Art Chronicles: Best of 2017

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 …

  • Walhalla – Anselm Kiefer : White Cube, Bermondsey
  • Wolfgang Tillmanns 2017 : Tate Modern
  • The Discovery of Mondrian : Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag
  • Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932 : Royal Academy
  • Alice Neel, Uptown : Victoria Miro
  • States of America : Nottingham Contemporary
  • Instant Stories – Wim Wenders’ Polaroids : Photographers’ Gallery
  • Impulse – Pace Gallery
  • Soutine – Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys : Courtauld Gallery




Robert Frank: The Americans, 1

I’ve just spent an enjoyable week at the Courtauld Gallery Summer School, following, along with a small group of other students, a programme devised and taught by Tim Satterthwaite, Living Cities: The photography of Urban Life in Europe and America, 1920-1989. Modernism to street photography; art photography to social documentary. Fascinating stuff – and centrally placed, Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans.

Not least for its fine and freewheeling introduction by Jack Kerouac, The Americans has long been one of my favourite books of photographs, three of the images – Ranch Market, Hollywood: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina & Crosses at the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91, Idaho – the subject of a short sequence of pieces which appeared in my 1998 Smith/Doorstop collection, Bluer Than This.

Here’s one …

Robert Frank: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina

Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina.

They don’t want me to hold this child. All them righteous brothers with the anger and their shades. Sisters, too. Wave placards in my face and shout and spit and sound their horns. One of them come right up to me, sanding here with this precious boy in my arms, and says, “Sister, can’t you see that’s the Devil’s child?” Well, I ain’t his sister, nor about to be, ain’t got no sister ‘cept Merilee, and she passed on having her third. No, if there’s anything I am, it’s this child’s mother, near as can be, doing everything for him his own mother don’t do. ‘Sides, you just have to look in this sweet baby’s face to know he ain’t no Devil. See that sweet little angel mouth, way that skin shine so white and flawless like a doll’s; and his eyes, how they stare out at you, never looking away, not blinking, like they already owned the world.


Art Shows of the Year, 2015

For me, there were three absolutely brilliant shows this year, each challenging in the artist’s own way and equally unforgettable: Marlene Dumas’ “The Image as Burden” at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin, also at Tate Modern, and Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain.

Marlene Dumas
Marlene Dumas: ‘Evil is Banal’

Close behind those, I was exhilarated and delighted by Peter Lanyon’s landscape/gliding paintings, “Soaring Flight” at the Courtauld.

Peter Lanyon: 'Soaring Flight'
Peter Lanyon: ‘Soaring Flight’

There were other exhibitions of real quality: Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy; Glen Ligon’s “Encounters and Collisions” at Nottingham Contemporary; Cornelia Parker at the Whitworth, Manchester; George Shaw’s “The Last Days of Belief” at the Wilkinson Gallery; Jackson Pollock’s “Blind Spots” at Tate Liverpool.

And three excellent survey shows: “Reality – Modern & Contemporary British Painting” at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; “Abstract Britain” at The Higgins, Bedford; and “The Bigger Picture – Painting in Cornwall from the 1920s to the 1960s” at Penlee House in Penzance.

Art Chronicles, Lanyon & Auerbach, November 2015

Peter Lanyon

It took me a while to appreciate Peter Lanyon as much as I do now, as much as he deserves; there were other artists from the far west of Cornwall – Patrick Heron, Sandra Blow – whose work was more immediate, more immediately appealing. But with Soaring Flight, the Courtauld’s current (until 17th January, 2016) exhibition of Lanyon’s gliding paintings, I’m well and truly hooked.


This is an almost perfect show: 18 paintings and 3 constructions displayed in two rooms. Time and space to give the works their due. And space is what that have, what they glory in. Space and air and movement, cloud and sky and sea; the cliffs, the land somewhere down there, stretched out below.

Lanyon’s approach to painting, his approach to landscape changed when he began to glide, began to fly. The paint itself thinned as his vision cleared; the lines, the marks took flight. There is no escaping (why would you?) the sense of exhilaration that lives through these paintings, their sense of joy.

Peter Lanyon: 'Soaring Flight'
Peter Lanyon: ‘Soaring Flight’

Frank Auerbach

Look back through the archway from the first, smaller, room of Lanyon’s paintings at the Courtauld – look back from the most heavily textured of the works, “Solo Flight”, painted onto board instead of canvas, thicker paint, scumbled surface – and you’re looking at one of the Courtauld’s recent acquisitions, Auerbach’s “Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square”.

Peter Lanyon: "Solo Flight"
Peter Lanyon: “Solo Flight”


Frank Auerbach: "Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square"
Frank Auerbach: “Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square”

“Solo Flight”, from 1960, is one of Lanyon’s first attempts to convey the experience of gliding in paint; Auerbach’s Leicester Square painting – one of a series he made depicting London building sites, shown together previously at the Courtauld – the exhibition that brought me towards a fuller understanding and appreciation of his work – is from two years later. [Fascinating, the comparable use of thick red line marking out the paintings’ stretch and span.]

Lanyon, as I’ve suggested, moved away from the thicker texture evident here towards a clearer, more open use of paint, whereas Auerbach, of course, remained, and remains, deeply immersed in impasto, conveying his subjects with a richness that seems, at first glance, to clog the canvas and obscure them from our sight.

Which is, of course, a large part of the point. The way the paint is applied prevents you from seeing too soon all that is there: to see what is in the painting, what exists through and because of and beneath the paint, you have to give it the time it deserves; you have, simply, to stand and stare, and as you do, if you do, the elements of the work gradually reveal themselves to the eye.

Try it. Even with the small reproduction above. Go on, give it a try.

Quite unlike the smaller and more specific Lanyon show at the Courtauld, the exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s work at Tate Britain (until 13th March, 2016) is, as befits a major retrospective by a major artist, suitably vast. Six rooms, each arranged chronologically and selected by the artist himself, together with a final room with pieces  chosen by the show’s curator, Catherine Lampert.

Even with the work of an artist you’re to some extent familiar with, it’s good to have preconceived opinions disturbed. Before my first visit to this exhibition I would have said that I prefered Auerbach’s landscapes – cityscapes, really – Mornington Crescent, Primrose Hill, areas of north London with which I’m familiar – to the other major form in which he works, portraiture. But now, well, I’m not so sure. There’s a relentlessness, a power and a passion to the best of these that – as if discovering them anew, which in a way I was – made me go back to the portraits again and again.

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