A Lot of ‘Not Much’


Richard Serra, Trip Hammer (1988), Tate London

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but some Minimalist art is big, really big. It almost as if the artists want to emphasise that there’s not much there by making an awful lot of ‘not much’. Donald Judd’s series of free standing boxes for example are big enough for a few close friends to climb into, Robert Morris, Carl Andre and Tony Smith all made works that left little room for viewers in the gallery, but perhaps the master of minimalist overstatement is Richard Serra.

I’ve alluded in past blogs to the brain-scrambling theoretical debate about the nature of art that raged in the journals of the mid 1960s. It really is too arcane to go into in any great depth here but to simplify one of the central platforms of the minimalist project addressed the issue of Art’s relation to the real world. On one side were the critics and theorists who had supported the first wave of American Abstract Expressionists. Art should, they said, be an end in itself, it should have nothing to do with the real world, the ideal art was concerned only with itself, with colour and form. Such an approach, it was argued, made art a specialised sphere of activity and one that could lift the viewer into a timeless state of being away from the mundane concerns of the world.

Predictably such a dogmatic approach didn’t sit well with the stirrings of political unrest and burgeoning counter-culture of the 1960s, and soon opponents of this isolationist approach argued exactly the opposite, that art should anchor the viewer in their place and time, that it should make people aware of the world, not create a hermetic bubble into which they should escape. A new art was required, one which, in Claes Oldenburg’s words “does something other than sit on its ass in a museum”. A new wave of artists and approaches emerged that brought real life back into the gallery in the form of stuffed goats, comic book art and installations while performances and ‘happenings’ were staged and collaborative sculptures were built as part of protests taking art out into the real world.

For the Minimalists a key aspect of bringing the real world into the gallery involved a conscious rejection of the traditional materials and methods of art. Paint, bronze and marble were replaced by plastic, concrete, steel and aluminium, many of these materials being made, not by the artists themselves, but by industrial manufacturers working to the artists specifications. The artists studio was no longer an ivory tower of contemplation but a noisy factory full of dirt, steam and sparks.

Richard Serra could arguably be seen as the most ‘industrial’ of the Miminalists. From his early work that involved splashing the walls, floors and corners of the gallery with molten lead he progressed to installing increasingly large sheets, slabs and tubes of COR-TEN Steel that were held in place only by their weight and the effects of gravity and balance. As well as being unashamedly industrial, this choice of material connected with the rejection of a ‘timeless’ experience of art by being specifically designed to corrode over time, thus the physical nature of the work itself would change while it was displayed.

The viewers’ experience of the work was also intended to unfold over time, the simple shapes allowing them to comprehend the object in front of them as they walked around it, the absence of such unnecessary complications as intricate shapes or different colours allowing the viewer to explore the relationship between the space the work and themselves. It’s a difficult theoretical argument to get across without lapsing into the kind of talk that graces Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner, but Serra’s work is, I think, the clearest illustration of this particular aspect of the debate.

Encountering Serra’s Trip Hammer is an unnerving experience. Two great slabs of rusting steel are arranged with no visible means of support in the corner of the gallery, one nine foot high monolith is balanced vertically on it’s smallest edge leading into the corner of the space, the second, slightly smaller slab balanced on top horizontally, its longest edges at 45 degree angles to the converging gallery walls. The familiarity of the material and simplicity of the precarious arrangement gives you a a very real understanding of the hard physical facts of the sculpture, its texture, temperature and most importantly its weight. You can easily imagine the whole thing toppling over and crashing through the wooden floors. Even if it wasn’t for the Health and Safety precautions of a gallery rope that now surrounds the work you really wouldn’t want to get too close. You do become acutely aware of the realities of your physical self in relation to the looming rusted metal in front of you.

Serra’s work has been criticised for it’s authoritarianism, its machismo and for creating a relationship between art and viewer akin to that between a ‘bully and victim’ and given that in 1988 two art handlers were seriously injured by a falling sculpture the ‘victim’ status of people encountering the work can sometimes be applied literally.

Of course there is something unashamedly macho about a form of art that requires foundries and heavy machinery rather than brushes and white gloves to create and install, and yes there is something authoritarian about an art that dominates a space and threatens to crush the viewer like an ant, but I think it needed to be. A seemingly impenetrable barrier had been set up between art and life and the strategies necessary to bring that barrier crashing down weren’t polite, weren’t tasteful and they weren’t quiet, they were noisy, tacky, flashy, flamboyant, exciting, frightening, dirty, rough, big and on occasions dangerous.

Just like life really.


Mistakes and Expectations

Marc Quinn – Stuart Penn (2000)

Art Historians make mistakes. It goes with the territory, paintings like The Massacre of the Innocents get attributed to the wrong artist, new evidence comes to light and completely turns received wisdom about a sculpture on its head; it all part and parcel of dealing with a subject that attempts to knit together a coherent story out of a mass of uncertainties, contradictions and, on occasions, downright lies. (The dates that Kasmir Malevich inscribed on his Black Square paintings being an example of the latter – though to be fair he was as mad as a bag of badgers in a spin dryer.)

Since the discipline took lessons from the likes of Foucault and Barthes and developed doubt into a valid ideological position, negotiating the potholes and chicanes of art history is slightly easier – in the first year of study, the student art historian learns the magic word ‘problematic’, a useful means of tying up the flailing loose ends of a tricky paper. You can even use it as a verb, “This is of course problematicised by…” It’s a cop out really, but a necessary one, without it you’d never finish an essay.

Sometimes the repercussions of these mistakes only affect the rarefied circle of art history itself, tiny ripples in a small pond, a few papers may have to be re-written, some textbooks and monographs may fall out of favour and conferences will be arranged. Other times these ripples can have wider implications changing the direction that art and culture take and influencing the nature of public taste.

For centuries, art historians and theorists held up Classical Sculptures as exemplars or quality and ideal beauty; painters copied figures from them, sculptors worked hard to reproduce their style in their own work and the young men of wealthy families were sent off on Grand Tours to view them to distract them from deflowering the chambermaids for a few months. If the philosophers and politicians of Athens and Rome favoured such sculpture, so should younger societies aiming for a return to the artistic glories of those once great civilisations. Almost subliminally the notion that the very best sculpture was carved from white marble sank into the Western cultural consciousness. And even by the time that Modernists, like Barbara Hepworth were making abstract sculpture, white marble was still seen as a prestige material.

Yet recent scientific investigations of sculptures such as the Parthenon Marbles have revealed traces of pigment and there’s now a consensus that they were extremely brightly painted and adorned with all manner of jewellery and accessories. So it seems that a few hundred years in the development of ideas of what is beautiful, sophisticated and above all tasteful were in a large part based on a whopping great art historical mistake.

We still feel the influence of this mistake today. Take a look at Antonio Canova’s Cupid and Psyche and imagine how different about it you might feel if it was more like Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Even though I know that there’s a great big misunderstanding lurking at the heart of Canova’s aesthetic decisions, I can’t help thinking it would look hideous if it was a gaudy as the Koons. The association of white marble with grace and beauty remains so deeply ingrained that even a few colourful revelations can’t shift it.

Marc Quinn made great use of this association in a series of sculptures he made in 2000. Take a look at Stuart Penn above, it seems at first glance like any other classically influenced sculpture, and when the series were exhibited in the sculpture rooms at the Victoria and Albert museum, they seemed right at home amongst the 16th to 18th century figures, if anything a casual viewer might have been led to believe they were in fact older than Canovas and Bolognas by virtue of the missing limbs.

It’s the missing limbs here that are key. Quinn’s models for the series were sitters who had either been born missing limbs or had lost them due to accident or disease. So used are we to seeing classical sculpture fragmented and damaged that an absent arm or leg is part of our expectations of work like this. We edit out the vacant limbs of the Venus De Milo to look at her beauty, and that’s exactly how we react to Stuart Penn. Among the stone pantheon of gods, athletes and heroes we look past his physiological differences and see his beauty.

Quinn’s marbles are overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. It’s a stunningly clever trick to mobilise the centuries-old prejudices of history and taste to both defeat and draw attention to those of the present and to subtly use our expectations of art to challenge our perceptions of real people.

So here’s raising a glass to the mistakes of art history (no matter how problematic they are).

Between Comfort and Horror: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Dorothea Tanning - Nue couchée 1969-70 (The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive)

I’ve spent the day writing an article on Surrealism generally and in particular the work of the male artists of the movement. I should point out that since the subject of the piece is my old friend the Minotaur, the gender bias involved was driven by the subject rather than a sin of omission. In fact if I was to write a more generalised piece on the movement  I think the balance would definitely be tilted in the other direction, as it’s the work of artists such as Lee Miller, Louise Bourgeoise, Meret Openheim and Leonora Carrington that really fascinates me. It’s not that I find the work of the male artists uninteresting, just that, perhaps as a function of my own gender I find them easier to pin down, less challenging.

It’s therefore a touch ironic that it was only when I called it a day today and pulled my head out of the books on Man Ray, Dali, Picasso and Masson that I learned of the death of Dorothea Tanning, and it seemed only right to put down a few words of appreciation for this often overlooked artist.

I vividly remember seeing  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the age of about 13. Then as now themes of dreams and fantasy fascinated me and it pulled me in far more than Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus that was hanging nearby. Looking at it now with hindsight I think I can see why  – of the two dream images it is Tanning’s image of a girl venturing out onto a landing to be confronted by an apparently animated giant sunflower that speaks honestly of childhood nocturnal fears. The sparse composition, the empty corridor disappearing into the distance, the multiple doors and the apparently innocent object made threatening by its monstrous scale all come together to create a landscape that seem genuinely dream-like, by comparison Dali’s painting seems like a junk-shop arrangement of ideas – one painting looks like a child’s nightmare, the other seems like a painting of an adult thinking about what a nightmare should look like.

However, as much as her paintings continue to intrigue me , it is the series of soft sculptures that Tanning produced in the 1970s that really pull me in. These strange fabric constructions of female bodies merging, stretching, grasping, bulging out of items of furniture and climbing up walls occupy a space between comfort and horror. Like the work of her contemporary Louise Bourgeoise, these works are simultaneously attractive and repellant, speaking of both the joys and fears of the relationship between mother and child; when confronted by them in a gallery you’re not quite sure whether you want to hug them or run away very quickly to avoid being swallowed up and smothered by the plush folds.

Both her paintings and sculptures have clearly been an influence on more recent generations of artists,  Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Cathy De Monchaux all spring to mind and perhaps less obviously, comic artist Jill Thompson (her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in particular.)

It is sad that her work is not as widely known as most of her male counterparts from the movement, and that contemporary surveys and exhibitions still tend to focus on her position within the movement as one of a number of romantic partners to the male artists. (Apart from one boxed out text discussing the 1942 painting Birthday, the catalogue of the 2001 Tate show Surrealism: Desire Unbound spills as much ink on the subject of Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst as it does to her work).  Hopefully her death will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of her work.

(To learn more about Tanning’s life and work, please visit the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.)

My Favourite Work of Art?

A few weeks back I encountered an article by Alexandra M. Korey of the great ArtTrav site which posed the question “Is it possible for an art historian to have a favourite work of art?”  It’s a good question, and as she notes as a breed we are so conditioned to be dispassionate, critical and distanced from our emotional reactions to works that we develop what she terms the ‘neutrality disease’.  We’ll talk excitedly about this work or that, but ask us if we actually like it and we’ll stutter, get a blank eyed stare, say something along the lines of “Well it’s not quite as simple as that..” and probably shuffle off to the bar to get another glass of Chianti – basically the question will provoke the art historian’s equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death.

The thing is, if you’ve spent a decade or so under a pile of books on politics, philosophy, colour theory, linguistics, wading through letters and commissioning documents and arguing the merits of one critical position or another, you are in danger of no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

Of course your own view of the work is still there, but it’s no longer just you and the work standing there in the gallery face to face; you’re now looking at it through the eyes of countless other viewers, critics and commentators – the still, small voice inside you that once would have said “I love that!” is now drowned out by an infinite chorus of voices all vying for your attention.

It’s an inherent problem with the subject I suppose, trying to be cool and analytic about a sphere of human activity that is by it’s very nature emotional, subjective and more often than not utterly irrational is an enterprise so riven with contradictions that it would seem that one side or the other would have to be shut down, or at least buried deep, to allow the other impulse to flourish. Yet practically all all the people I know who have been through the academic mill of the art world, whether they be theorists, historians or practitioners get a little glint in their eyes when then talk about their subject, they’re passionate people and will happily talk through the night on the subject of art.

The problem is, I think, we love our subject too much and making any sort of value judgement feels slightly unfair.  I was once stopped by a Sky News camera crew outside Tate Britain and asked who I thought should win the Turner Prize that year. “Well it’s not as simple as that..” I began.   Several minutes later after I’d babbled about the inherent difficulties of making a comparison between Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed and Gillian Carnegie’s paintings, the TV folk backed away slowly and ran off to find someone less mad who’d deliver a more coherent, and probably more outraged, soundbite.

By now the astute reader will notice that I’ve spent nearly 500 words completely avoiding the central question. Of course there are works that I dearly love and some that I love better than others, the problem is I’m trained not to just say that I love something, but to explain why and more often than not I really can’t answer that question with any reasoned argument.

For example of the two great Renaissance David’s, I prefer Donatello’s to Michelangelo’s. Now of course I’m aware of the history of both pieces, of how Donatello’s was the first free standing cast bronze sculpture made since antiquity, that Michelangelo’s had a political dimension with an implied message of  a stand against tyranny following the expulsion of the Medicis from Florence, and so on.  But my preference is based on none of that history, it merely the fact that Donatello’s bronze figure, with it’s hat, wry smile, not to mention the feather of Goliath’s helmet that snakes up the figures inner thigh, just makes me smile more than Michelangelo’s monolithic marble sculpture; it’s just a bit more, well, cheeky I suppose and ‘cheeky’ really wouldn’t get me any marks in a essay.

Of course that’s not to say that an understanding of the history or interpretations of a piece don’t come into play.  Before studying Botticelli’s work, I didn’t really pay much attention to him, Primavera seemed nice enough, well executed, a bit fey, but nothing that really pulled me in, the mythological subject interested me but it never really moved me. Then I started reading about his techniques, the classical philosophies that underpinned his practice, and how the painting fitted into the cultural and political world of 15th Century Tuscany and it came alive for me. It’s now a painting that I return to again and again, reading every scrap of new research or opinion on it, it’ll intrigue me forever.

And still I’m dodging the issue, how can I choose just one work of art. I have to admit defeat I think and say that I can’t. My love of Art comes from so many different places and in so many different forms; Art can get me in the heart, the head or the gut, it can seduce me, shock me and intrigue me, frequently all three at once. So I’m going to cheat, in the spirit of a well known radio show I’m going to choose my Desert Island Art, eight works that I’d take with me when I get cast away.

1) Marcel Duchamp – The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23)

Well you didn’t expect me to get through a blog post without mentioning him did you? The great prankster’s crowning achievement, a mass of techniques and images, art theory and practice colliding head on with physics and philosophy, all backed up by reams of fragmentary and impenetrable notes, letters and slogans. Madness, genius or one of the greatest artistic jokes ever perpetrated, I can never make up my mind whether it means nothing or everything and I doubt I ever will, but it’s great fun trying.

2) Eduoard Manet – The Luncheon (1868)

So difficult to choose one painting by Manet, but it’s got to be this one, I love it for the way it gives you vague clues to the dynamic between the characters, but not enough to be sure of exactly what’s going on. It could just be the end of a meal, but the fruit, wine and oysters on the table recall the memento mori of Dutch still life painting and what are the armour and pistols doing there? The contemporary critic Gautier suggested the meal might be taking place before or after a duel. We’ll never know the answer, and I suspect that’s why it’s an Art Historians’ favourite, we’ll be able to argue about this one till the end of time.

3) Sandro Botticelli – Venus And Mars (1483)

As much as I love Primavera, this is the Botticelli that I would happily lift of the walls of the National Gallery and bring home tucked under my coat. It makes me laugh every time I look at Venus’s disdainful gaze at the exhausted Mars and the gambolling satyrs, particularly the one blinded by the god of war’s oversized helmet. It a gloriously funny painting and yet, as I’ve written elsewhere, one underpinned with sly political messages.

4) Kit Williams – One of Six to Eight (from Masquerade) (1979)

Again I’ve written at length about Kit’s work before. It was encountering Masquerade as a ten year old that taught me to stop just seeing art and start looking at it, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

5) Matthew Barney – The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002)

Five films and a mass of sculptures, installations, photographs, drawing and prints all making up one artwork that’s either a towering work of ambitious conceptual genius or the greatest shaggy dog story ever told. Either way I love it for its multiple shifting narratives, its complexity and its sheer bloody-mindedness in pursuit of an artist’s unique vision. Quite how I’m going to fit it all onto my desert island is beyond me however.

6) Barbara Hepworth – Pelagos (1946)

At the other end of the spectrum, something so simple and elegant. Inspired by the coastline of Cornwall, a wave fixed in time. Just beautiful.

7) Duccio di Buoninsegna – Maesta (1308-11)

The greatest masterpiece of the Sienese school, a vast altarpiece compirised of one monumental panel of the Virgin and saints and forty three smaller panels showing scenes from the gospels. Technically breathtaking, endlessly fascinating and deeply moving even for a godless heathen like me. Most of all I love it though for for being the reason for my first visit to Siena and starting my love affair with that city.

8. Tracey Emin – Tattoo (2001)

Two photocopies in a frame, one of Polaroid photos of the artist and her tattoos, the other a heartfelt handwritten text outling her feelings about them, looking back on her motivations for getting them in her youth with a mixture of disdain and resignation. It’s a great piece about looking back on the mistakes of your past and learning to live with them, even if you would quite happily go back in time and give yourself a slap. Other than that I love it because we own it, and walking into that gallery back in 2001, when Tracey was very much the artist in the headlines and picking up one of her works for £50 was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Occasionally Pete or I do a little research to see how much it’s worth now, it makes us smile, but I doubt we’ll ever sell it.

So now to the knotty question of if I could only take one…Well, I think it’ll have to be the Hepworth, as the waves lap against my feet that little wooden wave will remind me of were I am and of where I used to be, and that seems a quite a good reason; but is it my favourite? Well it’s not quite as simple as that…..

Fountains of Siena

In September 2010, Pete and I made a return trip to Siena – a city that we fell in love with  on our first visit and we now think of as our second (and maybe future) home. I’ll blog later in more depth about how this Medieval Tuscan city , its people and customs intrigued us, delighted us and eventually stole our hearts, but for now (and as an excuse to try out this new home for my blog) here’s a photo essay of two days we spent searching for all seventeen contrada fountains.

It was a great couple of days, with no idea exactly where the fountains were and armed only with a rough map of the contrada boundaries and a few vague clues relating to the churches in each of the districts, we ended up covering most of the city, finding places we’d never seen before. In the end we only found sixteen (and one of those I’m still not 100%  sure that it counts) but at least the elusive Ram fountain gives us and excuse to go back. Not that we need one…


Lupa - The She Wolf.



Bruco - The Caterpillar (Our adopted contrada - thus I'm honour-bound to yell "Bru-Bru-Bruco!" and wave a flag.)



Istrice - The Porcupine



Drago - The Dragon (Unusually this fountain only includes the colours of the contrada rather than an image of their symbol)



Selva - The Forest (The winner's of this year's July Palio, Selva' flag is a rhino in a forest.)



Onda - The Wave



Tartuca - The Turtle (Winners of the Aug 2010 race)



Chiocciola - The Snail

Chiocciola - The Snail (When Chiocciola win a race this fountain spurts wine instead of water.)




Pantera - The Panther




Aquila - The Eagle




Civetta - The Little Owl




Giraffa - The Giraffe




Leocorno - The Unicorn




Nicchio - The Shell




Torre - The Tower



Fontebranda - This is the one I'm unsure about. It's in Oca - The Goose - and acts as the contrada's baptismal font, but seems so lacking in Oca related heraldry. Of course it was one of the most important water sources for the city throughout its history, so maybe the Oca members consider it important enough to have pride in it without putting their symbols on it. But I can't help the feeling that somewhere there's a goose we didn't find - and since Bruco and Oca have 'no official relations' (the closest our contrada gets to having an 'official' enemy) perhaps it makes sense that we were never going to find it.