Recalling his visits to the disheveled and dusty studio of Degas, the poet Paul Valéry mused in the 1930s that “the artist’s work is of a very old-fashioned genre, the artist himself a survival, a craftsman or craftsman of an endangered species, working in his own room, following his own homemade rules of thumb. Valéry feared that the efficiency of modernism would win out over such a studio: “conditions are changing, and instead of this spectacle of an eccentric individual using whatever comes to hand, there will be a creative laboratory pictures”.
Foreseeing the vast controlled spaces of post-war celebrities – workers, including robots making Jeff Koons’ sculptures; silkscreen and home-film assembly lines from Andy Warhol’s factory — Valéry fetishizes the handmade and the interior.
This tension between private and public, individual and collective is at the heart of 20th century art history, and exploring it through studio imagery is a brilliant and original approach. Amazingly choreographed, serious yet playful, Whitechapel Gallery’s massive new exhibition A century of artist’s studio 1920-2020 is bewitching.
At the entrance stands Louise Bourgeois’ steel and wire mesh “Cellule IX”, its hanging mirrors suggesting the studio’s endless possibilities as a closed yet open, reflective experimental space, and also a prison of the mind. . We enter these minds via paintings, photographs, films and installations recreating artists’ spaces, immersing ourselves in immersive worlds and worldviews: the studio as “a small room and everywhere”.
Turn the corner to Villa Le Rêve, Matisse’s serene pink studio adorned with vibrant textiles, and you’ll be struck by the shrill, silvery sheen of Warhol’s party town Manhattan. In the Dakar of the 1970s, the street itself was the studio for the improvised performances of the Senegalese collective Laboratoire Agit’Art. In 2011 Shanghai, Ai Weiwei makes art out of destruction – filming the authorities-ordered demolition of his studio in “The Crab House”. Glorious disarray – mulch and waste, torn photos, scraps of notes (“the brutality of facts”, “highly controlled chaos”) – around the twisted “Study for a portrait of John Edwards” in the studio of Francis Bacon faces to minute order and tactile temptation at Henry Moore, where tiny shards of stone line up as inspiration for monuments.
The scope of the show is formidable: an adventure through time and space. Kurt Schwitters’ angular 1930s wood and cardboard “Merzbau” grotto is a heirloom of European Dada and stuffed full of sentimental remains (including Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s bra). Breathtakingly, “Mrs Felicia Abban’s Day and Night Quality Art Studio”, launched in Accra in 1953, chronicles the evolution of Ghana’s postcolonial society through portraiture, and John Mawurndjul’s hatched eucalyptus panels, created in the 21st century Marrkolidjban, in northern Australia, returning to Aboriginal custom.
There are many paths, or none – a happy wandering through abundance. A gratifying common thread is to follow the lineage of Picasso’s “The Studio” (1955), the finest work in the exhibition, to trace how representations of the studio in painting expanded formally and socially. “L’Atelier” – light filtering through palm trees and arched windows onto a blank canvas in Picasso’s ornamental villa in Cannes, La Californie – posits the studio as a metaphor for artistic creation: lines transform into shapes , patterns in images, games of space and perception.
In the 1960s, Frank Auerbach took up the theme, battling sculptural layers of pigment and disappearing/reappearing patterns in the dense and luminous “Reclining Model in the Studio” and “Jym in the Studio”. In the 1980s, Maria Lassnig’s “Inside and Outside the Canvas” claims women’s territory in a bright pink, ungainly self-portrait facing an empty canvas. In 2008, Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Painter)” featured an assertive black woman; her crown of hair, her large hoops, her nose, her direct gaze and her pose express confidence. She wields an outsized palette, a virtuoso abstract canvas within a canvas and a warrior’s shield, triumphantly – painting as performance and protest.
Expanding inclusiveness is one of two stories of progress here. The other, intertwined, concerns the power of the camera – a particularly rich vein for feminist history, as women of the 1960s-70s found freedom in a medium freed from the weight of male tradition. Cindy Sherman’s first studio self-inventions “Untitled (Murder Mystery People)” are here, and Carolee Schneeman’s nude performances in “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera.” Most poignant are Francesca Woodman’s photographs of her body obscured by slow exposure blurs, tracing adolescent introspection and also political awakening: their title is “A woman, a mirror: a woman is a mirror for a man “.
These in turn are part of a centuries-old history of photography that is redefining itself beyond the documentary. The way is often heralded by the poetic approach of sculptors and painters: Constantin Brancusi’s 1926 photograph of his bronze head “La Négresse blonde vue de face” tilted so that the shiny faceted surface repeatedly reflects his studio ; Cy Twombly’s 1954 portrait through a workspace in “Robert Rauschenberg, Combine Material, Fulton Street Studio” – images that eerily resemble Twombly’s own scribbled, messy, bleached erotic paintings.
Rauschenberg said he worked “in the gap” between “art and life”. By the 1970s, the studio paradigm was no longer an airtight, sealed place, but an eventful, sociable environment, the television blaring, the camera shutter never stopping. A television screen presides from the top of Rauschenberg’s exuberant “Ruby re-Run (Spread)” (1978), a collage of mirrors, black-and-white snapshots, shards of fabric, split tires – the studio has “stretched out” to encompass the life that passes on and off screen.
In the 21st century, the photographer’s studio/life had become its own subject: Wolfgang Tillmans’ After Party, full of rubbish; Walead Beshty’s spectacular envelopment of thousands of cyanotype prints, ghostly blue renderings of materials – paper, cardboard, wood, letters – traversing his studio, “Prologue to A Partial Disassembling of an Invention, Without a Future: Helter Skelter and Random Notes in whose pulleys and cogwheels are lying haphazardly all over the workbench” (2014).
“I thought of the studio as a kind of picture-making machine,” says Beshty. “It’s an image that shows exactly how it happened, everything that was involved. . . machines and technology — but also social relations. I think that’s particularly important. . . what makes a work of art are also the social relations between individuals.
A century of artist’s studio is the final exhibition at Whitechapel under the direction of its distinguished director Iwona Blazwick, who is retiring in April. By its scale and its ambition to tell modern art through a powerful figurative theme, it recalls the great exhibition of the beginning of his reign, faces in the crowd (2004). The crowd and the studio may seem opposites, but Blazwick’s entire career has been about facilitating and expanding the possibilities of artistic creation, and this vision of the studio as outward-facing, cooperative, yet idiosyncratically independent, is a tremendous swan song. .
‘A century of an artist’s studio: 1920-2020’ runs from February 24 to June 5 whitechapelgallery.org