Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool

Last Saturday we travelled over to Liverpool to take a look at the latest exhibition at the Tate on Albert Dock. It’s had a lot of good reviews so I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about. I didn’t know a great deal about the artist, Keith Haring, but had seen some of his works, probably most notably his large canopy was hanging in the ceiling of the stairwell in the grand hallway of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam during a visit last year. He’d painted it for a solo exhibition at the museum in 1986.

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So, the extensive Tate retrospective was a good opportunity to find out more about the artist. The exhibition was busy (but not crazy busy like some of the blockbusters held in London), so it was clearly popular. But there was plenty of space to allow us to take time to look at the paintings and reflect on them.

The Tate exhibition website tells us

A part of the legendary New York art scene of the 1980s, Keith Haring (1958–1990) was inspired by graffitipop art and underground club culture.

Haring was a great collaborator and worked with like-minded artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. All were interested in creating art for the many. Haring designed record covers for RUN DMC and David Bowie, directed a music video for Grace Jones and developed a fashion line with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. In doing so, he introduced his art and ideas to as many people as possible.

Tate Liverpool website

The exhibition covered the whole of the top floor of the Tate and there were a large number of works on display from the whole of his career, including these two early works when he was influenced by Walt Disney cartoons. And cartoon like figures and symbols were prominent in his work throughout his career. Unlike most Tate paid exhibitions photography was allowed.

When he moved to New York, he became known for chalk drawings he produced on the black paper on empty poster spaces in subway stations; drawing quickly as people walked past and stopping to watch him. There was a video in the exhibition of him doing just that and then getting arrested! The pictures became popular that they were taken away almost as soon as they were finished. There were a few examples in the exhibition, although they were difficult to photograph due to reflections in the glass protecting them.

He’d paint on almost anything he could lay his hands on, like this Yellow Taxi bonnet (or “hood” as our American friends would say!)

and quite a few works on display were painted on tarpaulins – a lot cheaper than canvas.

A number of icon like symbols recur throughout his works, including a crawling baby, a dog, a figure with a whole in its stomach, a cross, computers and some others. Most of his work contain one or more. There’s a good discussion of the symbols and what they represent here, and the Tate provide a key in the free booklet you’re given as you enter the gallery.

He was a political artist and many of his works carry a message, whether about nuclear energy, South African Apartheid, gay rights, racism or drugs.

And, as a gay man living in New York in the 1980’s, he used his art to raise awareness of AIDS. He himself was diagnosed with the disease in 1988. His poster Ignorance = Fear refers to the challenges people who were living with AIDS faced. 

Here’s a few more examples of his work

Before the visit, I was a little sceptical about the exhibition. I knew about his cartoon like paintings and thought it would be fun, but that I’d have tired of it after seeing a selection of them. But that wasn’t how it worked out. Despite the apparent simplicity of his style, there was a lot more depth and complexity than I expected.

There was a lot to see – besides the paintings there were a number of videos about his life and work – so there was too much to take in in one visit. One advantage of being Tate Members is that we can hopefully go for another look before the exhibition finishes in November.

David Smith at the YSP

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David Smith: Sculpture 1932-1965 is YSP’s headline exhibition for 2019 and their principal contribution to the inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International. As usual with their main exhibitions there are a large number of works in the Underground Gallery, with more outdoors, outside the gallery and up on the large lawn.

Smith challenged sculptural conventions and was the first artist in the USA to work with welded metal, becoming known for his mastery of steel. Although hugely influential to the development of abstract sculpture internationally, few of his works are held in non-US public collections, so he is rarely shown in Europe.

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Smith was an innovator – he was the first artist in the USA to work with welded metal, rather than carving or casting. He wasn’t the first to do this, he was influenced by Picasso and the Spanish sculptor Julio González, but he took the idea and developed it. He was also influenced by Russian Constructivism, Piet Mondrian, and Alberto Giacometti’s biomorphic forms. He influenced others too, including the British sculptor, Anthony Caro.

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His works are industrial, influenced by his experience of working as a welder and riveter in a car factory  during a summer job and during WWII he worked as a welder for the American Locomotive CompanySchenectady, NY assembling locomotives and tanks.

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At first, Smith used an oxyacetylene torch, but during World War II he mastered electric arc welding at the American Locomotive Factory.   He ran his studio in Bolton Landing, upstate New York, like a factory, stocking with large amounts of raw material and working to a routine, just like a factory worker (albeit one who worked long hours!).

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As well as welding, he used other industrial processes, bending and forging metal.

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And creating finishes using angle grinders, to score the surface of the metal, and paint.

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In 1962, he was invited by the Italian government to relocate and create sculptures for the Festival of Two Worlds. He was given a warehouse and a team of artisans who helped him in producing 27 pieces in 30 days. After his time there was over, still buzzing with ideas, he had tons of steel shipped back to Bolton Landing to keep working. 

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There’s an interesting article about his life, working methods and creative process by his daughter, here.

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots

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On Sunday we went over to Liverpool to visit some of the latest exhibitions, including the show of works by Jackson Pollock at the Tate.

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The Tate have had one of Pollocks large scale drip paintings, Summertime: Number 9A (1948) on display in the gallery for a while and this had been transferred to the exhibition.

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It’s on display in the first room along with some of his other, similar paintings from the same era.

It’s very typical of the works for which Pollock is most well known where he drips paint from a container, swinging over his substrate placed on the floor. Seems easy. “Anyone could do that”. Randomly applying paint to his canvas. But it isn’t so simple. The randomness is subject to constraints. The artist determines the area where the paint drips, the size of the area, the size of the drips, how fast the container swings and where. There’s more than one colour and he decides which colours to use and in which order they are applied. There’s a lot of decisions he makes and although the pant is randomly applied it is done in a controlled way with the artist setting the boundaries. So, in reality, it’s a controlled process and it takes skill to make something that works. Pollock was clear about this

“I control the flow of the paint. There is no accident, just as there is no beginning or end.”

It’s like real life in many ways. That consists of many random events but within the constraints people choose and apply. And that’s how nature works as well. Atoms and molecules move randomly but there is an overriding order which can be influenced by the constraints humans apply.

Many of the paintings on display were from the later part of his career, a few years before he died in 1956, and, unlike his earlier works, they are predominantly black with the paint applied heavily, thrown on using turkey basters and thickly brushed on to the canvas, creating patterns that are less delicate than in his earlier work. They reflect the turmoil of a life addicted to alcohol and feeling self pity.

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Yellow Islands 1952 (Source: Tate website)

There were figurative elements in these works too nd some of these reminded me of  some of Picasso’s works.

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Portrait and a Dream 1953 (Sorce: Tate website)

It was interesting to be able to compare and contrasts these later works with his better known earlier paintings. They are similar, but different. They show that his style evolved and changed, although with the same underlying approach – the control of randomness.

A good show and we’ll be visiting again before it finishes in October.

Norman Lewis at the McNay

There were two paintings that particularly caught my eye in one of the American art galleries during my visit to the McNay Art. Museum in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago. They featured ordinary people in everyday situations, clearly belonging to the Social Realism school of painting. I liked the subject matter, the slightly simplified forms of the people portrayed and the flat, bright colours.

The artist was Norman Lewis, an African-American painter who was born in Harlem. In his early work he concentrated on painting the things he saw around him in the working class communities of New York. In the Dispossessed he shows a family being evicted from their home, their possessions on the street.

The second painting portrays a more positive image with an African-American woman being given a reading lesson by a white woman. Given attitudes towards race in America at that time, I wonder whether the white woman is a member of the Communist party who were active amongst the black community in New York and other American cities

In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract and he became a leading exponent of the Abstract Expressionist movement. One of his best known paintings, Migrating Birds (1954), won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Museum’s 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition. However, his work did not sell nearly as well as other Abstract Expressionists, his ethnicity no doubt being the reason for this, and he supported himself and his family through teaching.