On Kawara – Silence – Guggenheim NY

Guggenheim Museum, New York is a museum known as much for its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright as for the artists it displays. It was originally conceived to display Guggenheim’s collection of Kandinsky’s works. Nowadays it has many and varied exhibits to see.


The Guggenheim Museum New York

It is a difficult and challenging space to display works in as it ascends from the central atrium in a spiral opening up as you ascend. It is a beautiful space, with many references to spiritual ideas, but due to its curvature and openness, you can see across the spiral to all the spaces, hard to hang works of art in.

Not for On Kawara. It was as if the space was designed for him, Unfortunately, like Mr Guggenheim and Mr Lloyd Wright, he died before his show opened. But he knew it was happening. I don’t know if that is comfort or irony.

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On Kawara

His pieces are so (deceptively) simple you would pass one by if it was by itself. They are like markers, mainly grey with white writing, like a tombstone, but in landscape rather than portrait shape. They have the date they were painted. Just that. And because they are just that they are also everything.

He painted a date like that each day, every day. If it was not completed by midnight he destroyed it. Although that is not the apparent part of the work, I love the diligence, the attention, the mindfulness. They place him, and you the viewer, in the here and now, but also in the then and there. As the viewer, you complete the picture of course as you fill in what you were doing that day in your mind. They open that conversation of remembrance at the same time as being present, realising the gift of every day.

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On Kawara

His other works are equally magnificent. His postcards, his collections and his messages.


On Kawara: I got up

I had to buy the t-shirt ‘I am still alive’. How perfect an expression.

Perfect art in the perfect place for it.

Wherever you are Mr On Kawara; thank you. You made my day.



Marlene Dumas

I have only seen one Dumas painting before. I didn’t really get it, but I could see that the technique, the application of colour to paper, was great, there was a beauty in it. The technical ability is even more apparent given that she works in watercolour and inks, notoriously difficult medium, very unforgiving. So her works are technically alluring and brilliantly made. They are beautiful as works, but it is the content that makes me uncomfortable. It is why I have delayed writing about her show at the Tate.

The exhibition of her works had a great advantage on most exhibitions in that there was not reams of text by the curator written in that curious language, art-speak (never say scientists use jargon!). Instead, there were quotes from the artist and some of them were lovely.

Again the work was brilliantly made. But I read the content , what the art said to me, in a way that I wasn’t sure was a in the mind of the artist. I found it racist. Perhaps it was meant to hold up a mirror, but some pieces really annoyed me, not because of their meaning, but because I felt Dumas’ lack of understanding of what she was doing or perhaps care of how they are read by us, the viewer. Perhaps they are only meant for people like her.

There was the array of portraits of black African people which I found looked like a line up or a museum curio.  It may have been what it was like at the time they were taken, she works from photographs and these were old ones, but she configured them in this way. Perhaps she meant to show their individuality, but it was ugly. It reduced their humanity.

One piece was called Jewess. Now come on. Where was the piece called Christian, or Muslim, or Aborigine?  Stereotyping is lazy. Racial stereotyping is nasty.

Marlene Dumas is white, Afrikaans and has moved from South Africa to live in one of the countries that was appalling to Africans, especially South Africans, The Netherlands (Holland), home of the Boers, the Afrikaans. Along with Belgium (think of the ramifications in the Congo) .and the Portuguese, none of these countries have stepped up to the mark and apologised for what they did. Britain apologised. It makes a difference.

While she may be making art, art is not content free.

What finally turned me off was her depiction of religious Jews praying at the Security Wall in Israel.  I found it deeply offensive. I don’t suppose she understands that it was idolatrous. Perhaps she was trying to say the opposite. In that case it was clumsy, a cheap jibe and insulting. It was lazy and stupid.

Coming from an Afrikaans, making work about the ‘other’ without any real engagement seemed to say that you can do anything if it is done with technical aplomb, as if art could be content free. In the end, I loathed it.

Jon Thompson

2014 was a difficult year and keeping going was the main thing. As the saying goes, ‘when you are going through hell, keep going’. So it was a while ago that I went to see the wonderful Jon Thompson’s show at Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London.

Jon Thompson is no youngster and when he makes something it is the thing itself imbued with years of both knowledge and experience. His Toronto Cycle, almost music for the eyes, contains a group of works referencing famous painters, for example Van Gogh. VG1 and VG2 are works that reference Van Gogh early work (1) and later work (2). Interestingly, the later work has the brighter more vibrant colours. What Thompson has done is analyse the colours in Van Gogh’s work and the proportions they are used in and then made his work using those colours in those proportions. He has done similar works with Gaugin’s palette of colours. Vibrant, Melodic.

The Toronto Cycle: Cadence and Discord  (VG1)

I think they are stunning. That he has made the horizontal (as in say Mark Rothko) look also vertical (as in a Barnett Newman ‘zip’) is brilliant. That he has divided the two halves like tablets of stone, commandments of colour, is inspired. This is the work of an artist.

His latest works contained some blinding colours, oranges that almost fluoresced, blues that illuminated the space. My particular favourite was a deceptively simple  green cross of colour.

I love deceptively simple. I am deeply suspicious of making something that should be simple over-complicated.  I think that shows a lack of real understanding and basic communication needs, masked by jargon and processes.

Thompson strips things back like a revelation. Not only do you see his work, you can hear and feel it. Magic.

Anselm Kiefer

London, Royal Academy for the Anselm Kiefer show.

Anselm Kiefer post-Holocaust German artist.

He is important in that he is the first German artist to tackle the Holocaust, His imagery merges with his German culture: the wood, the forest and the woodcut (think Durer).

The early works are really brave. To be the first to say something really uncomfortable, something nobody wanted to say or look at and not know how you will be received, whether your compatriots will lynch you, beg you to be silent or ignore you is very brave. He puts all that German culture, forests, Wagner, mythology up there with what happened, that insanity, that moment when stupid, inhuman brutality ran riot with a cold ruthless amorality.

But 40 years later he goes on painting it. I felt it was no longer art. It was starting to become a commodity.

Did I like it? Generally no. There were some brilliant pieces. The more abstract and the more spiritual and some of the early work. But the later work becomes what he mocks; monumental, butch posturing, heroic and rather obvious.

Ultimately, I found his work very documentary; more commentary than art. In 100 years I don’t reckon it will stand up as great art. It is stunning comment at the time, or at the first time, but with very literal, heavy and obvious symbolism. It lacks the lightness of touch of a Renaissance Italian painting which too is littered with symbolism. It lacks the spiritual depth of a Rothko or Barnett Newman. It says nothing new. It Is more reportage. It could be journalism. It doesn’t rock my soul. It doesn’t show me something I didn’t know. Maybe it showed the Germans new at the time; something they were in denial about, but, in fact, did know. It maybe revealed to them what they need to deal with, but it has become heavy and repetitive with very few moments of real insight.

But well done to him for doing that. For telling it like it is.


Piet Mondrian

Just back from Margate, a coastal town in the UK with a wonderful art centre, The Turner Centre. They put on some brilliant shows. Right now, they have on a show of Piet Mondrian’s work (Liverpool Tate also have a show of his later work for which he is more famous). In the Turner show you see the progress of the artist from his early work to the work that he is famous for and that features in the Liverpool show.

We managed to walk through the show backwards. I seem to do that a lot, turning the wrong way in the gallery. So we went back in time and then retraced forward in time. It was amazing. I say this as a big fan of Mondrian’s later work. I have loved it since I was a teenager. I can’t say why; it just has a really pure feeling about it. It is it. I like things that are it rather than things that are about it.

So here is this man who tries out different ideas- he’s very good at each thing he tries.. He tries Impressionism, very nice and sellable (he needs to eat). He tries Pointilism, Fauvism, Cubism. He works his way through the ism’s of the early 20th Century art movements. And then he tries Mondrian-ism.

It is fascinating to see the change. He starts painting these large flat plains of colour in a recognisable landscape, but more backlit than front lit as in the Impressionists. The Impressionists are interested in how things look under light. He is interested in light and colours. Then suddenly you get a red and blue windmill. And the next year a checkerboard. And one year later you get Mondrian, full blown and in his stride. By then he is about 48 years old. How wonderful, still trying, still finding himself and his ideas.

I’m a scientist and I love contemporary art. For me it is an experiment in a studio. And here are some results. Beautiful, aesthetic, complex, deceptively simple:

And even less and more:
These are the results of a middle-aged man who has experimented all his life. He has dared to leave the safety of the known; the tried and tested. Seldom do we have the experience or ability to create something new.
Like any great science result, I wish I had made this.

Folkestone Triennial

Just back from the Southern Coast of England in a town called Folkestone which sits in the county of Kent. Every three years they have a triennial art event with international artists. Great idea and great stuff. The theme of this year’s Triennial, curated by Lewis Biggs is ‘Lookout’.

I spent most of the time in ‘Green/Light’.  It is designed like a hop garden, which was a common agricultural space in Kent for beer brewing, but it also references the gas-works that were on the sight that produced the first electricity for the town.  The work captures the light with its reflective elements and because of that, when you walk around it you become part of it. It is an immersive Cathedral-like space which, while referencing hop-gardens, becomes more like Standing Stones which you find in places like the Orkneys Islands and of course Stonehenge. It contains a circle within a square, with the outer part made of old hop-poles and the inner of modern shiny material, all held together with twine, the string used in hop fields.  I saw lots of people just standing there enjoying being in the space, smiling and relaxing. It gave me a great sense of calm; a spiritual moment. Sublime.

Folkestone Triennial 2014 opens

Jyll Bradley’s Green/Light sculpture in a disused gasworks

Other highlights for me were Krijn de Koning piece, a cave-maze structure with various views and  Amina Menia’s sound-piece on Bread, a subject dear to my heart, where she had recorded various people’s feelings/recipes/cultural meanings of bread. Folkestone is a very mixed town economically with many migrants coming in from across the Channel. There is a tribute to some along the ‘Leas’, the seafront promenade, where many Belgians arrived during the First World War to escape the invasion of their country. Another piece I loved was Alex Hartley’s. where he has put a hanging balcony arrangement out of the rooftop of a hotel on the seafront. It reminds me of protests and sit-ins and acts as a Lookout. I love the endeavour of the work; precarious and earnest, authentic and true.

So if you are in the area, check it out. It takes about 4 hours to get around the entire place, but you also see Folkestone and the sea and can just choose one piece, like Green/Light to sit in, stand in and just calm down in. I love bi/triennials where you get to see so much art in one go. With so much horror and childish nonsense as usual dominating the news, that human beings make this stuff we call art is very humbling.  Oscar Wilde says ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’. Well for me, art dignifies humans and fascism denigrates us. Most of what is happening or what is given attention to in the world is fascism, denigrating humans with childish notions of power and immortality, so lets instead be with the art.


Martin Creed

I just went to see Martin Creed’s ballet (Work 1020). Brilliant.

He doesn’t do about art. He does art. So refreshing. He stripped music and ballet back to the basics, scales and movement back and forth. First position, second position, first, second, third note etc.

He also had what could have been a very rude film of the pelvis of a naked male. While he played chromatic scales on the guitar going up and up the fret the penis went up  and up and when the penis started going down so did the chromatic scale on the guitar. It was very funny, but also very meaningful. I just thought, ‘is that it?’. All these wars. All these rules about what men and women can do. All this macho crap. All for this bit of flesh and its up and down movement. Is that it? Great stuff.

When I looked at his YouTubes there were the usual rude comments. They were much ruder than a limp/erect penis, which just is limp or erect or moving between one of those states and is possessed by 50% of the humans on the planet. All 100% of people on the planet should see this work and reflect on how much politics, economics and culture rests on so little and have a laugh at something that is kept so secretive and when revelaed as it is, it is just what it is. Something that goes up and something that goes down.