#109. Tim Scott writes “Towards a New Sculpture”

Tim Scott, “Liquefaction II”, 2018, plywood and card, laminated, 51 x 66 x75 cm

Towards a New Sculpture

As one arrives at old age, it becomes more and more apparent that what is of one’s time is – of one’s time; and that what is of the present is – of the present.  If one asks what is new, original and fresh in the art of sculpture, the one belies much of the other, and never the twain shall meet! Of the thousands of new sculptures being made by hundreds of artists everywhere, what genuinely shows any spark of new meaning and new purpose? If one bypasses what Clement Greenberg called ‘Novelty Art’, the labelling as ‘sculpture’ of art objects whose prime function is devoted to a social, philosophical, political, amusing, sensational, literary or phenomenological intent, amongst many more; then what was previously understood as constituting ‘sculptural intent’ is deemed to be no longer relevant.

Of course, there are still today many practitioners in the age-old function of sculptural expression, depicting the vagaries of the human body. Sadly, none have matched the grand finale of that domain as exemplified by Rodin, Degas and Matisse. For better or for worse non-figuration of varying intensities has led the way to a ‘modern’ sculptural art form.

Art survives through patronage and great art requires great patronage. Today’s patronage is from the museum curator/gallery dealers and their clients, the collectors. The one is subject to financial restraint and both to the vagaries of fashion and, most importantly, journalism and media publicity. ‘Sculpture’ is now a label for trendiness and fashion, not of an art form dedicated to those values previously understood to be axiomatic.

The price of an unwanted dedication to old values has to be marginalisation. The confrontation of that with an all-pervading worship of the popularisation of art as entertainment, from which stems the verdict of that same dedication being out-of-date, and dismissed as irrelevant, is inimical to upholding those values that are seen as qualitatively necessary to retain from sculpture’s past by a small minority of practitioners in order to innovate.

What, then, is the prime motivation for continuing to attempt to move the history-based ‘classical’ line of ‘modern’ sculpture forward from the positions and achievements reached by the end of the twentieth century?

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#108. Robin Greenwood writes on Anni Albers at Tate Modern: A Short Speculation on Greatness in Perspective

Anni Albers, untitled, 1941, rayon, cotton, linen, wood and jute, 56 x 116 cm

Anni Albers at Tate Modern until 27 January 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anni-albers?gclid=Cj0KCQjwr4beBRDNARIsAGZaZ5eeerCTKiGTovocSOD-R_VC7YPB3oqrIYNmYEhM0vdBaykfFHx9AKwaAl3aEALw_wcB 

The story of Anni Albers’ career is now well told and there are currently plenty of opportunities to read about her development at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and beyond. She is now receiving the plaudits that are appropriate for the decades of innovative work that is displayed at Tate Modern, and so I see no point in repeating the broader story on Abcrit. In fact, I find some of the back-story tedious. What I want to try and do here is make an attempt at the value of her work as an abstract artist, and how it corresponds to or differs from more general discussions about abstract painting; And beyond that, how we might attempt to consider her oeuvre in the light of the long history of weaving and textile art generally. These issues are not easily unpicked due to ignorance and prejudice, not least my own, and I’m by no means an expert. However, having read a few reviews and texts after the show, mostly based on the rather prosaic standpoint of her life and career, what I miss, including from the writers of the Tate’s own catalogue, is not so much the issues related to art made by women and its devaluation, which is now being correctly and collectively re-evaluated; Nor do I miss Albers’ own significant labours to change the preconceptions of the so-called “decorative and applied arts” and the insensitivities of seeing these efforts as the poor relation to fine art; But no, what I find more annoyingly absent is a closer reading of the best of her individual works as abstract art in its own right. And let’s state the case early – weaving has a very long history of very great art, both abstract and figurative, and Albers joins with, and adds to, that history. As the catalogue rightly says, “Weaving is not painting. A wall-hanging is not a picture.” No, it is not, but it can be seen to be, on occasion, at least as meaningful and magnificent as painting, and sometimes more so. What is important is to recognise the differences and the values that dissimilar art offers, and in the case of weaving, not much has been said in acknowledgement of its very special case. There is a complex materiality to weaving which has its own particular interactions of space and depth, and with that comes a degree of partial three-dimensionality, to be experienced in-the-full, and not pictorially. This needs to be witnessed in front of the work itself, and explained, and felt in its special kind of wholeness and its own particular reality. This is true even when one cannot directly access the inverse side of the work, something Albers herself often prohibited. No matter, because you still get the feel of the bigger achievement. The physical encounter-in-depth with good weaving is rarely if ever to be experienced in the same way as painting, and a number of the works in this show would be greatly undervalued by being interpreted or appraised as “pictures”. I love painting, I love sculpture, and I love weaving and textiles too; they are all different.
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#107. Robin Greenwood writes on Ribera: Art of Violence at Dulwich Picture Gallery; and Mantegna & Bellini at the National Gallery

Jusepe de Ribera, “Inquisition Scene”, late 1630’s 

Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, 26 September 2018 – 27 January 2019

https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2018/september/ribera-art-of-violence/

Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/mantegna-and-bellini

 

Ribera: Art of Violence is the first show of work in the UK by the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), and includes four significant large-scale paintings, plus numerous drawings and other works.

If you know anything of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s significant permanent collection (not all of which is at any one time on view), you might be as surprised as I was, half way through the Ribera exhibition, where the parallel permanent collection rooms are glimpsed through a doorway, to find that one’s opinion of the latter works are strangely recast, as if all have been slighted, changed into second-rate and timid mannerisms. This cuts across expectations and is an odd and unnerving experience. Ribera, of course, has wrung these changes to one’s perceptions by the compelling brute-force of his extraordinary vision. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, not even in the works of Caravaggio, whose outstanding realism was instrumental to the development of Ribera’s mature style. Maybe in the history of art only Tintoretto exceeds him in the lavishness of his imagination. As to whether you can truly like these paintings, or stomach the subject-matter, each must judge accord to their own sensitivity; a more interesting question for me, concerning the inventiveness of his painterly organisations, is whether there is mileage in what at first seems a rather bizarre comparison with recent abstract art. Personally, I find such an evaluation hard to make, hard to take, yet difficult to resist, and ultimately exciting in its threat to what we call modern.

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#106. Robin Greenwood writes on Albert Frey, the Seductions of Mid-Century Desert Modernism and the Disambiguation of Sculptural Spaces.

“Frey House II”, Palm Springs, 1963-64

Albert Frey, 1903-1998, was a Swiss-born architect who lived and worked mostly in California, where he had a long career designing modernist houses and various commercial developments. He started out as a young man in Paris in 1928 on a kind of internship in the office of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, a period he regarded as highly significant to the development of his own architectural practice. He worked on parts of the design for the Villa Savoy and other projects, but didn’t stay long and soon applied for an American visa. By 1930 he was in the New York office of A. Lawrence Kocher, and together they designed Frey’s first major work, Aluminaire (1930-31), originally sited in Syosset, Long Island, a prefabricated and idealistic structure of the first order, with influences from the Villa Savoy project, but also recognised at the time as having some true originality of concept. It established Frey’s reputation as an innovator, but a serious career supported by architectural commissions had to wait until 1934 and the design, again with Kosher, of the Kosher-Samson Building in Palm Springs. In between those two projects was the extraordinary and beautiful Kosher Canvas Weekend House, of which more later. By 1940 Frey was designing his own house in Palm Springs, Frey House I, in a semi-desert environment, where the integration of the spectacular Californian landscape with the paired-down structures of modernism became perhaps the most significant characteristic of his work, as exemplified by Frey House II.

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#105. Geoff Hands writes on Patrick Heron at Tate St. Ives

Tweet by Geoff Hands

Patrick Heron is at Tate St Ives, 19 May – 30 September 2018

If you owned a few Herons how would you display them in your house? If you had over forty in your dream collection, and a mansion sized amount of wall space, you might mix things up a bit. In a retrospective at a major, award winning, art gallery the conventional approach would lead to a chronological hang. Not so for Patrick Heron at Tate St. Ives.

I was both enthralled and fascinated with the display and tweeted that the show was “mind blowing”. Intuitively, I attached ‘1-3 September: 1996’. The Tate exhibition guide who had showed a group of us around told me later that she had initially found the display “disorientating”, but her enthusiasm for the work was unaffected nonetheless. She was completely relaxed about it now. My own habit for exhibition viewing is to follow the order from start to finish and then to return to somewhere near the beginning and pick out the works that commanded my attention the most. On the return leg there is a certain degree of arbitrary stopping and starting as individual works that I initially passed too quickly make their presence known.

In this situation I was immediately thrown into a third form of viewing behaviour that was alien to me. The experience was not so much mind-blowing (social media loves hyperbole) as invigorating. For a moment I was a child in a sweet shop wanting everything, such was the temptation to taste, and visually touch, it all. ‘Square Green with Orange, Violet and Lemon: 1969’, selected from Heron’s wobbly-hard edge period, has the colour-flavour of Jelly Babies and a surface excitement and frisson that transforms the senses of texture as indivisible from the visual.

Heron’s work is often distinguished by its example of colour-shape dexterity and glorious visuality and a chronological display may not have accommodated or extended the potential impact of his achievements. The visual dynamism of the paintings, from all phases of Heron’s career, contextualised the display. All was equal, big or small, early, mid or late career. But it is mixed in a carefully curated way, as none of the sequencing looked arbitrary, but evincing a sense of purpose – if only to revitalise the viewing experience. There was a sense of freedom in allowing oneself to travel in any direction, including from one end of a wall to examine a row of works, or to diagonally cross a space under the magnetic pull of another canvas.

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#104. Geoff Hands writes on “A Road Not Taken” at The Crypt, London

Installation view of “A Road Not Taken”

A Road Not Taken: Eleven abstract painters exploring painting and the metaphor of the journey is at the Crypt, St. Marylebone Parish Church, London, 16 June – 6 September 2018

A journey, even a short one, can be harrowing. The five-minute walk from Baker Street underground station to St. Marylebone Parish Church at the wrong time of day obliges a stop-start, half-gyrating weave through the throngs of tourists queuing (and not queuing) to get into Madame Tussauds™. So it was with relief that I arrived intact in the Crypt in the lower church. I half expected a musty, dark basement but was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a warm and bright environment. Ample lighting and white-painted walls created the ambience of the modern gallery, albeit with some additional Christian iconography displayed on pillars in the centre of the space. The quiet was not so surprising of course and this created a meditative space in which to consider the twenty paintings on display. Co-curator Stephen Buckeridge pitched the exhibition to Contemporary British Painting (a broad church) some two years ago and revived the idea with Terry Greene more recently. The support and infrastructure of this organisation is to be welcomed for many painters working on the periphery of the gallery system.

Some of the exhibitors in A Road Not Taken will be well known to Abcrit readers, others not so. The decision not to label the works obliges the viewer to consider the work in itself, without influence of favour based on personal interest or preference (though an illustrated list of works is available). In addition to their own work, the curators have selected paintings by nine others. Greene has written:

“The Road not Taken is a ‘journey’ of encounters that explores the idea that art offers us abstractions of experiences. By considering the physical act of painting in terms of a journey, the art object describes or embodies the inner territory through which the artists navigate. The art object functions as evidence for a ‘place’ visited, seen and experienced.”

This is a fascinating statement. The “inner territory” implicates notions of a metaphysical space and the paintings, I assume, act as outpourings from the ‘self’ (of the artist). The paintings also embody the notion of a map, much more than a diagram, of itself with no obvious or specific external reference points, places or personas. The ‘physical act’ is a given really, and we can see that the physical is constituted both in the medium specificity of the paint and from the process of application, in various ways, in the works on display. The paintings are also records of a certain kind of thought process, generally unplanned and improvised. Such practice is most likely supported by habit and pull of future projects, however tenuous.
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#103. Emyr Williams writes on Space in Painting (part 2)

Henri Matisse, “Two Girls in a Coral Interior, Blue Garden”, 1947

In my earlier article on Space in Painting and Sculpture, I wrote about a studio reflection on what I was trying to get out of colour, and I proposed that the space that can be achieved in a painting is related to the size of the work, but is not in any way compromised by it. A small painting which is good is as valid as a big painting which is good – the experience would be the ‘same’. In short, don’t go looking for pictorial illusions, but deal with the space you have available to you and maximise that. Let the space develop accordingly – illusions will occur with colour and do not need the added choreography behind them. I felt that the remark about the size of the painting could have been misconstrued as relating to a “quantifiable’ sort of space, when what I was trying to get at was the principle of bearing down on every moment in a work, making every bit of the painting equally significant. The problem painters have is that paint colour when united with its support will often lend itself to suggestions of landscape, buildings, objects or figures in ways that can often be beyond our control. This kind of suggestion was something discussed in a Brancaster forum on my own work – people commenting could see a torso in one of my paintings. To this day I cannot myself but I took the point that the colour was doing this and whether I intended it or not was irrelevant. It is a human trait to seek a logic in a pattern or configuration and many artists will play on this with evocative effects and an ambiguity of forms. My painting was probably not good enough and it “leaked” into suggestion or rather allowed itself to leak by not doing enough in itself, which is the same end. My conclusion was the same: I hadn’t worked the colour enough, which was quite frustrating with hindsight, as I worked for months on that damn thing.

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#102. Robin Greenwood writes on Critical Mess

Grayson Perry in front of his Summer Exhibition. Photograph Neil Hall EPA

In his five-star Grauniad review of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, curated by Grayson Perry, Jonathan Jones – the Ernie Wise to Adrian Searle’s Eric Morecambe – writes:

“This year, getting selected is not such an honour. For Perry has filled the summer show with crap. I mean actual garbage: talentless, throwaway rubbish, a lot of it apparently made by jokers after getting home from the pub….

…There’s something odd happening in art, and Perry has caught the moment. Boundaries of age and style, cool and uncool no longer seem to have anything to do with art’s future. Perhaps its future lies in the past. Or vice versa. I don’t know where I am after this crazy show. This is the most liberating exhibition of new art I’ve seen for ages, because it obliterates definitions of what’s good or bad, archaic or modern, and invites us to sample all the ways people can use a thing called “art” to express feelings and ideas.”

Something odd, by god, but it still gets five stars – because it “liberates”! It “obliterates”! Worn out, tired old definitions of good and bad are passé. Is it the crap, or the curation of crap, to the point of no return, that liberates? Have we reached critical mess? Things seem really bad, but probably not. No… this will just go on and on. Things will get worse and worse. Things were so much better back in the sixties, don’t you think? So much deeper and more thoughtful, more serious and profound. We didn’t, back then, have much of an idea about how to “use” art so shamelessly to “express feelings and ideas”. We tried, but we could never manage such profound levels of shallowness.

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#101. David Sweet writes on ‘O’, ‘G’, ‘D’ and Flat Painting

George Stubbs, ‘Ringwood’, 1792

I wanted to try to say something about space in abstract painting. Not the sort of abstract painting that is crowded with marks and visual events, so numerous they almost force the retina to see ‘depth’ as a coping strategy, but rather paintings that employ relatively few, relatively simple elements: Paintings that look flat.

Generating pictorial depth is fairly easy. It can be controlled and directed towards a descriptive goal, as in figurative painting, or it can spontaneously emerge from random movements of worked pigment. However, on its own, depth makes little difference to an individual painting’s ‘quality’.

When pictorial depth is generated it usually has to be anchored to a two-dimensional construct, the surface and/or the picture plane. Giving enough emphasis to this two dimensional feature in the total experience of the work is more tricky. If successfully negotiated, unlike the production of space on its own, it does add value.

The Impressionists were the most successful in negotiating the surface/depth tension. Each dab of the brush was tethered to the surface and linked to the next mark in the passage, but the whole integument was able to convey an account of the natural world, glimpsed but not forensically examined, with its legible spatial cues, its phenomenology addressed to perception.

The Impressionists influence on the practice of painting is hard to overestimate. Michael Fried’s comment sounds reasonable when he writes that ‘the basic formalist-modernist view – enshrined in Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” – that paintings consist essentially in flat surfaces conjoined with a sheerly visual or optical mode of spatiality amounts to nothing more nor less than a theoretical rationale for the Impressionist picture’.[i] Add to that the practical demonstration of the value of the Impressionist picture taken as far as it would go in the late Monet ‘Water Lilies’ acquired by the Museum of Modern Art from 1955, means that the identification of painting itself and the modernist enterprise is hard to deny.

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#100. Robin Greenwood writes on Katherine Gili at Felix and Spear; and Testing 1>2 at Empson Street

Installation of Katherine Gili show at Felix and Spear, “Kyanite” in the foreground

Katherine Gili: Discovered in the Making is at Felix and Spear, Ealing, 5 May -2 June 2018

https://www.felixandspear.com/

Five years ago I drafted an article for abstractcritical focussing on the works by Anthony Caro and Katherine Gili in the 2013 RA Summer Exhibition, neither of which I liked. The Gili, a sculpture of complicated forged parts that circulated a central void, with big alien feet and a prop to one side to steady it all, was called “Ripoll”. I had previously shown this work in Poussin Gallery in 2011, though I think Gili amended it slightly before it got to the RA, where it won the Jack Goldhill Award for Sculpture. In the essay I described it as having a banal configuration, to which Katherine took great exception (though I stand by it) and our previously close relations were, and remain, soured, despite my withdrawing the essay prior to publication.

Why bring this up now? In Robert Persey’s interesting catalogue essay for Katherine’s new show at Felix and Spear, which has work far superior to “Ripoll”, and which I will address shortly, he writes:

“Katherine’s ambition for her sculpture is predicated on a search for full three dimensionality, beyond the creation of a simple shape or form, beyond rotundity or intimidating spread across space.”

These sentiments I agree with completely, and they are obviously incompatible with banal configurations, and possibly with any configurations at all, though that’s up for discussion. Does the new sculpture match these ambitions? When I rewrote the said essay and expunged all reference to “Ripoll”, and indeed Gili, I concentrated on a critique of Caro. The revised version (published here: https://abstractcritical.com/article/anthony-caro-at-gagosian-some-problems-of-sculpture/index.html) started thus:

“Three-dimensionality is the elephant in the room marked “abstract” in the house of sculpture. It’s a difficult subject for discussion, and a difficult condition for sculptors to address. So why bother with it? Caro doesn’t worry; sometimes he uses it sparingly, sometimes not at all. I think it is the biggest issue in sculpture right now… because in directly addressing it the abstract artist is forced to abandon the narrow and dated (and admittedly often languidly beautiful) two-dimensional planar aesthetics of high modernism, whilst simultaneously rejecting the pratfalls of post-modernist subjective clap-trap. It provides potential and impetus for a new and true way forward. So important do I regard this issue that I frankly think there is no alternative other than to directly confront it – a notion for which I may well be considered narrow-minded. Yet, could we even begin to crack open this particular nut, I’m disposed to think that abstract art would broaden out considerably from its currently unambitious and unoriginal ruts and furrows. Almost anything that one can do that addresses this issue seems to point inexorably toward exciting uncharted waters.”

If anything, I now think that understates the case. But questions remain: What do we mean by three-dimensionality in sculpture? Do I mean the same as Robert Persey when we both write those words? And what does that “full” mean, before “three-dimensionality? All objects, sculptures or not, are three-dimensional, so are we both talking about something more than the quotidian three-dimensionality of any-thing and every-thing? And is work that references the figure/body able to achieve three-dimensionality in the fullest sense that we can now begin to comprehend it?

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