Anselm Kiefer and Richard Tuttle

I always find it’s useful to go to major exhibitions – especially retrospectives – to help my understanding of what art it’s about, what art should do. Today I’ve been to two London shows, a Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy and Richard Tuttle at the Whitechapel. In some ways I was disappointed with both exhibitions. I came away from the Kiefer with questions and emotions and a deepened respect for the artist. I came away from the Tuttle wondering why he is rated as highly as he is.

But this had caused me to ponder some more about the nature of art. What is art for? What is it meant to do? In particular I am thinking about modern visual art; art since the point when the camera freed artists from the tyranny of representation; art principally from westernised culture.

Art must engage the viewer in some way. When it ceases to do so it becomes decoration at best. Not that decoration and decorative elements cannot be part of art, but I would expect such elements to be present to help convey content not be content.

So in what ways might art engage the viewer? Broadly, for me, it comes down to the emotions and the intellect, ideally art would engage me with a balance of both. Art should cause some kind of reaction in the viewer: it might challenge our views, make us look at things in a fresh way, ask us to look rather than just see. Art might cause awe or disgust, amusement or puzzlement, fury or delight, relaxation or invigoration. It may ask us what we are really seeing, it may ask us what we are really thinking. It may inform us about the world, tell us how things sit with things, communicate in visual poetry. It may just say, “Seen one of these? Nice isn’t it?” What art might cause doesn’t have to be grand or deep, but it has to engage us.

When I say art has to engage us I would normally exclude irritation caused by the artwork’s failure to engage with the viewer. This is where I find myself with Richard Tuttle’s show. I was really looking forward to seeing his work, being pretty unfamiliar with it in the flesh and not really having seen much even in reproduction since the late 60s. I like to approach work afresh using my eyes and intellect, so I seldom read labels or gallery notes until after I have made my initial engagement with a work. If that initial engagement prompts it then I may choose to broaden my understanding and appreciation by referring to supporting notes. If words or other data are vital to the piece they should be included as part of the piece. It seems to me that Tuttle has importance for the words he sticks in the corners of the room away from the artwork, but they don’t help me access his work in any case!  Tuttle’s work seems to be presented principally as conceptual (the slapdash conduction of most pieces confirms that aesthetics is not the main purpose) so why make us search out the verbal clues?

The work seems to be the work of a lazy communicator: work someone might make when they were stoned but forgot to reappraise when sober. There seemed to be no deliberation in the choice of material or the quality of construction. It irritated me that things were badly made and badly presented. I’d sack my framer if he produced such poor stuff! As we will see with Kiefer, if the idea is strong enough it doesn’t matter if the execution is messy, naive, ugly or irritating, but frankly I failed to find any content in Tuttle’s work because he seemed not to value it or care about it himself. Even if it is not to my taste, Kiefer knows how to use materials, how to choose those materials appropriately to get the effect he desires. I get the feeling Tuttle doesn’t give a monkeys! I wasn’t convinced by the interview with him either: he seemed bored and I got bored. There seemed to be no love and delight in the materials at all despite what we are led to believe. There seems to be some amazement that a man should have such a career-long relationship to fabrics; that he doesn’t use them in a masculine way. The stereotype is irrelevant and denies the history of the fabric and tailoring crafts. What is more remarkable is how Tuttle can deny the nature of fabrics so comprehensively and make such unremarkable work. But perhaps that’s what he intends.

Anselm Kiefer is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s big and bold and mucky and haunting and angry and megalomaniacal and murky and probably, at times, cynical. I cannot say that I really liked any piece in it’s entirety. I may have admired bits of the execution or the ideas or the allusions but never the whole. Yet my mind and emotions were assailed and stimulated continually.

At times, I believe, the content of Kiefer’s work was less accessible to me because of the execution – perhaps the visual mess or sometimes a naivety or poor drawing – but it didn’t ever stop me engaging with the work. It’s not just the grand scale that impresses (though scale is a vital element) the smaller works, such as the books, grip the senses and irritate the mind.

I cannot decide if Kiefer is a nutcase or a genius, but he certainly is involved in the process of creating art and his art does engage with the viewer both viscerally and mentally. It will be interesting to see how I think and feel about Kiefer in the days and weeks to follow but whatever my deliberations, I am pleased that I saw this major show of a towering influence in modern art.

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