Monday, 15 April 2013

Can Modern Art Still Be Fun?

Yves Klein in flight
Once, a long time ago, I bought an inter-rail ticket and roamed around Europe, indulging my fascination for Modern Art. I went to the Modern Art Museum in Paris and the Ludwig Museum in Koln, the Louisiana Museum near Copenhagen and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Back then the best London had to offer was the Hayward Gallery, so it was exciting to see 'The Shock of the New' brought to life wherever I went. Sights I remember include a fabulously tall, skinny sculpture by Giacometti (genius!), the head of which you could view from a special balcony, sponges painted blue by Yves Klein and Rauschenberg's goat.

After a while, though, I became jaded. Perhaps I was overdoing it, but the main problem was that every museum seemed to feature the same artists. As I walked around ticking off the Names I started to suspect that the Modern Art museums of the world were like a chain of stores, offering artworks selected from a canon established by influential critics. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, unless you visit too many museums one after another. You wouldn't visit seven Tescos in search of new experiences, would you?

What made me feel rather gloomier was my gradual loss of interest in artists I had admired for their crazy behaviour, brilliance and humour. One of my treasured possessions at the time was a poster showing Yves Klein apparently leaping out of a window, yet I felt little of that madcap spirit on my travels; the real artistry lay in the making of the work, perhaps, rather than the work itself - what we were left to enjoy were the mementos of other people's adventures.

With this thought in mind I went with some trepidation to the Barbican on Friday to see the show about Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Johns & Rauschenberg. That I went at all was mostly because of a video clip posted by critic Fisun Guner of John Cage performing one of his crazy pieces of music on a game show. That little clip brought back the excitement of discovering Modern Art as a provincial teenager. Back in the 1980s it seemed that everything wonderful happened elsewhere, in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin or New York, and art was a kind of distillation of all that glamour and invention. The artists themselves were heroic in their determination to challenge the tedium of everyday life with giant hamburgers, cartoon figures, images of celebrity and disaster. Modern Art was cool and fun.

The day before the Barbican visit I popped into Tate Modern, and the only thing about the place that was cool or fun was the cafe at the top. Admittedly I didn't go to the Lichenstein show, but I did visit a dozen or more rooms, each one more depressing than the last; there were a couple of brilliant pieces by Max Ernst and a lovely Delvaux painting, otherwise the best thing on show was a full-length portrait by Meredith Frampton. Perhaps this was because you could enjoy the picture without knowing anything about art history, whereas so much of the other stuff meant nothing outside its context.

But would the Barbican show offer more? I'd previously seen Duchamp's 'The Bride Laid Bare...' once or twice and found it frustratingly obscure. Now here it was again, still impossible to fathom despite the helpful chart describing its component parts. Am I missing something, or is the joke on us? I love R Mutt's 'Fountain' because its effect is immediate and funny (though slightly less so when presented in a box of centimetre-thick perspex), but 'The Bride Laid Bare' is one for the PhDs only.

Robert Rauschenberg, Express, 1963 (DACS/Artist's Estate)

The same is true, I would have thought, for about half of the show. A reasonably intelligent visitor, I was defeated by the dry displays in the rooms devoted to music, maths and chance. The pianos playing themselves are a lot of fun, though, and so are many of the artworks: Duchamp's trompe l'oeil door, the lovely Johns piece with the painting-by-numbers target, paints and brush and the same artist's 'Field Painting' were particular treats. The latter features an illuminated letter and a light switch, and I'm sure many visitors have the urge to flick the switch and see what happens.

It says something about the gulf between the making of these works and our viewing of them that to do so would get you arrested.

I particularly wanted to rescue Rauschenberg's 'Music Box' from its perspex prison and give it a shake. A crude wooden box with rusty nails penetrating from the outside and pebbles inside, it is an object crying out  to be picked up and played with. With all three of the visual artists you get the feeling that they had great fun making their work, and somehow - almost in spite of the exhibition's rationale - this energy came through.

With the pianos clunking and plinking away in the background and the spirit of these wonderfully inventive artists filling the gallery, I felt a definite quiver of excitement. There's still a lot of fun to be had exploring the avant-garde of the past, when it's presented with the kind of love and sensitivity shown by the Barbican show's curator, Phillipe Parreno. I bet the dancing is great too.

FFI: Barbican Art Gallery

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