By Thane Peterson If I'd been anywhere else, I might have called the police. I'm standing in one of the galleries of the new Tate Modern art museum in London studying a wild, frantically painted nude done by Pablo Picasso late in his life. Somewhere in the next room, which is darkened, a woman is crying out in distress or rapture, or some combination of the two. The voice is grating, disturbing, and impossible to ignore. "Oh my God! More, more," she says. "That's beautiful." I have the queasy feeling that the woman is drugged and not quite sure what's happening to her.
Hearing something weird going on in the next room is typical of the Tate Modern, which opened just over a year ago and is now a "must see" for travelers to London who have any interest in art. I've been dying to see it ever since it opened, and I wasn't disappointed. I visited three times during a recent 48-hour stay in London. It's worth the trip just to see the building -- a hulking, one-time power plant on the banks of the Thames that was redesigned by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
The main entrance is an enormous atrium -- the cavernous 500-foot-by-110-foot former turbine room -- with a sloping, ramplike concrete floor at the bottom of which is the ticket booth. The galleries, offices, shops, and restaurants are in the other half of the building, a seven-story space that offers some gorgeous views of London from the river end.
SOFA, SO GOOD. In keeping with the latest trend in museum layout, the Tate Modern is organized according to themes, rather than chronology. It's an approach being adopted by institutions as far-flung as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. At the Tate Modern, the permanent collection is shown in various galleries under broad headings such as "Still Lifes," "Nudes," and "History/Memory/Society."
Within each section, different rooms also often have themes, usually involving odd juxtapositions of works you wouldn't normally think of as connected. I'm entering the galleries devoted to "Nudes." In the first room, where I'm standing, are 20th Century nudes, including the Picasso and paintings by artists ranging from France's Pierre Bonnard, who died in 1947, to the contemporary British artist Lucien Freud, who was born in 1922.
When I step into the next room, I find that the grating woman's voice is coming from a 1995 video work, The Most Beautiful Thing I've Never Seen by the fortysomething American Tony Oursler, who lives and works in New York City. This is not the sort of thing that comes to mind when most of us think of nudes. It consists of an old couch with one end propped up on a length of two-by-four. Trapped underneath, kind of like the Wicked Witch under the house that falls from the sky near the end of the Wizard of Oz, is the woman. Her body is wrapped in the same stuffy grandparents-style upholstery that covers the couch. Her head is an illuminated and translucent rounded oblong, onto which a film of a real woman's head is projected from within by a tiny photo apparatus. The effect is of a real woman trapped inside the globe, which in turn is scrunched between the floor and the couch. The poor woman keeps turning her head as she talks, as if trying to find a way to break free.
SUGAR AND SPICE. The Tate Modern breaks with traditions in all sorts of ways -- not the least of which is that its view of modern art is highly opinionated. Some pretty daring judgments are implicit in which works are hung side-by-side, for instance. The descriptions of the works are judgmental, too, rather than simply giving dates, titles, and other basic facts. There are often short, signed essays about a work or related trend by critics, other artists, and journalists. Various side exhibits to put the art in context. For instance, in one room, two antique ethnographic films are shown continuously, one about Senegal done by Germans in 1910 and the other about the Congo, the latter done in France in 1928 and narrated by the novelist André Gide. This shows us attitudes toward Africa at the time when Picasso and other European painters were being so influenced by tribal art.
The Tate Modern was created by dividing the collection of the renowned Tate Gallery art museum, started in 1897 by sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, into two parts. This allows more works to be shown at any given time. The original museum is now called the Tate Britain and is devoted to British art from 1500 onward. The new Tate has an international collection that ranges from Picasso and Matisse to cutting-edge contemporary art. Works from the regular collection are rotated fairly regularly, so you may see very different things from those I'm describing when you visit the new Tate.
Here are some things to look for if you get a chance to visit this summer. One of my favorite works is a film by South African video artist William Kentridge. I'd guess it runs 5 or 6 minutes, and I sat through it a dozen times. Kentridge, who has received enormous attention from museums and collectors over the last four years, bases his films on stills of charcoal drawings, which he then smudges and changes in various ways and re-shoots to create the illusion of movement.
HEART OF DARKNESS. I found the one at the Tate Modern, History of the Main Complaint, mesmerizing. It's about the exploitation and brutalization of black workers as seen through the mind of a rapacious South African mining executive as he undergoes medical tests. As probes snake through the executive's innards, various horrible scenes materialize. A black miner is beaten to death with clubs, with each deadly blow marked by the sound of wood meeting flesh as little red pencil-mark Xs seem to materialize on the executive's head and body. In another scene, shadowy, otherworldly figures flit across the road as the executive is driven through a forest. At the end, the tests, finished, the man rematerializes in his office, surrounded by his faxes and incessantly ringing phones. Horribly, nothing seems to have changed, either in the man's heart or in the world around him.
Andreas Gursky, a German artist in his mid-40s who lives and works in Dusseldorf, is disturbing in a more mundane way. Gursky makes enormous color photos that are as large as good-sized picture windows, usually of vaguely familiar scenes. The images are digitally manipulated, but so subtly that you're never quite sure which elements are real and which have been changed. Business people will get a kick out of Chicago Board of Trade, which shows an impossibly huge and overpopulated (even for the CBOT) trading floor in midsession. You're pretty certain Gursky has somehow made the trading floor bigger and more crowded than it really is, but you're not absolutely sure -- which is the point. My favorite is a shot of the Rhine in which the (digitally altered?) river runs as an impossibly uniform strip through the center of a landscape.
One of the Tate Modern's most daring judgments is the attention it lavishes on Tracy Emin, one of the controversial Young British Artists championed by the ad exec and collector Charles Saatchi. Emin is controversial because she focuses her art on herself, notably on her sex life, sexual abuse, and drug-taking. A signature work is a tent inside which she documents all the men she has slept with. The Tate Modern puts some of her sketches and other works on par with youthful works on gay themes by David Hockney, an acknowledged modern master. Emin and Hockney are described as "perhaps the most prominent and visible British artists of their respective generations" -- an assessment come critics would say vastly overstates Emin's importance. I must say, though, that I found the Emin sketches tremendously affecting.
BROAD, BOLD STROKES. The bizarre juxtapositions of works by more established artists could get annoying over time, but, as a newcomer, I found many of the comparisons intriguing. In one room, for instance, the elongated figures of Alberto Giacometti are compared to two paintings by the color field painter Barnett Newman that have a narrow, vertical bar of color on one side. The work of French-born Louise Bourgeois, who has spent most of her career working in New York, are displayed in the same room with the work of Annette Messager, who stayed in France. I had never thought of making these connections before.
I was happy to find an entire room devoted almost exclusively to late works by the American artist Philip Guston, one of my heroes. Guston was a tremendously brave abstract artist who, late in his career (when his works were commending top prices), risked the disdain of critics and collectors by completely altering his style. He dropped abstraction and created a weird, politically charged cartoon world full of menacing Klansmen, huge ashtrays full or cigarette butts set in a desolate post-nuclear sort of world. These huge, frightening paintings are not to be missed.
Even if you're not nearly as passionate about art as I am, the Tate Modern is still worth a visit. Entry to the permanent collection is free, for one thing, a heck of a bargain considering the $200 million-plus cost of renovating the building. As you wander through the exhibits, there are several rest areas -- including one outdoor patio -- where you can stop and admire the view across the Thames. There's also a restaurant on the seventh floor that offers some spectacular views of the city. The museum is part of the Millennium project to redevelop the Left bank of the Thames. Among other attractions as you walk along the river are pubs and restaurants, various theaters, and the Royal Festival Hall, London's main concert hall.
STANDING ROOM ONLY. My main complaint about the museum is that it's often over-crowded, often making it difficult to see the art work. My other gripe is the high admission price for the temporary exhibits. When I was there, the two on display when I was there cost a combined $18, which strikes me as a tad pricey.
I think the Tate Modern can improve over time. On the way up the escalator one day, I heard a fellow tourist complain to her companion that the museum doesn't yet "have a soul." It also clearly has some other issues to deal with. For instance, other than the Emins, hardly any works by young British artists (YBAs) were on display when I visited. Presumably, they're still mainly handled by the Tate Britain, which also continues to administer the Turner Prize, the most prestigious award for contemporary British artists.
That's a big gap in the Tate Modern's mission because the YBAs are doing some of the most interesting and controversial work in the world. Over time, however, I suspect, the Tate Modern will resolve such issues. In any case, it's already one of the most spectacular modern art museums in the world. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online