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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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you know...it was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.