Painting is a physical activity. You could think of it as a sport such as tennis, requiring virtuoso control of the brush to achieve a particularly fine stroke.
However, many of the exhibits in “A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance” at London’s Tate Modern suggest a very different kind of pastime, such as nude mud wrestling.
“A Bigger Splash” begins interestingly, then rapidly gets messier (visually) and more confused (conceptually). Its subject is how painting turned into a kind of theatrical performance in the 1950s and 1960s, and how this historic period is influencing some contemporary artists. That’s the muddling bit.
We start with two renowned images of 20th-century art: Jackson Pollock filmed in the act of creating one of his drip paintings in 1950. The artist almost dances, deftly flicking paint onto a canvas lying on the ground.
The Tate’s own drip painting, “Summertime Number 9A” laid out like a carpet to illustrate this point, looks a bit, well, flat (the lack of a prime Pollock is one of many deficiencies in the Tate collection).
David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash” (1967), the best known of his paintings of a Californian swimming pool, in contrast, looks terrific.
There is a paradox involved in both the case of Hockney and of Pollock. “A Bigger Splash” is a picture of something that happens so quickly -- the spout of water when someone jumps in a pool -- you can scarcely discern its shape. But the painting was done in a slow, carefully pondered manner.
The link to performance came in the documentary film of the same name, “A Bigger Splash” (1973-4) by Jack Hazan. Similarly, Pollock’s dancing and dripping was -- the evidence suggests -- a performance put on for the cameras. His actual procedures were more carefully thought out.
Probably the same is true of Yves Klein’s “Anthropometry of the Blue Era” (1960), which involved three nude models solemnly covering themselves in azure pigment, and then making body prints on canvas.
As painting-performances go, this was a stylish, even witty affair, done in front of a seated audience, while a small orchestra played and Klein himself directed the proceedings in evening dress. A film of the event is on show. Unfortunately however, the Tate hasn’t borrowed one of the actual pictures, which are surprisingly good.
Around that time, another French artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, shot at canvases behind which she had secreted sachets of paint. And as the 60s wore on, things got a lot messier. Artists of many nationalities began daubing the naked bodies of themselves and other people.
The Viennese Actionists specialized in a blend of pigment, blood, nakedness, self-mutilation and, in the case of Hermann Nitsch, raw meat.
In “Flower Orgy” (1968) Yayoi Kusama painted her trademark dots on large numbers of undressed hippies who then lay on top of each other in a heap.
Much of this performing painting was doubtless fun, the Viennese Actionists being an exception there. The artistic returns were definitely diminishing. The second half of the show contains work by a number of artists today allegedly inspired by all those pullulating nudes and spurting color.
These didn’t strike me as much entertainment at all, and the connection to what went before is far from obvious.
The only exception -- somewhat interesting and a bit fun -- is the work of Lucy McKenzie, who makes pictures like evocative theatrical backdrops to some period drama. This exhibition begins with a fine splash, namely Hockney’s -- not only bigger, also better -- and goes down from there.
“A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance” opens today at Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG, and runs through April 1, 2013. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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