Jan 15 2012: Pop Life: Art in a Material World at Tate Modern (NVA, 2012)

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Can an exhibition in which around two thirds of the art on display is dated, shabby, and deliberately crass still be a show worth viewing? In the case of Tate Modern’s big winter display, curated by Jack Bankowsky, Alison M Gingeras and Catherine Wood, the answer is a tentative ‘yes’, partly because it asks some interesting questions about the nature of contemporary art, especially the influence of media coverage and big money on the public reception of new work, and partly because it reconstructs several much discussed art world reference points – exhibitions seen by relatively few at the time, but subsequently granted iconic and historic status, such as Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven, Keith Haring’s Pop Shop and COUM Transmissions’ Prostitution – becoming, along the way, a kind of curatorial argument about media hype as its own art form, and the branding of artists’ works as instantly recognisable product lines rather than individual pieces designed for prolonged contemplation during the post-Pop era of the eighties, nineties and today.

The first room sets out the stall with a masterstroke of curatorial economy, as Jeff Koons’ Rabbit works its transformation of a child’s balloon into a polished Brancusi, a late Warhol self-portrait glares from the wall in red and black, like a death’s head, and Takashi Murakami’s Hiropon, a hyper-inflated Manga girl dancing with a skipping rope of milk squeezed from her own beach-ball breasts, all hang beside examples of their own commercial exploitation. Koons’ Rabbit is filmed taking part as an outsized inflatable in a Macy’s Day parade, Warhol’s visage appears in Japanese TV adverts, and Murakami’s figurines are reproduced in miniature as a set of toys made for fast food giveaways. In each case, artworks made from commodities are returned to their original state with the artists’ signatures added, creating a perfect loop in which the artist becomes a brand, the artwork a product, and the Warhol statement that underwrites Pop Life – “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art” – receives a fittingly concise illustration of the practice in action across three decades.

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With this first room acting as the abstract, what follows should be the lecture putting the flesh onto those bones, but Pop Life ultimately disappoints, by choosing to endlessly reiterate that initial point with room after room of illustrative material rather than expand on its opening premise. There’s an obvious logic (though also a feeling of overkill) to moving on through three further rooms of Warhol, the first showing his glow-in-the-dark Gemstones series, with its blend of moneyed content and implied cubist form, as the jewels’ facets emit a sickly greenish light in their darkened space. The second presents a gathering titled ‘The Worst of Warhol’, offering ‘two for the price of one’ portraits of David Hockney, Mick Jagger and Joseph Beuys hung on Warhol wallpaper alongside rehashed ‘greatest hits’ from the Retrospectives and Reversals series of the 1980s, while a third offers an array of old copies of Interview, glossy magazine ads and TV appearances in a small archive, but each room merely reinforces the general point made in the first, and does little to expand or add nuance or depth to its wider argument.

Of course, for Warhol, the image was a route to business success, but how exceptional was he in that respect? Perhaps a more interesting line could have examined the works of artists outside the post-Pop field whose expressive styles became brands in themselves, a point noted of many abstract painters from the 1950s onwards, as each developed a signature approach – Lucio Fontana’s sliced canvases, Yves Klein’s blue paint, Jackson Pollock’s drips, Hans Hartung’s bundled lines or Joseph Albers’ coloured squares – that allowed collections to be built on a ‘one of each’ basis. Henry Moore’s instantly recognisable post-war bronze forms, Anselm Kiefer’s weighty canvases with their mud, straw and lead additions, Gerhard Richter’s endlessly varied plays on the hinterland between painting and photography – all might be seen as sharing in a similar tendency towards the signature style and the artist as brand that Warhol merely simplified and exaggerated, just as Picasso’s carefully cultivated public image as a charismatic formal magician feeds ultimately into the iconic felt, fat and self-mythology that underwrote the mystique of Joseph Beuys (a puzzling omission from Pop Life, given the ‘artist-as-brand’ pretext) during the 1970s.

In some respects, by focusing exclusively on the deliberate bad faith of the post-Pop artists, Pop Life neglects a more general swing towards the artist as personality, and the work as embodiment of the artist’s carefully cultivated image, in post-war painting and sculpture. It’s a point hinted at in the section devoted to Martin Kippenberger, where posters, paintings and other ephemera contrive to suggest a hollowed-out but nonetheless protean creativity, though I’m not sure Kippenberger’s vaunted cynicism makes much sense in isolation from the wider context represented by Georg Baselitz’s inverted archetypes, Joseph Beuys’ social-shamanist mythmaking and the now seemingly forgotten neo-expressionism of 1980s Berlin, which saw painters like Jorg Immendorf, Markus Lupertz, Albert Oehlen and A.R. Penck making international waves under the New Spirit In Painting banner, alongside the German anti-pop of Sigmar Polke (another influential 1980s figure omitted here). Without that frame of reinvented bohemian seriousness as a counter, Kippenberger’s strategies seem deprived of their targets, rendering his inclusion slightly random.

It might have been equally useful to place the sections of American work arriving in the wake of Warhol in the broader context of reinvented machismo that saw Julian Schnabel briefly acclaimed as an eighties master and Eric Fischl a new Edward Hopper, alongside the more political strains of post-Pop art developed by David Wojnarowicz, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Yet after Warhol, the exhibition seems to founder, becoming increasingly random in its inclusions, and as we move to his variously interesting New York acolytes and proteges, the omissions seem as revealing as the works on show. Where is Haring’s colleague Kenny Scharf, for example, or Robert Longo and David Salle, once acclaimed as the definitive New York postmodernists, and highly prized by the first wave of new money Wall Street collectors?

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Instead of the wider context of New York’s early 1980s scene – most of it, in some way, connected to Warhol’s sense of art as business, fashion and media sensation, and crucial to perfecting the art as hype approach that became standard practice in the years that followed – Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat are largely isolated here, set alongside Ashley Bickerton’s Self Portrait, a box covered in corporate logos. Most poignant of all, perhaps, is David Robbins’ Talent, comprising photographs of the hottest young artists on the New York scene of 1986. Youthful monochrome images of Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman are there, alongside Robert Longo and others, all shot in the style of the Board portraits in a corporate report, yet those still-familiar names sit anomalously among an array of barely remembered faces, as though we’re looking at the hype’s residue, long after the spotlight’s animating heat has been withdrawn.

Keith Haring’s reconstructed Pop Shop (the original opened in New York’s Lafayette district in 1986) holds its own, at least, the fully operational shop with its eighties electro soundtrack managing to frame the striking black and white graphics in something akin to their original context. Haring’s designs, too, while not as fresh as they once seemed, can still grip and boggle the eye. You suspect that Haring knew all too well how to play the art world game, but did so in a spirit of very shrewd sincerity.

Beyond Robbins’ inadvertent memorial to the mixed longevity of his subjects is a barrier forbidding access into the room containing Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, a 1983 installation built around Gary Gross’s notorious photograph of a ten year old Brooke Shields naked and provocatively posed in a bath tub, wearing adult make-up. That image was re-photographed by Prince at the height of an early 1980s lawsuit between Shields’ family and Gross over its continued use, then displayed inside a gold frame in a cavernous red space. Now, a quarter of a century on, the room is closed on police orders due to concerns about the paedophile implications and legality, under current obscenity laws, of the image itself.*

Instead, we pass through a gold-walled reconstruction of New York duo Rob Pruitt and Walter Early’s 1990 homage to blaxploitation, Fear of a Black Planet, with its amateurish pasted posters on paint-splattered hardboard panels, like objects knocked together in a suburban teenager’s bedroom. It’s not clear whether the ineptness of the Pruitt-Early work is deliberate or unintentional, or what, if intentional, the purpose of it all might be. Once again, I suspect that omitted works might have shed light on this, and had Fear of a Black Planet sat alongside some examples of the graffiti art being hyped in New York galleries at this time, the attempt by these artists to delve into the iconography might have become a bit clearer than it seems here, and its juxtaposition with Piotr Uklanski’s 1998 display of Hollywood film stars in German uniform, The Nazis, seems as random a leap in the gallery as it sounds on paper.

Another coup for Pop Life is the reconstruction of Made In Heaven, the show featuring billboard-scale images of Jeff Koons and his then wife, Italian porn star and politician La Cicciolina, in a full array of hardcore poses spread across a variety of media. Large scale colour photographs of fellatio, cunnilingus and penetration surround the clumsy statuary of Jeff On Top, the inflated crystal whimsy of Violet Ice (Kama Sutra) and the marble statuette of Bourgeois Bust. Finally seeing it, in all its rather flatly unimaginative glory, after the reams of commentary expended on its lavishly Baroque qualities in the years since it was first shown, turns out to be something of a let down. Only the porcelain Wall Relief With Bird hints at the joyously outrageous kitsch and sensuality of which Koons is occasionally capable.

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In this final phase of the show, the argument, such as it is, seems to have scattered into fragments and tenuous threads. The video footage of Andrea Fraser’s Untitled presents a 2003 recording of the artist’s sexual encounter with a collector, the encounter itself sold as an artwork. The idea of the artwork as a form of refined prostitution, a seduction of collectors and markets, links Fraser’s contribution to the COUM Transmissions material of 1976, which features Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey adopting false names and offering her own pornographic representations in the pages of magazines like Knave as artworks. Sex work becomes merely another form of exploitation to place alongside art and employment, what the COUM artists called “a paradigm of general conditions under capitalism, for both men and women”. Both, in their use of pornography as subject matter, link back to Prince’s Spiritual America and Koons’ Made in Heaven, but as elsewhere in Pop Life, there’s the germ of an interesting argument here, but one that requires a more thorough display to bring it into focus. The COUM context is hard to grasp without some understanding of the work by artists like Victor Burgin, Art & Language, Mary Kelly and others that would have surrounded it in 1976, and placed in the context of Pop Life, its failings as art and critique lack definition, as though the project could be retrospectively seen as merely one more scandal designed to raise media profiles.

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Instead of developing this potentially interesting sense of there being a range of often surprising convergences among these superficially different approaches in the post-Pop era (the careerist, the hedonist and the theoretical Marxist often became indistinguishable, especially as the ideas behind critical theory and cultural studies took root in the mid-1980s) Pop Life once again changes tack, moving on to the relics of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin’s 1993 Shop displayed in glass cases, Tracey Emin’s rather charming My Major Retrospective on its tiny shelves, and Gavin Turk’s blue plaque and self-portrait as Sid Vicious – a set of fragments from Brit-Art history that, while interesting to revisit in their own right, don’t show enough to feel informative about the era, and are insufficiently focused to make a more precise point about the exhibition’s wider themes.

Within this section are a few pieces by Damien Hirst, including dazzling golden cabinets of diamonds, a golden spot painting and the white calf, False Idol, with its gilded hooves. All drawn from Hirst’s record-grossing Sotheby’s auction of 2008, these works represent what might prove to be the last truly ostentatious big money flowing into contemporary art for a few years to come. By the time we reach the final few rooms, with Maurizio Cattelan’s curiously affecting dead horse impaled with a banner reading INRI, after the traditional sign hung above a crucified Christ: the sense throughout Pop Life that deceased equines are being ceaselessly flogged and trumpeted as the Second Coming makes the piece an appropriate mascot for the exhibition.

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Perhaps there’s nowhere much to go after Cattelan’s dead horse, and so it proves: the final room, devoted to Takashi Murakami, suggests an aftermath in which work like this ceases to be art in any real sense, and finally joins the world of corporate multimedia and fashion full time, as it always aspired to do. Murakami’s mural Giant Magical Princess! She is Walking Down The Streets Of Akihabara! acts as the beguiling backdrop to this final transformation of art into business, and Murakami’s commission of Hollywood A-lister Kirsten Dunst and Terminator Salvation director McG to make a video, Akihabara Majokko Princess, upends the usual relation of art to its patrons: here, after all, is an artist powerful and moneyed enough to buy in blockbuster level Hollywood entertainment talent and pay them to realise his ideas for an exclusive video.

The video itself might be little more than an improbably expensive but enjoyably kitsch YouTube spectacle, as Dunst dances around Japanese streets singing The Vapours’ 1980 hit Turning Japanese while wearing a manga costume and a blue wig. Elsewhere in Murakami’s display we encounter the bear from a Kanye West album cover and a row of Louis Vuitton trainers sporting Murakami designs and logo, but all these are pure fashion, graphic and media products, no vestige of irony, distance or critique to separate Murakami’s output from that of any other successful international branding and design agency with a penchant for glossy street art as a selling tool. By this point in Pop Life, you’ll almost certainly feel, the serpent unleashed by Warhol in the first room has entirely swallowed its own tail and long since completed the final phase of its own consumption.

*Note: Since I visited Pop Life, the Richard Prince room has been re-opened, with Tate’s curators and Prince collaborating to replace the original photograph with another, fairly typical of Prince, showing Shields as an adult in a bikini, standing beside a motorbike. The work’s ironies, presumably, are largely unaffected by the change.

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