Staring at art from the Tate's collection and thinking about it

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Circus Artist and Child - Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Circus Artist and Child, 1905, ink and watercolour on paper, Tate.

For all his genius (and I have absolutely no truck with the 'Picasso doesn't really matter any more' school of thought), Picasso did suffer occasional lapses into trite sentimentality, and this is an early of example of this.  Although sentimentality was a key feature of his Blue Period, from which this work arises, (note the tell-tale 'blueness') it was generally offset by an emotional rawness, with the hand-to-mouth existence of the circus performers usually depicted starkly captured.  This sketch, however, is like the bits of a classic Chaplin film enthusiasts now apologise for.  The reference to the tradition of Madonna painting is tiresomely obvious, while the pathos of the poverty-stricken figure wearing a costume tiara is forced.  The bottle is nice.  Overall, though, bad work from one of the greatest artists who ever lived.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Adding Machine - R.B. Kitaj

R.B. Kitaj, The Adding Machine, 1972, screenprint on paper, 752 x 549 mm, Tate.

The other week I was roundly defeated by a work of Kitaj's, overwhelmed by his fearsome reading habit and not feeling up to negotiating the dense wall of references he had erected.  But the cosmic law of the art-selection system I employ wouldn't let me leave it at, of course.  So here is another book-themed work by Kitaj, one of many screenprints he made of book-covers, some, but not this one, collected in a folio under the title 'In Our Time'.  It suggests a view of books as both the physical manifestation of circulating ideas, and the means by which they circulate.  'The Adding Machine', for instance, was a play from the '20s, about an accountant replaced by technology before ending up in Heaven undergoing exactly the same ordeal.  The social reality of workplace mechanisation, and the romantic ideas about the essential human soul presented in the play are both captured in the totem of the book-cover here.  In our time, people have experienced this, it says, and felt and thought this.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

aaing j gni aa - Barry Flanagan

Barry Flanagan, aaing j gni aa, 1965, fabric and plaster, 1700 x 1450 x 1450 mm, Tate.

This early work by Flanagan (later of leaping gold hares fame) can be seen as both a break and a spoof of the British Modernist sculptural tradition, in particular Henry Moore.  Whereas Moore carved and cast, exerting his mighty will on his mighty materials, Flanagan pours wet plaster into fabric bags.  He only has partial control over the form the objects will ultimately have.  Where Moore was hard, Flanagan is soft, and in the sixties, the idea of sculpture being soft was still pretty mind-blowing.  But these soft forms are also phallic, totems somehow drained of their power and rendered cuddly.  Again, the masculinity of the great carving sculptor is undermined.  The form in the bottom left of the picture, meanwhile, is practically Moore-esque with the space opening up beneath it.  The title is primitive, not in the manner of much Modernism, appropriating what was found out in the colonies for its own po-faced purpose, but nonsensically so, like the gibberish a child would say as part of a game of pretend.  Indeed, this is Modernist sculpture turned into something wilfully childish, a return to Dada.  It's a piss-take that says of old gods, 'we don't believe in you any more'.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

W - Wittgenstein and Muhammed - Joe Tilson

Joe Tilson, W - Wittgenstein and Muhammed, 1969-70, screenprint on paper, 749 x 500 mm, Tate.

More from Joe Tilson, the artist who my I Ching-powered art selection system favours above all others, no doubt for cosmic reasons, and his 'A-Z Box'.
   'W' is for Wittgenstein.  In the '60s, 56% of all art produced in Britain was influenced by the ideas of the Austrian philosopher, and was pretty much incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't thought about it all really hard for several years.  Much of this art was therefore misunderstood completely and  roped in with Pop Art.  Artists such as Paolozzi, Tilson and Kitaj were not interested in celebrating pop culture for its own sake however.  Instead they saw it as part of a larger visual vocabulary, which brings us to Wittgensten and his ideas regarding language, notably language-games (each entry in a conversation analogous to a move in a game), and how meaning of words emerge from their use.   These artists saw the modern urbanised world as one large visual conversation,in which the meaning of images arising from how they were used.  Actually, I don't know if these artists thought all that.  I'm just guessing.  But I'm definitely right.  Anyway, Wittgensteinian artists were very fond of expressing their admiration through series of screenprints, which were then purchased by the Tate, making up a significant proportion of their overall collection, before being left in a basement and ignored for years.
   Here, Wittgenstein is given the occulty-starburst effect we've seen in Tilson's work before, denoting his overpowering insight.  Around him, the haircuts of otherwise-obscured '60s people pop out.  Is each haircut a move in a language-game of hair?  Underneath is an abstract collection of dots.  On its own, it's pretty meaningless, raw visual material not doing much.  But by being included in a work of art, it inherently gains some meaning through its use, and so gets sent out in the world, a move in a bigger language-game.
   On the back of this piece, meanwhile, is a screenprinted photo of Malcolm X and accompanying Nation of Islam paper headline, black holes bringing grimly to mind the bullet-holes of his assassination.  It's powerful enough, but I'm not sure what this is doing here.  My move in this language-game is 'eh?'

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Good God Where is the King! - R.B. Kitaj

R.B. Kitaj, Good God Where is the King!, 1964, screenprint on paper, 765 x 508 mm, Tate.

Ok, you're going to need your zoom functions for this, whacked up to about 300%.
   R.B. Kitaj, whose life story is a tragic warning not to take your critics too seriously, is a hard artist to get a handle on.  The problem is, however many books you've read Kitaj has probably read more, and unless you've read the same ones as him, as referenced in his art, you will always have a sense that his work is doing something on a level you simply don't have access to.  It's not a question of whether he's good, more of the impossibility of being able to see exactly how good.  Here in this screenprint, pages from various books are collaged together.  Recent and ancient world history, with an emphasis on the military features.  Also, Al Capone's in there somewhere.  I could make an effort to decode it all.  But I don't, because I know I would never be able to do it well enough in order to do Kitaj's intentions justice.  I haven't read enough books.  I haven't read the right books.