A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance - review

The Tate Modern’s new exhibition asks how painting and performance art met – and parted.

Only ten minutes long, Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock painting caused a major crisis of confidence for the American artist. He felt that in explaining his "action painting" methods, Pollock Painting stripped the mystique from his work: Namuth’s step-by-step direction of things he usually did spontaneously led him to believe that the film was “phony”.

The Tate Modern’s exhibition Painting After Performance, which runs until April 2013, takes Namuth’s film as its starting point, placing it and Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A (1948) in its first room alongside David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Jack Hazan’s documentary on Hockney of the same title. The crucial point here is that the "splash" in Hockney’s acrylic painting of a fantasy Californian residence looks unplanned, but wasn’t – he had tried numerous ways to represent moving water, rejecting the possibility of throwing paint at his canvas as some assumed Pollock did to create his works and instead meticulously thinking through every brushstroke that created the striking ‘splash’.

Hazan’s exposure of Hockney’s processes did not cause Hockney any of the existential crises that befell Pollock, and many of Hockney’s contemporaries began to put their performative methods on a par with their finished paintings, if not making them more important. Room 2 offers artists who recorded for public consumption the ‘actions’ they used, with films or photographs and paintings placed alongside each other – Niki de Saint-Phalle shooting paint at a strip of material, Yves Klein using naked female models covered in blue paint and dragged across a canvas (documented in Anthropometry of the Blue Era), Japan’s Gutai artists who used other parts of their bodies besides their hands to paint, and Situationist International member Pinot-Gallizio, whose Manifesto of Industrial Painting led him to produce huge rolls of painted canvas, simultaneously unique and mass produced, sold by the metre or turned into dresses and modelled at Italian galleries.

The room given to the Vienna Actionists, chosen above several other Sixties organisations who devoted themselves to "action art" (the US Fluxus group, for one, are not mentioned here), emphasises both the contrast between the façade of spontaneity and the detailed structuring, and the stakes of certain performances. Günter Brus was arrested immediately after filming his Vienna Walk in 1965 for presenting his ‘potentially disturbing’ spectacle to the public, and the Austrian police frequently apprehended other Actionists. Besides Kurt Kren’s short films in which Kren refused to make "straight" documents and instead played with the time sequences of actions, the most intriguing object here is Brus’s Run-Through of an Action, a blueprint for every movement in an unperformed 56-minute piece in which he intended to move around a room, unsettling the audience with his reactions to recorded sounds.

Striving to weave together major and minor post-war narratives whilst using as much of its own collection as possible (over a third of these works belong to the Tate), A Bigger Splash shows how feminist and queer artists grew tired of being used as props by Klein, the Vienna Actionists and others, leading them to find new directions for autonomous body art. Rooms 4 and 5 incorporate a far larger number of artists, opening with VALIE EXPORT’s Identity Transfer 1, in which she experimented with symbols of masculinity and femininity, claiming control over her female body rather than having it directed by a male artist.

Over half of the artists in A Bigger Splash are women, and the range of responses shown to the objectification of women and exclusion of gender variant and queer perspectives by the Fifties and Sixties performance painters is the exhibition’s most captivating feature. If Cindy Sherman’s photographed self-portraits may be familiar to many observers, Sanja Iveković’s investigations into make-up and the images of beauty promoted by Yugoslav women’s magazines or Helena Almeida’s pictures of herself inhabiting her paintings may offer something new to those aware of those who have traditionally been more prominent in the narrative that this exhibition unpacks.

Such spectators, however, would then have to go away and explore by themselves any of the artists or stories here, offered in great number but without great coherence. The line between artists who continued to paint, on canvas or on their bodies, and those who abandoned painting in favour of video or installation constantly moves, and neither the first five rooms, which explore the overarching story of painting and performance from the Fifties to the Seventies (or Eighties in China, due to the effects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution), nor the rooms given to individual artists using paint to create social or theatrical spaces during the last thirty years, provide a satisfactorily in-depth investigation into those artists’ practices.

For example, we are told that Lynn Hershman created an alternative ‘self’, named Roberta Breitmore, which raised the fascinating question of how far a second persona must be lived before it becomes equally valid as the first (or more), with her "performance" lasting from 1974 to 1978 and being documented by private detectives who followed ‘Breitmore’ and took pictures. All we see, however, is one image – Roberta Construction Chart #1 which colourfully deconstructs the character that Hershman created. But without any other context, how can the viewer meaningfully engage with it?

The individual rooms set aside for Edward Krasiński, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Karen Kilimnik, Lucy McKenzie, Jutta Koether, Ei Arakawa and Slovenia’s IRWIN/NSK groups cannot delve much further into the totality of their outputs, and ultimately the impression is left of an exhibition that attempts to introduce the newcomer to the idea that painting and performance interacted with each other, and provide something new to those already familiar with it. The structure chosen to straddle these seemingly contradictory aims may overwhelm the beginner and underwhelm the connoisseur, ultimately feeling like a way of minimising the risk of presenting avant-garde ideas to an audience: A Bigger Splash signposts art and certain artists effectively but too often fails to dive beneath the surface in the way that exhibitions devoted to any one of them could do.

Painting After Performance runs at Tate Modern until April 2013.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage