…who was born in the 50’s in Western Europe. At least those of us with sufficient disposable income to afford the occasional cheap flight across the continent (and who knows how many decades that will be sustainable). But we can, and we do, take these trips that my parents would have found quite unobtainable. This time to the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome. Of course the ubiquity of such travel means that the ‘romance’ of such locations is a little tempered by the vast armies of us fetching up in places such as the Trevi Fountain.
I had planned to visit the big set piece museums of contemporary art, MAXXI, Macro and the National Museum. But once here desire evaporated. After all with several thousand years of the most creative endeavour on every street corner just strolling around is a visual education second to none. So instead it has been the most enjoyable flaneur punctuated by the occasional lunch or drink stop. Though fate always plays a part and suddenly we are at the Ponte Sisto and across the river from us is an extraordinary frieze, some 12 metres high and 500 long, by one of my favourite contemporary artists, William Kentridge. The ingenious manner in which the work was realised by washing off the grime in reverse is matched only by the freshness of the drawing despite the technical difficulties of translating small drawings up to such massive size.
‘Triumphs and Laments’ is a terrific work that animates the otherwise dismal pedestrian walkway along the Tiber that seems an interloper into the Eternal City – dirty and neglected for the most part, a stark contrast to the life of the Seine through Paris or the Thames through London. Never one to shy away from controversy in his themes the frieze takes a critical look at the history of this great city and brings visitors to a part of town that seems a world away from St. Peter’s or the Spanish Steps. And the title of the work…seems so pertinent in a world that is becoming more and more polarised.
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!