IIt is a room of the mind, a room of one’s own, a hothouse or a prison. It’s an empty attic or store, suburban box or concrete cabin in an abandoned acid factory that still takes parts for the counter and is a million miles from the designed white cube factory by architects where assistants craft top notch art for the rich. Yet they are all famous, because of who goes there, and what they do, which can be something or a paralyzed nothing, like artists’ studios.
An exhibition on this theme opens at the Whitechapel Gallery next week. And it turns out to be a fascinating experiment, carried out with great wisdom and drama by Iwona Blazwick and her team. A century of artist’s studio enters and leaves this magical place in such an inventive way. There are spectacular reconstructions of real workshops – Matisse’s bedroom in the south of France, adorned with magnificent embroidery; Kurt Schwitters’ Dada studio, all stalactites of wild wood – but the show also moves into global space, crossing five continents from secret studios in Iran to the tiny kiosk in Manila where the father of Filipino art , Roberto Chabet, made conceptual sculptures.
The century runs through the show like an underground river. Egon Schiele set up his drawing box in the office of a prisoner of war camp in 1916. Ten years later, Brancusi worked in the dark of night in his Parisian attic. Frida Kahlo, plaster torso, worked from her sickbed during the Second World War while Picasso set up his studio in the 1960s in a majestic French castle. Cindy Sherman does makeup, character by character, in her Manhattan loft in the late 1970s, the light bulb cord visibly trailing on the floor. In Johannesburg, William Kentridge doubles up to play two versions of himself on screen, arguing for the value of political art in the digital 21st century.
In films, photographs and paintings, the studio stands out at every turn. It’s a place of cigarette butts and freezing pallets, tape wearing thin as the daylight fades too quickly and the leg of the drafting table still needs support. It’s a place where the clock is ticking with reproachful violence, as no work is being done in Darren Almond’s live stream on his studio. Where the canvases are still disturbingly naked, in an exquisite distemper painting by Andrew Grassie (perfect paradox). Where the paintings are all gone, with the students, in Paul Winstanley’s paintings of deserted art schoolshaunted by revealing splashes of color that decorators have tried to cover with whitewash.
The studio is a place of heroism. The heap of paint rags in Lucian Freud’s Holland Park studio, so lovingly depicted in the enormous portrait of his assistant, becomes a sacred relic in Darren Almond’s photographic tribute. The rags in Robert Rauschenberg’s studio seem almost erotic in their extended abandon, photograph by his friend Cy Twombly. And there are hints of Twombly’s own paintings of high summer in the bright touches that bloom on the walls of Francis Bacon’s studio, where he wiped excess mauve, blue, pink and black from his brush. There is a fascination in seeing his colors thus isolated, and even more so in the presentation of the photographs found in this workshop. It is sometimes said that Bacon could not draw and relied almost entirely on photographs. Sounds like eye proof.
The show is full of revelations. A startling 1925 photo of Alexander Rodchenko doing photomontage in his Moscow studio looks incredibly advanced, except he’s wearing spats. Giacometti’s painting of his studio, so spectral and sketchy, so closely resembles photographed reality – diaphanous shadows, walls scribbled with sketches – that it confuses art and life. And a life-size log cabin – a facsimile of his home in Nova Scotia – shows that the Canadian artist Maud Lewis painted everything she loved on everything she owned: birds, flowers and trees cross the walls and windows.
So many of the artists in this show never had a separate studio. I remember the great Cuban painter Carmen Herrera, who died last week at the age of 106, still painting dazzling abstractions in a room in her apartment. A studio can be a floor, a room or a kitchen, like the one shared by several artists in Iran, where bowls of food look like bowls of paint.
Studios can provide privacy and peace. A beautiful painting by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham shows the perfect easel in the perfect studio, rectilinear, formal, everything in its place – the Platonic ideal. But the studios can also be the scene of shows, parties or battles with art. A terrific painting by Maria Lassnig shows the Austrian artist literally struggling to get in – or out of – a newly primed canvas.
The workshop becomes a place of pilgrimage. Here are classic photographs of Picasso painting for the cameras in Antibes, his masculinity barely concealed by a toga; and Jackson Pollock drive outside his Long Island barn for Hans Namuth to commemorate on film. This act of painting – this solo feat, this fight against one’s demons – is gleefully satirized by Paul McCarthy in his violent video Painter, in which McCarthy plays a clownish child dragging giant tubes of paint around his nursery-studio. The painting is not so much heroic as a monstrous display of infantile male tantrums.
Women alternate with men here, in striking contrast. American painter Helen Frankenthaler, photographed by Gordon Parks, sits with poised intelligence on one of her own canvases, in command of her art. Young African-American artist Mequitta Ahuja paints herself surrounded between easel, mirror, canvases and art history, but freeing oneself from the past. And the whole show opens with one of Louise Bourgeois’ monumental cages cellsall working hands multiplied in mirrors: a dynamic workshop of the mind.
The workshop, always a subject in itself, becomes more and more central over time. Joseph Sudek was reduced to photographing nothing but his naked studio in Prague, first under the Nazi occupation and then under the Soviet dictatorship. Gregor Schneider’s German family home was both studio and source of his terrifying films and installations for three decades (he once remarked that he might have been a murderer if he hadn’t been an artist) . And Polish artist Mirosław Bałka has made art, room by room, from and in the house where he works outside of Warsaw, inherited from his father. One of the latest works here is a beautifully carved wooden angel from their garden fence and gate. Bałka’s ancestors made funerary monuments, just to complete the elegiac metaphor.
It’s Iwona Blazwick’s last show as manager of Whitechapel – she’s leaving in April – and it’s really superb. She changed the whole nature of the gallery, transforming it into a multi-part museum with a special welcome for the local community and for artists of all ages. Blazwick has chaired many major exhibitions, but I doubt the rooms were ever used more densely and revealingly than they are here. Go there if you can. It is nothing less than a history of art by other means; a wonderful way to enter the minds of artists through the places where they worked, and what they did there.
This article was modified on February 24, 2022 because an earlier version referred to Paul Winstanley’s Art School series as photographs, when they were paintings.