A week on and your mouth is still aching, your mind still consequently dour, and ever since that Whitechapel show you’ve been worrying about current approaches to art history -particularly modernism.
The current show at Raven Row, ‘Five Issues of Studio International‘ curated by Jo Melvin (a teaching colleague) allows you to continue meditating on these issues. It’s a charming space, converted from two Georgian houses and shop-fronts tucked away down a winding lane between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, an area of London still soaked in history despite its rapid revitalisation and revaluation according to its proximity to the City. The nearest café is Ottolenghi’s and the posh-looking hairdresser across the road looks as though it charges city workers a fair whack to maintain an impressive coiffure.
Inside, the first thing you find is a helpful welcome from a gallerist, a sumptuous free catalogue, a seat, headphones and an explanatory video to watch. This project is unusual in that Jo Melvin has selected five issues of Studio International arts journal, spanning 1965 to 1975, the period when it was edited by Peter Townsend, who went on to be founding editor of Art Monthly. It thus becomes an extended research exercise and the gallery has taken pains to borrow a selection of works (mainly sculptural) to illustrate the themes and attitudes emerging in the journal at the time.
We are thus treated to a carefully orchestrated procession, organized over three elegantly converted floors, of works by Keith Arnatt, Charles Biederman, Daniel Buren, Robyn Denny, Jan Dibbets, John Ernest, Garth Evans, Barry Flanagan, Naum Gabo, Anthony Hill, John Latham, Richard Long, Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin, Adrian Piper, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini, Gerry Schum, Willoughby Sharp, William Tucker, William Turnbull, Nicolas Schöffer, Bernard Schottlander, Lawrence Weiner and Gillian Wise. Meanwhile Melvin’s own video (which reappears on each floor) shows the curator enthusiastically working through the journals, pointing out for us and for the camera the articles, advertisements, design juxtapositions etc. that inspired her project. The subtitle of Melvin’s introduction to the catalogue, (in words taken from Townsend himself) is ‘Do not ape the past!’ and yet the obvious admiration for a lost milieu that underpins the show’s rationale troubles you slightly.
Raven Row is clearly one of London’s cutting-edge spaces, positioned and equipped to promote confident examples of contemporary art. Meanwhile the Sainsbury name, which backs, curates, directs and funds the gallery, has a long and respectable legacy concerning art history. It is perhaps appropriate then that, while this show seems to provide just the kind of strong-handed, innovative and personalized experiment in curating that you were whining for in your previous Blog post, it could also be seen as bringing the organizational role of a museum or large institution into the contemporary art space, in a way that perhaps Townsend himself and the artists he favoured could have found slightly nostalgic.
To consider the past is not, of course, necessarily nostalgic, and many contemporary artists and students would certainly benefit from more shows like this that encourage us to attend, on a manageable scale, to details of art history, opening-up and zooming-in on the vast art-historical record for the purposes of scrutiny and revision. Nevertheless, the art of 40 years ago, for Townsend, Weiner and co. would have been made in the 1930s, and with this comparison in mind we might question any tendency possibly revealed here, to search for current values and points of orientation in the recent past while perhaps avoiding the more difficult task of seeking them in the present.
Five Issues of Studio International (26 February to 3 May 2015), exhibition view, Raven Row. Left: Lawrence Weiner, … AND THEN RELEGATED TO ANOTHER GENDER, 1972, LANGUAGE + THE MATERIALS REFERRED TO, Collection Eric Fabre. Right: John Ernest, Vertical Constructions, 1955, perspex, steel rods, Catherine and Franck Petitgas Collection. All photos by Marcus J. Leith
In the past decade ‘postmodernism’ has become a tarnished word and, while the motives for this may not have been adequately articulated, theorists have scrambled for alternative paradigms such as ‘metamodernism’ or ‘altermodernism’ with which to supplant it, meanwhile repeatedly encouraging us to admire the achievements of an increasingly domesticated (and curated) modernism. Melvin’s show rather documents a liminal period in which we witness the endgames of a late, late modernism and evidence of the beginnings of the expanded practices that will in some ways enable postmodernism to flourish. However, perhaps inevitably, the show documents a relatively small, relatively privileged art world that we might now justifiably assume to be lost; a world of mainly middle-class, white, male protagonists able to enjoy and maintain (precisely through journals like Studio International) a relatively resilient and reliable context of judgement within and against which to evaluate their works and/as progress. Uncomfortable as it still is, postmodernism’s most transgressive and troublesome contribution is/was to spirit away any such limited and privileged milieu (here recorded with affection as pub lunches, Bloomsbury bars, one or two famous and centrally-located colleges etc.) and to thereby confront art’s practitioners, theorists and curators with the full and fearsome confusion of an emergent global multiculture, along with a correspondingly comprehensive relativism. The initial, early 80s moment of postmodernism – that could associate poster boys like Jean Michel Basquiat with the cultural theories of a Jean Baudrillard or Stuart Hall- was surely liberating and welcome for all those who had previously not been, and could not be, privy to the relatively limited 60s and 70s scene that is -deservedly- admired here.
Five Issues of Studio International (26 February to 3 May 2015), exhibition view, Raven Row. Clockwise from left: Charles Biederman, Structurist Relief, Red Wing No. 20, 1954-65, oil on aluminium, Tate, purchased 1966; Robyn Denny. Colour Box V, 1969, Screenprint, printed in orange and scarlet, boxed in Perspex with aluminium frame and backing, Collection Dominic Denny; Robyn Denny, Colour Box IV, 1969, screenprint, printed in lime green and orange, boxed in Perspex with aluminium frame and backing, Collection Dominic Denny; and, William Tucker, Karnak, 1966, fibreglass copy number 2, from an edition of 4 plus artist’s proofs, Waddington Custot Galleries, London, Courtesy the artist and Pangolin London. All photos by Marcus J. Leith.
It could then be argued that any current distaste for postmodernism may shy defensively away from its most radical challenges and quietly pine for the relative security of a smaller, safer, older art world where good art and its development were more clearly recognizable (albeit within the necessarily blinkered view of a socio-economically limited circle of judges.) That is why, although you find this show generous, meticulous, intriguing, entertaining and rewarding you nevertheless leave with a lingering fear that a generation (and, it has to be said, a ‘class’) of artists, critics, theorists etc. who together created a canon of inspiring, courageous, thoughtful and imaginative gestures from which all contemporary artist’s can still draw, may yet maintain a cultural grip on the core of what you have long hoped has become a more expansive realm, with opportunities for all kinds of ‘different’ art, artists and ideas to have their say and to thereby expose the kind of milieu shown here as a socio-economically and historically determined peculiarity.
It seems significant that, travelling home, you find yourself reading a letter in a current art journal, illustrating the fact that, while Tate, Serpentine and Whitechapel galleries have all gone from strength to strength (and from additional building to additional building) in recent years, Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) – which should perhaps have been a model of a visionary approach to art, culture and value in 21st century Britain – has, somewhat shamefully, been allowed to languish and now, apparently, to fail.
You feel you are finally beginning to try to articulate a long-held personal conceit that might be described as something like ‘post-cultural’ art, an art that is precisely without or beyond milieu – if such a thing might be possible.
Barry Flanagan, one ton corner piece, 1967, one ton of builder’s sand. The Estate of Barry Flanagan. Exhibition view, Five Issues of Studio International (26 February to 3 May 2015), Raven Row.
All photos by Marcus J. Leith