The Leach Pottery, on the Higher Stennack in St. Ives, is both a museum dedicated to the innovative potter Bernard Leach and the Leach legacy and a working pottery studio.
All photos: John Harvey, 2017
After being closed for rebuilding, renovation and refurbishment for what seems like a very long time, it was a surprise to walk into a building that seemed almost overwhelmingly familiar. The gallery spaces, the shop, the cafe … but wait … what is new and what is pretty wonderful is the new permanent display – Modern Art and St. Ives – which does what, I think, many visitors come to gallery looking for – an in depth survey of the principle British Artists associated with Western Cornwall and St.Ives – Nicholson, Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow – together with examples of the European and North American artist who inspired them and with whom their work is associated – Nicholson and Marlow Moss, for instance, alongside Mondrian.
A conscious attempt seems to have been made to include a higher percentage of work by female artists than is all too often the case, including here Margaret Mellish, Marlow Moss and, particularly, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who is represented with three pieces which illustrate the development of her practice, from naively representational through differing kinds of abstraction and an almost fierce use of colour.What has been added to the gallery – after lengthy negotiations with residents, the town council et cetera – is a single, large high-ceilinged room, which can be used, as in its initial display, to show the work of a single artist – in this case, Rebecca Warren – or, where necessary, divided by a series of removable walls.
For the exhibition of Warren’s witty and provocative work, she has chosen the title All That Heaven Allows, taken from the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, which uses both melodramatic narrative form and heightened use of colour to dramatise the situation of a middle-class widow trapped within rigid expectations of class, gender and sexuality. Tall, angular sculptures of human figures are placed at irregular intervals across the room’s wide space; collages in neon vitrines placed here and there on the walls. Once visitors start walking around and between them, the sculptures begin to take on an exaggerated life of their own, commenting on the viewers and on themselves as works of art.
The roughly worked, one might almost say deliberately ham-fisted, construction of the figures with their clumpy surfaces and irregular colour, make a marked and deliberate contrast to the smooth surfaces and satisfying curves of the Barbara Hepworth sculptures in the permanent exhibition, just as the wall pieces, with their apparently random, yet personal, selection of objects and use of neon, offer an alternative to the more austere and geometrical work of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo.
Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.
The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.
Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.
Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.
The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.
American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]
Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …
Make your way to the rear of the Royal Academy, where the absorbing Jasper Johns retrospective has recently closed [who would have thought there were so many shades of grey?] and, amongst the extension work in progress along Burlington Gardens, worm your way to the entrance to Pace London, which is hosting Impulse, a small – 13 pieces – well displayed, interesting and enjoyable show of post-painterly abstraction. [A journey almost as tortuous, perhaps, as getting to the end of that sentence – language as metaphor? Enough!]
Dating back to the 1960s and 70s, and seen as coming out of, as well as in opposition to, the first generation abstract expressionist work of Pollock and DeKooning, there’s an oft-told story of the moment that this later variation of (mostly) American abstract painting – also known as Colour Field painting – was born. The critic Clement Greenberg had taken the artist Helen Frankenthaler [they were at item] to Jackson Pollock’s studio to see him at work, and, inspired by this, Frankenthaler adapted what she had seen to her own ends.
“The method I used developed and departed essentially from Pollock. I did use his technique of putting the canvas on the floor. But in method and material, Pollock’s enamel rested on the surface as a skin that sat on top of the canvas. My paint, because of the turpentine mixed with the pigment, soaked into the woof and weave of the surface of the canvas and became one with it.”
Helen Frankenthaler in an interview with Gene Baro, Art International, 1967
The first notable result for Frankenthaler of using this technique was the 1952 painting, Mountains and Sea, which was, in turn, instrumental in the two leading Colour Field artists, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland [both present in this show] changing artistic direction – a Saul-to-Damascus moment engineered, once again, by Greenberg [well, he’s the person telling most of the story].
“The first sight of the middle period Pollocks and of a large and extraordinary painting done in 1952 by Helen Frankenthaler, called ‘Mountains and Sea’, led Louis to change his direction abruptly. Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent in either influence, he began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open colour.”
“The more closely colour could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adopting watercolour techniques to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface.”
Clement Greenberg: “Louis and Noland” 1960
‘Tactile’, that’s the key word here, along with ‘interference’: this is a movement away from those vigorous lines that skipped across a Pollock canvas, those mostly deliberate, semi-instinctive whirls and splotches that engendered energy and rhythm, they’ve had their day. The new art, Greenberg decreed, shall be the art without artist, without the artist’s tangible, visible presence made plain though his or her marks; somehow, it will be “purely visual” and open and “relatively anonymous” in its execution. A visual experience that is somehow purer and more all-encompassing.
Both Louis and Noland are represented here at Pace London, Louis with two pieces including, centrally, his vast 1958 work Plentitude [shown in the both installation views above] and Noland with the two smaller pieces seen immediately above, both from a period in the late 70s when he was experimenting with abruptly angled canvases. Indo, from 1977, is quite mesmeric in its central grounding of mauvish blue, bordered and accentuated by thin strips of brighter, contrasting colours.
Frank Bowling, a British artist born in Guyana, moved to New York in the late 60s, whereupon his work moved increasingly towards abstraction; but, for me, the most interesting of his three pieces here is the beautiful 1978 At Swim Two Manatee, which leans back towards his earlier, more figurative work, and takes on, in its borders, an almost Pre-Raphaelite delight in intricate decoration.
For me, though, the most impressive artist on show is Sam Gilliam, whose work I came across for the first time [shame on me] in the groundbreaking Tate Modern show, Soul of a Nation, which also featured Bowling and the fifth artist showing at Pace, Ed Clark.
From the late 60s, apparently, while still working on canvas in a regular way, Gilliam had begun soaking canvasses in paint and then folding and hanging them to make work that was part-painting, part-sculpture [Think Eva Hesse, think Barry Flanagan]. The three-dimensional nature of After Micro W, exhibited here, and Carousel Change, from Soul of a Nation, is such that you want not just to look, to soak up, as it were, the glorious movement and agglomeration of colour, but to reach out, if one were allowed, and touch. ‘Purely visual’, but ‘tactile’ too.
Noland had linked his practice and that of his fellow abstractionists with that of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk – “what was new was the idea that something you painted could be like something you heard.” An idea taken up and progressed by Mark Godfrey in his essay, “Notes on Black Abstraction” from the Soul of a Nation catalogue.
“These artists may well have sensed that Coltrane’s ability to take apart the conventions of melody and rhythm found a parallel in their own interest in abandoning stretcher bars, flat surfaces and brushes. To put it another way, what Coltrane did to ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ equals what Gilliam and Loving did to Morris Louis and Frank Stella.”
The other piece of Gilliam’s on show that I love and kept returning to is Onion Skin from 1975, a large canvas which seems to reach back towards the abstract expressionism of the late 50s and early 60s, while having a progressive sense of rhythm and colour that is its own. There’s more than a hint of Jackson Pollock here, and in its organic use of line and colour you can see something, I think, of Sam Francis, but it’s a satisfying whole and Gilliam through and through.
[In his excellent review of the show for Wall Street International, William Davie, describing this piece, draws a comparison with the paint-splattered floor of Pollock’s studio, and, fearing I’d stolen the idea, had to go back to my hastily scribbled notes to find a scribbled ‘artist’s floor’ in the margins. I don’t have that many vaguely original thoughts, I can discard them willy-nilly]
Impulse at Pace London finishes on Friday, 22nd December.
Here’s another Whitby poem from Bluer Than This that didn’t make its way into the more recent New & Selected …
The Wrong Wind
The wrong wind
marshals its forces along the channel
and that range of hills we can quite clearly see
against the northern horizon
will within minutes be lost to sight.
Down in the town
a woman bustles across the bridge
with lowered head, plastic shopping bags
bumping and banging against her legs.
Outside the Jolly Sailors
two dogs pause in their robust examination
of each other’s genitalia to sniff the air,
and along the street at number 54, the children’s
crossing guard, once assistant harbour master,
taps his barometer and scowls;
the parrot in its cage is one hundred and five
or one hundred and ten, depending
what you believe.
High on the West Cliff
we squat in the lea of blackened gravestones
and count our blessings: peppermints, lip salve,
four squares of dark chocolate, the return
halves of two supersaver tickets
to Pudset via Leeds and a compass
neither of us can read. A ladybird,
startled, stops its scuttling run along your arm
and braces its wings for flight. Too late now,
too foolish to make a dash across
open ground, we wait, and if our luck holds
the worst of the storm will pass us by.
Once, we stayed here, out of season,
arcades and the Magpie Café closed,
clouds massed like bulkheads in the northern sky
and around the municipal grandstand
only the melismatic cry of gulls.
Close by our feet, winter lay coiled like rope.
At night hope hung across the water like a child.
What is never shared, cannot be lost.
When she was seven or eight,
I brought my daughter here to stay.
Our first time in an old-fashioned B & B,
hot water bottles and flasks of coffee on request.
She laid out her clothes, folded and neat,
each item in its proper drawer,
alarm clock wound and set for seven,
books and diary on the square oak table
nudged against the bed.
There have been other lovers, other nights.
The town, I heard this morning, is falling
rock by rick and day by day into the sea.
Tied up against each forecast,
fishing boats, all colours, rack and slide.
My daughter ran yesterday from France,
she and the man she’s lived with for years
are breaking up. I shall come here again, yes,
I think so, with someone else or on my own.
We cling to what we can, and the rest,
one way or another, clings to us.
from Bluer Than This, Smith/Doorstop, 1998
Just back from a few breezy days on the North Yorkshire coast; long enough, almost, to feel the metropolis blown out of one’s system and enjoy fish suppers, warm doughnuts on the harbour’s edge, and striding out into the wind. My only regret that Whitby Town were not at home.
I’ve seen images of Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture that stands in Judenplatz in the first district of Vienna as a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust, but never the thing itself. Nevertheless, I’ve talked about it, written essays about it; praised, admired and been awestruck by it. Constructed from concrete and steel, it stands, squat, solid and unflourished, at the centre of a square overlooked by ‘fine’ houses, formerly homes to many of the Jews who were transported to those concentration camps whose names are engraved at the foot of the sculpture.
It is a library: a library to which the doors remain resolutely closed. No one can enter: and if they could, once inside, they could never escape. The walls are made from casts of library shelves lined with books, but the books – which all look like the same book – stand inside out, their titles and authors hidden. Anonymous and unread. Lives unaccounted for. Unacknowledged. It’s a statement about the loss of identity, the loss of life, the denial of memory. Uncompromising and uncompromised.
A powerful work, whose strength of form signifies its strength of meaning and discourages the ease of tears.
To have expected something similar, work which would have the same power or elicit a similar response, from the retrospective of Whiteread’s work currently at Tate Britain would have been unfair and not a little foolish. What I hadn’t been prepared for was being just a little bit bored.
Part of the problem [a problem for me, but not, from speaking briefly to others at the gallery, for many] is that Whiteread’s most significant work – which can mean having a significance beyond itself – is public work on a large scale and so can only be shown here in a photograph, a diagram, a plan. What the gallery gives us is a generously large space with several larger pieces – the interior, stairs and floors, of the former warehouse in which she and her family once lived; the room in Broadcasting House which might have been the inspiration for Orwell’s Room101 – at the centre and smaller works – windows and doors cast in plaster and coloured resins – arranged around the perimeter.
Walking round, it’s not difficult to think, okay, this is very clever, but why? Why in the case of the doors and windows, the Tate handout tells us, because “Such a re-imagining of this range of forms in their cast versions, as sculpture, emphasises their details and our relationship with the structures that surround us.”
To which I can only say, “Hmm … ”
But all was not lost. Along one wall there is a delightful array of small objects, some brightly coloured – and, oh, how the heart was crying out for colour in the midst of so much grey concrete – casts of everyday objects such as boxes and, nicest of all, the cylindrical tubes from the centre of toilet rolls. Even better, on the wall at the opposite end hang a number of photographs, sketches and drawings made using pen, pencil or paint – for the most part preparatory work leading up to the final sculptures, but satisfying in themselves. And, best of all, a long vitrine in which is displayed a selection made by Whiteread herself of pages from her notebooks, more sketches and photographs, along with a number of objects she has collected and kept. Absolutely fascinating.
Outside the gallery space, in the Duveen Galleries, are a number of pieces Whiteread has selected from the Tate’s permanent collection – sculptures by Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Barbara Hepworth, Rebecca Warren and others. As one of the visitors I spoke to said, the problem with is that, set against range and liveliness of that work, Whiteread’s own can suffer in comparison.
And finally, a literary footnote. For the sales display outside, amongst the catalogues and postcards, is a small selection of books that Whiteread has recommended: and what a selection! Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead; The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes; short stories by Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver; Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary; Henning Mankel. Enough to form the beginning of a small library of contemporary fiction.