“Gravity and Grace”

Canonization, of a sort, in journalistic art criticism is always in vogue, but one must remain highly suspicious of the kind of pious invocation of history masquerading as critique that is really about beating the present and its possible future(s) over the head with the big stick of the past. Readers are most likely familiar with the phenomenon of chastening young artists in the name of Minimalism, arte povera, and Conceptual art. Simply add the prefix “domesticated” to any curatorial category you care to mention and voilá, Bob’s your uncle!

Imagine if you will a land where even the auratic Modernist original is at risk. Consider the mode of criticism required for the claim that arte povera is “Dada mischief overblown and gone to seed . . . whatever was done in the Swinging Sixties, Bernini did it better.” (Why stop with Bernini? The logical terminus of the search for quality is surely the mold and damp of a Neolithic cave.) If you cannot begin to imagine such a land, then close your eyes and think of England. According to most of the art critics there, “Gravity and Grace”—an exhibition of sculpture of the ’60s and ’70s curated by Jon Thompson, former Reader in Fine Art at Goldsmith’s College, London—is a chamber of trivial horrors that ought to be returned to the rubbish heap; an ill-considered historical undertaking padded with second-rate examples of what is probably a discredited moment in postwar art history anyway. Such an exhibition hardly requires justification in a country where such work is rarely on public view and generally received with hostility. While it is true that “Gravity and Grace” suffers from being an admittedly idiosyncratic selection of arte povera and post-Minimalist work, one must hold an English curatorial culture which requires the couching of one’s ambitions in the stifling language of Donish preference at least partly responsible. For its scope “Gravity and Grace” is a remarkably vivid and long-overdue slice of art history.

The response to this modest proposal has been predictably swift and parochial, but also unexpectedly nasty, brutish, and cowardly. Exhibitions like “Gravity and Grace” predictably and quite unfairly bear the brunt of a wasted—and wasting—national cultural policy; in one respect they cannot but come up short. Surely Joseph Beuys, not to mention Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, and Mario Merz, could have been better served by more ambitious examples of their work. But who in England would be willing or able to finance that? Couple irresponsible calls for the withdrawal of private and corporate funding from museums like the Tate Gallery with the aftermath of years of Tory political economy and you are simply digging the hole for contemporary art in England wider and deeper.

“Gravity and Grace” has had the laudable effect of exposing to public scrutiny both the work of an important generation of artists and the patrician heart of virtually the entire toadying Establishment of art critics working in England today. Museum-goers should have little difficulty in understanding for themselves what is so seditious about art “which was neither painting nor sculpture,” as art historian Charles Harrison put it. “Gravity and Grace” demonstrates quite succinctly how “those protocols which prescribed the proper activities and competences of the artist in terms of a set of assumptions about the kind of object a work of art was supposed to be and about the kind of experience it was supposed to avail” were deconstructed in the mid ’60s.

The venom and sheer bulk of hack pieces in this instance might have something to do with the fact that “Gravity and Grace” has precipitated a rare moment of synergy within the ranks of the institutional structures of the Home Counties’ visual art culture. The coincidental presence of exhibitions of the work of Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Ryman, as well as collateral exhibitions of Claudio Silvestrin—the architect who effected the transformation of the Hayward Gallery’s interior—and “Out of sight Out of mind”—a survey of Conceptual art—have conspired to make it possible for anyone to glimpse the wider historical context of the cosmopolitan, antiauthoritarian art practices born in the “Swinging Sixties.”

Michael Corris