Overnight stop just outside Sunderland…my friend and companion (and on this trip, driver) Simon runs a jolly good blog that often features material from these various jaunts – readers might want to take a look. My room is situated just above the car park where Simon’s Merc is surrounded by white vans that says a lot about the regular clientele of PremierInn!
Travelling south we make a detour through Seaham…some bracing sea air and a chance for me to revisit my friend Paul Mason‘s public art scheme there. A part of which were Susan Disley‘s mosaics and it was good to see them withstanding the battering they must take from the North Sea coast.
Also in Seaham…on Cutting Road…this Vets special offer of the month…some things my mate & myself agree, you just couldnt make up!
But back to business…our destination is MIMA and a show entitled International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915–1965. Is there some kind of Tate charm offensive going on I wonder? This show is substantially comprised of loans and there were further Tate loans aplenty back in Newcastle and, as I will write in my next post, more to come elsewhere. I’m not complaining (quite the opposite) but I don’t recall them being so open about such things in the past. Maybe it’s that some of the newer regional venues (like MIMA) have better environmental conditions or perhaps it’s that international modern works have been rather squeezed out of it between the curatorial demands of Tate Britain and Modern but whatever the reasons it’s heartening to see a work like Around The Blues by Sam Francis getting a good airing in a big generously proportioned space that MIMA can do.
I saw my first Sam Francis work in Basel after a frantic dash across town from a school trip rail stopover as a thirteen year old and fell in love with his work then. The Tate picture I saw in the old Tate (Britain) in the early 70’s and if it’s been out of the store since I doubt it’s been for long. Here in Middlesbrough it was flanked by Peter Lanyon’s Thermal, a glider pilot’s view of Cornwall set against a WW2 pilot’s view of the Pacific (i’m not sure he ever got out of training flights in California though?)…well hardly… but I like to think of Sam cruising the Monet’s Garden pictures in the Orangerie in Paris in the fifties with those wartime experiences in his mind. Around The Blues is big…I reckon around 9 ft by 20…but the Basel Mural was bigger (and the trptych that it was intended to be part of even larger still – go here for the story). Now size isn’t important really its all about scale…at least thats what I was taught…but when you bring the two together like these then it makes a hell of a statement. I was made up being able to reacquaint myself with such a great painter and the show contains another super example of the earlier fifties more monochrome pictures.
There is plenty of supporting material…for example the cabinet recording correspondence around the Hepworth sculpture at the UN including her typewritten list of personal invitees to the launch lunch, that includes Sam Francis. Or in another room the photograph of Rothko lunching with the Feiler’s, Frost’s and Lanyon’s in West Penwith – with a Rothko painting (that smallish yellow and pink one that I’m not that fond of to be honest) and a Gorky facing off across the room from a couple Patrick Heron‘s. There’s plenty more to see…two great Braque’s (are there any other kind?) a Poliakoff (what a superb colourist) and that sumptuous Clyfford Still they have…that looks so fresh in this context. If you care about abstract painting this is really a bit of a must see I reckon! I refer you to Simon’s blog again as to why I’ve no shots of the works in context.
After this visual feast Simon came up with the splendid suggestion that we head down country and stop off at the Hepworth for a late lunch. This is one of our favourite contemporary art venues and never disappoints. The lunch special – an excellent fish pie – arrives in a classic William Scott style skillet.
and the art wasn’t bad either. I was rather taken with Folkert de Jong‘s The Holy Land though the central part of this substantial installation was to my mind over elaborated. Nonetheless when the casts were left unadorned there was quite a deal of poetry in these objects chosen from Leeds Armoury Museum. Glancing through a catalogue it seems the artist is retreating away from the over theatrical…and for my money this will be for best!
Where to start to describe a first visit to New York? Hard to avoid the cliches…the Empire State, Staten Island Ferry, Central Park…the Met, Moma and Chelsea. This last reached by the High Line from the upper part of Greenwich Village…a walk worth taking. Oh and standing on the very spot that Dylan and Sara were photographed for the ‘Freewheelin’ album cover on Jones St. Just a block or so from our hotel.
So cliches (but what cliches) apart then what else? The art then. Les Demoiselles so much more than even those pictures of it…the textures and the audacity of the handling especially. The Red Studio almost matching it for audaciousness but with a velvety elegance to match. And Moma was so crowded at five on a Friday afternoon during the weekly four hour free slot…that strangely made the experience all the more exciting.
Our first stop in Chelsea had been Hauser & Wirth, a huge splendid, almost Museum like venue that housed a show from an exceptional private collection. On entering the first space I encounter a first class Clyfford Still, a massive blue picture that is amongst his very best. It is flanked on one side by an even bigger Morris Louis Veil and on the other by Ariel, the big Barney Newman picture on the cover of a Tate publication I’ve cherished for thirty years or more. Somehow these paintings seem immediately to throw down a substantial challenge…so much abstraction now is conducted on a polite drawing room scale and whilst that’s fine as regards certain aspects of the engagement with painting now there are still some big questions about materiality on the large-scale. This comes up a few blocks on where Ross Bleckner is showing new work for the first time in five years. I’m really pleased to have dropped on for this one…after all Bleckner has substantially mined some subject matter I’ve been interested in of late and I am an admirer of long standing. These new canvases reprise a number of his themes over the years and do so with considerable panache and a deal of painterly craft.
The show sits pretty much next door to a show by Jeff Elrod. Elrod has pushed hard up against the advent of the digital, and he has been down another track that I’ve dabbled with. In a number of works a digitized image of a doodle and/ or collage (of indeterminate size) has been stretched up and a very modest painterly intervention offered up. In the pieces I made I was interested in playing off the reiterative processing of the marks and the juxtaposition of photographic material with paint, real and reproduced. Elrod was doing something of the same although his interventions were very sketchy and provisional…hesitant and ill considered perhaps, if one were being cruel.
I’m skirting around much of what we saw, especially the work that sits outside painting. A good deal of it (especially by established big hitters) seemed overblown and over produced, a kind of toys for Russian oligarchs really. It is also increasingly clear that the contemporary art market is now utterly captivated by commercial considerations…I’m not naively saying this (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic forty years back looking back on five hundred years of the same) but its a matter of degree. And I can’t help feeling that a dealer like Sonnabend (currently being honoured with a retrospective at Moma) really wouldn’t dare follow her instincts in the way she did back in the 60’s and 70’s nor make much of a living if she did.
One of the highlights of the trip, artwise, was the utterly extraordinary The Rufusal of Time by William Kentridge that is on display at the Met. To be a standout feature of the Met is in itself a tall order, after all the place is exhausingly crammed with the most exceptional artefacts…far more than we could deal with in a single visit. But Kentridge continues to delight, in this work with a tableaux that seems effortless but obviously took a great deal of conceptual genius and no mean co-ordination as well as his trademark graphic excellence. However the event that stands out above all others is the simply stunning display of four small devotional paintings by Piero Della Francesca that sit embedded in the centre of the European galleries. The focus of this jewel of a show is a restored picture – Saint Jerome and A Supplicant. The careful and painstaking restoration reveals much of the sublety of the work that must have been evident at the time the artist painted it and the ensemble of works in the room repay much looking…and the publication is a good indicator of the value of the enterprise. There was more one could talk about but for now I’m still a little jet lagged and having to pinch myself that I was ever there at all!
I’ve been mulling over Stephen MacInnis’ comment on small works and whilst I broadly agreed with his notion I wondered why at this moment I’ve started thinking about size again. And I think that maybe it’s colour…and specifically strong intense colour. I guess it’s that thrill of seeing so much of an intense cadmium red for example in one of those late Patrick Heron’s and in the context of the drawings that are coming out of the “Deadly Delicious details’ I have started thinking about Clyfford Still. Now this worries me a little as firstly I have now starting thinking that if I turn them into large canvases they may well look a litle too much like his work and secondly my knowledge of his work is limited pretty much to that picture in the Tate (that I know from repeated viewings) and my viewing once or twice of a few others in other contexts. It makes me think that one of those ‘things to do before you die’ is to get over to Buffalo and really immerse myself in his work…maybe I should do it before I start on the large canvases!
And the last thing I did before the weekend was tidy up (I do realise that the photo doesn’t necessarily point this up but you should have seen it earlier!). It will be nice to arrive to clean brushes and pots today…