From Painting to Performance

Modern and contemporary artists in the 20th and 21st centuries have treated space in diverse ways, constantly seeking their own visual languages. The Camden Town Group rooted their art in the working-class corner of Edwardian north London to suggest a new modernity in painting. This sense of place is evoked in Frank Auerbach's vision, 70 years later, while for Howard Hodgkin painting is a means to convey the feeling of a place or time and for Aubrey Williams it could be a response to his feelings about a fellow artist, the composer Dimitri Shostakovich

Abstraction became a new language, from Barbara Hepworth's truth to her materials, to the protruding constructions of Victor Pasmore. Hepworth visited Arp and Brancusi in their studios in Paris. A generation was influenced first by Picasso (whom many artists here saw in the Victoria & Albert Museum show in 1945) then by the Abstract Expressionists of New York. Europe still held sway as most felt they had more in common with a shared history (William Scott) and Britain was still a country experiencing rationing in the 1950s. 

The Second World War had a profound effect: some artists served in the army, Victor Pasmore was a conscientious objector, and Roger Hilton was a prisoner of war. The German-born Auerbach and Paul Feiler were sent to the UK to escape Nazism, the latter interned during the first years of that war. For some finding a new visual language was unavoidable. The perceived American dominance of the postwar years doesn't tell the whole story as many of the artists here who allied themselves to Abstract Expressionism had come to it through their contact with Europe and the Tachisme ('to make a stain') of the School of Paris - Nicholas de Stael and Jean Dubuffet. Yet while Peter Lanyon maintained connections to a subject - Cornwall - or Hilton asserted that he was creating a new form of figuration, this generation was close to many of the New York School, in particular Mark Rothko.

It is notable that this display features hardly any women artists: although the class makeup of artists was beginning to change with art education becoming more widely available, the gender imbalance remained. Tala Madani's contemporary engagement with mid-century American Abstraction can stand as a riposte to this imbalance, and in a reversal of the art historical tradition of the female nude, her paintings only ever feature men.

The site of meaning shifted during the 1960s as Conceptual artists sought to circumvent the galleries and museums from which they felt excluded. The expansion of the form took art off the gallery walls and into the space of the viewer. Minimal art used industrial or ephemeral materials to 'empty' art of content: in his monumental Ton of Tea Ai Weiwei subtley subverts this with his symbolic use of tea, bringing a softened organic quality to the hard clean surfaces the Minimalists favoured. A new form of landscape emerged with Richard Long's walking sculpture.

Through performance and ephemeral interventions, artists challenged the idea of the purchasable commodity. Artists also began to experiment with the technology of mass communication, video, as cameras became portable and affordable. Performances could be recorded - and shown to a new and wider audience, through the medium of television rather than in the gallery. By the 21st century artists such as Ai Weiwei and Damien Hirst were making work that responded to the Minimal and Conceptual art of the 1960s, bringing the ideas to a global audience.

image: The Chimney, Mornington Crescent, oil on canvas, by Frank Auerbach [K6481]

Space is a Place is a changing display. Some of the works featured here will be removed from display as new works are added.

On show in Gallery 5 from late-December 2015 onwards.