Monthly Archives: July 2016

Top art exhibitions


Edinburgh’s summer has been packed with new art but there may not be anything else quite as poignant, strange and memorable as this exhibition of ancient wonders. The Celtic world is revealed here as a place of mysterious gods and even more mysterious art. Flowing intricate patterns, the green of bronze and the misty mountain hops of the prehistoric past create a woozy, dreamlike mood, opening windows on ancient Scotland and Europe that you won’t forget.

2 Stubbs And The Wild

Nature stares back at you searchingly from the paintings and drawings of George Stubbs. This great 18th-century artist set out to understand the natural world from the inside out – by dissecting a horse. His original drawings of the animal feature in this fine show, along with his sublime painting Horse Frightened By A Lion and portraits of a monkey, a moose and a variety of big cats. Meticulous, accurate, and yet the spirit of his art is utterly romantic.

3 Switch House

The relaunch of the Tate Modern is the art event of the summer. The museum’s new wing – the Switch House – expresses the dynamic energy of modern art history, from a dark expressionist basement to its Futuristic pyramidal heights. It also contains a fair amount of art, with Rachel Whiteread’s green resin cast of a wooden floor playing off Carl Andre’s bricks and Eva Hesse turning minimalist seriality into a hymn to breastfeeding. There’s loads to argue over and a very nice bar to have that argument in.

4 The Hive

This walk-in sculpture doesn’t so much imitate a beehive as show how the architecture of nature can inspire human design. Its repeating honeycomb-like construction creates a lofty hi-tech environment in which to contemplate the world of bees. The creation of artist Wolfgang Buttress, it boasts an LED light show triggered by real-life insect activity. Bee there or bee square.

5 Georgiana Houghton

Last chance to enter the wild and wonderful world of the Victorian woman who made art that she attributed to the dead. Houghton was a spiritualist medium who claimed her swirling drawings were the work of Titian and other artists guiding her passive hand. If so, their ghosts could see the future of modern art, for Houghton was an abstract artist decades before abstraction is usually said to have started. What a discovery.

Best of Abstract expressionism

When abstract expressionism first crossed the Atlantic in 1959, in The New American Painting, an exhibition that stopped in cities including Berlin, Paris and London (where it hung at the Tate Gallery), it blew the socks off European artists. Painters of the Ecole de Paris, the centre of the avant garde, were still using easels, skirting around the edges of the condition humaine with a modest form of existentialism, or otherwise just copying Picasso. The new American painting, by contrast, meant vast canvases by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and others, with a gripping energy and directness, and an emotional impact that, in Rothko’s case, reduced some viewers to tears (“they are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them,” Rothko explained). Travelling alongside the group show was a retrospective of (more) paintings by Pollock, the greatest of them all, who had died in a car crash three years previously. The deal was sealed – Paris was over. As the exhibition toured its European art capitals, painters must have slunk home from the exhibition in shock and despair, electrified by what they had seen and wondering how on earth it could be rivalled.

The Abstract Expressionism exhibition opening at the Royal Academy this month will be the first survey in Europe of the movement since 1959. Not so surprising, perhaps: such large and expensive (at least to insure) paintings are very difficult to gather together. There is also the amorphous nature of the movement, with no real stylistic relationship between the main figures – the link more a matter of physical size and scale of ambition. And then there was the new art of the 60s – pop art, happenings and the rest – which seemed to make the act of painting itself if not obsolete, then at least old-fashioned. And in a sense it was. For all the surprise it caused over the Atlantic, abstract expressionism was not the start of something, but rather a beautiful ending, the epic finale of a long tradition of Romantic nature painting, gone up in the fireworks of Newman’s zips, Pollock’s drips and the smoky miasma of Rothko’s colour fields.

For David Anfam, who has curated the show alongside the RA’s in-house curator Edith Devaney, “ab ex” (as he terms it), was not so much a movement (there were no manifestos, no subscription fees) as a phenomenon. It’s one that cannot now be confined to a few lone macho heroes with brushes. For a start, it was not just about painting. The sculptor David Smith saw himself in constant dialogue with painters. His wiry constellation Star Cage of 1950 transforms Pollock’s skeins and arcs of paint into a planetary diagram. Later structures made of bold steel elements painted black are like answers to Franz Kline’s paintings, constructions of heavy black marks, like girders silhouetted in a heat haze. His final stainless steel sculptures, such as Cubi XXVII (1965), standing in the RA courtyard, have shimmering roughly polished surfaces that might be a reflection of a neighbouring Pollock. Louise Nevelson’s sculptures transform the dark, serious surfaces of Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb into monochrome assemblages of discarded objects, stacked as if to create a shrine.

Nevelson is one of a number of women who played an important, if generally unacknowledged role in abstract expressionism. Georgia O’Keeffe, although not part of the RA show (but much in evidence at Tate Modern), pioneered a form of abstraction built on highly symbolic visions of the body and landscape. She is a clear forerunner of the symbolic landscapes of Still. Much less known, the paintings of the Ukrainian-born artist Janet Sobel were in part the inspiration for Pollock’s leap into total abstraction, after her work was shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1944. The dense abstract interlace of her painting Illusion of Solidity, painted the next year, (on show at the RA) looks like Celtic knot-work ornament gone wild. Sobel was barely acknowledged by Clement Greenberg, the critic who promoted the abstract expressionist artists, and she died in obscurity in 1968. The impact of Pollock’s work was felt most keenly in that of his wife, Lee Krasner, who a few years after his death produced a series of paintings that wrestle with his memory and legacy, including the remarkable monochrome composition The Eye Is the First Circle, 1960. In the following years Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell produced the most powerful responses to classic abstract expressionism. Mitchell’s Salut Tom, painted in 1979, is the most recent painting in the exhibition, and shows just how much the abstract expressionist spirit had both endured and transformed. As Anfam observes, Krasner and Mitchell got better with age partly for the simple reason that they met with less resistance from their male colleagues and critics, notably Greenberg.