PRINT December 1997

Richard Shone

1 Georges Seurat (National Gallery, London): The story of the complex evolution of the quotidian but disturbing Bathers at Asnières was told through drawings and oil sketches on small panels in such a way that you felt you were following the young Seurat’s ambitious progress, moment by moment, draft by draft. Related works by Seurat himself, by precursors (Ingres, Puvis, Millet), and by contemporaries (Monet, Renoir, van Gogh) contextualized the painting itself, which reigned supreme at the show’s center, wrapped in its provocative silence.

2 Fernand Léger (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris): In Paris, Léger got the kind of grilling few artists can sustain. Although this massive show was curiously weighted here and there—top-heavy in the early ’20s, thin in the late ’40s—the trajectory of his development was clear. Complex yet bold, generous, and immediately accessible, Léger survived this forensic examination with flying, primary colors.

3 Georges Braque (Royal Academy, London): While Léger opened his world to embrace every kind of activity, his contemporary Braque fastidiously narrowed his focus to his immediate surroundings. This show of the pioneer Cubist’s later work contained a superlative group of ’40s and ’50s paintings of studio interiors, billiard tables, and still-lifes. Meditations on space, on transience, on the mutability of objects, the works gave off a pungent aroma that mixed epiphany with unbeatable French taste.

4 & 5 “Modern Art in Britain: 1910–14” (Barbican Art Gallery, London); “Treasure Island” (Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon): If Britain has no towering Modernist figures, it can claim a number of artists who have made something conspicuously personal out of foreign influences and native tradition. “Modern Art in Britain: 1910–14” highlighted the impact European Modernism had on hitherto sleepy British artists. For scholarly acumen and revealing juxtapositions, the show was outstanding. If works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, et al. were clear leaders, several British painters looked more than plucky in the face of this barrage. “Treasure Island” jumped ahead half a century to the art of the ’60s and ’70s (of which the Gulbenkian Foundation owns a substantial collection). Here the influences were transatlantic rather than cross-channel. Artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Bridget Riley, and David Hockney were caught at perfect moments; others whose reputations haven’t survived looked briefly buoyant. Through loans of ’80s and ’90s works—by Long, Cragg, Hirst, Hume—the show marvelously mixed archaeology and current achievement.

6 Stuart Davis (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice): This succinct touring retrospective should earn Davis the renown he deserves in Europe, where he is still an undervalued figure hardly represented in public collections. From his eclectic beginnings to the thoroughbred Modernism of the mature work, Davis’ flight path is traced in an exhilarating show.

7 Vija Celmins (ICA, London): No less compelling, and also unmistakably American, was the traveling show of work by Vija Celmins, which started a long journey from the Whitney Museum. Its impact was slow-burning—the paintings and drawings gradually disclose a reclusive melancholy through focused vision and immaculate craft, with not a mark wasted.

8 Rachel Whiteread (Tate Gallery, Liverpool): In this survey, Whiteread’s sculptures shared odd, unexpected affinities with Celmins’ work, not least in their use of cool color. The consistency of Whiteread’s progress over the last few years may bore those who are impatient with her subtle, multilayered perceptions, embedded in casts of chairs, baths, books, and tables. The rest of us remain enthralled.

9 Michael Craig-Martin (Waddington Galleries, London; Alan Cristea Gallery, London): The Irish-born, American-educated artist Michael Craig-Martin is at last becoming known outside Britain, where he has lived for thirty years and has attained guru status as professor at Goldsmiths College. This year he was seen in forceful flow in a show of paintings (at Waddington) and of prints (at Alan Cristea), where the work’s sophistication and directness carried an undertow of pictorial anxiety that struck an original, exhilarating note.

10 Richard Patterson (Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London): No emerging British Wunderkinder to report on, thank God—wouldn’t such plugs be skeptically received by a cosmopolitan audience grown sick of YBAs? But I like monitoring the sheep-from-the-goats progress of that generation now mainly in its early thirties (many of whom currently have work in the Royal Academy’s exhibition “Sensation”). Particularly impressive was the concurrent solo show of paintings by Richard Patterson, whose work is a highlight of “Sensation.” Obvious early influences are digested and reworked to reveal a serious painter whose increasing technical command has enriched the charge of his work. In his bravura cross-dressing of figuration as abstraction and vice versa, humor, nostalgia, sauciness, and the dissection of urban life are indelibly blended.

Richard Shone is an art historian and an associate editor at The Burlington Magazine. He recently wrote the primary essay for the catalogue to “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” currently on view at the Royal Academy of Art, London.