“Turner Prize”

“NO JURY, NO PRIZES” was one of the great slogans of modernism, but since publicity is today valued more than autonomy, ours is a time when, as the Dodo said, “all must have prizes.” The art world’s best-known award, the Turner Prize, is a consequence of this shift in values, which naturally goes unmentioned, not to say unlamented, in Tate Britain’s retrospective of Turner-winning art. The exhibition does, however, shed light on the past twentytwo years of contemporary art in Britain, on that art’s relationship to the public, and—not least—on what kinds of artwork typically garner and then benefit from what journalist Laurence Marks, writing of the first competition in 1984, characterized as “a great cloud of fuss, feuding, gossip, theatrical controversy, dismissive remarks about the great modernists, and so forth.”

The show gets off to a rip-roaring start with a pair of stunning paintings by Malcolm Morley, the winner that first year—who was working at the height of the rage for neo-expressionism, which he undoubtedly influenced. The tradition that the prize should cause an uproar in the British press began with Morley—from the start, controversy would be the glue that fixed the idea of contemporary art in the collective consciousness—even if in his case it was less the quality of the work than that the New York–based artist had barely set foot in his native land for the previous quarter-century. The two paintings of Morley’s on view here, Day Fishing in Heraklion, 1983, and Cradle of Civilization with American Woman, 1982, actually look even better than they did back in the day. Maybe too good, in fact: Although they are followed here by room after room of high-quality art, it all—not excluding Gilbert & George’s massive photomural Drunk with God, 1983—seems terribly well behaved after these raw and raucous works.

From 1987 through 1994, the winners were all working in sculpture, Britain’s most important art export at the time, with Richard Long (in 1989) as a signal precursor, followed by the artists who emerged around 1981 under the banner “New British Sculpture”: Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Anish Kapoor, and Antony Gormley. Two winners of the early ’90s, Grenville Davey and Rachel Whiteread, represent a younger generation of sculptors. Even Damien Hirst, who was nominated in 1992 but won on a second try in 1995—and is represented here by Mother and Child Divided, 1993/2007—can be seen as a continuation of this lineage more than as a break with it, although there is clearly something different about his combination of a knack for provocation with imagistic concision. As the critic Richard Dorment noted all the time, Hirst’s “work . . . has the instant recognizability of Whistler’s Mother.”

The next big wave in British art was not the YBA phenomenon, however, which was always more a social set than an aesthetic position, but the outpouring of video and film in the mid- to late 1990s, represented here by Douglas Gordon, Gillian Wearing, and Steve McQueen. Like the sculptures of the early ’90s, the art of this period had a public scale—and accessible subject matter too, as well as aesthetic roots outside the fine art tradition, as is apparent in Wearing’s proclaimed debt to television documentaries and in Gordon’s awareness of how, “as a teenager, any girl or guy can sit in their bedroom and run and rerun a video of their current obsession and watch the whole thing in slow motion.”

Since 2000, by contrast, it would seem that anything goes: There is no immediately evident thread connecting Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographs, Keith Tyson’s drawings and sculptures, Martin Creed’s conceptual conceits, and Grayson Perry’s pots—although Mark Wallinger won last year on the strength of State Britain, 2007, a work that is arguably generically similar to the politically charged reenactments of Jeremy Deller, who won three years earlier. In general, the unpredictability of these choices may be a sign of the maturity of the UK’s cosmopolitan art scene, in which no one aesthetic can really dominate.

And yet: The paintings of the 2006 prizewinner, Tomma Abts, which feature at the very end of this retrospective, do suggest—through their very difference—a continuity among the previous winners from 1984 on. With its emphasis on scale and impact, its rhetoric of importance, and an institutional aesthetic that disavows intimacy, this art is not unlike the grand machines meant to wow ’em at the Salons of the nineteenth century. Even Creed’s Work No. 227 Lights Going On and Off, 2000, can be read in this way: It is undeniably spectacular in its profligate sacrifice of space. To observe that, in speaking with a still, small voice rather than with a loudspeaker, Abts’s small, dense, and very understated abstractions stand out here—even from a painting that announces its personal nature as overtly as does Howard Hodgkin’s A Small Thing But My Own, 1983–85—is not to denigrate the other artists in this exhibition. But it makes one suspect that in attempting to bring art to a mass audience, the Turner Prize to some extent internalized that imagined crowd’s imagined philistinism. Abts’s art is as far from that as it is possible to go; perhaps its selection reflects a new sophistication on the part of the prize-giving institution and its sense of the public.

“Turner Prize: A Retrospective 1984–2006” remains on view at Tate Britain, London, through January 6.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.