19. October 2016

In spite of a growing sense of routine, on a recent visit to London curator Ingrid Pfeiffer found herself surprised by superlative exhibitions and discovered impressive concepts even at the big art fairs.

By Ingrid Pfeiffer

For a few years it has been doubly worthwhile traveling to London in October for the Frieze art fair: In contrast to Frieze New York in May, which specializes in contemporary art, and the “normal” Frieze in the customary marquee in Regent’s Park, Frieze Masters also offers a first-rate program that incorporates classic modern and postwar art. The quiet, elegant presentation in dark gray tones and the discovery of forgotten artists, not only from Europe but also from South America, is a delight and demonstrates that even art fairs can offer something surprising. After all the visits to fairs over so many years of professional life, a sense of fatigue with such events is starting to set in – something many colleagues I talk to are also familiar with.

Inside the new Tate Modern, photo: Schirn Magazin, 2016

The exhibition stands are so expensive that the gallery owners can hardly afford, or are unwilling, to exhibit unknown artists, since this could cause sales to fall below the exorbitant overall costs. This means that visitors are often confronted with poorer works by apparently “big names” instead of vice versa. This year Frieze scored points in my eyes thanks to a section of curated stands that was dedicated to the 1990s. How quickly the contemporary becomes historic, and what remains of it? That’s certainly an interesting question. It was fascinating to see good artists once again like Karen Kilimnik or Michael Landy, who have caused less of a stir of late, as well as Wolfgang Tillmans, who has since become one of the established greats.

Modern, cool, and nonetheless pleasing

Yet the main reason one travels to London is the important exhibitions – and this year in particular the much-hyped new annex to the Tate. The ten-story pyramid structure of the “Switch House” slots organically into the existing building and is a masterstroke by architects Herzog & de Meuron. Brick on the outside, concrete within – modern, cool, and nonetheless pleasing to the visitor. The staircase area draws light from a web-like system of windows, which breaks up the otherwise weighty building in elegant fashion.

The new Tate Modern, photo: Schirn Magazin, 2016

In terms of content, the Tate Modern has embarked on big changes, now specifically under the leadership of new director Frances Morris: diversification from purely Western art, globalization, the collection of artworks from all over the world and – most importantly – the targeted collection and exhibition of art by women. Hence the new building includes a magnificent room with works by Louise Bourgeois and currently a comprehensive retrospective on Georgia O’Keeffe. In the latter I was impressed by the breadth of the oeuvre and the level of quality throughout all her creative phases. Rather less inspiring was the presentation: white walls throughout, on which some works appeared pale, along with conventional hanging with little in the way of dramatic impact or high points. Chronologically arranged, room by room with wall text here and there – this is all the exhibition architects thought to do. From the perspective of the SCHIRN (all our exhibitions claim to be a little different), this was somewhat uninspiring. But perhaps this (puritanical) style was what the Tate was aiming for?

With my own eyes

Another high point for me in London was the Picasso portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. We often think we know Picasso pretty well by now, and then the work of this all-round artist offers us another magnificent experience full of surprises. Three years ago I tried to arrange loans of some of Picasso’s early portraits from his first few years in Paris for the “Esprit Montmartre” exhibition. Some did not work out and it was particularly nice to see these rarely exhibited works with my own eyes now.

Exhibition view at Tate Modern, photo: Schirn Magazine, 2016
Exhibition view „Abstract Expressionism“ at Royal Academy, photo: Schirn Magazine, 2016

However, the “exhibition of the year”, as the London Times called it, is undoubtedly “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy. For this alone it is worth a flight to London some time before January 7, because I don’t think anything similar will be possible purely in financial terms in the next 20 years, and certainly not in Germany. The reason for this is the astounding insurance costs which we can now no longer even put a price on. If even a smaller Rothko is auctioned for around 150 million dollars these days, how much would you need to insure entire rooms full of works by Pollock, Rothko, Ad Reinhard, Barnett Newman, etc.? How many zeros can an insurance policy have?

Aside from that, however, curator David Anfam has spent five years preparing this project and it is only thanks to the excellent contacts that he, as the author behind the Rothko catalogue raisonné, Senior Curator of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver and general expert on the topic, was able to call upon that this number of high-quality works could be assembled. It is an unbelievable experience to stand in a room between two large-format, major works by Jackson Pollock (one of which came from Australia), amid sculptures by David Smith. And even though some of the rooms were hung a little too busily for my taste, this exhibition is certainly one of the best I have ever seen in London.

Exhibition view „Abstract Expressionism“ at Royal Academy, photo: Schirn Magazine, 2016
Exhibition view „Abstract Expressionism“ at Royal Academy, photo: Schirn Magazine, 2016