‘A century of an artist’s studio’ to the Whitechapel Gallery review

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Some people are just desperate to see how the sausage is made. They want to watch all the skin, guts, and muzzle get smashed, then stuff their face. It is an exhibition for them, a celebration behind the scenes of the artist’s studio where they can revel in the process, the environment and the conditions of artistic creation; they can watch the art sausage being made.

Whether or not you enjoy this spectacle will depend on how much importance you place on this process, how much interest you find in looking at the rooms where paintings have been painted. The studio physically appears here. There is Matisse’s wall, Dieter and Björn Roth’s desk, Francis Bacon’s messy floor. But above all, we see photos of these paint-splattered environments and artists at work: Alberto Giacometti at his easel, Louise Bourgeois at his desk, Lucian Freud messing around.

There are also plenty of photos of empty studios and views from studio windows, by artists like Andrew Grassie and Josef Sudek. The act of making art is presented as the act of going to work, because that is exactly what it is. It can be tedious, boring, frustrating and time-consuming.

The real question, though, do you find Francis Bacon’s floor so interesting?

It’s just documentation and archival material for the most part, but there are also actual works of art on display, such as a beautiful portrait by Kerry Marshall of an artist at work, an elegant vision by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham of an easel and an incredible video by Paul McCarthy of a bulbous-noser blowing in his studio. The workshop is the subject of these works.

But the other art here only feels tenuously connected to the theme. The only thing that connects the Carolee Schneeman photos, Bruce Nauman’s film, Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture and Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combine” sculpture/painting is that they were done in the studio. And guess what, more the art is done in a studio. This is literally where the art is created.

The real question, though, do you find Francis Bacon’s floor so interesting? Is the environment of artistic creation half as fascinating as the art itself? Not for me. I’m interested in art for art’s sake, not the rubbish that surrounds it. Ultimately, it’s an exhibition about desks. I find artists’ studios as interesting as their toilets.

It’s not a bad show. It’s clearly a labor of love, it’s extremely thorough and full of insight into the artistic process. As a historical, archival and documentary exhibit of artists’ studios, it’s great. But as an art exhibition, not so much.

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