PRINT December 1995

David Sylvester


I saw so many remarkable exhibitions that I feel I must give prizes in three categories: dead artist, living artist, and theme show. In the first the winner is the MONDRIAN exhibition, which I saw at The Hague. This may be the best exhibition of 20th-century work not only of the year but also of the decade. I said my piece about it in these pages in October.

For the living-artist category I choose GILBERT & GEORGE’s “The Naked Shit Pictures.” The South London Gallery became a chapel with two tiers of Renaissance frescoes in which the settings for the groupings of nude figures were not the usual columns and arches but structures erected from enlargements of turds. One of G&G’s greatest strengths has always been the courage of their self-revelation, a courage comparable to that of Francis Bacon or Samuel Beckett. “The Naked Shit Pictures” seemed a deliberate exercise in baring everything. G&G boldly exhibited their genitals, their feces, their most elemental fantasies, and their fears in the face of mortality. It is a poignant and weighty tragicomic work.

The theme-show prize goes to “DRAWING THE LINE,” exhibited in slightly different forms in four English cities, culminating in London at the Whitechapel. The show was an anthology culled from all times and places and hung by artist Michael Craig-Martin to demonstrate the great variety of ways in which line drawings are made and used and carry meaning. It was rich in wonderful drawings but the point lay in the hanging, with its surprising comparisons: not only juxtapositions, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Carl Andre, but whole sequences, such as Hokusai, Andrea Mantegna, Donald Judd, Michelangelo, and Marcel Duchamp. It was often amusing; it was always imaginative and illuminating, and it manifestly reconciled scholarly interest with popular appeal.


The most disappointing show was the first stop of the BRANCUSI exhibition, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. It turned out to be a display distinguished by maladroit spacing and ugly lighting, accompanied intermittently by siren blasts from the alarm system, at least on the days I attended. There was also an unresolved contradiction between a desire to make the works look impressive and a desire to include a maximum number of variants for the benefit of scholars.

David Sylvester is an art historian living in London. His most recent book is Looking at Giacometti.