Yesterday saw an unusual study visit to the Tate Modern with a roving talk by tutor Michelle Charles. Her intention was to show up paintings by American painters to whom she has some direct connection or knowledge of from her 20 years living in the artistic community of New York. Unfortunately, most of these paintings, for instance the Rothkos have been removed from display until, I understand, they are rehoused in the new extension. Instead, Michelle took us to the rooms containing works by Elsworth Kelly and talked about colour theory and Minimalism. I have to admit that I have walked fairly briskly through this room in the past, not seeing much to stop and gaze at. Michelle talked about his exploration of colour, of the juxtaposition of colour and of the relationship of the shape of the work with its context, the wall, the gallery. We discussed how the artist would see the work differently in the space of the studio compared to a gallery and Michelle offered very interesting insights to the studio set up and working practices of artists she knew.
This did give me a new appreciation of these minimalist works and I was interested to find that I was viewing them as much as relief sculptures as paintings, since many were of joined or overlapped panels.
It was also an opportunity for me to look at the works by Donald Judd, of whom Robert Smithson often wrote in his essays (Flam, ed. 1996). Judd’s ‘Untitled’ 1972 is a large, open copper box with a red enamelled bottom plate. Reflected in the internal polished copper sides, the whole seems to emit a soft warm glow, impossible to focus on. As Smithson said ‘Every surface is within full view, which makes the inside and the outside equally important….held together by tension and balance.’ He goes on to talk about Judd’s fascination with crystals and their shared interest in geology and mineralogy.
Next Michelle took us to see the exhibition of works on paper (and fabric) by Louise Bourgeois. I saw one of her spider sculptures at the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy last year, and it was interesting to see how mending, repairing and sewing was a recurrent theme of her work symbolised by the spider as mender of webs. The series of red gouache paintings considering sex, motherhood, conception and birth were particularly touching. Michelle got us looking at the relationship of shapes with the edge of the paper, the weight of lines and the mark making.
Michelle opened the community of New York artists to us making their characters come alive as if we were touring studios rather than gallery rooms. I am coming to learn that one sees a work completely differently and much more richly if informed about its maker, its context and its motivation.
Flam, J (ed.) (1996) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Berkeley United States of America: Universty of California Press