16 September 2015

Agnes Martin and the Tate Modern, London

View of Tate Modern from Millennium Bridge.

On an overcast day, I strolled from my hotel, on London's revitalized South Bank, to the Tate Modern museum, a former power plant re-purposed to showcase art of our time. Business brought DH to London, so I tagged along on SardineAir, using frequent-flyer miles.  One nice perk of accompanying DH is that he, the frequent flyer, has TSA pre-clearance, and that status was extended to me on this flight, too.  No need to remove shoes, belt, watch and dignity at the security check-point - we just walked through fully clothed.  

Like Boston, London is booming with new construction, and the Tate Modern is getting an addition - that's the whitish structure next to the construction crane in the image above; the addition will be brick-clad when completed.

Turbine Hall, awaiting an installation.

Turbine Hall, originally.  Photo: Marcus Leith.

Even the smokestack of the former power plant has been adaptly reused - during my week-day visit, representatives from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) set up scopes so visitors could glimpse a pair of peregrine falcons who've set up housekeeping on a corner corbel.

Friendly volunteers and staff educate visitors about falcons.

Small, light dot at smokestack corner is a falcon.

The brick detailing gives the smokestack, and the entire building, a majestic presence, celebrating both the literal power of the facility - producing electricity from oil - and serving as a symbol of Britain's post-war recovery. The Bankside Power Station, as the complex was originally known, was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) and is a testament to the art of masonry and the skill of the anonymous bricklayers who mortared the 4.2 million bricks into place. 

Brick detailing.

Spare, functional interiors.

The interior of the facility is a good example of "industrial chic" - exposed mechanical systems, energy-efficient no-nonsense lighting, and plain white oak flooring.

There were three large exhibits in the galleries; nevertheless, with the Turbine Hall empty, and its largely bare hallways, the museum felt a bit under-inhabited with regard to art, although it was packed with visitors by 11:00 am.  There are also three gift shops, so the art-to-commerce ratio felt a little skewed too. But all was forgiven when I arrived at the Agnes Martin show. Photography was forbidden, but I did sneak one image, below.  Agnes Martin's work defies mechanical reproduction - in photographs, the work would seem to embody the perception of modern art as "Pictures of Nothing." The late Kurt Varnadoe used this phrase, first coined by William Hazlitt in response to the work of J. M. W. Turner, as the title of his book defending modern art. 

However, in person, the work is transformative.  In Martin's breakthrough pieces from the 1960's, the reduction of composition to a large field of horizontal and vertical lines elevates the humble grid into a presence simultaneously mundane and cosmic. The so-subtle manipulations of color mean that minor changes in tone are at once barely perceptible and monumental.  Each painting is an invitation to brave these contradictions; for this viewer, the outcome is wonder.

This show will arrive at the Guggenheim museum in New York in October, 2016. It's worth the trip.

Despite the diminished impact of Martin's work when reproduced, the catalog produced for this show is recommended, ISBN 978 1 84976 268 7, paperback.

Stealth photo of Agnes Martin works.

The banner says "See Art for Free".

We did get some sun during our trip, as you can see in this last image of the smokestack tower. Plans to install an observatory in the tower were sadly shelved due to lack of funds, but one can hope.