tue 19/08/2014

A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance, Tate Modern | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance, Tate Modern

An exhibition defined by its omissions ignores the premise behind its own title

'May of Teck' (2010) by Lucy McKenzie Collection Charles Asprey © Lucy McKenzie

A Bigger Splash... opens with Hans Namuth’s famous 1951 film of Jackson Pollock balletically dripping, flicking and pouring paint onto the canvas at his feet. Beneath the screen a long, scroll-like painting by Pollock lies on the gallery floor. The arrangement implies that this could be the painting the artist is creating on film while, subliminally, another message is being conveyed. The screen has pride of place, so all eyes are on the heroic artist; he is of prime importance and the work is perceived as a byproduct of his creative drive.

Welcome to Action Painting – a phrase coined by American critic Harold Rosenberg – and to the concept of painting as a form of performance. Pollock’s engagement with the canvas was primarily physical rather than cerebral. (Pictured right: Summertime 9A (1948) installation shot. Tate collection © Pollock-Krasner Foundation) The painting was the result of improvisation – a dance involving the transfer of paint from brush, can or stick to canvas. And since nothing was preconceived – there were no preparatory drawings or sketches – the white expanse became, according to Rosenberg, "an arena in which to act... What was to go on the canvas,” he famously wrote, “was not a picture but an event.” The resulting image, therefore, is a record or trace of that interaction.

For subsequent generations the issue was how to respond to this cataclysmic shift in thinking about the nature of painting. Many went down the route of performance and the exhibition attempts to provide an overview of the transition from painting to performance. The aim is to be comprehensive and, since artists in China, Japan, Korea, Eastern and Western Europe, Cuba and Brazil, as well as Britain and the States were exploring the potential, there’s a lot of ground to cover. In France, Yves Klein employed models to smother their bodies in paint and press themselves against paper or canvas to leave an imprint. But not enough space has been allocated, so most people are represented by just one or two images and a resumé of their life’s work. It's far too much to take in, especially if the material is new to you, and there are too few images to whet your appetite for swotting.

It feels particularly relentless because little-known artists like Wiktor Gutt are given equal billing with major figures like Bruce Nauman, so there’s no change of pace or shift in emphasis. (Pictured left: Ana Mendieta Self-Portrait with Blood (1973) © The Estate of Ana Mendieta, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York). And why have some key participants been left out? Whatever happened to Happenings? Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg – who staged performances for live audiences – are inexplicably missing along with any mention of Fluxus artists like Yoko Ono. Remember John Lennon climbing a white ladder to read the word “Yes” written on a white painting tacked to the ceiling?

There’s no sign of Carolee Schneemann (who painted while swinging naked from a rope) or Orlan (who underwent plastic surgery so her face would conform to an ideal espoused by Renaissance painters like Botticelli). Also absent are Luca Fontana (who slashed his canvases) and Piero Manzoni (who notoriously canned his shit) along with Gustav Metzger (who attacked a giant painting with acid during his Destruction in Art Symposium of 1966).

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