Among the highlights of London's summer art scene were two museum surveys: a buoyant Malcolm Morley show at the Hayward Gallery and a small, but exciting Rachel Whiteread exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. These two London-born, Turner Prize-winning artists are far apart in age -- Morley is 70 and Whiteread is 38 -- and they work in vastly different mediums; but they share an interest in pushing those mediums to the limits. Neither of these important retrospectives will travel to the U.S.
On view through Aug. 27, "Malcolm Morley: In Full Color" is the London-born New York artist's first museum show in England in nearly 20 years, and includes more than 50 major paintings and objects selected by curator Sarah Whitfield. The severe geometry of the drab, cellblock-like Hayward might not seem like the ideal venue for Morley's colorful and multifarious works, but the museum's location along the banks of the Thames suits the nautical themes that pervade the artist's oeuvre.
While not exactly an exhaustive show (it's missing a number of key pieces), the exhibition is crisp, clear and coherent. It is a fine representation of five decades of work, ranging from large-scale oil paintings to bronze sculptures, ship models and a series of recent holograms never before exhibited.
Morley is credited with launching not one, but two important art movements in the late 20th century -- Photo Realism in the 1960s and Neo-Expressionism in the '80s. His beginnings, however, were remarkably inauspicious. Born in 1931, he had a troubled youth. He learned to draw while serving jail time for petty theft, and upon his release he enrolled in the Royal College of Art. For a time, he worked on various ships as a galley boy, an experience that inspired some of his later works. He made his way to New York in 1958, the point at which the exhibition begins.
Several large-scale abstract oils on view are nearly monochrome canvases of white and tan, covered with scumbled graphite lines and loosely defined geometric shapes. The works betray the influence of de Kooning, Twombly and Ryman, and also resemble to a degree contemporaneous pieces by Conrad Marca-Relli. As nth-generation Ab Ex works they are of limited interest, but paintings such as Submarine (1962) and Malcolm Morley at the Seaside feature wavy lines that correspond to the aquatic themes of Morley's later paintings.
Following the work of his Pop-artist friends like Andy Warhol and Richard Artschwager, Morley abandoned abstraction and began to incorporate photo-derived imagery in his painting. In 1965, he produced a series of stark images of battleships in gray or black, set against monochrome fields of deep red or gold, several examples of which are included in the show. Here, the melancholy images of boats on the horizon appear symbolic of life's journey toward death, in keeping with the romantic sensibility of English painters such as Turner or Palmer.
This group of battleship paintings led to the first photorealist works, which are well represented in the show. In 1965 and '66, these large acrylic canvases of ocean liners and beach scenes, such as SS Amsterdam in Front of Rotterdam and Ship's Dinner Party, astonished viewers with their photographic precision. Morley used a squaring-up technique whereby a small image, such as a photograph or watercolor, is overlaid with a grid whose segments are transposed to those of a large canvas. While not often used by New York artists at the time, it was a method common to earlier 20th-century British artists ranging from Walter Sickert to Graham Sutherland.
Before the development of large-scale photo printers that artists such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth rely on today, Morley achieved a similar effect with brushes and paint. His 1967 show of Super-realist paintings at New York's Kornblee Gallery caused a stir and was much admired by artists and critics. Among them, Salvador Dalí credited Morley with achieving a kind of hand-painted photography to which the Surrealist had long aspired. In his introduction to Linda Chase's 1973 book, Hyperrealism, Dalí also correctly predicted that Morley would eventually "try to kill hyperrealism."
Having founded the movement, Morley lost interest in the style when, after a couple of years, it was adopted by hundreds of artists around the world. Among the last Photo Realist works in the show, Vermeer: Portrait of the Artist in his Studio (1968) and Race Track (1970), represent the apotheosis of the genre. The later, a large image of a South African race track is defaced or "cancelled" by a large red X, which the artist carefully superimposed on the image. A witty reference to Malcolm X, the mark also signals the end of Morley's Photo Realist phase.
In subsequent works of the early ''70s, on view in another gallery, Morley continues to reference photographs, but the canvases are much more painterly. Along with looser brushwork, he reintroduces oil pigments. He also directs his attention to the painting as an object. Works such as New York City Postcard (1971) mimic a foldout souvenir, and Los Angeles Yellow Pages (1971), featuring an image of a torn L.A. telephone book, is an acerbic commentary on California's precarious fault lines as well as Jasper Johns' object-paintings. Morley undermines his own grid technique in School of Athens (1972), where the units of an entire row of the grid are out of register with the rest of the canvas. This piece marks the beginning of a certain deconstructivist impulse that appears frequently in his work of the following decades.
Because of the absence of a number of important 3-D pieces that Morley produced in the '70s, it's is difficult to get a sense from the show of his unique approach to sculpture. The Last Painting of Vincent van Gogh (1973), for example, a tableau featuring a copy of the Dutch artist's painting Crows over a Wheatfield and a paint-smeared gun leaning against a wooden paint box, is both a moving homage to the Dutch painter and a wry Pop-art joke. Similarly, a series of large, crumbled postcards made of painted metal, dedicated to John Chamberlain, is a send-up of Morley's own earlier paintings.
Prophetic of deconstructivist architectural models, these works could bear comparison with Frank Gehry's models on view at the Guggenheim in New York this summer. The Hayward show does include, however, paintings such as Disaster (1973), whose surface is slashed by a silver knife that remains stuck in the canvas, and Untitled Souvenirs Europe (1973), which features an abstracted aerial view of the artist masturbating over a stack of postcards and clippings. His straw hat and some of his own pubic hair are fixed to the upper portion of the canvas.
Morley's spectacular dismantling of the conceits of painting, including his own, baffled many critics, and for a time in the mid- to late 1970s, he seemed to fall out of art-world favor. The convulsive upheavals that Morley effected in his art, however, led him to a new means of expression. By the time of his 1979 exhibition at New York's Nancy Hoffman Gallery, he had developed a new and original approach to figure painting. The lushly colorful and exotic images of people and animals produced over the previous five years were later recognized as important catalysts for the worldwide neo-expressionist movement of the 1980s. Among the key works in the show is Out Dark Spot (1978), once in the collection of Julian Schnabel. Using toys as models, Morley here offers jarring juxtapositions of Native American and Nazi iconography. And in The Day of the Locus (1977) he presents what looks like an implosion of his Los Angeles Yellow Pages, painted six years earlier.
The '80s was a frenetic period of creativity for Morley, who produced some of the most ambitious and unapologetically gorgeous paintings of his career. Inspired by trips to Greece and explorations of Native American culture, the colorful and energetically painted canvases of the period, such as Seastroke, Arizoniac, Macaws, Bengals, with Mullet [not in the exhibition], Aegean Crime and the monumental Black Rainbow over Oedipus at Thebes, are, to my mind, as exuberant as painting gets, and are among the finest works produced by any artist in that decade.
Morley started out the '90s with another masterpiece, Gloria (1990), a large canvas that is sorely missing from the show. The work, which shows an aerial dogfight with WWI biplanes fighting above an apparently modern Caribbean beach resort, is pivotal because it was one of the first of a long series of paintings and sculptures of antique airplanes, ships and war imagery that has preoccupied Morley throughout the 1990s and continues to do so today. Besides being part of his recollections of childhood experiences of growing up in the midst of WWII, the airplane motif became for Morley a kind of pun on the word plane and notions of the picture plane. In more recent works in the exhibition, such as Mariner and Floundering Vessel with Blue Whales and Viking Ships (both 1998), multiple perspectives and upturned planes suggest a kind of dizzying quasi-illusionistic space, one that is constantly shifting and undulating in a topological fervor.
A group of four recent holograms on view is another manifestation of Morley's interest in illusionistic space; it also seems to be a particularly successful use of the medium. Each of these eerie and mesmerizing images features a sunken boat, perhaps a pirate treasure ship, seen from various angles. Lying forlorn at the bottom of the sea, it is surrounded by lush coral reefs that seem to shift as one moves back and forth in front of the small, wall-mounted panels. On view nearby are a number of the artist's bronze sculptures and a vitrine containing models of planes and ships.
The final room of the museum is filled with the artist's most recent paintings, which depict the sheets of paper or wood, complete with lettering and assembly instructions, from which 3-D models of airplanes are made. These works return to a kind of Pop-art sensibility. The largest and most ambitious of the series, Rat tat tat (2001), was on view at Gagosian Gallery, London, concurrently with the Hayward show. Flat and anti-gestural, this mural-size canvas in three sections proposes a conflict between two-and-three dimensional form. It seems that Morley, after a long and successful career, has found yet another esthetic battle to be fought.
Rachel Whiteread's career is barely a decade long. For most of that time she worked under a hot spotlight as one of the brightest stars of the YBAs (Young British Artists). In 1993, at the tender age of 30, she won the Turner Prize for her famous House, produced early that year. In this impressive exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, her first-ever museum solo, she proves that she's no flash in the pan. Co-curated by Lisa Corrin of the Serpentine and Patrick Elliot of the Scottish National Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the survey appeared in London, June 20-Aug. 5, 2001, and travels to Edinburgh, Sept. 29-Dec. 9. Included in the show are 12 major pieces spanning her career, plus two new works never before exhibited. Also on view in London, through spring 2002, is Whiteread's monumental Monument, a major public commission of an outdoor sculpture for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Among the works in the Serpentine show are sculptures made by casting ordinary objects, such as beds, baths and bookshelves, in plaster, rubber or resin. Whiteread's aim is not to re-create the object; often she shows only the mold itself, a ghostly remnant of a "lost object" that has disappeared forever. The works might still suggest a homey interior, a cozy room or comforting object, such as a hot-water bottle.
However, transformed into sculpture, they are far removed the earlier associations. Some appear as funereal monuments and memento mori, somber meditations on death. At times she presents negative space as a sculptural entity, and in this regard her work seems to correspond to Pop art and conceptual-art pieces, such as Bruce Nauman's sculpture of the 1960s in which he explores the underside of a chair.
Whiteread's earliest pieces in the show, including Shallow Breath (1988) are mattress-like works made of plaster or rubber. Rather than inviting a nap, however, these large pieces, leaning against the wall or lying on the floor, are coolly conceptual reflections on the body at rest. A tall standing object, Untitled (Wardrobe), 1994, an elegant minimalist piece in plaster and green glass plates, is a similarly oblique study of the body; it seems to indicate a figure who used the wardrobe at some distant point in time.
Black Bath (1996), a large resin casing of a bathtub, also implies the figure. It appears serene and imposing like a black granite sarcophagus from ancient Egypt. The funereal aspects of Whiteread's work are pervasive, but they are never morbid. Rather, her work, like Morley's, seems connected to the rich tradition of English Romanticism. This may certainly be said of her most recent works that hint at a spiritual journey. Untitled (Upstairs), 2001, for example, is a massive plaster casting of the staircase of a two-storied home. Occupying the large central gallery of the Serpentine, it rises up toward the ceiling like a stairway to nowhere or a stairway to heaven, depending on the viewer's emotional state.
She adopted a similar approach in the grandiose Monument for Trafalgar Square. Made of 11 tons of clear resin, the piece is an exactly proportioned, upended copy of the giant granite plinth on which it stands. This dazzling anti-monument monument looks like a glass coffin, but its watery transparency relates to the large fountain that dominates the Trafalgar plaza. Following the aquatic theme, Whiteread's Monument evokes the scene of the1805 naval battle for which the square is named, and thus eloquently corresponds, at least this summer, with Morley's maritime domain.
DAVID EBONY is associate managing editor of Art in America. He is also a contributor to the journal Lacanian ink. His book Carlo Maria Mariani was recently published by Volker Huber, Frankfurt.
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