LONDON — Want to visit an artist’s studio? The French are good at this sort of thing. Try the left bank of Paris. There you can mingle with the animated ghosts of Brancusi, Zadkine and Delacroix. All of their studios are within walking distance of each other. There is one problem, however, that these spaces all share: they are all studios of long-dead artists, and could be described as reconstructed spaces. They are silent, for example. Everything that could have happened has already happened. We see (often behind glass) the fruits of their labor and perhaps the tools they worked with, and even the chairs in which they collapsed, with sighs of pleasant exhaustion, at the end of the day. They are regularized and organized spaces – tidy, odorless and a little feelingless too. This question of feeling is very important because the studio of any living artist is not an inert backdrop – and to be encouraged to live it as such is a misrepresentation of what the idea of the workshop.
Which brings us to a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End, overlooked by the brassy prosperity of the City, the financial district. A century of artist’s studio is several things in one: an overview of what the idea of the studio has meant for a multiplicity of artists between 1920 and 2020; an examination of the idea of the studio as an art subject; and a tour of the different types of spaces that the word “studio” can encompass. There are even “studio corners”, in which parts of real studios have been reconstructed. Spend a few moments with a photographic enlargement of Henry Moore, with some of his works behind him, for example, or Dieter Roth’s office, a much more orderly and clinical experience altogether. In short, this exhibition is about engaging with the fluid, ever-changing idea of the studio today and in the recent past – many of the approximately 80 artists represented by over 100 works, which include painting, sculpture, installation and film are still alive.
The gist of the show’s argument is this: the studio isn’t what it used to be. It is both a physical space inhabited by an artist (although it is not obligatory) and a mental construct as well. It is a place of self-mirror, of self-haunting, a space where the artist plays out the daily reality of the fantasy of being an artist. A sound dominates the lower galleries as I walk, that of the tap-tap-tap of the feet. When I arrive in front of the film it accompanies, I see a young Bruce Nauman dancing around the edge of a canvas. This is the work of art, and this is my Bruce Nauman studio experience, the filmed disc of the artist in action.
Studios can of course be clean or dirty, messy or stark. Some artists, past masters of reticence, deliberately avoid making the studio an extravagant site for self-exhibition: Howard Hodgkin turned all his canvases against the wall when preparing a visitor. Why show your heart to a nosy stranger? The studio was as coldly clinical as any hospital operating room. Other artists enjoy positively — and feed greedily — on the drama of self-exposure that the sight of a jumbled heap of images always entails, the need to see the material, which prods them toward final coherence. of the thing done. A good deal of time and space in one of the upstairs galleries (out of seven galleries in total) is given over to Francis Bacon’s last studio, which was recreated after his death in a gallery in Dublin. What a bomb site this is! In a 1984 photograph, Bruce Bernard shows him sitting in his studio, the exhausted and uncrowned king of his own willful chaos.
Some of the most interesting works in the exhibition reflect the experience of making art in an environment that contains what all artists must always have at their disposal. Otherwise, there would be nothing to show the waiting world. All of that stuff gets dragged into the story. Jasper Johns shows a bunch of brushes piled up in a box of Savarin, in a lithograph from the late 1970s. Their gaiety, their flourish, make them look like triumphal weapons, well-trimmed objects that allowed him to win against almost impossible odds. Phyllida Barlow’s black paint sticks (reverently recreated in bronze) give off a similar message, but with a significant difference. They lay flat and sideways, as if exhausted from all the effort of trying to keep up with the artist’s boundless madness. Antony Gormley takes shape, standing and haunted, if not trapped, by his own shadow on the wall. A recent painting by Lisa Brice reveals an artist playing hide and seek behind her cruciform stretcher, as if about to take on the burden of crucifixion through and for her art. To see “Cell IX” (1999) by Louise Bourgeois — a block of marble from which emerge human arms, overhung by multiple mirrors — in the context of this exhibition seems to speak of the potential threat of the space of the studio, from his cell. like, trap nature. How do you wrest meaningful art out of all this obsessive self-examination? How to fight against the demons of the self? A studio is never an inert or neutral space. It shapes everything an artist is and does. It can itself be a work of art, or even an act of self-portraiture.
The main theme of the show is subdivided into many – far too many – sub-themes: the studio as refuge, the studio as sanctuary, etc. It all gets a little confusing, even confusing, in the end. Why is it here and not there? That said, it examines its subject in more depth and is easier on the eyes than any other show on this subject I’ve ever seen.
A century of artist’s studio: 1920-2020 continues at the Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, England) until June 5. The exhibition was developed by Iwona Blazwick OBE, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, with a curatorial committee comprising Dawn Ades, Inês Costa, Richard Dyer, Hammad Nasar and Candy Stobbs.