Archives for posts with tag: Art Criticism

5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. I’m afraid the exhibition is over. Anyway, here’s part two…

David: Instead of the old Paul Klee adage of ‘going for a walk with a line’, Craig-Martin’s version might be ‘going to the gym with a line’ – what you end up with is very strong but robotic, and yet the paintings and the wall drawings still have the human hand in them. They aspire to the condition of machine-made things – a very Modernist conceit – but they are not. They are fascinatingly three dimensional when you view the paintings from a glancing angle – they reminded me of the Nazca lines in Peru. They are slight vertical disturbances on an otherwise flat surface and they have a circuit like quality – they are not lines that are easily interrupted or changed.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook


Nazca Lines, Peru

Nazca Lines, Peru

When I first saw the show though it was on a very damp rainy day and the humidity in the gallery caused some of the black acrylic tape in the wall drawing (in the last pic) to peel off. A gallery assistant in surgical gloves was reverently smoothing it back. This might have been supposed to remain hidden, this sort of performance aspect, but it was revealing of the human qualities of the line and its scale and how the hand had made it. It caused me also to look much more closely at the lines. The tape is very flexible but it does have trouble with some of the tight corners MCM asks of it, bunching  up and slightly lifting off the surface and there are places where the hand of the gallery assistant did not quite join the supposedly continuous line exactly so that it reminded me of a medieval engraving.

The show’s title is Transience – and some interviews suggest it is just about evolution of electronic product design. This is surely disingenuous. In the interview I read Craig-Martin pretends to be amazed at the obsolescence of the items in his work. He must have been aware of it even though he could’t predict the future, but is his choice of subject matter simply a case of him painting the first things he saw or are other factors in play?

Richard: I don’t think the objects are just the first things he saw – there is no kitsch – everything depicted is in some way functional. And in some way  everyday. These are the objects that surround us in our daily lives. I think it’s also important to MCM that what he paints is contemporary at the time of painting; these are all things that (for MCM) were in the “now”. One of the things I get from looking at these works is a sense that MCM is examining the objects, interrogating them almost – trying to show us the mystery at their heart. Their oddness, their alien nature. The blanker the object, the stronger the effect for me – the credit card being a good example.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

David: The credit card is a great example and an inspired choice of subject because our relationship with it is so abstract. Although we handle it, its value is defined by the abstract concept of money. We know how to use it, but it is somehow not of our world. Almost in a religious sense. I don’t think Craig-Martin is suggesting that we should worship money or material things but perhaps he is suggesting we do, and the shift into unnatural colour in his paintings strips away the connection we normally take for granted and we can see the idol of materialism as just so many ephemeral plastic shapes. It is clever to use colour in this way, but I think there is a price to pay – it makes the paintings very hard on the eye!

Yes, the colour is striking. Really like being hit in the face almost. The central room is painted in a vivid Teal (see pic)

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

a colour Craig-Martin seems to like a lot. The predominant colour scheme is secondary colours and black with few primaries. Where present they will be clashing, as in the red and pink of the credit card. There are one or two moodier olive and maroon combinations that veer toward the tertiary spectrum. But basically he is using the colours of anoraks – orange, teal, cerise – it was like walking round Snow & Rock to be honest. They are commercial colours that have not been big in the history of art, partly because they feel very synthetic. I am pretty sure that orange teal and magenta do not occur together in nature and the flat unmodulated nature of his paintings accentuates this plastic quality.

I was unsure also about extending the colour onto the walls as well as the paintings. Should art end at the edge of the canvas? Or in MCM’s case aluminium mounted on a small frame whose dimensions imitate a canvas? It was intruding on the headspace of the viewer. It was not a setting for the painting- it felt immersive, almost church like and slightly oppressive. In that way it was almost like the Rothko room at the Tate. If you spend long enough in it your eyes will see the complementary colour.  Have your eyes recovered?

To be continued…

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. The exhibition ends today.

David: I was extremely keen to see this show, but my expectations of it were uncertain: I was familiar with Michael Craig-Martin’s work but I had never seen a large body of it together. To some extent I am still ambivalent, but I am glad to have something solid to be ambivalent about. I was very impressed with a wall drawing of a coffee cup that was in the R.A. summer show, but I have also been less impressed by some things he has said and slightly put off by his role as the midwife of Goldsmiths’ YBA talent factory. Did you have any preconceptions about the show?

Richard: Yes, I was really glad you suggested this show, because I didn’t have a fixed idea of Michael Craig-Martin. I knew about his 1973 work , An Oak Tree, and the fact it is acknowledged as an important conceptual work. It’s a glass of water on a wall-mounted glass shelf accompanied by a short text; for more information go here: Apart from that I had seen a few of his wall drawings, sat in front of him at a showing of a Bruce Nauman clown video at D’Offay’s (he laughed all the way through), and read an interview with him and Damien Hirst at the height of the YBA frenzy. So I came to this show wanting to find out more. At the moment, I feel irritated by the show, which is often a good sign for me…

The first image in the exhibition is Untitled (xbox control), 2014. What do you think it tells us about Michael Craig Martin?

Michael Craig-Martin; Untitled (xbox control), 2014; Acrylic on aluminium; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery; Photo: Mike Bruce

Michael Craig-Martin; Untitled (xbox control), 2014; Acrylic on aluminium; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery; Photo: Mike Bruce

David: It is held together by its own contradictions. It is such a considered image, it is almost hard to react to it or to deduce anything about the artist from it. Some artists go to great trouble to try to remove themselves from their art. And yet it is a painting. I don’t know the detail of the process, but it was made by a skilled hand rather than by a machine.

It seems to take the term ‘plastic arts’ very literally: it is an image of a mass market consumer object, a plastic object rendered in a plastic paint. So I could hardly call it conceptual. But his reputation suggests that he is from a place that distrusts objects, especially art objects. This is a post-Warholian, post-Duchampian art object. It distrusts itself in order to sell itself. The more Craig-Martin believes in it, the more one suspects he is undercutting something else. It is the undercutting that he believes in.

The view chosen is full frontal, the object is divorced from its context but still ultimately recognisable. Perspective is absent, it’s like an orthographic or a design view. Centred in frame, depicted on a plain background in flat colour – all that remains is the shapes. All this give is an iconic, devotional quality.

The shapes are very strong – uniquely of our time. Craig-Martin clearly has a great sensitivity to the power of line. He once said dismissively that drawing was ‘a trick with a pencil’. I read this remark out of context and thought it was infuriating but now his work seems to me like drawing in its purest form. Would you agree with that?

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Richard: Yes, I would. And drawing is fundamental to every work in the show. The paintings and wall drawings are diagrammatic – each one lays bare the outlines of an object’s most important features – what we see is a pared-down, instantly recognisable outline of an everyday object. They remind me of the first page you see in an instruction manual. They are removed from context in the same way. And I think your iconic statement is spot-on. At first I thought the “objects” were removed from context so that we could more easily contemplate them, but MCM’s use of colour causes interference. These are not straightforward representations, because the colour puts a spin on them. And the lines are not as perfect as they first appear…so are we supposed to infer some kind of message from them?

 To be continued…

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This post is dedicated to George Weaver. She was a wonder. I will miss her.

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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Third and final installment of my conversation with David Cook…

London Eyeball

Jasper Johns Target with Four Faces 1955 Jasper Johns: Target with Four Faces 1955

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the final part of that electronic conversation – you can read part two here.

Richard: It’s a fine line. But I think Cornell is so involved with the process he discovered that the work comes across as warm, genuine and generous. He’s working hard at making poetic images. The evidence is in the work. Everything is considered.  To me, Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953 looks like an embryonic Louise Bourgouis work. I wonder how much of an influence Cornell was on her. There are other works that remind me of other artists. Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950 is strongly reminiscent of Jasper…

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22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s the third and final part…

David: I am not sure I can really work the historical links out – his work has caused some of the slender threads that hold my conception of art history in place to unravel. And I’m not sorry about that. One of the things that I dislike about art history is its predilection for a style based taxonomy. That goes for people who think they can identify a genuine Rembrandt based on a few brush marks or for more modern critics (including Greenberg and Rosenberg) who seek to define movements based on superficial similarities of style. Although I admire Greenberg in particular for his advocacy of what was at that stage controversial art, ultimately his intellectual underpinning has stuck his guys to a particular piece of turf. Diebenkorn has eluded that limitation by including some other influences in his work. And in the end I think he will be seen as a greater artist than many of the Abstract Expressionists who were in the end limited by their own innovation.

Curiously I think it is the European content of his work that has meant Diebenkorn is less well known here than Jackson Pollock for example. We want our American artists to be Pure American, and Diebenkorn confounds that. Similarly I think Michael Andrews has less exposure than he deserves because his work feels international. I mean why not depict the West Coast of the U.S. as the South of France? Or the urban architecture of California as London or Paris?

Richard: Yes, I think that’s true – by not fitting the Abstract Expressionist profile, or being part of that particular marketing package, Diebenkorn slips through one of art history’s cracks. I’m guessing he is more widely known in the States. He reminds me of Peter Lanyon – (particularly because Lanyon used the Cornish landscape as an imaginative jumping off point for some wildly abstract works) a British painter who, like Michael Andrews, is difficult to pigeonhole. I don’t know, but I imagine Lanyon is not that well known outside the UK, although he was part of the St. Ives set. They are all three very interesting painters, possibly easier to appreciate now that the notion of relentless forward motion in art history seems to have been derailed. (I wonder if the idea of movements and groups in art were partly a device for giving the audience an “in” – categorisation allows an easier mastery of the knowledge and some firm land to stand on while surveying the choppy, chaotic waters of artistic production).

Let’s talk about Cityscape #1.

Richard Diebenkorn Cityscape #1

Cityscape #1, 1963
Oil on canvas, 153 x 128.3 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D.
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn FoundationOil on canvas, 153 x 128.3 cmSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D.ZellerbachCopyright 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation 

David: What strikes me first about Cityscape #1 is that it is a painting about light and the way that light moves across the landscape. So it has its roots in Impressionism, but it’s clearly an American picture. There is that openness about it, and the dense planarity of the architecture and the shadows on the left of the picture place it firmly in the Twentieth Century. The absence of people too is interesting. It seems a very different vision of California from that of David Hockney which was only a few years later (this was painted in 1963). Diebenkorn’s painting knows the land, is of the land. Hockney’s is an outsider’s vision capturing the superficial ephemera of peoples’ lives at a particular moment. It is a European’s vision of America…timely, but intentionally lacking in depth. It glorifies America’s perceived lack of history and connection to European tradition, whereas Diebenkorn is reminding us that actually there is quite a lot of it there!

David Hockney, A Lawn Sprinkler 1967

David Hockney, A Lawn Sprinkler (1967). Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Toyko

Richard: Yes, I think Diebenkorn brings a sense of physicality and (emotional) experience to Cityscape #1, which comes from living in California from the age of two, a connection with the landscape Hockney could never have. There’s no sense of (ironic) detachment in Diebenkorn’s version – just an acknowledgement, an acceptance of the facts of the landscape, and a struggle to convey them in paint.

According to various reviews of this exhibition, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series (in excess of 140 paintings bearing the title), was very popular in the UK in the 1990s – there were posters everywhere, (to the extent that a print appeared as part of the set dressing in episodes of Brookside (now defunct UK soap opera)). Apparently, this huge popularity attracted snobbery in the 1990s. The paintings appear to be unthreatening, and easily explainable as aerial views of the neighbourhood around Diebenkorn’s studio. But there’s an appealing hesitancy left on show in the final images – ghosts of marks past, washed out, sun-bleached palimpsests. A very human geometry. A Ballardian unease that’s less easy to digest.

The series was almost Diebenkorn’s final word on painting (and, of course, the second room we walked into).

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27

Ocean Park #27, 1970
Oil on canvas, 254 x 203.2 cm
Brooklyn Museum. Gift of The Roebling Society and Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Blatt and Mr. and Mrs. William K. Jacobs, Jr., 72.4
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s part two…

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #5, 1953

Berkeley #5, 1953
Oil on canvas, 134.6 x 134.6 cm
Private collection
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard: That’s a very interesting point. Diebenkorn titles his paintings with version numbers indicating he doesn’t consider he can deliver a definitive take on a given subject. Which reinforces the idea that he is not interested in making grand statements, but in taking a more reflective, objective, distanced approach to his subjects – and perhaps, in turn, commenting on the act of painting itself.

Berkeley #5 looks like a loose landscape with suggestions of body parts creeping in and a lush, sweet use of gesture and colour that could only exist in painting. Berkeley #5 is at once surface and subject, each causing signal interference with the other. The games it plays are not straightforward. It’s almost a Conceptual approach to painting.

David: This conversation has highlighted for me that I am not open minded enough when I look at art, indeed you can never be open minded enough.

I was going along with the notion that Diebenkorn was An-Abstract-Expressionist-who-Painted-Figuratively. We have seen traces of European influence, of Matisse and Dufy, we can see his abstract credentials clearly. You have identified a conceptual approach and I was about to compare Girl On a Terrace, 1956 to School of London artists R B Kitaj and Michael Andrews. Truth be told Diebenkorn went his own way, and I should be ashamed that I have such a historically biased taxonomic approach to what is one of the freest modes of individual self expression.

Richard Diebenkorn, Girl On A Terrace, 1956

Girl On a Terrace, 1956
Oil on canvas, 179.07 x 166.05 x 2.54 cm
Collection Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Is it possible that Diebenkorn was perpetually in at least two minds about the marks he was making? Sometimes they seem very ambiguous. In Girl On a Terrace, 1956 there is space around the figure to the left, but to the right it flattens out. In some places the underpainting is allowed to show through, elsewhere it’s totally covered. Some marks are descriptive, some abstract. And it all seems very spontaneous, as if the painting could have veered towards or away from the figure, or from abstraction. Not only that but he is keen for us to see the evidence of his deliberations in the final pictures.

Richard: Yes, I get the feeling every brushstroke was considered. They’re very deliberate marks and I think Diebenkorn’s enjoyment in constructing the painting is plain to see. It’s like a subtle balancing act – there’s an image there and it’s perpetually on the point of collapse. He’s toying with himself and the imagined viewer. The image in Girl on a Terrace, 1956 is enigmatic and the paintwork is sumptuous and involving – it’s a great cocktail. This painting in particular also reminds me of Michael Andrews – there were several in the exhibition that got us talking about him. And I think this painting shares the slow tension at the heart of Andrews’ work – one that leads to contemplation rather than quick thrills.

I think we should talk more about the art history Dienbenkorn seems to contain – the paintings are fascinating to me in that sense – it’s as if the whole of modern painting is churning away inside him and different elements come out to play at odd times. A bit of cubism here, Matisse there, De Kooning etc. I wonder how aware Diebenkorn was of deconstructionism…

To be continued…

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, as has become customary, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Apologies, yet again, we’re urging you to go and see an exhibition that’s no longer on.

Albuquerque #4, 1951

Richard Diebenkorn
Albuquerque #4, 1951
Oil on canvas, 128.9 x 116.2 cm
Saint Louis Art Museum. Gift of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation


Richard: We went through this exhibition backwards. (Is there a natural logic to room sequence do you think, which we followed instinctively because we were so wrapped up in talking about the work?)It’s interesting because seeing the work in non-chronological order raised questions about Diebenkorn’s transitions from abstract to figurative painting (and back again). And a more general one about the idea of progression in an artist’s work.

Room one contained this painting, Albuquerque #4, 1951, which for me contains the basic DNA of all of Diebenkorn’s future work. He was working in what has been described as an abstract expressionist style at this point, but it doesn’t quite fit with that description…

David: I think I naturally tend to go clockwise when I have the chance…and ignore the writing on the wall. One thing I liked about this show was that there was no preamble; every work felt mature and fully realised. It did not follow the predictable trajectory of immaturity /plateau/decline like so many shows. But maybe that was because we went through it backwards.

This was my first exposure to a large show of Diebenkorn’s work and it has caused me to rethink my views on Abstract Expressionism. It can be subtle, gently sensual and joyous and not just bombastic, angsty and oppressive. This was a great revelation – maybe he does not fit with my emotional expectations of Abstract Expressionism, but from a painterly point of view Diebenkorn is one of the very best.  Albuquerque #4  is a fine example: he has a highly original use of colour and the paint surface is very rich and subtle.

Richard: I agree with you about the trajectory – and we did start in room one, at least.

Abstract Expressionism is often presented as a very male, aggressive, searching, straightforward, soul-baring, “loud” way of painting. Diebenkorn’s works are quieter, more reflective, as if he is reporting on a feeling rather than acting it out in paint. There’s an objectivity present in these early abstracts; (we’re not just looking at a paint event). And maybe this comes from using landscape as a motif. It’s not an absence of feeling, but a sense of distance – which creates a space for contemplation. Diebenkorn’s work doesn’t appear to be trying to sell anything outside the frame of the picture (spirituality, his artistic persona etc), which, for me, places him outside my idea of the Abstract Expressionists. Do you think we’re looking at an aerial view in Albuquerque #4 ?

David: I think it might very well be an aerial view and I think what you say about a reported feeling is spot on. The emotional content is not derived from the interior as with Expressionism generally. What is the opposite of Expressionism? Is this Abstract Impressionism? Because in many ways it seems to derive from sensory impressions and lets you approach the work from there rather than thrusting raw, bloody emotion in your face.

In a way an aerial view would be the perfect subject. It is detached and abstract –although the landscape is flattened into a two dimensional shape, there is the visceral (and very spatial) thrill of looking down which is something I for one never tire of.

I re-watched the first episode of Shock of the New the other night and Robert Hughes made much of the coming of the machine age and how that effectively kick-started modernism in painting – Cubists, Dadaists, Futurists – all with their own response to the coming of mechanisation. Does this have anything to do with that European stuff, or is it much more American in origin?

Richard: In this first room, I’d say there was a heavy European influence (as with all the Abstract Expressionists) – the flat areas of colour, Diebenkorn’s playing with space and light and his palette are reminiscent of Matisse and Dufy in particular, but also of de Kooning’s paintings of women. And the look of Albuquerque #4 suggests landscape, heat and flight – a bigger view perhaps that is suggestive of the American landscape. Do you think the European influence is a reason for the sense of distance in the work? I always feel with Pollock, for instance, that although he reveres Picasso, he also wants to destroy him (for American art). Whereas, with Diebenkorn, I sense a deeper respect, a desire to develop European ideas.

David: Looking again at the images I was struck by the lack of sharp focus and the exceptional freedom of Diebenkorn’s paint handling. These two things are related of course, and probably feed into the detachment and slightly unresolved qualities of the paintings – two of their most attractive attributes.

The comparison with Pollock is revealing. Pollock was staking everything on a single roll of the dice, Diebenkorn is more of a builder, who is shaping his work without necessarily erasing what went before, without needing to stand on virgin ground. While Pollock may have won big, Diebenkorn’s strategy also paid off – his work is more approachable and doesn’t have that ‘take it or leave it’ quality. What surprises me slightly is that I am in Diebenkorn’s case happier to look at paintings which have more modest ambition, that don’t necessarily want to be The Greatest Paintings Ever Painted.

 To be continued…

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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3rd December 2014, David Cook and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We were slightly pushed for time and, wanting to carry on the conversation we were having, decided to do so by email. Here’s part three…(part one can be found here and part two here).

Sir Joshua Reynolds Reflected In The Giant Vitrine, 2014 by David Cook

Sir Joshua Reynolds Reflected In The Giant Vitrine, 2014, Digital Photograph by David Cook

David: Apologies for previous slightly brain-dead 2.40 am response. I do remember the submarines in the courtyard and I took this pic of Sir Joshua Reynolds reflected in the giant vitrine. I thought they were impressive when I was standing next to them, but clearly they passed out of my mind very quickly!

I must have been resisting the idea of Kiefer as Sculptor because I see him as the last bastion of Painting. I sort of resent the idea that sculpture can nowadays ‘claim’ artists who make anything that is not an absolutely flat wall painting. I would rather see sculptures as drawings in space. I mean it’s obviously just a label, but somehow it seems important to me to consider Kiefer primarily as a painter on account of the relationship between his work and the history painting of the 18th and 19th centuries. It allows him to simultaneously be part of a tradition and simultaneously expose its darker side – how art can be used to bolster tyranny, how we are susceptible to it and yet how beautiful its ruins can be. He seems to be able to make me question my aesthetic responses – to art, to buildings and in some ways to politics. The language of contemporary sculpture on the other hand is about irony and detachment. All that Jeff Koons makes me question is whether we are really as shallow as he seems to think we are. Which seems like not such good value for money!

Richard: No worries. Nice picture! It’s interesting that you forgot the subs. Perhaps they are just too definite as objects – freed from the context of the paintings they have other associations – toys, strategic markers on a plotting table – but nothing except where they are (randomly) sited to interact with, to rub up against and generate meaning. (I agree with you about Koons (allegedly currently being sued again for copyright infringement. See Eric Wayne’s blog for more). My main objection to his work is I think he overestimates his audience’s boredom threshold. It’s interesting that a Chinese firm, VLA, have started mass-producing a version of his steel balloon dogs and are selling them online – I wonder what he thinks of that.) Last week I visited the Sigmar Polke retrospective, Alibis, at Tate Modern.  He and Kiefer make very different paintings, but I think there is some crossover in their approach to German history. Oddly some of Polke’s work reminded me of Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis). Is it the Beuys connection?

David: Yes the submarines (well, let’s be honest…U-Boats) were just a little bit too iconic, a bit too much like models I made when I was 10. They looked like he had a little bit too much fun making them!! Really liked Eric Wayne’s blog and not only because he’s not a Koons fan! I might order a pair of small balloon dogs to stand guard outside my front door – they would look rather handsome…the only thing that could be said for them as art for me is that they reflect the question of taste back at the viewer (the metaphorically unsubtle reflective finish). But as furniture, they might make a bit of a splash. Oh dear. Is that irredeemably bourgeois? Osiris and Isis could not really be quite as easily reassimilated into mass production. Does that mean it’s better or worse or does the reproduction value of a work of art have no bearing on its artistic value?

I am a relatively recent convert to Polke, and I still find some of his work maddening, but I am coming round. I haven’t seen the show yet though. He is a very enigmatic figure I think, more so than Kiefer for me – his work seems to tread the line between art and anti-art. He is the only artist that springs to mind (except perhaps for Beuys) to be able to pull this off convincingly. Kiefer is firmly in the art camp I think, but Gerhard Richter plays for the anti-art team. Doubtless both Kiefer’s and Polke’s work resonates with German history, but Kiefer seems to me to be trying to understand and come to terms with the past, whereas Polke seems to be looking at the Post War world. Both their work is very sensual, but Kiefer seems to want to take his paint back to the earth it came from (and they are mostly earth pigments…) but Polke seems to want a kind of exotic floating kind of paint where solidity is banished hence his obsession with varnishes etc. What crossover did you see? It could well be of course that Kiefer was looking at Polke for ideas…I don’t think it was the other way around, do you?

U-Boat by Richard Guest, 2014

Anselm Kiefer U-Boat photography by Richard Guest, 2014

Richard: Not sure reproduction value has any bearing on artistic value – except maybe with someone like Tretchikoff where the extent of his popularity is like a work in itself.

I love the idea of “playing for the anti-art team” – there’s a great Subbuteo set in this somewhere. The similarity I see in Osiris and Isis and some of Polke’s work is, I think, the use of unexpected materials to make the viewing experience jarring, to make the viewer question what they are doing by looking at a painting and what the experience might mean. (There are several Polke works which are physically difficult to look at and easily assimilate – in Negative Value II (1982) he uses a synthetic purple pigment-and does something to the surface to create iridescent gold, purple, green, and bronze colours that change the viewer’s perception of the painting depending on their position in the gallery, emphasising the fact that it is impossible to come away with a fixed idea of the image.)

The works widen the viewing experience and ask a question, “What are you doing here, looking at this painting?”, about context: physical and historical. Which ties in with…a general similarity between Kiefer and Polke is that both artists confront Germany’s Nazi past in their work. Their work is full of questions – and scepticism about the function of art, their nation’s history, human nature, themselves.


David: The reproduction thing is probably a red herring. But I think I brought it up because Polke uses found images and Kiefer doesn’t. At least not from popular media…when you are looking at a reproduction of a Kiefer it is a picture of that singular image, pretty much as you would see with a Rembrandt, whereas with Polke you feel you are either looking at a nested reproduction of a reproduction (if he has used media) or just one aspect of his painting (if it has all that varnish, or iridescent type paint). One angle of his painting’s reflected light or whatever. It seems as if he is considering those reproductions as tendrils or spawn of his original work reaching out to viewers through its reproducibility. Kiefer’s images seem more traditional, more self contained, a bit more intense and a bit less aware of those media translation issues. But like you say they both challenge the viewer to reassess the way they look at images and that must to some extent come down to the trauma resulting from the Nazis’ manipulation of the media. But like I say I haven’t seen the Polke yet so I could be talking absolute bollocks.

Think I would always back the Art Subbuteo squad against the Anti-Art one…it would be the Spanish and the Italians against the Brits and the French with a couple of Germans on each side. A pretty one sided contest I reckon!

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 Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest.

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3rd December 2014, David Cook and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We were slightly pushed for time and, wanting to carry on the conversation we were having, decided to do so by email. Here’s part two…(part one can be found here).


The Orders of the Night (Die Orden der Nacht), 1996 by Anselm Kiefer, Seattle Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen. Photo copyright Seattle Art Museum / copyright Anselm Kiefer

David: I always get interested when I hear you use the word ‘ugly’. Partly because in the next sentence you usually say something along the lines of ‘I really liked it!’ Is that some kind of masochistic reaction to straightforward visual appeal? Do you only like to look at things that make you work hard to see the beauty in them?

Richard: Ha, ha, I don’t know – maybe it’s because the object has irritated me enough to spend some time trying to work out why – and then having changed my mind it lodges itself in there as an experience (or something), whereas an object that I instantly like, I’ll move on from fairly quickly. Right now I think I like The Orders of the Night more than anything else in the exhibition – I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about it. And it’s interesting because it’s about Kiefer rather than mythology or history. To answer your question, no, I don’t only like to look at things that make me work hard to see the beauty in them. There are plenty of Matisses and Warhols I love looking at and the beauty is not hidden in them. Paul Neagu told me he thought beauty in a work or art was the revelation of truth. I always took that to mean a moment of honesty as communicated by the artist (by whatever means, including lying and obfuscation, ha ha). And I think a truth can be ugly, which can be interpreted as beautiful. Have I stopped making sense? Do you have a favourite painting in the exhibition?

David: No I think you are making a lot of sense. Sometimes awkwardness and irritation can be very positive qualities in art, especially living as we do in a sea of banality. It’s a hard thing to cultivate since repetition immediately becomes banal itself. So if you find yourself thinking about a particular work it must have planted its barbs in your consciousness (!) and that is a testament to its power. Irrespective of whether you think it’s ugly or beautiful at first glance. I am not sure whether the beauty = truth equation really is reversible, but I am not about to disagree with Shakespeare, or even Paul Neagu.

My favourite painting in the show was Interior, 1981 – one of the monumental architectural paintings in the third room, in fact there were three or four paintings in that room that seemed to have equal ambition and delivery. Kiefer seems to have envisioned the future ruins of a thousand year Reich, and suggest the morally ambivalent beauty to be found in them. It reminds me that whenever we visit grand palaces or castles we are tacitly admiring the architecture of despotism. The surface of this particular picture is very rich and beautifully textured. There is a subtle but wonderfully rendered light and the overall effect is very seductive. But recalling the imagined source of the ruins makes me pause and consider the whole basis of my aesthetic response to everything – whether I am beguiled by the thrones and relics of the powerful, or whether all that really attracts me is decay and entropy crawling over our fallen temples. I could look at it for a long time! I think the ambivalence and the questioning that it provokes is what holds me; which is a lesson to me because it’s not a statement – it needs the viewer to make it whole.

Interior-(Innenraum), 1981 by Anselm Kiefer

Interior (Innenraum), 1981 by Anselm Kiefer. Oil, acrylic, and paper, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / copyright Anselm Kiefer

Richard: Interior, 1981 is stunning. And the way Kiefer applies the paint in that and the other paintings in that room (and also in The Orders of the Night and the latest works), seems almost feverish. It looks to me as if he’s been engaged in a violent struggle with himself to draw an image into the open. There’s an air of risk about them (- doubly so with the architectural paintings, the subject being unsettling/ uncomfortable in itself); they are like a high-wire act, dangerous and thrillingly lit. There were so many high points in the exhibition, for me. We’ve talked about the paintings. Do you want to say anything about the sculptures?

David: I was a bit taken aback by that question, because I really didn’t remember seeing any sculptures. There were vitrines, full of paintings and books. Books of prints, books of watercolours, books of mystery – made of lead and only one page visible. Who knows really if there is something on every page? Then I did remember the giant pile of canvases in the octagonal room. I was unsure about that. Literally exhibiting one’s studio sweepings like Kiefer does here, is surely a bit questionable. Whatever the critical justification. Again it has the hint of mystery as the paintings (or merely dirty looking canvasses) were piled high. Those paintings hidden from us like the ruined images of their past: art of greatness now forgotten and left to pile up and rot. The dark side of the studio/dealer axis. Then again, with the amount of objects attached to his canvasses these could not be described as ‘mere’ paintings. This element added to the monumental aspect of his work gives it an almost sculptural presence. Perhaps he has at least for himself managed to blur the divide between painting and sculpture?

Richard: I was thinking about the piled up canvases, but also the paintings in vertical vitrines (containing tree branches) and the glass tanks full of submarine sculptures in the Royal Academy’s courtyard. But it’s a good point – are the first two paintings or sculptures? It’s not that great a leap from paintings like Winter Landscape, 1970, so maybe for Kiefer it’s just to do with whether they are hung on the wall or not. Although they’re big objects, they are quite playful. The submarines, though, are something completely different – they have that same “heaviness”, that conceptual and material rigorousness that is present in Interior and The Orders of the Night. They are not asking the same kind of questions as the piled up canvases…

To be continued…

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 Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest.

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3rd December 2014, David Cook and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We were slightly pushed for time and, wanting to carry on the conversation we were having, decided to do so by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. We’re doing something we shouldn’t and urging you to go and see an exhibition that’s no longer on. Apologies, the few reproductions we’ve used here are no substitute for the originals.

Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87

Anselm Kiefer
Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87
Oil and acrylic emulsion with additional three-dimensional media, 381 x 560.07 x 16.51 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Jean Stein by exchange, the Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund
Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / © Anselm Kiefer


Richard: This painting, Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87, was in room five of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Anselm Kiefer exhibition – at about the halfway mark.

Attaching objects to the canvas is a technique Kiefer uses for a while and then seems to discard. Was he heading somewhere with it, pursuing a purely painterly enquiry? Trying to make a signature style? Or do you think he was responding to the demands of each work in an intuitive way?

David: For me Osiris and Isis comes in the period directly after Kiefer’s best work, which is in the previous two rooms in the show. His huge themes of history and myth are still here but they have lost some focus. He was very brave in confronting the Nazi legacy, and his personal standpoint gave his work a heroic resonance. This on the other hand seems to be referring to something outside his personal experience – Ancient Egypt – and I think that makes it less strong than his work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s not immediately obvious though, because it is so very huge!

Richard: The works in the previous two rooms, where he’s representing WW2 era architecture, appear to be more firmly rooted in reality. They seem to offer an honest response to a hot subject. And for the most part they are paintings with nothing added. Although they’re not on the epic physical scale of Osiris and Isis, they have a more powerful presence. Osiris and Isis‘ size, the addition of wires, television parts and broken pots seems like compensation for a loss of “reality” in the subject. To an extent, the elements of Osiris and Iris seem to operate like puzzle pieces – the job of the viewer is to piece them together and “solve” it. Other paintings in the exhibition (Black Flakes, 2006 for example) have additions to them in the form of branches, lead books etc, but don’t seem this contrived.

David: I think it must be a little like a band who have just recorded a series of classic records but have exhausted their primary source material. Or a writer looking for their second novel. Difference being that because Kiefer had the whole history of the Third Reich and foundation myths of Germany to draw on he could go on for a little longer on those themes than someone singing (for example) about their youth in the dance halls of Sheffield. This painting for me seems like a slightly misconceived attempt to go even bigger in terms of theme and scope as well as size and it doesn’t come off because it does not draw on his personal experience, but it rather gives free rein to a kind of romantic fantasy. This was an element of the earlier pictures but was balanced (brilliantly) by anchoring it in the reality of recent history. But Osiris and Isis is purely mythical and he is struggling to give it the weight it needs – for instance the stormy light is over dramatised, and it draws attention to itself a bit too much. The understated lighting of the Tomb of the Unknown Painter, or even the flat lighting of the log cabin pictures works better.

Anselm Kiefer Nothung, 1973

Anselm Kiefer
Nothung, 1973
Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Photo Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer


Richard: Osiris and Isis seems forced to me. Thematically it’s not a natural progression from the previous work and the personal is missing. Which can work – “poetry lies its way to the truth” (as John Ciardi once said), but when the truth is elusive…it’s obvious to the viewer on a visceral level, (but not necessarily on a conscious one – you know something is amiss but what is it?). There’s also something about the way Kiefer has handled the paint that’s different – to me it’s looser, there’s less rigour (than in Interior, 1981 or The Orders of the Night, 1996, for example).

David: The way we are talking sounds like we’re not Kiefer fans, but I really am a big admirer of his work. In a way it’s reassuring to know that the quality of his enormous output is a bit uneven. Standing in the big third room, I felt that I was in the presence of more than one masterpiece, which is pretty rare – and like you say it is visceral, and pretty obvious too. No-one can consistently perform at their very highest level for years at a time though, like a tennis player…and I think Kiefer is more like Nadal than Federer. A big hitter, but it must take a lot out of the tank…the performances are uneven. The best are among the very best, but when they come unstuck they come very unstuck.

It’s funny really because I can imagine a (much younger) more naive version of myself thinking that Osiris and Isis might be a great idea and treatment of the idea. It’s the sort of painting that the fourteen, or even seventeen year old me might have dreamt of making. And maybe if I had seen it at that stage I might have felt very differently about it, but for me right now it does not move from the particular to the general: that’s to say it doesn’t translate the artist’s emotions and thoughts into terms that I can feel and understand.

Richard: Yes, I agree. We’re coming at this exhibition from a strange angle by concentrating on Osiris and Isis. It’s not representative. The 70s and 80s works are a great marriage of concept and execution, and some of the later works are their equal in terms of emotional and visual impact. I keep thinking about one in particular – The Orders of the Night, 1996. It combines intense gestural marks with poetic imagery – Kiefer’s reclining figure dwarfed by giant sunflowers, black-headed and gone to seed. The palette is limited to sickly autumnal hues and thick black. I thought it was the ugliest thing in the exhibition when I first saw it, but after a period of really looking, the light breaks through. Kiefer has this incredible way of sneaking up on you with light – he paints in the gaps between the objects (he achieves the same effect with the light spilling through the sky light in Interior, 1981) and there it is, this unremitting presence, the beauty of fact in a realm of fantasy.

To be continued…

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 Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest.

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