Towers of London

By Hall, James | Artforum International, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Towers of London


Hall, James, Artforum International


1995 was unquestionably the year of the Young British Artist. Given a big push with "General Release" in Venice during the last Biennale and with the much decried "Brilliant!" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, YBAs rounded out the year by capturing the nation's premier art award, the Turner Prize, for one of their own: Damien Hirst. After the media feeding frenzy that surrounded Hirst's triumph, it was almost inevitable that things would cool down temporarily on the YBA front. Charles Saatchi, who has held five YBA shows in his London art emporium since 1992, turned his attention to youth across the Atlantic for the first time since he began showcasing young Brits: American artists Sean Landers, Charles Long, Tony Oursler, and Charles Ray, among others. This summer he departs from his traditional group-show format to turn over his whole gallery to a single artist: the German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol, whose carved and painted wooden figures and animals are masterpieces of quirky understatement. As for Hirst, he has by no means been invisible; he weighed in at the Hayward's art and film fest, "Spellbound," but his first big screen effort, Hanging Around, 1996, was surprisingly listless.

Last year's sensation may have been partially eclipsed, but the slack has been more than taken up by the antics of London's cultural commissars. Here there were triumphs and tragedies, promising beginnings and ignominious ends. Eagerly awaited was the opportunity to hear Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, lecture on a subject close to his heart: the dilemma facing the contemporary art museum. Such was the level of anticipation that national newspapers deluged the lecture's sponsors, Thames and Hudson, with requests to prepublish extracts. In the end, they must have been glad such requests were denied. Everyone expected to hear something about Bankside, the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, for which detailed architectural plans had just been released; instead, Serota gave a thoughtful but less than earth-shattering history of museum installation, and talked about creating loose "climatic zones" of like-minded art.

If Serota's lecture was a disappointment, the plans for Bankside are encouraging. Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have designed a neat, glass-fronted box to be inserted inside one half of the massive brick bunker, which will transform the existing structure into a minimalist, 100-foot-wide, 500-foot-long Crystal Palace with three floors of extremely flexible gallery space. The biggest drawback to Bankside is the shortage of natural light, though this defect is somewhat counterbalanced by the floor that will rise above the roof line. Even so, the Swiss duo overestimate the amount of available sunlight. Light in architectural drawings is almost invariably crystal clear. London skies tend to be, well, blurred....

One of the main reasons for building Bankside is to increase display space and thereby encourage loans and donations; though the Tate's collection boasts work by most major artists of the 20th century, the only non-British artists represented in any depth are Giacometti and Mark Rothko. This strategy is already paying off. German collector Josef Froehlich, who has rich holdings of post-'60s German and American art, will loan a number of works to the Tate, which will be incorporated in annual rehangings of the Tate's own collection - the most important contribution made by a German collector to a British museum since 1863 when Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, donated 22 old-master works to the National Gallery.

As the Tate moves ahead, the Hayward Gallery stalls. Its director, Henry Meyric Hughes, resigned suddenly after three years at the helm. The Hayward, housed in an impractical Brutalist structure, has never had a clear profile, or built up a loyal audience. No surprise, given that its program, prior to Hughes' arrival, lurched from Leonardo and Mexican sculpture to Warhol and photojournalism. …

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