Christien Meindertsma's Fibre Market could, one day, come to be looked back on as a very useful contribution. Most of the clothes you throw away will end up in an incinerator or as landfill. While the ones you recycle will be turned into materials of low value such as carpet liner. One of the reasons it's so difficult to recycle clothes is because there's been no way to sort them by fabric and colour. Meindertsma has been working with the first generation of machines that can do this. The results are certainly visually very pleasing but it looks like it'll still be a while before this technique is anywhere near perfected.


Vespers by Neri Oxman was the final commission. The ancient cultural artefact of the death mask rendered as a speculative piece of wearable technology. I'm really not sure what Neri is trying to say here but, again, it's a visually strong piece and it added to the gaiety of an exhibition that had, in places, been touching, amusing, educational, and, often, utterly pointless. Much like design itself I guess.


Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Albums of the Year 2016

At the end of 2005 I was working in an office and most people had finished for Xmas. I was pretty bored to be honest. So I decided to put together some kind of metacritic list of the albums of the year.

I chose five publications and/or websites that had listed 50 (or more) of their best albums of the year. Selecting the top 50 I awarded 50 points for 1st, 49 for 2nd, and so on down to 1 point for 50th. I then crunched the numbers and made a list of the top 30 scoring.

This silly piece of time wasting proved to be quite popular so I continued and have done every year since. I normally send the e-mails round a few mates who've either expressed an interest or I'm trying to impress in some way. Since leaving my old job I've lost all the lists from 2005-2015. If anyone has them saved please get in touch.

Now I have a blog (and I've left my job) I'm gonna use this to disseminate the data. So, here we are, no photos, just a list of 2016's Top 30. Enjoy (or not)....

1.David Bowie - Blackstar
2.Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
3.Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
4.Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
5.Solange - A Seat At The Table
6.Beyonce - Lemonade
7.ANOHNI - Hopelessness
8.Frank Ocean - Blonde
9.Bon Iver - 22, A Million
10.Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered
11.PJ Havey - Hope Six Demolition Project
12.Angel Olsen - My Woman
13.Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch
14.Skepta - Konnichiwa
15.Brian Eno - The Ship
16.Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
17.Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
18.Teenage Fanclub - Here
19.Lambchop - FLOTUS
20.A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
21.Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
22.Shirley Collins - Lodestar
23.Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression
24.Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS
25.Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger
26.Anna Meredith - Varmints
27.Fat White Family - Songs For Our Mothers
28.Thee Oh Sees - Weird Exit
29.Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial
30.Matmos - Ultimate Care II

sources:-

Pitchfork
the Quietus
The Wire
Uncut
Mojo

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Lowndes:Friday afternoon at the Sunday Painter.

I'd recently spent a couple of weeks helping out at a rather swanky gallery in Mayfair. All plush carpets and sympathetic lighting. Peckham's Sunday Painter, which I visited on Friday afternoon, is not like that. In fact I'd walked past it many times and assumed it to be some kind of members bar or perhaps the offices of a local newspaper. The kindest description of the interior would be 'shabby chic'. The white paint that's been used on the walls has left splotches on the bare wood stairwell and the corridors are half-blocked with delivery boxes for what I assume to be future exhibitions.

The current exhibition is by Gillian Lowndes. A ceramics sculptor I'd previously been unaware of but she's got a reasonably lengthy Wikipedia page and, when she died in 2010, received an obituary in The Guardian. Both of these, for me, are signs of having made it.

Making is what she was all about too. Although it's a bit pat to describe pottery as radical there is some truth in it. Her work is certainly radical in the sense that it has no actual practical use. 1981's Wall mounted Brick Bag, below, hasn't even been named to suggest it has any value other than something to be stared at. So that's what I did. I stared at the melted brick in its fibreglass bag. It looked interesting but I can't say I felt any great depth of emotion. In that respect it was not dissimilar to other recent exhibitions I'd attended by Laura Owens and Marc Camille Chaimowicz.


Gillian Lowndes was born in 1936 in Cheshire and spent much of her childhood in what was then known as British India. She studied at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts and the L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before going on to teach at both Camberwell Art College and St Martins.

Her work has been seen as a response to her immediate environment. She claimed the Brick Bag series, apparently a watershed moment in her career, was inspired by witnessing the overflowing piles of plastic bin liners that accumulated across London during the refuse collectors' strike between '78 & '79.


Collage with Cup Handles comes from 1988, nearly a decade later. It's made of metal, Egyptian paste, earthenware, and paint and it looks, to be frank, like junk. I think that was the point though. Lowndes was working at a time when most practitioners of her medium were primarily concerned with the functional and/or the decorative. It was seen, on an admittedly small scale, as a transgressive act to make these works that don't look pretty and serve no function.


That's not to say they're ugly. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder wouldn't go quite that far but they are, at least, intriguing. Faint praise for sure but that's possibly the nature of making work ahead of its time. Eventually others catch up and even overtake you and the work can start to look dated. Hook Figure (1994, above) has loofahs attached to it and Lowndes wasn't averse to doing a Uri Geller on the kitchen cutlery either. Bent forks and spoons feature throughout this compact, one room, show.

The below selection has been listed as four separate works. Clockwise from the top they are Collage with Cup Handle (1988), Shredded Clay with Claw (1994), Collage with Cup (1986), and Small collage with puffball (1994). By now you'll be getting a fairly clear idea of the nature of Lowndes' work and the motifs and themes she returned to time and again in her art.



A few things jumped out at me as I wondered what would be an appropriate amount of time to ponder essentially meaningless items before I could go to the pub. The fibreglass, metal, clay, sand, and bone china of 1994's Untitled Form (above) had an undoubtedly aesthetic pull. It felt more alive than other works exhibited.

If my Dad was to cast his eyes on 1995's Scroll he'd probably wisecrack that the builders had left some of their gear in the room. Which would remind of an installation that Fischli & Weiss put up in Tate Modern when it first opened. It consisted, seemingly, of old tyres, pallets, drills, and paint splattered radios but it'd all been lovingly created to look as such. It was, in fact, a very traditional piece. Not sure Scroll quite deserves to be in that exalted company but it's of a similar, if less impressive, nature and I liked looking at it. Which is, of course, all that matters.



On the wall across from it sat another Wall mounted Brick Bag (again from 1981). The ever so slight difference in the details show that these are works that Lowndes must have thought long and hard about. Alas, they did very little for me.

More pleasing was the messy Almost off the Wall (2001). Just ceramic and a load of stray wires it reminded me of the dodgy, unsafe, electricity cables I experienced when visiting China in 2005. In fact I was reminded of quite a lot of things as I looked round Lowndes' diverting, if hardly mind blowing, little show. Her influences ranged from the Arte Povera and the Yoruba artwork she saw during an eighteen month spell in Nigeria in the early 1970s. I couldn't, with my hand on my heart, say her bricolage transcended them but, if nothing else, she helped bring clearer definition to these things to a British audience.



Friday, 23 December 2016

Animals (collective)...

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which" - George Orwell.

The Marian Goodman Gallery on Lower John Street in Soho was hosting an exhibition called Animality. It turned out to be a much larger undertaking than I'd expected. Two floors and several rooms stuffed with art considering our relationship with the other living creatures of this planet. We venerate them, we mythologize them, we keep them as pets, we put them in zoos, we ride around on their backs, we eat them, and we kill them for sport. We've certainly got a very complex relationship with our furry, fishy, and feathery friends.

Although, on the large part, Animality sought to be a humorous look at our interconnectedness it also, in places, claimed to tackle ethical concerns that some of us may have. Hmmm.


They certainly weren't short of interesting pieces. The very first work to catch my eye was a replica of Albrecht Durer's 1515 woodcut of a Rhinoceros. Durer had not actually seen the rhino which was the first of its kind in Europe since Roman times, having arrived in Lisbon as a gift for Pope Leo X. Unfortunately the rhino drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. It seems unlikely that there was any real concern for the rhino's welfare and it was simply seen as a curio.

By 1887 Eadweard Muybridge was coming to understand animals a little better and his early work in stop-motion photography not only foresaw the rise of cinema but helped us to understand how both humans and animals actually moved. Most famously he proved that, when in motion, horses have all four hooves off the ground. Marian Goodman weren't exhibiting the horses though. They had a jaguar one instead.

After the Muybridge the science part of the exhibition was, for me, essentially over. It took me a while to realise that though.


Of course animals can be rendered as playthings in quite innocent circumstances. Think of teddy bears and rocking horses. Carsten Holler's 2014 Octopus was designed as part of a set of children's toys. Play seems to be a recurrent theme for the artist who once installed slides inside the turbine hall of Tate Modern and now has a particularly scary looking one overlooking West Ham's new London stadium.

Mexico's Gabriel Orozco is also a playful artist. He's better known for his chequered skulls but his photos of animals in their natural environment show a different side to his oeuvre.
 



Wael Shawky (from Alexandria, Egypt) and his Cabaret Crusades:The Path to Cairo marionettes show stock figures, caricatures really, from that time and, of course, they include at least one animal. I got the impression that they should, ideally, be performing some kind of puppet show but there seemed to be no sign of that happening on my watch. 


In 19th century France J.J.Grandville also dealt in caricatures. He was one of those who liked to ascribe human characteristics to his animals. His monkey artist below probably speaks as much of his view of the art world as it does to any consideration of human/animal interaction.

Steve McQueen is, of course, these days better known as the director of excellent films like Twelve Years a Slave, Hunger, and Shame but before that he won the Turner Prize for his video art. An example of which, Rolling Thunder, can be viewed in a darkened room to the side of the main gallery. I think a sign of a truly decent video artist is that they eventually go on to make proper films and McQueen has proved me right with that contention.



Yinka Shonibare is another artist whose work is probably better known than he is. His Nelson's Ship in a Bottle sat on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth from 2010 to 2012. His contribution to Animality is Tightrope Revolution Kid (Calf Boy) from 2013 which, as you can see below, looks amusing enough. Not sure it adds much to the discussion but, hey, it's fun and it looks cool. Much the same could be said for Stephan Balkenhol's wacky Column Sculptures. 

 


 

Saying more about language than animals is Pierre Bismuth who, in his 2002 Jungle Book Project, has made each character in the original Disney film speak a different language. There was someone in there nominally watching it when I looked in but they seemed, like most of us, to be more interested in what was going on with their phone.

Not far from there you could stand in the presence of one of American conceptual artists John Baldessari's albino camels or check out Mexican Abraham Cruzvillegas's 'Silverback self-portrait with prominent belly'. Maybe ponder what Cosimo von Bonin's Thrown out of Drama school is all about.










Of course it was starting to look like the thematic aspects of the show (Origins, Markings, Crossings, Variations, Traces, Extinctions) were simply excuses to hang up some crazy animal art from some really quite well known artists. That made it interesting to look at but very difficult to invest with any form of over reaching narrative. I decided to just enjoy it for what it was and not worry too much. Maybe a policy I should employ in most other aspects of my life.

To this end Berlinde de Bruyckere's Radt (below) and Adrian Vilar Rojas's The Most Beautiful of all Mothers (XVI) (further below) made little sense but at least looked neat.



Truth be told I'd learnt very little about art and possibly even less about animals and our relationship with them. If I'd wanted to do that I'd probably have been better off reading a copy of Orwell's Animal Farm which, at least, was in abundance throughout the exhibition. Yet despite being unable to make much sense of the whole thing I rather enjoyed the experience of wandering aimlessly around looking at things. That was enough for me. For now.

Abstract Expressionism:A monument to the American century?

The huge canvases of the Abstract Expressionists stand as much as a reminder of the vastness and power of America as the Hollywood sign, the face of Mount Rushmore, or Monument Valley in Arizona. They seem, in retrospect, a testament to a century that will be looked back on as the American century. With the advent of Trump's petty, insular, and inward looking politics it's hard to see the 21st century being viewed the same way.

Trump would probably be equally peeved by the birth certificates of some of the genre's most well known practitioners. Mark Rothko was born in Russia, Willem de Kooning in the Netherlands, and Arshile Gorky in Armenia. They'd certainly not pass the small-handed, small-minded president-elect's birther test. In fact they help show us just how much immigration contributes to the image, and gaiety, of the nation. Of all nations. Potential UKIP voters might like to think about this instead of getting enraged by the Daily Mail's lies and propaganda.

Despite the work's modernity it's worth noting how old much of this stuff is now. Virtually every artist in the exhibition is dead. Jackson Pollock died sixty years ago and Arshile Gorky took his own life as far back as 1948. There hadn't been a major retrospective of Abstract Expressionism in the UK since the New York's Museum of Modern Art's touring The New American Painting visited the Tate in 1959.

So, the Royal Academy's new show was long overdue but had they bitten off more than they could chew? Many of these artists could command a show in their own right. Was it too much to cram them all in together?


I was certainly daunted by the prospect of taking this much art in in one go but I needn't have been concerned. It had been lightly, yet lovingly, curated and took me and my friends, Mark and Natalie, on a journey through the movement that began in New York in the mid-40s referencing German expressionism and the European schools of abstraction. It was, besides WWII, the single biggest factor in the art world's westward shift from Paris to New York City.

Some of the early works, like Richard Pousette-Dart's Undulation (1961-1962, above) and Rothko's atypical Gethsemane (1944, below) clearly show the links to Europe. These apron strings would be cut as the movement developed but surrealism and cubism remained in the DNA of the Abstract Expressionists.



There seems an obvious influence of the Catalan surrealist Joan Miro in the works of Arshile Gorky. Gorky had a deep knowledge of the history of art so it's unlikely to be a coincidence that Water of the Flowery Mill (1944, above) and Diary of a Seducer (1945, below) approximate, and build on, Miro's childlike, and free, style.

Not long after these works were made Gorky's life descended into catastrophe. A 1946 fire burnt down his Connecticut studio, he underwent a colostomy for cancer, his wife had an affair with fellow artist Roberto Matta, before, in 1948, becoming paralyzed in a car accident. Later that year he hung himself. A tragic end to a short, but creative, life.



Jackson Pollock was another who died aged just 44. His art now as instantly recognisable as anyone else in the history of art bar perhaps Dali and Warhol. Familiarity, for me, has failed to bring contempt. They're still infinitely fascinating. The visual counterpoint for the new jazz sounds coming out around the same time. Phosphorescence (1947, above) is perhaps your typical Pollock. Paint poured and dripped all over the canvas. It looks random at first but pay closer inspection and you can begin to identify patterns and even, though this could be a trick of the mind, motifs.

1943's Mural, below, was the largest canvas Pollock ever created. It was commissioned by art collector Peggy Guggenheim for her Manhattan townhouse. The size, and the way the lines chime and rhyme with each other, speak not just of what was going on in Pollock's troubled mind but what he was doing with his body too. They're incredibly physical works. You cold spend a long time with them.


One criticism of Pollock, and Abstract Expressionism as a whole, is that he/it was/were very macho. All the big name artists here are men and in most writing on the subject it's the males that dominate. The RA have, correctly, made an effort to at least redress some of the balance on that score. To that end we have work by Helen Frankenthaler (below), Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner who, despite living much of her life in the shadow of her husband Pollock, was an accomplished painter herself with a style not dissimilar to, but complimentary with, that of Pollock.


 
Many of the Abstract Expressionists were influenced by the grit and speed of life in New York. Franz Kline's captured some of that but also the dark poetry of film noir and even, oddly, the calmness and reflection of a Japanese woodcut or one of Whistler's nocturnes.

Below the Kline is Robert Motherwell's Wall Painting III from 1953. Motherwell had a lifelong preoccupation with the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and depicted this using a sombre palette and oppressive motifs.




Willem de Kooning had a much lighter touch. Witness Pink Angels from 1945. The violent, scrawled, colliding forms aim to speak of eroticism. In fact de Kooning was on record as saying "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented'. In 1952's Woman II, however, he bit off more than he could chew and was accused at the time of misogyny. He later went on to say that he saw "the horror in them now, but I didn't mean it. I wanted them to be funny so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls". Natalie felt there was something in the accusations of sexism and Mark's opinion was that de Kooning just didn't get it right. The de Kooning room was possibly the most, or even the only, disappointing one in the whole exhibition.



The centrepiece of the exhibition is, of course, the Rothko room. With large rooms either side dedicated to Pollock and Still the tranquillity and depth of Rothko's creations act as the calm at the centre of those artists frenzied storm. Of course representations on blogs like this do nothing to convince non-believers how lovely his stuff is. The low lighting and the hushed tones in the gallery serve Rothko much better. His works, by this time, were numbered rather than named and here we have, above, 64, and, below, 15.

Rothko wanted to convey 'tragedy, ecstasy, doom' and he's certainly inspired a whole lot of hogwash to be written, and said, about his work. Since his death in 1970 people have spoke of meditating in front of them, losing themselves in the paint. Even the brochure talks of 'enigmatic hypnotism' and 'a numinous aura'. This high-handed acclaim shouldn't detract from one of the most formidable artists of the last century. Rothko felt his works aspired towards the poignancy of music and that's a pretty admirable aspiration in my eyes (and ears).


The next room contains Barnett Newman's Midnight Blue from 1970 which is such a wonderful shade of blue that I'd love to show it here but it also turns out it's exactly the shade that reflects me holding my camera so you'll have to look it up yourself. It is utterly delightful and worthy of its place alongside the Rothkos. In fact, it's my favourite work in the entire gallery. I can imagine Newman pondering, for ages, exactly where to place his 'zip' and then rubbing his hands together with glee when he'd finally done it. It may look like a fag packet or a t-shirt but it's wonderful.

Thrust out of the Rothko room into the remainder of the exhibition feels like leaving a church and heading out on to a busy street. Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic took ten years before it was completed in 1975. It's not clear if that's because that was the year that Franco died but the whole series took over 40 years and was said to have been painted in response to Pollock's Mural.



Whilst most of the works are paintings there are a few sculptures dotted around the place. Many of them are by David Smith who we'll run into again later. 1951/52's The Hero obviously reduces, even mocks, the human form.

Louise Nevelson's (another woman!) Sky Cathedral (1957-1960, above) reminded me of a darkened version of one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. Unlike the other sculptures it's pressed against the wall inverting the common trick of paintings aiming for three dimensional affects. This is a 3D piece aiming to be viewed as a flat canvas. I like it.


Along with painting and sculpture there was Abstract Expressionist photography too. The chief practitioner appeared to be Aaron Siskind. His works focused on small details of nature and architecture and even looked closely at the depreciation and destruction of them.


Clyfford Still's works, too, hint at events beyond our control, wildernesses untamed, and the great American outdoors. In places they can resemble Mimmo Rotella's Italian decollages. Other times they speak of Still's deep relationship with the land's 'awful bigness'. As a westerner and resolute outsider he had little to do with most of the others and, I think because of this, his work retains an immediacy and monumentality some of the lesser artists have lost with the passing of time.

He spoke of spiritual transcendence, Greek myths, and other such mumbo-jumbo yet his paintings don't seem airy-fairy at all. They seem very rooted in the real frontiers of the lived American experience. One contemporary he stayed in touch with was Jackson Pollock. Pollock said of him:- "Still makes the rest of us look academic". I think the curators are trying to say, and I agree, that if you take one thing away from this exhibition take away the fact that Clyfford Still was a major talent of the 20th century. It's no accident he's been allotted a room the size of Pollock's.



There's only one more room to navigate after Clyfford Still's and it's given over to 'Late Work'. Here you can see the aquatic, gauzy tones of William Baziotes and the 'traitorous' work of Philip Guston. Baziotes appears to look back, almost as far as Monet, whilst Guston shocked the art world, in 1970, with his brutal return to figuration. It marked the end of the golden era of Abstract Expressionism and, with hindsight and no little hyperbole, the beginning of the end of the American century.



It'd been a big big show with some huge names and some massive works. That was never in doubt. But it had also been both an education and a joy and one I was glad to share with Mark and Natalie. We retired to the Chequers Tavern in St.James's to discuss our evening out but not before a brief coda in the courtyard which had been furnished with more sculptures by Indiana's David Smith. I'd really like to see one of the big galleries dedicate a whole retrospective to this influential, and rarely seen in the UK, artist.