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    London Calling
by Walter Robinson
 
     
 
At the press conference, from left, architect Jacques Herzog, Arts Council of England chief Peter Hewitt, British culture secretary Chris Smith, Tate director Nicholas Serota, Tate Modern director Lars Nittve.
 
View of the Tate entryway,
from the Turbine Hall.
 
The Tate Modern,
from the Thames esplanade.
 
Louise Bourgeois
Maman
 
The Tony Cragg gallery.
 
The Bridget Riley gallery.
 
"Raw" at Victoria Miro on Wharf Road
 
Victoria Miro
 
Tony Bevan's Building Props at Michael Hue-Williams
 
Michael Hue-Williams
 
From William Kentridge's Untitled (Procession Set) at Stephen Friedman
 
John Currin
Park City Grill
2000
at Sadie Coles HQ
 
John Currin and wife Rachel Feinstein
 
Michael Raedecker at the Approach.
 
Joel Belsham's medallion in
"I was a human kebab."
 
Anita Roddick at
Gallery Westland Place
 
Chisenhale in East London
 
J.M.W. Turner
Three Studies of Sexual Activity
ca. 1832-34
 
"The Tate Modern will change the face of the arts in Britain," proclaimed Tate director Nicholas Serota at the press conference unveiling the new, $220-million, 360,000-square-foot museum that now occupies the former Bankside Power Station, complete with 325-foot-tall chimney, on the edge of the Thames.

Sir Nick adopted a stern, hatchet-faced demeanor on the dais, no doubt essential for the job he has done. Flanking him were six other exceptionally somber white men, including British culture secretary Chris Smith and Arts Council chief Peter Hewitt. It looked like an undertaker's convention. Everyone wore black, except architect Jacques Herzog. He had on a blue gray Paul Smith suit, and had a large gold earring.

It's a power building, this brown brick behemoth with its immense, skylit Turbine Hall, measuring 500 feet long and 115 feet high, that used to contain the massive alternators that generated electricity for the city of London. The 84 galleries are industrial strength, with thick walls and towering dimensions that work best for heavy-duty installation pieces, like the heap of granite stones designed by Joseph Beuys or the room of giant mirrors crafted by Rebecca Horn.

But it needs muscle, this titan on the Thames, for the job it's set itself -- nothing less than conquering the global art world. "It changes everything," said the painter Michael Craig-Martin, who has previously served as a Tate trustee. "It's the best museum of modern art anywhere."

Hey, New York. I think the Brits want to kick our ass!

The men who run the museum -- Serota and Tate Modern director Lars Nittve -- have assembled a team of women for the curatorial job: Iwona Blazwick, head of exhibitions and displays, and senior curators Frances Morris, Donna De Salvo and Emma Dexter.

So, how are they doing so far? Every new museum, as former Met director (and artnet.com editorial director) Tom Hoving says, is a triumph for progress and humanity. And Tate Britain is free, like most art museums in London.

You gotta love the 30-foot-tall pregnant steel spider by Louise Bourgeois, the first in a series of five, $400,000 commissions for the Turbine Hall underwritten by Unilever, the multinational consumer goods company. It's called Maman. Eighty-plus and she's still mad at her parents.

And there's plenty of great art by lots of 20th-century artists -- though the 1980s, as New Yorker critic Peter Scheldahl quipped, seem to have disappeared. Instead of an installation by chronology and school, everything is arranged by four ridiculously amorphous themes.

"Landscape, Matter, Environment" congregates everything from Monet to Beuys, Cubism and Fauvism to Lothar Baumgarten, and includes abstract works by Bridget Riley, Sir Anthony Caro and Mark Rothko. "Still Life, Object, Real Life" features art by Leger, Duchamp and Picabia, some Surrealism, Neue Sachlichkeit and Pop, and contemporary works by Tony Cragg, Susan Hiller and Fischli and Weiss. "Nude, Action, Body" includes early Modernist nudes, galleries pairing Matisse and Marlene Dumas, and Giacometti and Barnett Newman, performance photo-documents from the '70s, and major installations by Rebecca Horn, Steve McQueen and Bruce Nauman. "History, Memory, Society" features works by manifesto-proclaiming artists of de Stijl, Constructivism, Fluxus and Minimalism, plus works by Naum Gabo, Dan Flavin, Picasso, Hannah Collins, Doris Salcedo, Stanley Spencer, Andy Warhol and Mona Hatoum.

Overall, Rambo critic, trained to ignore pain, would like to encourage curatorial adventures. But with things like this, in the end, all you can do is look at the works, one at a time.

And even Rambo critic has got to say, the galleries are too hot and the light is too dim! With those thick walls, the place feels like a fort.

*        *         *
Meanwhile, there's lots going on in the rest of town. Victoria Miro, who currently has a ground floor gallery on tony Cork Street, introduced her new space on Wharf Road in north London with a Sunday brunch (champagne, orange juice, bagels, sweet rolls) and "Raw," an exhibition of gallery artists in the vast, two-story barn-like structure that used to be a mattress factory. Everyone loved the fountain in the pond out the back, which faces onto the parking lot of a commercial laundry.

Back in the good part of town, at Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art Limited on Cork Street (upstairs from Miro's gallery) is a show of abstractions called "Paintings, I love." The installation is dominated by a huge new landscape-like "rafter painting," called Building Props (2000), by Tony Bevan, who is perhaps better known for rough-hewn line renderings of the human head. Building Props, which is sold, was priced in the neighborhood of £80,000. Also on view in the exhibition were works by the Americans Terry Winters and Jonathan Lasker along with the British neo-Abstract Expressionists Ian McKeever and John Virtue.

Hue-Williams is also a principal in the four-month-old Eyestorm website, which is trying to use the internet to sell large-edition photo multiples by big name cutting-edge artists like Damien Hirst and Mariko Mori. The artists sign on for a five-year exclusive on web sales, and in return Eyestorm produces and sells the multiple. In all there are 200 artists with projects. These include a photogravure in a brushed aluminum box by Hiroshi Sugimoto, which will sell for $1,800 each in an edition of 1,000 -- "we sold seven the day it went up," said Hue-Williams -- and a portfolio of "cyberwomen" by Helmut Newton in an edition of 500, "the only new edition he's making." Large mass-market editions have been tried before and been less than successful economically. Can a scheme like this work in the age of the internet? Time will tell.

Further up Cork Street at Helly Nahmad gallery is an irresistible exhibition titled "Love," featuring luscious nudes and romantic scenes by van Dongen, Degas, Renoir, Delacroix, Moreau, Picasso, Chagall and others. Which is the most expensive? Modigliani's 1916 Nu couché aux bras levés, though I forget the exact amount. The catalogue, however, with its bright red hardcover binding, is a bargain at £10.

Around the corner at Stephen Friedman Gallery on Old Burlington Street, the South African artist William Kentridge has debuted a new body of work that is quite unlike the animated films that have proved so popular. Called Untitled (Procession Set), this group of 25 small figurative bronzes suggests a Medieval pilgrimage, arduous but celebratory. The figures, which were fashioned out of clay and then cast (sometimes incorporating objects like a coffeepot or pair of shears), are surprisingly poignant and spiritual.

At Sadie Coles HG on Heddon Street in West London is a show of five paintings by John Currin, the kind of exceptionally beautiful odes to Connecticut WASP living that has made him an international star. The gallery says all the works are sold, and to buyers who pledged to donate them, eventually, to museums. Meanwhile, at Sadie Coles Hoxton HQ, a rather rougher space which opened last month in the North London area that is also home to White Cube 2, is a group show that includes an untitled new Sarah Lucas work made of a chair, a vest, underpants and meat.

London galleries also find homes in the upstairs rooms of pubs. The Approach gallery, which is run by Jake Miller, is located on the second floor of the building that houses the East London pub of the same name. Currently on view are paintings of landscapes and interiors by Michael Raedecker, one of the London scene's hot young talents (he was included in the touring U.S. show, "Examining Pictures"). Raedecker uses whorls of thread as a kind of low-relief indication of tree foliage and strands of cord for tree trunks. There's a waiting list for his darkly colored works, which are priced in the £10,000-£20,000 range.

Another charming exhibition, titled "I Was a Human Kebab," was put together by the young painter Zoe Griffiths in a humbly carpeted and paneled space above the Macbeth pub on Hoxton Street. The show featured a faux medalion inscribed with the title of the show, as well as works by Griffiths, Peggy Atherton, Joel Belsham and Fraser Jamieson. One of Belsham's comic photos showed a proud suburban hunter kneeling on the floor, rifle at the ready, with three dead mice arrayed before him.

At Gallery Westland Place, which shares its space with a café, is a show of documentary photographs by the young photographer Marco Schmidt-Polex, sponsored by Anita Roddick's Body Shop as part of a new program emphasizing the struggle against child labor. Schmidt-Polex's photos show poor children around the world -- crushing stones at the Huanca gold mine in Peru, picking trash at the Payatas dumpsite in Manila, and working in pot-making and shoe-making co-ops in Harare in Zimbabwe.

At Chisenhale, an edgy, publicly funded gallery in East London that specializes in commissioning major new works by young artists, is a show called "Jump" by Dutch installation artist Job Koelewijn. He has built several circular one-person trampolines into a false floor, with similarly sized circular openings in the ceiling to accommodate the hopping heads. The gallery opened in 1996, said director Sue Jones, and operates on an annual budget of around £250,000. Chisenhale tends to get to young talent first. Among those who have done projects at Chisenhale in the past are Sam Taylor-Wood, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread.

Another public gallery in East London is the Nunnery, which opened a show of new works by four young artists, including Tom Humphreys, who installed a simple walkway of chipboard raised an inch or two off the floor in the gallery passageway, and Lothar Goetz, whose colorful, geometric painting is done directly onto the walls and ceiling of the Nunnery's large gallery.

*        *         *
Art market news: Young U.S. painter Inka Essenhigh sold out her show at Victoria Miro on Cork Street. The six large, brightly colored enamel works were priced at $18,000 each. Collectors were phoning from the U.S., asking "Is that dollars or pounds?" since the paintings are $25,000 at Mary Boone in New York. Next up at Miro is a show of black and white drawings by Chris Ofili, works made by dotting lines of small "afro heads" onto the paper. These are £8,000.

The art is running out the door at White Cube 2 on Hoxton Square, too. Damien Hirst's dramatic Rehab is for Quitters (1998-99), a plastic skeleton suspended on a cross of glass with two plastic eyeballs lofted floating into the air by twin air compressors attached to the back of the skull, is sold at around £250,000, while Gavin Turk's waxwork Death of Che (2000), is sold for approximately £80,000.

*        *         *
YBA report: Could any culture love its artists more than the British love the YBAs? The press is full of giddy accounts of Sam Taylor-Wood's latest commission, a 60-by-900-foot-long photo mural that surrounds Selfridges department store during its six-month renovation. The digital montage features "modern day culture-heroes mounted upon a temple of consumerism," according to one report. It was inspired by the Elgin Marbles, the artist said. The models are all wearing clothes from Selfridges spring/summer collection.

Vogue Britain has turned most of its May editorial over to the arts, with coverage of the Tate Modern, classy group photos of its curators and its artists, as well as a special feature that montages illustrations for a story on cosmetics as if they were giant art works installed at the Saatchi Gallery. Another article turns seven YBAs -- Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Sarah Morris and others -- loose to take Kate Moss as their muse and make special art works using her as a model.

*        *         *
Finally, last but not least, the secret attraction of the exhaustive exhibition at Tate Britain titled "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites" is two little sketchbook drawings by J.M.W. Turner in a vitrine that may be the last remainders of Turner's erotic production. Several notebooks of such material -- no one knows what the works were really like -- were destroyed after the artist's death by his amanuensis, John Ruskin, as being too demeaning to the great maestro's reputation, and illegal to boot. As it happens, the drawings here are disappointing, resembling nothing more than some toilet-stall graffiti -- a little anal intercourse, a nice sketch of a cock. Oh well.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.