BREXIT OR NOT, London has thrown open its arms to American artists in what may be their biggest embrace since Pop.
On the cusp of the current Frieze Week, the Royal Academy featured Jasper Johns, and the Serpentine Gallery had a show by the increasingly captivating Wade Guyton imported from Munich’s Museum Brandhorst. Tate Modern entered the home stretch of “Soul of a Nation,” its deeply satisfying survey of African American art. The Barbican had the spirited and atmospheric “Basquiat: Boom for Real,” while the ICA prepped for Seth Price, and Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery readied a full-on survey for Dan Colen.
It was no different in the galleries. Gagosian, David Zwirner, Thomas Dane, Stuart Shave/Modern Art, Maureen Paley, Herald St, Timothy Taylor, Alison Jacques, and the Sunday Painter had Brice Marden, Sherrie Levine, Catherine Opie, Josh Kline, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Jessi Reaves, Alex Katz, Sheila Hicks, and Cynthia Daignault, respectively.
To inject some national pride into this unofficial Festival Americana, Tate Britain offered the open-plan embrace of a Rachel Whiteread retrospective, with the Chapman brothers on tap at Blain Southern and Gilbert and George at Lévy-Gorvy.
But it was Gary Hume who spearheaded the pushback as the artist inaugurating Sprüth Magers Gallery’s newly expanded quarters in Mayfair. The opening, last Thursday, brought out a starry cohort of smoking YBAs, such as Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Fiona Banner, and Whiteread, along with Michael Craig-Martin, Anthony Gormley, Paul Simenon, Don Brown, Rebecca Warren, Nicola Tyson, and such institutional top dogs as the Whitechapel Gallery’s Iwona Blazwick, the Heyward’s Ralph Rugoff, and the ICA’s Stefan Kalmár, as well as Frieze cofounders Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp.
“It’s not about me,” said the modest Hume, whose new enamel-on-crinkly-paper paintings invited a wholesale reconsideration of work that skitters between formalist abstraction and flat-out sentimentality with utter joy. “It’s not about the gallery,” countered Rugoff.
It was both. By taking over the Georgian townhouse, where they used to have hardly more than a storefront, dealers Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers opened up and exposed to natural light domestic spaces friendly to viewing art. “We worked so hard!” said Magers, clearly pleased with the splendor of her surroundings. “Can you believe we’re standing in a basement?” remarked Craig-Martin, of a lower-level gallery with such high ceilings that what might once have been a bomb shelter felt like a grand salon.
The mood was just as bubbly at the dinner for two hundred, catered by Arnold & Henderson at One Belgravia. The Berlin-based gallery, which also has a huge outpost in Los Angeles, attracted a few Germans––mainly, Thomas Ruff (on show at Whitechapel) and Andreas Gursky, and collectors Dayana Tamendarova and the Rubells––but mostly this was an evening of artists’ artists who all collect each other.
Like several of his formerly bad-boy and -girl friends, Hume is now an esteemed member of the Royal Academy of Arts. There, on Saturday morning, he waxed both funny and poetic in an exclusive talk with Marden and RA exhibitions director Tim Marlow. Marden, clad in his signature navy watch cap and bright orange socks, confessed that he likes to touch paintings in museums and recommended the experience, while Hume told the crowd of about sixty patrons that he became an artist because “painting has problems that are all soluble by feeling.”
Thus stimulated, I headed out to discover a developing neighborhood of a dozen galleries in the Bermondsey area of Southwark, where Tyson had large- and small-scale drawings at the stalwart Drawing Room, Damien Ortega had pride of place at White Cube, and Marianna Simnett impressed with the syringe-inflected Worst Gift, a comic/creepy video installation at Matt’s Gallery. (“Clearly an artist to watch,” Serpentine Gallery artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist would tell me later.)
From there it was off to Clapham to meet artists Sam McEwen and Pablo Bronstein at Studio Voltaire, where Glaswegian curator Paul Pieroni had mounted a heart-stopping show of cartoon drawings by the little-known Vittorio Scarpati, who was married to writer Cookie Mueller and made them in 1989 as they both were dying of AIDS in New York.
Nearby, Daignault was opening the Sunday Painter’s new location with alpine imagery, and the always-edgy feminist dominatrix Cosey Fanni Tutti, formerly of Throbbing Gristle, debuted new video animation of her hometown, Hull, that was so hypnotic that we stayed past closing time.
Just as compelling, by the way, is Bronstein’s show at the Royal Institute of British Architecture, where his eyebrow-raising drawings enhance shoddy low- and high-end “developer rubbish” in London dating from the 1960s to the 1990s. (Think Grenfell Tower.)
With McEwen at the wheel, we raced across London to the Approach, a gallery optimally situated above its own downstairs pub, and then to the packed Reaves and Rollins openings at Herald St and Maureen Paley. The two galleries cohosted a bibulous buffet at St. John Bread and Wine that went late, got loud, and spilled out into a typically English downpour.
To brace myself for the fair week ahead, I spent my so-called day of rest lunching on Yorkshire Pudding with Sarah McCrory, director of a promising future gallery at Goldsmith’s, and writer Charlie Porter and his artist fiancé, Richard Dodwell, at the East End’s Marksman Pub before diving into “The Grime and the Glamour,” a film program accompanying the Barbican’s Basquiat show. (Its tagline, “Films about the wild days and nights of New York’s coolest era,” made me feel special.) But the Basquiat show, which focuses on early works that rarely appear in museum surveys of the artist, actually does quite a good job evoking a sense of the downtown Manhattan that birthed him. I liked it a lot.
By Monday, I was starting to feel as if Frieze Week was already anticlimactic. Then Tate Modern literally sent the pendulum swinging the other way with this year’s Hyundai Commission for Turbine Hall: “One Two Three Swing!” by the all-media Danish collective SUPERFLEX.
The public can now lie on a carpet striped with the color of British paper money—the “Zone of Apathy”—and pray that the five-hundred-pound gazing ball swaying above with the rhythms of the planet doesn’t drop on them. “You can actually hear it breathe,” said a gleeful Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s director.
That turned out to be true, sort of, when I previewed it with Tate performance curator Catherine Wood and could hear this shiny wrecking ball of an artwork strain against its anchoring chains. Or were we hearing it gasp at the Switch House wing’s American-style renaming as the Blavatnik Building? (Unusual for here.)
We felt less anxious on the three-person cork swings that SUPERFLEX made for both the hall and the plaza outside, where they hope people will gather around the clock. (A video of Morris swinging like a Fragonard damsel with Tate Gallery overall director Maria Balshaw was already going viral.) It’s all about community.
“There are enough one-person swings in the world,” observed SUPERFLEX’s Jakob Fenger, explaining at a press conference that more swing parks are in the works for sites all over the city, or as many cities that will take them.
The collective’s three artists have been collaborating since they met in school, and as SUPERFLEXer Rasmus Nielsen said, they don’t even believe in individual expression. They want strangers from alien cultures to get chummy in public space, help forge a less divisive world that, he admitted, seemed to be “living in the last hours of the Titanic.”
In the Age of Trump, all I can say is good luck with that.
Meantime, it was back to individual vision, specifically that of the young Korean performance artist Geumhyung Jeong, whom Obrist was keen to watch. She gave an amusing, totally perverse minidemonstration of massage techniques in the beauty spa she had installed in the Tanks, swinging from an orange leather sling and rubbing her flesh against upright brushes sprouting from a male sex doll.
Over at White Cube Bermondsey, artist Eddie Peake was running his troupe of four dancers through Relinquish, a new piece of looping choreography to what Performa director RoseLee Goldberg cited as “great DJing,” and Francesco Vezzoli was welcoming guests to a dinner on the Astroturf grounding his absolutely credible evocation of de Chirico’s world at Nahmad Projects.
After visiting Opie’s show of truly magnificent artist portraits at Dane, where a few subjects—Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Isaac Julien, Duro Olowu—were seeing themselves through her eyes for the first time, I hopped a ride with Sprüth and her London gallery’s director Andreas Gegner to Kalmár’s first benefit gala as ICA director.
Somehow, we arrived an hour early—unheard of! But so did Craig-Martin and dealer Chantal Crousel, who passed the time till cocktails by donning headphones and intently watching the many videos in “Seth Price: Circa 1981,” installed in the darkened, freshly renewed ground-floor gallery, a sunken living room of a space that previously presented itself more like a barrier than a welcome mat.
Kalmár clearly has wasted no time remaking the ICA, bringing in Richard Birkett, his curator from Artists Space, opening up ceilings to skylights, and installing a new bookstore and a regular bar and restaurant, helmed by Arnold & Henderson, in what used to be a small café.
Despite all this, some locals have been grumbling about his program. Not radical enough! Not British enough! Too commercial!
That was because the evening’s honoree was Bryan Ferry, the rude boy turned artisto rock star. (“I love him,” said one guest, “but his politics are rubbish.”)
Some people are never happy. Which is, after all, the way of art. Contrariness is welcome, including by Kalmár, who characterized the ICA in opening remarks as “a site of examination, experimentation and production, giving agency to new forms, progressive ideas, marginalized voices, and opposing opinions.”
Because dinner was served in two separate rooms, opinions divided according to placement. Many people inevitably felt as if they were in the wrong seat—particularly those who weren’t anywhere near the guest of honor. Meanwhile, the lionized, handsome Ferry expressed his radicalism by declining to be photographed, nor did he want to speak or be spoken to. “He’s very shy,” Kalmár said. He was not, however, averse to taking selfies with friends like Peter Doig. And after a toast by Michael Bracewell, who named him the ultimate collagist by recalling Ferry’s stated influences as Smokey Robinson and Marcel Duchamp, the singer rose to say, “I’m not gonna sing,” before thanking, first, Lanvin, the evening’s sponsor, and then Kalmár.
Price sat quietly by his side, happily talking about his show. The artist had seen it only that afternoon, already in place and looking supreme in its mutual beneficial setting. “I told them to think of me as a dead artist,” Price quipped, “and to go ahead to do their thing.”
Now Frieze is here and we’re all doing it. And once again London is swinging.