October 21, 2009

What's On In London

Last week the art world gathered in London for the opening of several museum exhibitions and the much-hyped contemporary art fair FRIEZE. As I happened to be passing through en route to Paris I thought I'd take advantage of the offerings and pop in to some of the shows.

I'll start with my favorite - now on at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly is a solo exhibition featuring the work of Bombay born sculptor Anish Kapoor. New Yorkers may remember Kapoor's stunning "Sky Mirror" that graced Rockefeller Center's plaza in 2006. Until December 11, the Royal Academy's elegant galleries will be transformed into "a succession of physical and psychological experiences" that are totally captivating. From smaller early pigment works to the site specific red-wax-firing cannon "Shooting into the Corner" the exhibition was enthralling. I especially loved the mirror sculpture in the courtyard "Tall Tree and the Eye" (see photo above) that gave visitors a hint of what was to come. This show is proof that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks and the Royal Academy is to be commended for this daring experiment.

Just opened at the Hayward Gallery in Southbank Centre, is an important retrospective of the work of one of the foremost American Pop Art painters, Ed Ruscha. "Fifty Years of Painting" is a comprehensive but very well curated look at the paintings of this pioneering artist. Known primarily for his bold imagery that incorporates language as a major subject matter, this exhibition follows Ed Ruscha's career from his beginning in the emerging Los Angeles art scene of the 1960's to his present status as a scion of the contemporary school. Hopefully American institutions will take note and honor Ruscha's considerable achievement and influence with a U.S. retrospective in the near future.

Now let's move down the Thames to the Tate Modern where two big shows are currently on view. "John Baldessari: Pure Beauty" is a look at the work of another Los Angeles artist who started working in the 1960's but followed the path of Conceptual Art rather than Pop. Baldessari stunned the art world in 1966 when he followed through on a threat to "cremate" all his art work leaving very few pieces from his early period. Like Ruscha, Baldessari also made great use of language in his imagery but he applied it in a totally different way, using a more subliminal approach and working with a wide variety of mediums including photography and found objects. Unlike Ruscha, he has never been a superstar but his influence on contemporary artists has been profound and his work seems to become more popular as time goes on.

Also at the Tate Modern is "Pop Life: Art in a Material World" a look at artists from the 1980's to now and how they embraced commerce and mass media to build their brand. You know that romantic stereotype of the starving artist living in a garret, sustained by his mission - well, these are not that kind of artist. Andy Warhol once said "Good business is the best art" and this exhibition does its best to prove the point. From the explicit erotica of Jeff Koons to the Japanese cartoon camp of Takashi Murakami to Keith Haring's "Pop Shop", the theme of this show could well be "Greed is Good".

Two interesting points though - the organizers were forced by the British police invoking child pornography laws to remove one particularly touchy work that showed an under-aged Brooke Shields posing in the nude. On a more charming note, British art world Bad Boy Damien Hirst hired several sets of identical twins to take turns sitting under two of his identical dot paintings for the the duration of the show. On the afternoon of my visit, two teenage girls were wrapping up their tour of duty and their Mum and Grandmother had come in from the country to see them and to take them out for lunch. Poor Grandma looked a little pale after she viewed some of the more off-color parts of the exhibition, but I think she was happy for her girls.

For an even more unabashedly commercial look at art and the art business you just had to go to the opening of the hyper-contemporary FRIEZE art fair. This year 150 exhibitors gathered under a special tent in Regent Park to participate in one of the art world calendar's highlights. I had never visited FRIEZE before and was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about. I don't know if I am jaded or just not that "into" contemporary art but FRIEZE left me cold. Maybe it was a victim of the soft art market, or maybe the quality of the material presented was simply not that good, but there did not seem to be a lot of energy buzzing through the place. The people watching, however, was superb! I can't say I'm in a big rush to come back next year but it was great to visit once.

It's been a fun few days in London - glorious weather and lots to see - but now it's time to board the Eurostar and head off to Paris for some more adventures. Cheerio!

The Thames with Saint Paul's in the background

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