This new Whitechapel Gallery exhibition, A Century of the Artist’s Studio, might as well be called A Century of the Artist. If this is absolutely an exhibition about artists’ workspaces – the forms they take and how they have changed as art has changed dramatically over the past century – it is also, of course, an exhibition about people.
We like to peek behind the curtain into an artist’s world, to spy on their activities. Ultimately, that’s what we’re seeing here: different behaviors in different contexts and habitats, a range of strategies for recording and expressing human experience. Sometimes we are supposed to see it, sometimes we catch sight of something the artist had hidden.
This distinction informs the thematic division between the lower and upper spaces of Whitechapel, with each floor divided into several distinct groups. On the ground floor is the public studio, a space that reveals itself through the work of artists and its dissemination, and upstairs is the private studio, a space of isolation, experimentation, sanctuary. Some sections seem more conceptually tense than others, some overlapping, but the show at least makes arguments and juxtapositions; it agitates as much as it informs.
This is a bustling exhibition, with works by over 80 artists from around the world occupying a dense maze of rooms. The sheer diversity of the material, from documentary photographs to paintings, drawings, installations and videos, is key to its impact. This intensity is perhaps also a nod to the nature of studios, which are often cluttered and overflowing with images and objects. It feels good for the subject.
The beginning of the exhibition sets the tone, with portraits of famous but conventional artists, including Alberto Giacometti by Sabine Weiss and Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth. These images contribute to propelling the myths of the dominant artist in his studio. But the Performing the Studio section immediately undermines and unboxes them. Two of William Kentridge’s Drawing Lesson films find the artist in a confused dialogue with himself, Paul McCarthy’s video Painter is a grotesque, hilarious and punishing satire of an artist’s life.
Rodney Graham also draws attention to the absurdity of artistic creation and satirizes artistic stereotypes in an expansive photographic triptych, where a wealthy man in a lavish mid-century interior embarks on a foray into abstract painting. Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Painter) similarly challenges the heroic modernist myth of the white male artist, but with more serious intent, in a painting of a black female painter in a studio, in a paint-soaked apron – it is an extraordinary study of painting and painting, observing and contemplating. Unfortunately, it’s the only one of a much larger series here.
This discursive mode continues in the following sections, which appropriately draw distinctions between the studio as a collaborative space – from the indulgent Charleston of the Bloomsbury Group to the studios of the Chilean activist Arpilleras – as a site of installation , as in Matisse’s arrangements of objects and textiles, and as a place of performance, whether in Ghanaian photographer Felicia Abban’s self-portraits taking on various roles or in Andy Warhol’s Factory, where we see the Velvet Underground lurks in the middle of all that silver wallpaper, with immeasurable cool.
The upstairs rooms start with the quietest and, in my opinion, the best room in the show. The secret life of the studio is a series of empty but loaded spaces. It features Andrew Grassie’s tiny, exquisite, almost miraculous paintings of his own studio as the backdrop, dressed as the imaginary workspaces of other artists. Entirely different but somehow imbued with the same tranquility are Alina Szapocnikow’s beautiful photographs of chewing gum, shaped with her mouth and presented as sculptures on concrete and wood. From these lesser-known figures, we move on to the big names, Bacon, Freud and Auerbach, singular figures in spaces almost so over-documented that they become impossible to see. Their presences are so heavy that neighboring photographs by Francesca Woodman, where the young photographer plays for the camera in her largely bare New York loft, seem all the more spectral, elusive and haunting.
A beautiful section, The Studio as Laboratory, combines the private spaces and works of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth – huge enlarged photos of them tower over the models and experimental objects in their studios. And the show ends on a high note: Eating the Studio shows how studio materials can become an integral part of the work.
It can be subtle, as in Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Yolk, marked by the wooden planks under the canvas as she painted on the floor, but also colossal: the final work of the exhibition is the inventory by Walead Beshty of objects from his studio, each captured in a cyanotype, a deep blue photogram. The objects are mundane – headphones, a hammer, scraps of paper – and the images ghostly, but together they form something vast, an azure installation that fills the walls. It’s a perfect closing image: the studios are mostly ordinary, but not their occupants, who make them places of wonder and transformation.
Whitechapel Gallery, until June 5, whitechapelgallery.org