My peasant grandparents inherited morgens of agricultural land from their parents, but this zemlya was later expropriated from them. ‘I can’t give you anything,’ my mother recalls her father telling her, ‘so you must study and provide for yourself.’ After the Second World War the cities of Ukraine lay in ruins. Everything that might have been passed down from one generation to the next – houses, furniture, china, paintings, photographs – had been lost in the terrible destruction. But my generation inherited something, or at least we were supposed to: an old Soviet apartment, a small dacha plot, a collection of books, a set of dusty cut-glass tableware.
Suspicions of invasion come in many guises, but the first sighting of four French vessels off Lundy Island, clearly signalling their intentions by the names of the two frigates, La Vengeance and La Resistance, presaged serious alarm. The last hostile invasion of mainland Britain took place in south-west Wales on 22 February 1797. For the bicentenary, the Fishguard Arts Society made a tapestry on the model of the one in Bayeux.
Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules consists of pages and tales from the comic’s eight decades, loosely organised into themes, along with work by some forty non-Beano artists that amplifies its characters, motifs and slapstick. Horace Panter (formerly the bass player in the Specials) has Dennis the Menace and Gnasher diving into David Hockney’s swimming pool.
Virgil Abloh, the artist and fashion designer, died on 28 November of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He was 41. The news was unexpected, as Abloh had chosen to keep his diagnosis private. An exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019 was called Figures of Speech. One of his best jokes was to put the words ‘FOR WALKING’ in bold, all-caps lettering on a pair of women’s cowboy boots.
Coastal towns in south-east England tend to be portrayed both as bolt-holes for metropolitan creatives priced out of London, and as repositories of a ‘left-behind’ Englishness.
Visit Flatford Mill today and the scene appears largely unchanged; an English rural idyll. But the area around is carefully managed, not just for the benefit of wildlife and farming, but specifically to maintain the appearance of Constable’s paintings. These aims are not necessarily incompatible, but there is an acknowledged desire to maintain a look that can be marketed as ‘Constable Country’. The landscape is to some extent a simulacrum; a present sculpted around a romanticised vision of the past. And it isn’t possible to recreate the scene of The Hay Wain exactly as it was two hundred years ago. The challenges of doing so offer a glimpse into a future we are already being forced to come to terms with.
Walk south from St Paul’s Cathedral, itself gloriously lit but merely corroborating what we already know and admire of it, over the Millennium Bridge and east along the south bank of the Thames to see the revelatory sequence of Southwark, Cannon Street and London Bridges. Formerly either blanked out by nightfall or dully picked up in a single wash of yellow or blue, they now unpeel in front of your eyes along the riverbank, linked by their calibrated tones and shifting timing, subtle painterly effects achieved by LEDs and computer programming.
As soon as the auction was announced, scholars protested at the sale of potentially looted antiquities to support an organisation that wants to bring classics to the masses (which is a bit like trying to support a charity that helps protect people from human trafficking by auctioning off the services of an undocumented worker to clean your house without pay). Admirably, Classics for All soon responded by withdrawing from the auction.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted a series of photographs with the caption: ‘Kayleigh McEnany presenting Lesley Stahl with some of the many things we’ve done for Healthcare.’ The pictures showed his press secretary handing some papers and a hefty volume to the 60 Minutes reporter, just before an interview which the president cut short acrimoniously. As many Twitter users were quick to point out, one of the images showed Stahl opening the book and peering inside at an apparently blank page. Had the book been mocked up for the purposes of the interview, embodying not only the lack of an actual health policy, but also the fakery and pretence at the heart of the administration? Others responded that the absence of text proved nothing, since it could have been a flyleaf or title page: ‘Haven’t you ever read a book?’
As a student at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia in the 1950s, Christo was confined to the canons of socialist realism and classical studies of form. There wasn’t a way to say or show anything beyond what had to be said and shown. In the summer, art students were sent away to the countryside on ‘beautifying missions’ along the route of the Orient Express, arranging machinery and bales of hay, doing large-scale industrial-themed drawings on the facades of factories, and erecting neat fences, so tourists could look out onto curated scenes of socialist life. This artifice was his first brush with environmental art and Nouveau réalisme.
The strangest parcel I’ve received in the post recently is a plain black box about the size of a paperback. It doesn’t contain a book, though, or at least not at first sight. Instead there is another, smaller box labelled ‘Milton’, which opens to reveal a row of delicate, inch-tall glass vessels, each with around ten white pills in it.
For twenty years, Alejandro Cesarco has been making fake book indexes: alphabetical lists that look authentic enough, down to their page numbers and layout, but are actually free-floating artefacts. For the first time, the whole series of seven indexes is on show, at the Witte de With gallery in Rotterdam (until 5 January). Each refers to a different ‘imaginary book’. They are not endmatter but ends in themselves.
The entrance to the White Hotel, decorated with barbed wire, Union Jack bunting and toilet paper, resembled a border checkpoint. To get in you had to fill in a landing card. The guards were dressed in coveralls, anti-pollution masks and flak jackets with Sooty and Sweep puppets peeking out. We were separated into two quarantine pens. (‘It’s just as well,’ one man said as his companion was led away.) After about an hour the pens were opened and we were ushered into another waiting area. At last a whistle blew. A Morrissey lookalike appeared and sang ‘Everyday is like Sunday’.
I can’t explain why, in the face of all the seductive images and lyrical descriptions of the new Tintagel footbridge, I’ve become fixated on a small incision slashed through the surface of the walkway in the middle of the bridge. I know it’s technically the meeting point between the two cantilevered segments, a 40 mm expansion joint in an impeccably engineered structure. But it struck me forcibly that the seemingly reassuring surface connecting clifftop to clifftop, strung in tension over the dizzying void below, had been cut. It gave me a nervous charge. Was this an actual moment of the sublime?
‘Why had we come to the moon?’ the narrator of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) asks. ‘The thing presented itself to me as a perplexing problem.’ The novel features in The Moon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, alongside other books that anticipated the space age: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, written in the second century AD. It begins with a ship blown to the moon by a whirlwind; a war between Phaethon and Endymion ensues, enabled by giant spiders. Aubrey Beardsley was one of the illustrators of an 1894 English edition.
I first met Leon Kossoff at Willesden Junction, down by the railway tracks, in 1995. I was there to take his photograph for the catalogue of his show at the British pavilion in Venice that summer. The following year I took his portrait for his retrospective at the Tate. I photographed him for the last time in 2013, for the catalogue of his show at the Annely Juda gallery. The idea was to meet at Arnold Circus, where Leon had grown up, and take pictures there. Afterwards we had coffee in a café on Calvert Avenue, the street where Leon’s father had run his bakery. I sent the pictures to Leon and he didn’t very much like them.
The Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842, was compiled by Dickens’s friend Richard Henry Horne. The result of a three-year investigation, it was unprecedented, not merely for the level of shocking detail and first-hand evidence, but because it was illustrated. And most of the 26 images were by Gillies.
David Oluwale drowned in the river Aire on 18 April 1969. His body was recovered near Knostrop Sewage works on 4 May, and buried in a paupers’ grave at Killingbeck cemetery with nine others.
In December, Okwui Enwezor wrote to me from Munich. He had leukemia. ‘What I miss most,’ he said, ‘is the noise of life humming out there. It’s much too quiet here.’ He died last Friday, aged 55. Since then it’s felt very quiet, both for those who knew him personally, and for the many people who admired his work as a curator and writer. Okwui had a deep, booming voice, and a purposeful one. When he spoke, you listened. It’s hard to imagine not hearing it.
In the early 1970s, Sargy Mann was diagnosed with cataracts. He continued to paint, but he had to look much harder than most people. Eventually he went completely blind, but kept on painting.
Working with porcelain, the artist Rachel Kneebone makes whiteness reverberate to the depths. Shining, delicate and visceral, transcendent and perturbing, her work looks back to origins and forward to ends.
Last week Christie’s sold at auction a portrait ‘created by an artificial intelligence’ for $432,500. The canvas from the art collective Obvious was described as a portrait of the fictional ‘Edmond Belamy’, and signed with an equation: It expresses the concept underlying the class of machine-learning algorithms known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), which were used to produce the portrait.
Last Thursday night there was a 21st-anniversary re-enactment of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Shortly after 6.30 p.m., a crowd – the Daily Mail estimated 160 – gathered under a bridge in Salford, some carrying flowers, most dressed in black. A Daily Star article the week before, and another that afternoon – ‘Fury as “sickos” prepare to “EXORCISE” Princess Diana in “funeral 2.0” TONIGHT’ – may have helped publicise the event. The editor of Royal Central (‘the latest news on the royals of Europe’) was said by the Star to have ‘raged’ that ‘the production will also be casting people to play living people, including Diana’s brother Earl Spencer … No doubt when William, Harry and Diana’s closest family find out about this production, they will be disgusted.’
The Swiss artist Massimo Furlan performed his Re-Enactment of the 1974 East Germany-West Germany Match in Munich’s Olympiastadion on 30 April. There were only two players on the pitch: Furlan took the role of the West German keeper, Sepp Maier; Jürgen Sparwasser, who scored the winning goal for East Germany, was played by the actor Franz Beil. Everyone else – the other players, the referee, the linesmen – along with the ball, would be imagined. The original match commentary of both state radio broadcasters was streamed on FM frequencies inside the Olympiastadion. Small radios were distributed to the crowd, which was also reduced: in the 70,000-seat stadium, we occupied only the midfield loge, once reserved for dignitaries.
Outside his Moscow house and studio, the president of the Russian Academy of Arts, Zurab Tsereteli, has a bronze statue he made of Vladimir Putin in judo robes with a tiger at his feet. Inside the house, which used to be the German Embassy, there are photographs of Tsereteli and Putin in front of To the Struggle against World Terrorism, the monument he gave to New Jersey to commemorate 9/11, and of Putin pinning one of many presidential orders on his lapel.
On a cold Sunday afternoon earlier this month, 800 people gathered at Hull Minster for a memorial service to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘triple trawler tragedy’. In three weeks in January and February 1968, the trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in freezing North Atlantic waters. Fifty-eight men from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community died.
Behind the handsome 18th-century façade of The Hague’s Museum Meermanno, ‘the House of the Book’, pages are turning. Everywhere you look they are turning over, but also turning into other things: screens, data, moving image, sound, even skin. The Art of Reading: From William Kentridge to Wikipedia is not so much an exhibition of contemporary book artists as an attempt to use their work to ask what reading is. The question has increasingly exercised theorists and scholars as the printed book loses its dominance, but here the overfamiliar act is scrutinised through the lens of art.
A perfect farm animal, according to the 18th-century agronomist Robert Bakewell, would be shaped like a hogshead cask, ‘truly circular, with as small and as short legs as possible’. Bakewell’s ideal was founded ‘upon the plain principle that the value lies in the barrel’. There was no need for long limbs or lean necks: ‘all is useless that is not beef.’ This applied not only to cattle, but to pigs and sheep too, which after 1750 came to be reared as ‘production line animals’.
‘Can I just point out,’ Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote in a widely shared tweet during the Conservative Party Conference, ‘that Theresa May is wearing a bracelet of Frida Kahlo, a member of the Communist party who LITERALLY DATED TROTSKY.’ The Telegraph, though not without making a joke of it, pointed out some of the similarities between the prime minister and the late Mexican artist: their feminism, for example, and their fortitude. Any reference to communism must surely have been a ‘pointed message’ to Jeremy Corbyn, whom the paper styled as an apologist for Trotsky.
In the summer of 1932, Kenneth and Jane Clark visited Duncan Grant’s studio. They found it filled with dusty pottery, ‘unappetising’ faded flowers and ‘brown and purple canvases’ which made Clark’s heart sink. But his despair was stalled by the discovery of some ‘brilliant pastels … where the medium had saved [Grant] from the virtuous application of Bloomsbury mud’, and the ‘beautiful drawings and oil sketches’ which his wife found languishing under Grant’s bed. ‘In an attempt to revive his interest in decorative art,’ he writes in his autobiography, ‘we asked him and Vanessa to paint us a dinner service.’ Two years later, Bell and Grant presented Clark with 140 pieces, including 50 Wedgwood plates illustrated with portraits of famous women from history – 12 writers, 12 queens, 12 beauties and 12 dancers or actresses, and one of each of the artists, painted by the other. ‘It ought to please the feminists,’ Bell wrote, offhandedly, to Roger Fry.
The Documenta festival, a contemporary art exhibition that usually takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, is currently in Athens. Its presence there isn’t uncontroversial. The role of the art market in gentrification, the festival’s preference for established or dead artists, the spectacle of a wealthy German institution descending on a city that has been at the centre of economic and refugee crises in recent years – all this has drawn criticism. The curators have made some effort to engage with the political context, but not everything has gone to plan: a collaboration between the artist Roger Bernat and an LGBT refugee group foundered when the participants stole the exhibit in protest at what they saw as exploitation.
Leonora Carrington would have turned 100 today. I met her in Mexico City in the early 1990s, through our family doctor, and we embarked on a friendship of nearly twenty years. Most Sunday afternoons, my parents, my sister and I would visit her at home in the Colonia Roma, arriving at five and staying until after dusk. I often wrote down my impressions, and her words verbatim, as soon as I got home.
The first time I saw one of Kaya Mar’s paintings was at the March for Europe a week after the Brexit vote. I took a picture of him, as did many of the people he walked past: a small man with a neat moustache carrying a peculiar painting, apparently original, of a cart being pulled by a blindfolded donkey towards the edge of the white cliffs of Dover, driven by caricatures of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, with tiny naked bodies and beatific faces.
In 1989, John Ahearn, a white artist living in the South Bronx, cast a group of local black and Latino people for a series of bronze sculptures commissioned by the city for an intersection outside a police station. As his models, he chose a drug addict, a hustler and a street kid. Ahearn thought that he was paying them homage, restoring the humanity of people who were often vilified in American society. His models found the work flattering, but some members of the community felt that he ought to have depicted more 'positive' representatives, while others were insulted that a white artist had been given such a commission in the first place, since only a genuine local – a black or Latino artist – had the right to represent the community. Ahearn eventually removed the sculptures. 'The issues were too hot for dialogue,' he reflected later. 'The critics said that people in the community have a right to positive images that their children can look up to. I agree that the installation did not serve that purpose.'
In the middle of Room 23 (‘Empire and Expansion’) of the National Portrait Gallery, between the explorers and officers on one side and Florence Nightingale receiving the Crimean wounded on the other, is a selection of cartes de visites and group photographs of visitors to the Houses of Parliament. The calling cards include those of the Parsee intellectual Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian to become an MP (for Central Finsbury in 1892), and ‘Mr Stanley, in the dress he wore when he met Livingstone in Africa’.
‘I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,’ Donald Judd wrote in 1974. ‘Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job.’ Caitlin Murray quotes this in her introduction to a new collection of the artist's writing. Like everything I’ve read by Judd, it's matter of fact, utilitarian – plain in ways that conceal the effort that might have gone into the actual work.
In 1928, a foot-high papier-mâché Felix the Cat was the first image to be broadcast on TV, spinning round on a turntable in the NBC studios in New York to test the new technology.
Hieronymus Bosch painted clog ships, fish soldiers, armoured creatures with insect wings and scales gobbling human limbs. In the recesses of his paintings you might find a spoonbill, wearing a hooded cape, sitting down to a supper of bird-claw at a table set with white linen and pewterware. His picture of Saint Wilgefortis – usually in the Accademia in Venice, but currently on display at an exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the town where he lived and worked – is perhaps one of his least strange paintings. It shows a bearded woman being crucified.
In Munich, Steven Spielberg’s fictionalised account of Israel’s response to the massacre of 11 of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, Makram Khoury plays the writer and PLO spokesman Wael Zuaiter. Unaware he’s the first of the 11 Palestinians targeted for assassination by Mossad, he gives a talk on his Italian translation of the Thousand and One Nights at a café in Rome, does some shopping, and is gunned down in the hall of his apartment block. At the end of the movie, the chief assassin exiles himself to Brooklyn, wondering if he has merely inspired more violence. He is told that he is a small part of a bigger story: Mossad had other teams on the job. The newly completed World Trade Center is visible in the final shot of the New York skyline.
Saturday Night Fever was based on a story for New York Magazine by the British rock critic Nik Cohn. ‘The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ was ‘true’, Cohn said. ‘While Manhattan remains firmly rooted in the sixties, still caught up in faction and fad and the dreary games of decadence,’ he wrote, ‘a whole new generation has been growing up around it, virtually unrecognised. Kids of sixteen to twenty, full of energy, urgency, hunger. All the things, in fact, that the Manhattan circuit, in its smugness, has lost.’ Years later, Cohn revealed that his story was based on people he'd known in Shepherds Bush.
An elaborate veneered late 19th-century commode is smothered in fecund art nouveau vegetation: according to the inscription on the top, Prunus armeniaca. This is botanical illustration in fine inlay but also a subtle vehicle for political commentary: 100,000 Armenians were massacred by Ottoman forces between 1894 and 1896.
There's an exhibition of Christopher Logue's poster poems at Rob Tufnell, 83 Page Street, London SW1, until 7 November.
There’s a new website of Peter Campbell’s work. You can see some of his more-than-400 LRB cover pictures there, along with many other illustrations, paintings and designs. The thematic galleries include ‘On Wheels’ (cars, trains, trams, vans and prams, although he never learned to drive) and ‘On the Menu’, flowers and birds, sketches of the smart set and more everyday characters: waiters, gardeners, barmaids and nurses at work and in their off-moments. The archive will continue to grow.
There was general upset earlier this year when TFL revealed that the redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road station would lead to the removal of portions of Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics. The 20th-Century Society called – again – for a register of public art and bemoaned English Heritage’s failure to list them (as they had the water fountains at the station, also removed). Most of the murals, TFL says 95 per cent, remain in situ and are being restored, but the arches at the top of the escalators, which made going underground look like descending into Ali Baba’s futurist cave, are gone.
‘There are few things more difficult than to appraise the work of a man suddenly dead in his youth,’ Ezra Pound wrote in his book about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the sculptor killed in the trenches at 23 whose work Pound had tirelessly helped to promote. Gaudier was mercurial, and many found him difficult to fathom: one friend wrote that he was ‘more like a dagger in the midst of us’; another that ‘it would need but little to set him murdering instead of hugging me.’ He found a protector in Pound, who described him on first meeting as a ‘soft-moving bright-eyed wild thing’.
Manet’s oil sketch for A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was auctioned last Wednesday night at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art summer sale. The large Salon painting has been at the Courtauld since 1934, but the privately owned sketch was last on sale 21 years ago, when it went for £4 million. This year, its value was estimated at between £15 and 20 million. It was sold in a few seconds for £15 million, plus £1.9 million in fees. (The overall total for the night was £178,590,000, twice as much as last summer’s sale.) Auctions have been described as ‘tournaments of value’ but there was no jousting; the sale was settled between the seller, the buyer and Sotheby’s before the bidding began, and the auctioneer brought down the hammer after just one bid.
Many of the rooms at the National Gallery were closed last week. More than 200 staff were on their second five-day strike over plans to outsource security and visitor services. In the rooms that were open, the remaining attendants were hovering awkwardly near their chairs. CIS, the private contractor brought in to staff the recent Rembrandt exhibition, bans its employees from sitting down. I asked one of them how he felt about the arrangement. ‘I honestly don’t know why they’ve put chairs here,' he said. 'But I like walking around, it means I can speak to people. If I was sat down nobody would speak to me.’
In André Maurois's 1930 children's novel Patapoufs et Filifers (translated by Rosemary Benét as Fattypuffs and Thinifers in 1940), Terry and Edmund are the children of Mr and Mrs Double. Terry, like his father, is thin; Edmund, like his mother, isn't. One day, the inseparable brothers descend into an underworld where you're either a Fattypuff or a Thinifer. The brothers are therefore divided, one packed off to Thiniville, the other to Fattyborough.
‘Art is never finished, only altered,’ @therealbanksy tweeted to 130,000 followers last October. Tom Wainwright’s comedy Banksy: The Room in the Elephant opened at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston last week. Wainwright wrote the play in response to the story of Tachowa Covington, who lost his home in a disused water tank in LA after Banksy sprayed ‘This looks a bit like an elephant’ on it two years ago.
There are champagne and pizza in the courtyard at Frieze but no ashtrays, so attendants with brooms circulate two paces behind the smokers, collecting the debris. Inside, the bins are concealed in the walls to save visitors the embarrassment of admiring, or trying to buy, non-art that could easily be confused with the art-art. Safe in its playground, the art-art makes the most of this: it's all over the floor. Dog bowls with a little water beneath one picture, three pears near a wall, oversized wine glasses, a pile of vegetables.
What is most striking about the retrospective of Edwin Smith’s photographs at the Royal Institute of British Architects (until 6 December) is his ability to capture the human relationship to buildings. A woman's silhouette in a shadowy side street is dwarfed by York Minster; a man in a suit casts a short shadow before the long shadows of the palatial façade of the Royal Exchange; a cat lingers uncertainly in the gateway to Ampton Hall.
Peace Breaks Out! at Sir John Soane’s Museum focuses on the celebratory mood in London and Paris in the summer of 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication. Around Britain, Peace Fêtes were organised in cities, towns and villages. Everyone was celebrating, and some were travelling. Parisians watched the British return in droves, after a 12 year absence, caricaturing them as portly gluttons or drab country cousins. Soane was one of the first to rush over to Paris, where he had last been as a student in the late 1770s. (His wife, Eliza, meanwhile went to Dieppe.) He returned with illustrations of a new generation of Parisian buildings to use in his lectures. He was also avidly collecting ephemera and artefacts of the moment, and his possessions, amplified by the collection of one of the exhibition's curators, Alexander Rich, make up a remarkable cabinet of curiosities, a window onto those euphoric summer weeks.
Rembrandt: The Late Works will open at the National Gallery on 15 October. It has been described as the first major show focused on the artist’s later years. The curators say it will 'illuminate his versatile mastery by dividing paintings, drawings and prints thematically in order to examine the ideas that preoccupied him'. The gallery’s workforce meanwhile are preoccupied by plans to outsource security and visitor services to a private company.
'For me, drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out,' Bridget Riley wrote in the LRB in 2009. 'The first thing that I discover is that I do not know.' The Stripe Paintings at the David Zwirner Gallery (until 25 July) shows us how much we don’t know either; how fickle our perception can be.
‘Collectors,’ the collector George Costakis observed, ‘are like madmen.’ Costakis was the son of Greek emigrants who settled in Moscow at the turn of the 20th century and grew wealthy on tobacco. He made himself indispensable — as chauffeur and general factotum — to various embassies, who paid their staff in hard currency rather than worthless roubles. At first his madness took familiar forms: opulent carpets, Russian silver, Old Masters by the dozen. But the outbreak of war disrupted his livelihood, and the bibelots were sold off. It was just as well: tired of still lifes (which, he found, all ‘faded to a grey-brown blur’) and piqued by a chance encounter with a different sort of painting, a carcass of riotous colour and disjointed form, Costakis changed tack. He devoted the rest of his life to unearthing masterworks of the Russian avant-garde.
At Southwold harbour the other weekend the fishermen were doing a busy trade, selling lobsters to visitors who had come for the sunshine and the sea, though the sea was still cold and grey, turning murky brown as the tide swelled with silt and pebbles. The crag that makes up much of the Suffolk coast is the softest and youngest rock in the UK, and especially vulnerable to erosion. Southwold is very nearly an island, cut off by the River Blyth to the south-west and Buss Creek to the north. Since the Environment Agency announced plans to stop maintaining the estuary in 2007, local groups have been repairing breaches, preserving the freshwater marshes and maintaining the 400-year-old clay walls along the Blyth (known as ‘slubbing the banks’).
After graduation I’d planned to be a documentary film researcher but instead found myself working, miserably and often late into the evening, as a ticket seller and chair stacker at the Art Film Cinema, a proto pop-up in a basement hall just off Leicester Square. It fell to me to fend off the dirty mac brigade, who had a different idea of what ‘art films’ were: certainly not a succession of worthy shorts, mostly Arts Council funded, on art and artists; and not the main attraction, either – a big screen presentation of Kenneth Clark’s epic TV series Civilisation.
Nearly a half century ago, the New York Art Quartet had its debut at the Cellar Café on the Upper West Side. The occasion was the October Revolution, a four-day music festival curated by Bill Dixon, the visionary trumpeter, founder of the Jazz Composers Guild, and director of jazz programmes at the United Nations. The New York Art Quartet – the subject of Alan Roth's absorbing new documentary, The Breath Courses through Us – represented the next wave in avant-garde jazz after Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. One of the first leaderless, simultaneously improvising ensembles, it embodied what John Litweiler has called the 'freedom principle'. Yet it showed that freedom did not have to mean the propulsive 'fire music' that Coltrane's followers were playing, or the screaming, protopunk cacophony for which the label ESP became legendary. The New York Art Quartet's music was lyrical and somewhat elusive, open-ended in an orderly way, full of subtle effects that people didn't tend to associate with free jazz.
Why isn't there just zilch? It would have saved everyone a lot of bother, and you wonder why it never occurred to the Almighty. Creative artists, whose calling is to negate nothing by making something, can prove strangely drawn to inexistence – their own, if not the world’s in general. W.H. Auden found T.S. Eliot playing patience once, and asked him why he liked the game. Eliot said: 'Well, I suppose it's the nearest thing to being dead.' Painting seems to have done much the same for Francisco de Zurbarán, the subject of a major exhibition at the Bozar centre in Brussels until 25 May.
New Yorkers have been mobbing the Charles Marville exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 4 May). ‘Paris has gotten so expensive,’ I overheard one woman saying to her friend. ‘I used to stay at the Meurice all the time but now it’s $1500 a night!’ Marville was hired as Paris's official photographer in the 1860s to preserve traces of the old city, but also to capture Haussmannisation in action, the demolition and rebuilding necessitated by the new streets, regularised building façades and such monuments as Garnier’s new opera house. Still, to judge from the response of the crowds at the Met, it's the vanished cobblestones and shadowy courtyards, not the rubble and scaffolding, that are the stars of the show.
One of the more benign consequences of perpetual rainfall, if you’re not living in a floodplain or on a disintegrating riverbank, is moss. When the rain stops, take a look at the vivid green material blanketing flagstones and roof-tiles, laying down velvety pads underfoot which make it feel as if you’re wearing cushioned trainers. The plant can’t get too much moisture: moss doesn’t have roots, but takes in water through its leaves.
In a small dark room at the Wellcome Collection, a stranger told me that the necklace we were both looking at through plastic magnifying glasses was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. The necklace was made by Katie Paterson as artist in residence at the Sanger Institute. It is 170 fossils, hand-cut into spheres and arranged in order of age, suspended at eye-height on medical-looking string. The oldest fossil, of archean butterstone stromatolite from present-day South Africa, hangs next to the youngest fossil, from a Cypriot hippo, phanourios minor. The stromatolite is formed of some of the first simple organisms; people were writing in Mesopotamia when the Cyprot hippo was fossilised. Between these points lived woolly rhinos, carcharocles megalodon sharks, dolphins and deer, squid, bison, lobster, mammoths, ink fish, iguanodons, coral, sponge, protozoa, cinnamon trees, winged ants and sea turtle eggs.
There are great tracts of space in Félix Vallotton’s paintings; they are not quite flat, but are built up from tiny feathered strokes in shades of the same colour: arsenic green walls and sofas like medicine phials in a chemist’s window.
There is nothing obviously odd about the generic military-man-on-a-horse partly visible through the nearly leafless trees in Cavendish Square. He is William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65), and the plinth would lead you to believe his statue has been there since 1770. It hasn’t.
I wonder if the Bank of England knew what they were letting themselves in for when they agreed to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. Janeites have been arguing over the authenticity of portraits for decades. The most settled on is the watercolour sketch held by the National Portrait Gallery and attributed to Austen’s sister, Cassandra. It was offered to James Edward Austen-Leigh (their nephew) by one of their great-nieces for inclusion in his 1869 Memoir.
If you are going to the Frieze Art Fair, and you are not one of its guests or workers, you have just paid a hefty fee to visit a mall. Why? For the privilege of seeing, but probably not buying, the wilfully eccentric conversation pieces with which millionaires and billionaires decorate their rooms; perhaps for a chance to see the rich themselves, not so much the 1 per cent, as Andrea Fraser has pointed out, but the 0.1 per cent, though most of them will have fled following the collectors’ events or be confined to ‘VIP’ areas; or to glimpse other celebrities — the artists, buyers, curators and even dealers who feature in the gossip and lifestyle magazines. Or perhaps to take in the intellectual garnish which is laid lightly over the business of selling.
Tacita Dean’s film JG, showing at Frith Street Gallery until 26 October, was inspired by a correspondence with J.G. Ballard shortly before his death from cancer in 2009. Dean was interested in the connections between Ballard’s short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500-foot earthwork built into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Ballard urged Dean to ‘treat it as a mystery that your film will solve’. He sent her a piece he’d written on Smithson for a gallery, ‘Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist’ (1997), and briefed her on his reading of Spiral Jetty:
Alice Austen’s photograph of herself and two other women dressed as men was taken in New York in 1891, anticipating the female masculinity of Radclyffe Hall and others. It’s one of the more than 200 images in Phaidon’s Art and Queer Culture, edited by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, which charts the shift from the ‘homosexual’ identities formulated by 19th-century sexologists and lawmakers to the fluid conceptions of gender and sexuality that characterise contemporary queer culture.
The Wilding Festival, organised by mostly young artists, teachers and activists, took place earlier this month in St George’s Bloombury, the Hawksmoor church which is crowned by a ziggurat and backs on to Little Russell Street, opposite the offices of the LRB. Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral took place there a hundred years ago, the magazine was collaborating with the festival, and I was asked to give a talk about female heroism.
The peelable banana that Andy Warhol designed for The Velvet Underground & Nico was a dry-run, of sorts, for the unzippable jeans he designed for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers – an early attempt, on the artist's part, to answer the question: 'Hey, is that a giant cock on your rock and roll album cover?'
Kurt Schwitters was 53 when he arrived in Britain in 1940. The Nazis had labeled him an ‘Entarteter Künstler’ (degenerate artist); in Britain he was an enemy alien, locked up in Hutchinson Internment Camp on the Isle of Man: brown walls, grey tiles, grey Irish Sea. The first room of Schwitters in Britain (at Tate Britain until 12 May) gives a glimpse of his life before exile. Schwitters hovered butterfly-like on the fringes of the major European isms of the 1920s: a bit of Dada here, a bit of De Stijl there. The geometry of Ja-was? Bild, with its strips of corrugated cardboard like sign posts in a blast of blue-green abstraction, makes dramatic use of a Suprematist grammar.
Martin Kippenberger would have been celebrating his 60th birthday two months ago, if he hadn’t died of liver cancer at the age of 44, and it’s conceivable he’d still be celebrating now, drinking in a dive bar until dawn in Dawson City, or Vienna, or the Belgian quarter of Cologne, because to be himself, he needed other people, but he also needed to create a blur between himself and them, because otherwise everything was too intense.
But Kippenberger – artist, punk, provocateur and Zwangsbeglucktertum (‘someone who forces others to have fun’) – has ceased refilling people's glasses, and disco dancing in his underwear, leaving Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof at liberty to mark his birthday in a drier way, with a self-approving exhibition entitled Sehr Gut/Very Good, when ‘So Ein Blech/A Lot of Crap’ would have been more in tune with Kippenberger's democratically expansive spirit and, it must be said, much of his art.
You crazy people! I myself don’t know,I just don’t know which way this is –In straying to the black abyss,To death itself, or paradise,I’ll take you with me as I go. Anna Akhmatova, Moscow, 10 October 1959 (afternoon).
One of the winners of the Abraaj Group Art Prize unveiled at the Art Dubai fair this week is Vartan Avakian. A Very Short History of Tall Men is a collection of portraits of would-be dictators, not-so-strong men who lasted only a few days or weeks and were quickly forgotten. He has cast detailed miniature gold statues of the men and suspended them in globes of synthetic glass, like insects in amber.
There's an exhibition of Peter Campbell's watercolours at City Gallery Wellington until 16 April. 'The exhibition brings together 36 paintings... acknowledging their other life – as images that exist before and beyond the relatively brief currency of the fortnightly review.'
Small pictures, especially works on paper, sit more comfortably in the intimate proportions of a house than in a lofty gallery hangar, and the exhibition of watercolours and etchings by Giorgio Morandi at the Estorick Collection (until 7 April) is a well-turned example of what can be done with such an arrangement: the pictures are allowed to speak for themselves.
The National Portrait Gallery has just unveiled its portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, formerly Kate Middleton. The picture follows loyally in the narcoleptic tradition of royal portraiture, where the sitter gives every impression of having taken a cocktail of Valium and Reader’s Digest.
The Summer Is Over, a new exhibition in New York by the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans (until 9 February), consists of seven paintings: three pairs of canvases depicting mundane details of life in Antwerp and, alone on a wall, a self-portrait that doesn’t look much like Tuymans. The artist gazes out from the painting unthreateningly, showing none of the severity he can display in person or in photographs. His cheeks are uncharacteristically fleshy, and his full head of white hair is painted so subtly that he looks almost bald. The ubiquitous cigarette isn’t in evidence either. Nearly a third of the painting – depicting the wall over his shoulder – is simply white. Me (2011) is his first self-portrait in nearly twenty years.
The Scottish poet, artist, gardener, toymaker, publisher, provocateur and agoraphobic Ian Hamilton Finlay died in 2006. His afterlife has been tended mainly by the art world, which may have come as a surprise to Finlay, an art-school dropout, who wrote to a friend some time in the 1950s or 1960s: ‘The art racket must be broken... O Fat old dealers, O Art School Professors, O shoddy virtuosos – you are all going to hell.’ This attitude gave way over time to a vendetta against ‘state-aided’ art. His enemies included the Scottish Arts Council, Strathclyde local authority and Catherine Millet (now better known as Catherine M.), the editor of the French magazine Art Press. ‘People have always found me challenging,’ Finlay said in a 1996 interview. ‘I don’t know why, when I am only being myself.’
In August 1971 the US Postal Service wrote to Phyllis Johnson, the publisher of Aspen, an arts and culture quarterly then in its sixth year, to inform her that the magazine’s right to reduced postal rates had been definitively revoked. Aspen, which is the subject of an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3 March, seems to have fallen foul of Title 39 US Code 4354 on several counts, not least the journal’s increasingly intermittent publication schedule.
Hurricane Sandy brought to New York much more wind than rain, and the greatest damage has been near the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound, and the two rivers. We all knew which neighbourhoods faced the most immediate danger – Battery Park, Red Hook, Rockaway – but it wasn’t until late last night, safe at home, that I realised the hurricane spelled trouble for most of the city’s art galleries, clustered together in Chelsea a block from the Hudson. I went down this morning. The water has receded (mostly – 21st Street was impassible today), but there’s still no power, and the damage is total. Every celebrity architect you can name has retrofitted one of these spaces, but they weren’t made to withstand this kind of onslaught. They’re low-slung warehouses, mostly, with garage doors at their entrances. The hurricane warped many of the doors; I saw a team of dealers trying to pry open a metal gate with a crowbar.
At John Stezaker’s studio in Kentish Town an entire wall is given over to a photographic archive the artist bought about thirty years ago. Britain’s cinemas had been going out of business for decades, and with them the picture agencies that supplied the industry with film stills and actor portraits. Stezaker snapped up the contents of one such doomed establishment, but has done nothing with them since. (Though he has plans, he says.) Look around the studio, and you get a queasy sense of the fate that might await those black-and-white prints. There are forgotten starlets half decapitated, neatly enucleated character actors, scenes from long-lost B-movies invaded by lurid portions of landscape or Kodachrome bouquets. And here and there a scalpel, threatening the surface of an intact print.
I’d been an undergraduate at the Courtauld for all of a month when the Arno burst its banks and flooded Florence on 4 November 1966. A few days later, all students were encouraged to gather in the glorious Adam room that masqueraded as our lecture hall. With its plaster ceiling roundels and monochrome wall decoration, it felt like an elegant drawing-room fallen on hard times. The speaker that day bore little resemblance to our usual lecturers. He was a heavily handsome, determined figure – about the same age as some of the younger staff but with an air of chutzpah that no junior art historian could muster. He strode down the central aisle, inveighing on recent events in Italy which were, he said, as much of a cataclysm to us as the Spanish Civil War had been to a previous generation of students. I was puzzled by the analogy – I still am – but from then on, Robert Hughes, who died earlier this month, was surfing on our attention.
Earlier this year, Lucy Raven and I were commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California to make a series of short video portraits of people involved in, opposed to, or otherwise affected by Occupy Oakland. After Occupy Wall Street, OO has been the most visible American Occupy. It has also been the most militant, and following Oakland's efforts to clear the physical encampments at City Hall Plaza – which involved mass arrests, and the wounding of ex-Marine peacenik Scott Olsen – OO became a constant presence in the news cycle, and a pilot light for the whole Occupy movement.
Beyond the Frame, an exhibition of Cuban paintings and photographs in aid of the campaign to release the Miami Five, is at the Lighthouse in Glasgow until Sunday (at the end of April it was at Gallery 27 in London). Many of the works are apolitical but some are inspired by the various attempts by US governments to destabilise Castro’s Cuba.
Two canary yellow stratocasters, mounted on stands to face each other and wired into squat black amps, buzz with a tentative open string drone. Next to the guitars hangs the shell of a radiation-proof suit. The stage is set for a band that never arrives: Fuyuki Yamakawa’s Atomic Guitars – recently on display at the Tokyo Art Fair – are played by decaying atoms.
Binyamin Netanyahu recently paid for advertising space on Facebook: Dear citizen: In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, but our enemies will fail. I invite you to join my Facebook page. Happy Passover. After this campaign, Netanyahu's page boasted ten times as many ‘Likes’ as that of Sheli Yechimovich, the leader of the Labor Party. But her staff revealed that only 17 per cent of them were from Israelis. More than half were from Americans, and 5000 were from admirers in Indonesia.
I wasn’t sure about the Jeremy Deller show at the Hayward before I got there: Joy in People, he’s called it, ugh, and my friend had been complaining about the installation that re-creates his bedroom at his parents’ house, and the one that’s done as a market-traders’ café and gives you a free cup of tea. ‘They just can’t bloody resist it, can they,’ she said sadly. Like me, she’s a Deller fan of many years’ standing; I remember us both admiring the Folk Archive when it first appeared at Tate Britain in 2000. She was disappointed, I think, in the autobiographical aspect of these installations, which were a bit too close to Tracey Emin’s bed and hut.
Born in 1759, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe worked as a teacher before the declining fortunes of his school prompted him to train as an artist. He went to the Berlin Academy of Art, a man in his thirties among boys of twelve. Even more unusually, Kolbe produced nothing but etchings, some of which are currently on display at the British Museum, along with other German Romantic prints and drawings from the collection of Charles Booth-Clibborn, the founder of the Paragon Press.
In 1952, Louise Bourgeois began an analysis with Henry Lowenfeld, visiting him four times a week at his apartment on Central Park West. She stayed with it, on and off, until Lowenfeld’s death in 1985. Lowenfeld had been a member of the rebellious Children’s Seminar in Berlin, run by Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel, both of whom Freud dismissed as troublesome Bolsheviks (Lowenfeld’s father wrote a biography of Trotsky). But, in America, where he emigrated in 1938 – the same year Bourgeois did – he joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, a centre of orthodox Freudianism, and rejected his radical past.
Coup de tête is one of the works in Adel Abdessemed’s exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf ‘brings together recent works that revolve around the themes of war, violence, and spectatorship’. Coup de tête depicts the most famous moment from the 2006 World Cup. It’s not the first time Zinédine Zidane has been made the subject of an artwork. Paul Myerscough wrote about Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait in October 2006:
By unlucky coincidence, the Royal Mail launched this year’s set of Christmas stamps the day before the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition opened at the National Gallery. On the one hand, both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in the same room; on the other, to ‘celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’, Mary looking like one of the Bisto kids, but more inane, with her head wrapped in an ethnically imprecise white cloth, covering her hair but knotted oddly at the back. That’s on the first-class stamp, purporting to illustrate Matthew 1.23 (‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son’). The larger version shows a dove, apparently perched on a Windsor chair.
Turner Contemporary sits above Margate sands, a series of white boxes that, from a distance, looks like a municipal sports centre, but as you get closer and enter its immediate surroundings, pass the concrete benches and desert-chic flowerbeds and descend the gleaming white stairways, looks more like a piece of LA dropped into the down-at-heel Regency seaside town. But you can tell it's still Margate because the gallery café has shiny ashtrays on the terrace tables and serves fry-ups.
Rudolf Stingel’s show at Gagosian in New York (until Saturday) opens with three large black-and-white self-portraits of the artist as a young man (he was born in northern Italy in 1956). The three untitled canvases are all the same size and based on the same photograph, down to the scratches in the background and small spots from moisture damage. They are not photorealist paintings, however. The daubed black backgrounds testify to the painter’s hand, and a few variations creep in: in the first painting the widow’s peak is a swooping curve, in the second it’s more of a sine wave, and in the third it’s rigid and angular. More important, the repetition suggests that the process of making them is the pictures’ real subject: conceptual paintings in photorealist drag.
As a child formed by classic studio films – I didn’t realise when I was six that The Philadelphia Story was made and took place in the past – I spent a lot of time wondering what colour the black-and-white stars’ clothes were. Edith Head had glasses with blue lenses to give her a sense of the way colours would look in shades in grey, but there was no magic device to reverse the process. (From 1948, when Costume Design was added to the list of Oscar categories, until 1957 there were separate awards for black-and-white and colour films.) Costume was one of the many areas where realism went out the window: actors on screen wore whatever photographed well. No matter how delusional Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond gets, when she snakes towards the camera for her close-up at the end of Sunset Boulevard, she’s wearing a black dress with a pale beaded shawl draped across her right shoulder: the craziness of the effect comes from the way it's worn, not the outfit itself.
Gerard Byrne's Case Study: Loch Ness (Some Possibilities and Problems) 2001-11 is at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes until 3 April. Brian Dillon writes about it for the LRBhere.
The death of Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, leaves the ghost ship of 1960s rock with barely more than a dozen spectral deckhands and trembling techies. Not that the Captain was much of a man for a sea breeze. I went to hear him at Leeds University in the 1970s. During the interval, a few minutes after the audience had bolted for the bar or the lavatories, the Captain entered the gents and clattered down the long tiled floor, striding past the urinals, shoving open the cubicle doors to his right, one after another, until he arrived at the far end. Then, in the manner of a distinguished judge who’s sifted all the evidence: ‘Man if this place doesn’t stink of seafood.’
One of the most striking exhibits at the Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition is a set of images of webs spun by spiders on drugs – the results of an investigation commissioned by Nasa into the effects of narcotics on behaviour. Strangely, the most psychedelic web is the one spun on caffeine – an asymmetric tessellation of wonky polygons – while the one spun stoned on marijuana looks sloppy and unfinished. Drugs are habit-breaking, as well as habit-forming: the spiders had spun webs the same way for years, but were suddenly prompted to experiment. Bored of hexagons, why not try trapezoids?
When the Lumière brothers filmed workers leaving a factory in 1895, one assumes their subjects were clocking off at 5 p.m. – but it would be nice to know for sure. If the Lumières had thought to include a timepiece somewhere in the frame, Christian Marclay could have used it in his new video work The Clock (showing till 13 November at White Cube Mason’s Yard).
Ever wondered what to do with all those back issues? Erik Benjamins, a graduate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has used a decade's worth of October as materials for an art installation. You can adjust the weight of the dumbbells by adding or removing issues.
In a 2003 piece for theLRBon Piero della Francesca, Nicholas Penny wrote: A fine example of their combined influence can be found in the entrance hall of London’s Middlesex Hospital, where the four large canvases of The Acts of Mercy by the now almost entirely forgotten Frederick Cayley Robinson are preserved beside the usual brash modern signage.
The Fawcett Society sells a T-shirt with the slogan 'This is what a feminist looks like' (here's Patrick Stewart in one) but what do feminists do these days? Among other things, bake cupcakes, upcycle furniture, knit and make quilts.
From an early age, I have missed the point of things. I noticed this first when the entire class at school seemed to understand that Animal Farm was about something other than animals. I alone sat there believing otherwise. I simply couldn’t see who or what the book was about if not about farm animals. I had enjoyed it for that. Now, the teacher and every other boy seemed to think it was really about Stalin or Communism or something. I looked at it again, but I still couldn’t quite work it out. So, too, with a lot of poetry. I couldn’t see that things were like other things when they were not like them. Maybe they were slightly like them, or somewhat like them, but usually they were not like them at all.
Tracey Emin has complained to the police of 'harassment', after a spoof letter purportedly written by her was sent to some of her neighbours in Spitalfields. It was written in childish handwriting, similar to her now iconic style (but spelled correctly, which made it instantly suspect). It outlined her supposed plans for the Tenter Ground weaving works, an old Huguenot factory she is restoring: a swimming-pool was mentioned, along with the fact that she didn't like traditional building methods. She bought the building last year to a small fanfare of publicity. There was positive coverage in, among other places, the Observer ('Emin pays £4 million to save art district'), the Evening Standard (‘Emin weaves £4 million scheme to keep art in Spitalfields’) and the Times property supplement (‘Tracey Emin is leading the battle to save the "cultural heart" of East London from developers’). In interviews, Emin got all nostalgic, telling the Observer that the whole area used to be 'full of artists... the rents were still comparatively low and there were lots of our friends living around us and using freezing-cold studios.' Colliers, the agent who handled the sale of Tenter Ground, said she said she 'made the acquisition to ensure the building remained in use by artists'. This all sounds very altruistic and noble, until you read the bit where she says: 'I will be working there on my own.'
Earlier today Jill Butcher, who's in charge of marketing for the LRB, took part in Damien Hirst's identical twins installation, part of the Pop Life exhibition at Tate Modern.
On Good Friday, the Times reported, with much self-righteousness, the news that a sculpture by a convicted criminal has been removed from the Royal Festival Hall. Bringing Music to Life is a model of an orchestra made from folded sheet music. The Southbank Centre bought it for £600 after it was displayed in an exhibition of prisoners' art organised by the Koestler Trust. The artist was unnamed, but the Times took it upon itself to identify him, and couldn't have been more pleased to announce that Bringing Music to Life was the work of Colin Pitchfork, who was jailed for life in 1988 for raping and murdering two teenage girls.