Art Chronicles: Rachel Whiteread

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Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

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Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

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.

 

 

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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.

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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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