This weekend the city swelled a little with visitors flying in with the baggage of artistic pretensions, to browse and be seen in the two main art fairs, both of which have European roots and which land in town together this time of year, TEFAF originally based in Maastricht and Frieze from London. With the new blood, or should I say new money, the New York galleries make a little more effort to put on their better shows. The visitors to the city approach art with a hybrid of intent and seriousness, from the low level players who like birds, are attracted to shiny, bright objects to furnish their social media accounts to the high flyers who never consider the ethical outcome of acquiring a precious object and removing it from public view. Many are complicit the art industry; gallerists sell a ruthless craftsmanship, auction houses hide behind their scholarship – only just, writers inflate for their own unwritten agendas, curators network and art consultants lay their traps…I have felt the moral ambiguity when price records are broken, loud cheers left me full of doubt, with the hubris of over muscular morality. We knew better to take the boat out to the tented Frieze event as we could already see that nothing really exciting is happening contemporary art, it is enduring one of those periods of hibernation. Instead we covered several galleries in Chelsea and on Sunday strolled round TEFAF, rubbing shoulders with the rich and influential, to take in the current fashions for design, art and (the irony should not be lost on anyone) antiquities. So I woke on Saturday with a wistful longing for either something old and comforting or new and challenging, and found both within a few meters of one another.
Peter Blake is a British artist who has now adopted a senior statesman position in the art world, and like elderly statesmen everywhere, he still has the capacity to shock when occasion arises. He was born in 1932, a few months before my Mother, and it’s hardly surprising that an artist with such longevity will have his work weave in and out of fashion over the years. He first came to the wider public’s attention with a commercial hit; the cover of the Beatles Sargent Pepper album, and it is a little depressing to look at narratives on the US centric internet which all single out this one landmark moment which has more to do with his robust (although a little petty) rejection of the New York scene for most of his career.
On the surface he was known as someone deeply under the influence of Pop art because of his appropriation of commercial and media based imagery which would find their way into collages of famous people, alongside animals, circus performers, boxers some of the subjects of his devotion put together with the ideology of a super fan. However, there was something a little deeper about his interests that diverted from the American trajectory of Pop, a movement that was more focused on the present tense, which in Blake’s case was a deep nostalgia for England’s past, its ribald working classes and its Victorian romanticism.
It was a career that took a left turn when he moved from London to settle just outside of Bath in the West Country. He was part of a disparate group called the Brotherhood of Ruralists from about 1975 which had neither cohesion nor purpose and was savaged by the critics. They were interested in craft, nostalgia and unfashionably stated that they admired the Pre-Raphaelites and Cricket but not the “New York scene”. This was unfortunate as New York was at its most vital then, in a different league entirely, and about to sprint ahead over the next twenty years, the torch being passed from DeKooning to Warhol to Nauman to Rauschenberg to Judd, although not of course in any order, art history is never that neat. He has been a presence throughout my life and being a highly unreliable contrarian I loved these pseudo romantic and sentimental pieces from this time, against all common or critical sense, and still have a place in my heart for the English mysticism they possess.
There was also the influence of Cornell I think on these early pieces, obsessiveness mixed with regretful nostalgia. A love for the underbelly of society, so when he chose to make a highly competent watercolor of a young women, she would be covered with tattoo’s, in those days still the mark of an outsider, or a lovely painting of Ian Dury the disabled and iconic musician and his love of the rough physicality of boxing and wrestling. The exhibition in the Garth Greenan gallery was not just the replication of his studio but also a mini retrospective in a way, reintroducing New Yorkers to all periods in his career. What struck me most was how visible his conflicts were as an artist, he is clearly someone who can and loves to paint a portrait and at the same time realizes that this is not enough and so, for example, he might introduce a toy or figurine to be placed on the top to the painting, creating a kitsch tension, the slightest of jeatures elevating the piece from being a little commonplace to something edgy and contemporary, dividing or challenging his audience.
We bumped into him once outside Mr Chow, me overburdened and complaining about the heavy grocery bags, Mary with her mind on the ingredients of the meal she was about to cook, we had a pleasant chat and he was courteous and a little happy I think that he had been recognized on 57 street by a pair of enthusiast’s. Even then he had the aura of an Edwardian, not just the grey goatee beard, but his buttoned up outfit belonged to a different time and place.
And then from someone whose work I knew well to one I only knew from the prestigious buzz around her sculpture on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Polish artist Alicja Kwade. I confess she came to my attention a matter of weeks ago when my internet feed began to show images of the roof of the Met with a black steel cage and what looked like marble spheres precariously placed in various positions within that framing device. When I asked someone about the artist she told me that everyone knows the work and who she is, she’s famous.
With this reprimand in mind we visited the 303 gallery in Chelsea where there were three sculptural pieces that examined the plasticity and malleability of natural materials, presenting what appeared to be finely tuned stones and wood, but seen here as elastic objects. There were also works on paper that project the feeling of rain in various stages of heaviness but on closer inspection turn out to be watch hands and charred wood and didn’t seem quite so remarkable. The main gallery had a sculpture similar to the one on the roof of the Met but without the severe, perfect orbits; they appeared to be withering. There was also a sculpture based around mirrors, using the reflections to perceive differing views of the objects within. I confess to being less than blown away by this work and had to turn to the final resort; the internet to find out what they are all about and why I should like them. I have the perspective that the more complex the explanation of an artwork the less interesting it is, and any time we need to read a book about it, it has failed to some degree. To give just a flavor of the supporting text for the two shows currently up in the city, In 303 “(she) investigates and questions the structure of our relaty and society and reflects on the perception of time in our everyday life, her diverse practice is based around the concepts of space, time, science and philosophy” (that’s all?). And more hyperbole from the Met, “Sculptures that reflect on time, perception and scientific inquiry with equal parts poetry and critical acumen, she calls into question the systems designed to banish doubt from the world and make sense of an otherwise unfathomable universe”. How these claims can be placed on these rather cold and uninspiring objects is left to the conscience of the art world cartel of restless intellect, hope and money. However listening to her talk on line and reading some interviews I warm to her more. I understand fully the sense of frustration about our absolute lack of knowledge regarding the fundamental questions of life, the ones you ask as a child and presumably with more urgency on your deathbed. I too relate when she says it’s absurd to be spinning on a planet in the middle, or at the edges of the cosmos. But it is hard to tie in these concerns with the end product – the work on the Met’s roof for example is intended to represent the planets in our solar system and the orbs are made from marble taken from different locations on earth, how are we to know that, and why would we care looking at such an indifferent object? In my case they don’t advance any new questions or provide any convincing answers.
What did excite me in the 303 space was a trunk of a tree which was cut vertically in two, within each interior section was the machined outline of a bar stool on one side and a coat stand on the other, both half objects from the turn of the century in the Viennese bentwood style. This did raise questions. I was at a loss on how these were made, laboriously by hand or by a modern computer aided milling technique removing any residual human skill? My impulse was to ask the gallery assistant or read more about it until suddenly I didn’t want to know, and closed my ears when I heard others discussing it in the manner of someone not wanting to hear the ending of a movie, sometimes the sense of magic in art needs to be preserved.