There is SO much to see and do in London but three of the must-sees are Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery and Matisse’s Cut-Outs and the Richard Hamilton retrospective at The Tate Modern.
Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery
I know I don’t need to tell you who David Bailey is, he’s the Brits answer to Avedon – with a difference. His photographs, as much as anyone, helped visually defined the Swingin’ 60s – especially Britain’s exploding pop culture.
“Irving Penn’s studio is like a cathedral. David Bailey’s studio is like a nightclub.” – Diana Vreeland
He photographed EVERYONE. The Stones. Jack Nicholson. Penelope Tree. David Bowie. Kate Moss. Aboriginals. Damien Hirst. Vivienne Westwood. The Sudan. Man Ray…. and on, and on… The show was curated and by the man himself and it transmits the raw power and energy of his greatest pictures. I still think Avedon is the superior photographer, in a totally different class of his own, but no one can touch the juice and verve of Bailey’s best. They DO feel like they might fly off the gallery walls. It was totally worth seeing – and, if you missed it, the next best thing is to get the book as the show ends June 1, so that’s probably your best bet.
Richard Hamilton at The Tate
The late Richard Hamilton was another British artist that has had much more recognition here that in the states, especially since his death. His retrospective covering 6 decades of work, at The Tate Modern, was a real eye-opener to me. His most famous image, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” from 1956, is considered by many to be THE first pop image (Me, I think it goes back to paint by number, which started in the late 40s but that’s another discussion altogether…) Nevertheless, he went on to create more memorable pop images, including the most famous one that I never knew he did. The Beatles asked him to design a cover for their album in 1968 and his minimalist answer was to emboss only the name of the band on a white sleeve, so, contrary to popular belief, the album was NOT called “The White Album”, is was merely a description of it. His was a fascinating career and body of work which was largely subversive, political and conceptual. I think the reason he never achieved greater status in the states was because he never had ONE recognizable style, he had many. But his SLIP IT TO ME is iconic. Well, he was not forgotten in the dustbin of history, he is remembered and lauded in a show that just closed today.
Matisse Cut-Outs at The Tate
The Matisse Cut-Outs, also at The Tate was somewhat unexpected as well. Everyone has seen this work but, as the cliché goes, unless you see them in person, you haven’t seen them at ALL. Of course they reproduce well, and the saturated color is SO pleasing and suited to offset printing, but truly, the scale and masterful technique is hidden from view in print. There were films in the exhibit of Henri at work in that looked more like your grandfather on holiday that one of the greatest artists of the 20th century breaking new ground. But the “drawing with scissors” is like no grandpa ever. He had assistants painting sheets of paper in the MOST beautiful colors and after cutting by the master, they were pinning them to his studio walls. Room after room in The Tate, of larger and larger works culminating in several gigantic murals and finally, “The Snail”. Matisse’s way in to abstraction, which have influenced countless artists. In fact, this is the reason I think it’s now so hard to get the full impact of the work – his cut-outs made have been so widely imitated in art school’s and by magazine and book illustrators for the past 70 years, that they have nearly sucked out all of the life and innovation out the work when reproduced. Almost. Until you see the real deal. Amazing that something so two dimensional has been rendered so full of the joy of life that Matisse transmitted in spades.
Rothko’s Seagrams Murals
The Seagrams Murals by Mark Rothko are probably the MOST opposite you can get from Matisse’s joyful cut-outs. I got to see the fantastic play Red on Broadway several years ago, which tells the story of Rothko’s commission by The Four Seasons restaurant in New York. He was paid something like $300,000 in the late 50s (a FORTUNE, at the time) to create a series of paintings to be hung in the restaurant permanently. He decided that he hated his work ending up in some corporate restaurant for rich people, gave the money back and kept the work. These paintings are on view now in their own gallery, which like the paintings in Rothko Chapel in Houston (where I’m from) are literally a religious experience. It’s terrible to say again that you haven’t seen them until you look at them in person, but it is DOUBLEY true in this instance. If you stand at the right distance from the center of any given painting, you can get lost and fall into them. It’s probably been said before, but to me, he was painting the void over and over again up until the end. And he eventually went INTO that void by his own hand, committing suicide. I never thought of it until now but maybe by painting that void he willed himself into it (like standing on the edge of a roof seems to pull you to the ground). As the mystics say, “You combine with what you vibrate to.” I love looking at them and contemplating the infinite, but I’m staying on this side for now. There’s too much to do…