Tate Gallery Extension

The fireworks on the first night, and the free chauffeur-driven limousine shuttle for prospective visitors from the Royal Academy during the first two weeks of opening, were no recompense for the disillusionment and betrayal felt by artists on seeing the Tate Gallery’s new extension and the newly rehung collection.

Since the late 1960s the Tate has signally failed to support and account for the life-currents of contemporary work in Britain or abroad; it has consequently been ineffectual as a service either to artists or their public. Hamstrung by its dependence on government for its funding at a time of economic decline and conservative retrenchment, constrained by a bureaucracy of administrators’ and trustees committees, stymied by its divided commitments (being both a museum of modern British and foreign art, and the national collection of British art), the gallery’s policy is confused to a point of virtual impotence. The committee structure makes it vulnerable to all manner of ideological and esthetic compromises and short-circuitings, with a history of muddle and mediocrity that could frame a devastating indictment of democracy in museums.

In the rehung collection curatorial predilections and favoritisms are hidden under the guise of permissiveness, reasonableness and detachment from dangerous emotions such as love and hate—apart, that is, from the loving creation of sepulchra to the respective glories of Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, Carl Andre and Richard Long. The rest of the modern collection is left to fend for itself in dim, overcrowded cells—twilight homes for the superannuated and the nipped-in-the-bud prodigies of yesteryear.

It might be unfair to criticize the current display too strongly—the Tate has made an effort to show as much as possible of its holdings, to take full advantage of the new extension, but in these efforts it has crammed some galleries Salon-style, the walls often hung with paintings two and three deep. One has, for example, to crouch to inspect a small Frank Auerbach, hung at knee-height, or maneuver between Robert Morris’ mirrored boxes to see eight other Minimal works (some in several sections) in an area roughly 25 feet square. Everywhere there are obstructed sight-lines and infuriating juxtapositions—an Oldenburg electric plug hangs ominously over an Andre floor piece. Or, in the case of paintings by Mark Vaux, Paul Huxley, Josef Albers and Stephen Buckley, hung in a darkened basement full of kinetic electrickery, carelessly spotlit, the installation seems to allegorize the death of meaning in a theatrical apotheosis.

At best the display, where it can’t be sensitive, is clever—Giacometti’s standing figures silhouetted against earth-pink walls, their black outlines matching the black security rail and seat, or a Nevelson (in a room curiously dubbed “Abstract Expressionism and Nevelson”) flanked too closely by a Kline and a Still, giving the triumvirate the look of a futuristic, winged wayside altar.

Conservation and security measures are taken to extremes—photocell adjusted, automatic louver-shutters keep out most of the daylight, even on dull days, and fail to keep up with the erratic English sky. Spotlights are kept to a minimum, often angled obliquely to works they are supposed to illuminate. The ultra-violet rays that might damage the paintings don’t stand a chance—neither do visitors who might be interested in a nuance of surface or an inflected color. I’ve never known such an gallery—even the attendants are defensive about it. Caro’s magnificent Early One Morning is roped off in a corner, in case visitors might impale themselves as they grope through the gloom, although according to the official explanation the piece is thus presented (shunted against a wall at one end, so you can’t get a decent end view, much less walk around it) to prevent children swinging on it. For safety’s sake they should plate everything in Armorglass, hire Hell’s Angels and nightclub bouncers as attendants, or simply stash it all in a pitch-dark bank vault. As it is you get a better idea of the works from slides on sale in the gallery shop.

As for the extension itself, the architecture makes its presence felt only when you glance upward (maybe to see what is obstructing the daylight) into the rather fussy hollow pyramids. The overall effect is reminiscent of the nondescript functionalism of the new rhino house at London Zoo.

Adrian Searle