On August 21, 2003 I visited the new Saatchi Gallery
in the County Hall of London across from Westminster. Six weeks earlier I went out from New York on the train from Grand Central and saw the new Dia museum
in Beacon. The juxtaposition of these two experiences prompts some comparisons of the artwork on display in the two places and of the museums themselves as spaces. So does the fact that from June to September 2003 Tate Britain mounted a major show of Bridget Riley’s paintings and Dia: Beacon has a large permanent display of Agnes Martin’s.
Comparisons are odious but sometimes they’re useful.
Matching Martin with Riley and the 2003 Saatchi show with Dia: Beacon breaks down some of the conventional categories. The minimalists, which is what Dia’s artists are often called, are accused of empty formalism. The “Sensation” group headed by Damien Hirst and now showing at the Saatchi are spoken of as challenging, provocative, fresh, and independent. But their provocation has already gone stale and the art on view at Dia: Beacon remains more sincere and emotionally resonant and hence fresher and more provocative than the often crude displays of the Sensation group provided by Saatchi.
“Independent” isn’t a word that long applies to any art that involves groupings of artists. Certainly the mostly coddled Dia artists were not independent, though they could be obstreperous. But how independent is it to be under the wing of Charles Saatchi, housed in a huge former government building facing Big Ben in a prime tourist trap area of London?
Of course neither the Dia nor the Saatchi “Sensation” artists are all of a piece nor do Dia and Saatchi represent opposing camps. By comparison with Tracey Amin, Hirst is as severe and formally elegant as Donald Judd. Saatchi isn’t just the champion of a provocative new generation of Brits. The old Saatchi Gallery’s first exhibited artists were in fact: Judd, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol (who is at Dia, and has his Dia side), Carl Andre (a “Sensation” minimalist, since his bricks were a scandal at the Tate), John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt, Robert Ryman, and Frank Stella! All hail to the catholicity of Charles Saatchi’s taste!
The exhibition I saw at the new Saatchi was ostensibly of Damien Hirst; but the big hall’s spaces were fleshed out with works by Duane Hansen, Chris Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Ms. Emin, Gary Hume, Martin Maloney, Ron Mueck, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Gavin Turk, and Richard Wilson. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Duane Hansen’s work seemed to fall flat. At Saatchi it was arranged to shock and it did. But the trouble was that the whole exhibition at Saatchi was like a waxworks, a chamber of horrors, an amusement park, and visitors wandering in from the touristy environs ranged from the terminally hip to the dorkiest gawkers innocent of art knowledge. The reused spaces made everything – not just Tracey Amin’s disheveled bed – look and feel a little dirty and defiled.
It’s almost ironic that Ofili stole the show from Hirst in Brooklyn a few years ago when Mayor Giuliani’s take-charge style, so much welcomed after 9/11, extended less in the direction of flag waving and courage and more toward stifling free expression. Ofili’s work, seen in series, skirts the edge between provocation and humble folk art. It’s technically dazzling and has much charm but can quickly descend into the decorative and in series seems rather repetitive. Hirst’s obsession with death and decay, which the Dali and Bunuel of Un chien andalu
would have keenly appreciated, is far more shocking than a little half hidden pornographic collage and some elephant dung with a Catholic title.
What’s so striking about Hirst when you see a whole body of work, though, is how tediously didactic he can be. How solemnly he points out that the drug industry creates addicts; that we must die, that flesh decays, that modern life (and fish life too!) is isolating and alienating. But for all his piety and affirmation of Last Things, does he set himself morally above the crowd? In setting a Hirst-polkadot trademarked new Mini-Cooper running down the entrance stairs of the County Hall, he combines self promotion with movie promotion with copycat product placement. Is this what art is all about, now? Hirst’s preachiness fits in with the current tendency, rampant in London’s main museums, toward those tediously explanatory captions on the wall which, along with the audiotour gadgets people carry, take up most museumgoers’ main gallery going time nowadays, rather than the unmediated observation and enjoyment of art.
Much of Saatchi’s record as a mover and shaker of contemporary art is positive, as far as the world’s biggest ad man’s could be anyway (and to give him his due, art has, after all, always been all about money -- or the lack of it). My recent visit to the new Saatchi contrasts sharply, though, with my fond memory of the old Saatchi in its elegant, discreet, but ample space in St. John’s Wood, reached only by the cognoscenti, where I went in autumn of 1986 and admired the splendid combination of only two artists, Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer. This was before the Saatchi championing of the Brits. What a duo! Both produced works vast in scale and conception, and the spaces and arrangements were such that they enhanced each other. Saatchi had the best Kiefers. Serra and Kiefer could hold their own in each other’s company. They went well together. It was a brilliant juxtaposition. The show made a deep impression and surely was a high point among the art exhibitions of the Eighties.
Call me elitist. I am. I preferred that, to the new touristy, kitsch Saatchi at Westminster. The St. John’s Wood spaces were open and handsome; admission was also free (it isn’t now). The vast County Hall building, so impressive from the outside and across the Thames, is in fact dominated by heavy wooden moldings, silly little mounted clocks, and a ring of meeting rooms with big windows that allow few walls for the display of paintings. It’s grand, it’s in-your-face, but it’s far from ideal for exhibiting art.
Dia: Beacon, though on a larger scale, preserves much of the exclusivity of the old Saatchi. It’s been widely publicized, but you have to commit yourself to the 80-minute train ride from Grand Central to get there, and you can’t fall into any tourist traps along the way. The new Dia is one big grand flat rectangular grid, like a composition by Donald Judd or Carl Andre. There are none of those audiotour gadgets or people planted in front of your favorite painting listening to them. There are no tedious preachy placards on the wall to tell you what it all means, what to think, what to know. Just the art, nearly perfectly displayed, presented in very many cases in an installation supervised by the artist, and with attendants there to answer questions if you wish. Dia as always stands behind the work: the installations are permanent.
At Tate Britain, I found the concurrent Wolfgang Tillmans photography exhibition more appealing than the heavily patronized and hyped Bridget Riley retrospective (Tate Modern also shone with its own impressive, if much chillier, photography exhibition, Cruel and Tender). Young Tillmans’ work is both personal and beautiful. If “everything matters,” as he says, perhaps nothing matters, but his heart is in the right place. I find Riley’s work incredibly empty and cold. But for her, Op Art might be a blip on the screen, and perhaps it should have stayed that way. Her earlier paintings at least induce nausea. The more recent ones descend into blandness and the ickiest of British bad color. (For some great color, see the little Howard Hodgkin print room down the hall at Tate Britain, where some of his best lithographs are on view). All the Rileys are truly formalistic exercises in the worst sense of the word.
Contrast Bridget Riley’s displays of eye-catching emptiness with Agnes Martin’s serene, blissful paintings at Dia: Beacon, whose simple horizontal bands are a worshipful meditation rather than a series of video games. There’s no harm in having fabricators or a team of assistants as Riley does (I like having fabricators myself). But part of the baraka, the soulful sacredness of use and touch, that breathes out of Agnes Martin’s paintings surely grows from the fact that her own little brush painted them all, that they show more and more the patience and ripeness of a shaky old hand.
The Agnes Martins are gentle; they radiate light; they both draw you in and awe and distance you with their presences. So do a lot of the installations at Dia: Beacon, which show that a museum itself can be a work of art; that it may be a place to revisit, not in search of new Sensation that soon grows stale, but for sanctuary, refreshment, the remembrance of why art matters.