Category Archives: Tate Modern

Robert Rauschenberg on The Art Channel

My new film for The Art Channel visits an exhibition at Tate Modern by one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, Robert Rauschenberg.

Working across printing, photography, painting, assemblage, technology and performance, Robert Rauschenberg is one of the most influential American artists of the 20th Century. He wanted to act in the gap between art and life, experimenting with the nature of art and linking historic Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters with contemporary art. The exhibition runs at Tate Modern before transferring to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City.

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Agnes Martin at Tate Modern is visited by The Art Channel

The Art Channel brings you a film of the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern including analysis of several major works. Martin was a  painter who retreated from New York City to a solitary life in New Mexico in the 1970s, where she acquired a mythic status. But what do her abstract paintings communicate and how might we understand them? Grace Adam and Joshua White lead you through this significant exhibition.

Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern


Responding to the restrictions of illness, Henri Matisse found a means to return art to the line, not a drawn line but a cut one. Simply manipulating scissors and painted papers, Matisse radically evolved a technique that expressed elemental qualities of shape, colour and silhouette. Tate Modern’s exhibition manages to elevate these humble Cut-Outs to pre-eminent importance. Long overlooked in favour of Matisse’s paintings of sensuous interiors and voluptuous nudes, these Cut-Outs leap off the wall in their confident simplicity.
The show starts by illustrating the use of these cut paper forms as designs for still lives. A pin-board holds apples and jugs held in place for their relational effects. Matisse has infinite choices in his arrangement of these forms placed on top of a table in a traditional still-life. Two diagonal pieces of string describe mark out the table’s edges. Beside this malleable design is the completed painting characterised by Matisse’s fascination with pattern and texture seen here in some glazed ceramics, fruit, a tablecloth with a cloud-like motif, and the jagged edge of a conch shell. All the elements fall into place but we can see that the cut-out process was a crucial stage in making the painting. In the corner of the exhibition’s first room is a tiny, modest lyre made in blue paper, the very first self-sufficient ‘decoupage’. It presents some of the significant ideas that Matisse developed in cut paper: the silhouette and positive form of the object set against the support which acts to pick out the fine strings of the instrument.
 ‘Jazz’, an illuminated book, which Matisse produced from 1943, demonstrates the vitality of these cut papers layered together, colours set against each other, and collage animating the image. The finished, printed plates demonstrate the inherent delicacy of the Cut-Outs. However, they do not reproduce well. The original materiality of the maquettes is diminished in the printing process as the edges, crinkled layering and textures are pushed to a graphic reduction . Matisse accepted that the project was flawed but it alerts us to the potential of this embryonic technique which he was developing in a time of war and occupation.
The Cut-Outs offered Matisse new opportunities particularly when immobilised by ill-health.  They became a private meditation on making images out of humble materials. Collectively they form a ‘poor’ art without the privileged status of oil paint or bronze. As you walk from room to room, you learn how these paper pieces provided private entertainment and a new purpose. They began as single pieces pinned to the wall of the studio where the draughts of air would gently move them. Gradually they would accumulate and became immersive ‘installations’ determined by architectural dimensions and the method of their production.
Perhaps the greatest work in the exhibition is the ‘Parakeet and the Mermaid’. Foliage here moves and flows as if shaped by breezes and currents embodying both the sea and the shore. What’s so artful is the choreography of the fronds in varying colours, directions and sizes. Matisse imagined bringing the increasingly inaccessible garden ‘inside’ in the manner of his paintings which connect the domestic interior to the surrounding environment through open windows and doors. We can see in a surviving photograph how this piece evolved in scale so that it began to turn corners at 90 degrees, as if growing naturally. Matisse deploys colour strategically here so that hot pinks and oranges project forward while cooler greens and blues recede until the eye eventually sees the ripe, blue pomegranates swaying in the gaps.
 ‘Work with Two Masks’ is a pronounced contrast because this piece originated out of a commission for a tiled mural in Los Angeles. Here Matisse begins a dialogue between symmetrical, repeating motifs, which subtly vary because they are individually hand-made. Blue neo-classical columns stand sentry at each end and a central band resembling embroidered flowers slices the work into two. This enormous assemblage of cut petals and seeds fluctuates between order and chance. In the penultimate gallery you can see the final, approved design for the mural project where Matisse dispenses with any symmetry and employs a set of fronds in balanced colours that rise up organically out the ground, as if a living plant.
The Chapel of the Rosary in Vence presented the greatest challenge to the cut paper technique. Matisse called the project the summation of his life’s work. While it largely avoids biblical references aside from a Madonna and Child, the composite elements combine to celebrate life and Meditterranean fecundity in the sunlight. Despite Picasso’s contempt for its religious purpose informed, no doubt,  by a twinge of jealousy, Matisse triumphantly deploys his cut-papers to conceive a Provencal ‘total artwork.’
Why is this show so successful and popular? I think the vitality of these works lies in their direct authenticity. They return us to childhood and the early exploration of the world through sight and touch. While we cannot handle the Cut-Outs, we can imagine the satisfying playfulness of holding the brightly painted paper while taking a pair of scissors on a meandering journey of description. As Matisse cuts, so he draws. The Cut-Outs dispense with any pre-conceived design and become assertively material, almost sculptural. Matisse creates fantasies out of painted papers without hiding the journey required to make them. What’s fundamentally entrancing about these Cut-Outs is that they manage to be miraculously both an object and an image.

A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance at Tate Modern

Setting up a dialogue between Jackson Pollack and David Hockney offers a promising introduction to an exhibition that looks at the relationship between painting and performance over the past sixty years. Pollack’s Summertime No.9A demonstrates all of the intuitive release that flows out of his technique of placing the canvas on the floor thereby reasserting its materiality and intrinsic character as an object made through the application of paint to supporting surface. This is an art of impulse and wilfulness. He does not analytically study a subject to copy or describe it but acts in the moment fluidly moving through space to take the picture forward to a completion. Much has been written and said about Pollock’s methods and goals but when you see one of his mature paintings in the flesh their undeniable energy and restlessness demand consideration and ultimately respect for their insistent details of layered loops of paint. Within the exhibition the gallery takes the painting off the wall and returns it the floor, its place of origin and reminds the viewer of Pollock’s performative ritual. The image we see is part of a process and not an end in itself. To comprehend the revolutionary impact of this approach, we need to see it at our feet.
Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ elevates intellect and deliberation. Taking two weeks to paint the splash of water following an imaginary dive from an absent figure plunging deep into the water, Hockney privileges the viewer with a photographic freeze-framed image of displaced water. Looking at this complex spray of lifted white crested water, we know this is a device that reinforces the artificiality of painting and its translation of the observed world into fiction and effect. Water is never still in this way but moves so fast that it becomes a memory rather than something seen. Hockney’s emphasises both movement as stillness in this picture. The Californian bungalow glows hot colours in the sunlight and the palm tree takes carries Hockney’s desires as a Yorkshireman abroad searching for artistic and sexual freedom during the early 1960s. A Bigger Splash is an act of homage to Hollywood and a fantasy incorporating stereotypical motifs but he lends it an uncanny air rather like a De Chirico painting that suggests human activity through absence. So this is a work of synthesising different ideas and sources together to make something that is the antithesis of Pollock’s spontaneous dropping of paint.
These two paintings illustrate two critical themes in the exhibition: performance and staging. Sometimes these tactics come together so that they are not necessarily in opposition. The curators quote Allan Kaprow the pioneer of performance who says that after Pollock artists had to incorporate the performative, ‘real time’ element or give up painting entirely. We are led through Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle and the Viennese Actionists who in turn take the act of painting towards a theatrical and improvised status. Where the exhibition begins to totter on the edge of relevance is the inclusion of artists exploring identity through disguise and characterisation such as Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman. Here make-up is literally taken as a proxy for paint applied to the body but now the show feels quite removed from either Pollock’s or Hockney’s concerns which we experienced in the first room.
The second half of the exhibition meanders even further from the thematic frame with a focus on individual artists working on installations that operate as sets or tableaux. Edward Krasinki’s application of blue lines of tape at a consistent height around the walls and across suspended mirrors raises interesting questions about control and autonomy at a time of political totalitarianism but feel like a digression. Further on we encounter a very stylised representation of Jean Cocteau’s world in an imaginary room by Marc Camille Chaimowicz that fails to convey much interest beyond contrivance. This is a theatrical set made inert by the absence of any performance.
Jutta Koether’s ‘The Inside Job’ connects one painting to the response of visitors in New York to the picture hanging inside a rented apartment but illustrates the problems of exhibiting a historic project outside the parameters of its original environment and audience. This is a challenge for exhibiting work related to performance beyond its original environment. Joseph Beuys managed to invest his objects and vitrines arising out of his performances with an enduring vitality. In the final room of this exhibition Lucy McKenzie’s beautiful hanging screens that masquerade as flat painted sets evoke that uncanny displacement and uncertainty we first found in Hockney’s Californian hedonism. Now McKenzie has given her illusions a life-sized architectural presence,  which are subsequently taken further into fiction as sets for an accompanying fictional film.
So what we discover inside this rambling exhibition a few moments when painting’s relationship to performance is explicit and appropriate but often the argument begins to ramble. Pollock and Hockney though remind us of painting’s power to reconnect us to urgent expression on the one hand and intricate invention on the other.

Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern

The ornamental skull has become a familiar mordant feature of the artist’s box of tricks over hundreds of years. In the Western tradition, this can be traced back to Vanitas, still-life paintings that confront us with the irresistible trajectory of time, impelling all life towards mortality. More recently, Damien Hirst inimitably seized the enduring trope for an extended dialogue between art and money, by covering an anatomical copy with high carat diamonds, cut to fit the contours of the head. But several years before Gabriel Orozco had employed this subject when he was recovering from a collapsed lung. Spending many hours in recuperation, he purchased a real human skull in order to draw directly onto the surface (apparently there are two outlets in New York City where such an object can be legally sourced).
‘Black Kites is perhaps the most engaging object in Orozco’s retrospective at Tate Modern. Stripped of any individualising fleshy features, the ivory-toned skull now caries a chequerboard pattern of black squares that slip into elongated diamonds as Orozco moves with his pencil into the recesses of this bony head. The shock of standing before human remains, far from the catacomb or archaeological display, is upstaged by the skillful handling of the graphite two-tone effect by which the artist maps and probes this repository of human instinct, knowledge and experience. An evident uncanny, creepiness is overlaid with decorative excavation. Such a darkly humorous and ornamental approach to the skull returns to us Orozco’s native Mexico, to the religious iconography of Aztec heads and more recently the Catholic appropriation of pagan ritual in the Day of the Dead where skeletons are dressed up and decorated in an annual danse macabre.
Mortality takes on quite a different presence within the same room where large banners reproduce headlines from the New York Times obituary pages that Orozco has proportionally magnified by using the same fonts. A jumble of diverse lives is thus reduced to absurd summaries that clash and fight for prominence such as the ‘Actor Once Wed To Shirley Temple’ and the ‘Inventor of a Better Seat Belt.’
And so Orozco’s eclectic employment of differing sources and materials may explore a similar thematic interest.
La DS, a modified Citroen car, sits displaced from the street as a hyper-real object sharing the same distinctive profile but viewed from the front, it becomes clear that the artist has removed the engine, narrowed the body and welded together what remains to produce an uncanny alteration that leaves the viewer with enough information to read the object as a familiar product but shorn of its functionality. We are left with an exaggerated, streamlined approximation of speed and movement that is disconcerting.
A few metres away within the same gallery, Orozco places an irregular, stained ball of indeterminate material on the floor. We learn that it is in fact constructed of plastercine to match the artist’s exact weight. ‘Yielding Stone’ is an object that carries layers of experience and memory embedded in its crusty skin, for this humble, inconsequential blob has been rolled around as a witness to Orozco’s nomadic wandering in real physical environments. It becomes an autobiographical repository of multiple encounters and sin a subdued fashion articulates all that has shaped it.
In a series of photographs, the conceptual gives ground to a more lyrical quality: the moist residue of breath sits momentarily on top of a reflective, lacquered piano;  a squashed football hosts a rainwater puddle; a showerhead resembles a photograph of the comos taken from a satellite. These images play on the open-ended power of suggestion, which Orozco most fully realizes in a series of creased paper images conjured out of creased paper and oil based paint and begin to resemble ‘ink blot’ tests.
Elsewhere, Orozco reclaims the most abject and disregarded materials for the purpose of art. Stretched layers of fabric fluff, human hair and skin hang loosely on clotheslines. Formed around the drums of tumble dryers in New York Laundromats, these formless and indeterminate residues neatly summarise Orozco’s quixotic quest for revelation in the material world.
This bathetic teasing strategy is most explicit in his empty shoe box first exhibited at the Venice Biennale which feels firmly established in post- Duchampian tradition but instead of outrage induces little more than ennui. Orozco is capable of overreaching in his hunt for lyrical transformation. In a site-specific work made for the exhibition, ‘Chicotes’, fragments of left lying in the road after car tyres have exploded, which lacks either beauty or surprise. He over-eggs this pudding by dripping pools of liquid aluminium over some of these frayed rubber strips resembling melted wheels and car parts, so suggests the curator grasping at a viable interpretation for a piece that does not feel fully formed. But the work still manages to embody entropic inevitability within the material world and perhaps unconsciously reminds us yet again of vulnerable flesh for the piece is unavoidably reminiscent of animal parts and pelts found dismembered in an abattoir.

This ability to work in different media and scale articulates the artist’s hungry observation of the world. He seems tireless and constantly inspired, resembling an illusionist who draws gasps from a crowd. Showmanship runs through the exhibition but sometimes the work can consciously embrace bathos and deflation too. Orozco engages with shamanic illusions, transforming the familiar and banal into objects of considerable resonance and power. However, unlike Joseph Beuys, Orozco’s is more intimate, quizzical and less charismatic. A chopped up car and an ornamental skull entertain and surprise simultaneously but they are not invested with transformative social or political symbolism. Orozco remains attached to the wry gesture that operates with subtlety rather than mesmerisation. This is an art of interruption and alteration, momentarily shifting meaning gently along to a new position. We may stand before ‘Black Kites’ and feel entranced, but the broken jutting tooth returns us to its origins and the point of departure

Miroslav Balka’s ‘How it is’ – Tate Modern





Coming down the slope that leads into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Miroslav Balka’s giant steel box remains hidden by the permanent bridge that cuts the space in half. A dark, mysterious object gradually appears in view at the far end of the building, which demands a journey to fully explore and comprehend. An inaccessible rectangular box comes into focus, but on walking it’s full length, you discover a slyly concealed ramp on the far side that guides visitors into a dark chasm. Climbing to the mouth of this void requires more exertion than courage, but poised on the threshold to enter, all our fears of darkness, reminiscent of childhood, induce a profound anxiety about proceeding any further.

Having summoned enough determination to walk into the box, you’ll discover a velvety darkness that admits a low level of light from the hall much like sunlight filtering down to the seabed.  It’s an unnerving experience summoning up one’s deepest, primal fear of the unknown and destabilizes the vision normally employed to guide you through an unfamiliar environment.

Balka’s Unilever commission assumes a magnified geometry that diminishes the human visitor. Metallic, functional walls embody the modern age of mass-produced parts bolted and welded together without concern for aesthetic appeal beyond efficiency and economy. A giant box resembling a container used to ship much of the world’s goods lies stranded, stripped of any functionality. However, its contents of air produce a baffled disappointment, for this is not an Aladdin’s cave.

Initial shock soon gives way to something much more disturbing and tragic. This empty structure begins to assume historical associations. While children shout with pleasure and run around, those familiar with 20th century history may well associate this sculptural installation with the transport of human cargo in the Holocaust. More recently, refugees fill similar containers in desperate flight from other life-threatening persecutions.

Balka’s work directly addresses the experience of his hometown in Poland where an entire section of the population was deported and murdered within living memory. His over-arching theme is the impact of history. In the moment we suppress our hesitancy about entering his large box, the deep abyss arouses our instinct for survival by playing both on the imagination and by undermining our sense of well-being.

With its overt historical allusions, ‘How It Is’, becomes the most politically charged commission in the Unilever series. Above all, the sculpture becomes a solemn warning of our capacity to harness mathematical reason and base materials for wholly destructive ends.