Conceptual art

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’: Sophie Calle interviewed

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’ Thus Sophie Calle objected to the first line of the obituary I wrote for her, commissioned for the enormous exhibition, À toi de faire, ma mignonne (‘Over to you, sweetie’), that currently occupies the whole Musée National Picasso-Paris. But modesty aside, it is a fact that no other French artist alive today is so celebrated, loved, debated, denounced and, indeed, imitated, around the world as Calle. Having long mined her own life for her work, Calle now happily mines her death This year is the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death and that his most important museum should officially mark

A salmagundi of tedium: The White Pube podcast reviewed

The White Pube started life as an influential art blog, written by Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente. The name announced iconoclastic intent, playing on the White Cube gallery — which certainly deserves mockery (like a city law firm, it has outposts in Hong Kong and Manhattan). But The White Pube podcast is as inanely conventional as the gallery it makes fun of. Each episode is an hour-long salvo by the hosts, or ‘art critic baby gods’, and as with their exhibition reviews — rated with emojis, not stars — conversation is appealingly informal and spontaneous. But they have little of interest to say, especially about their ostensible subject.

The artist who left no physical record of her work

While locked-down galleries compete to keep their artists in the public eye — or ear — by uploading interview podcasts, a treasure trove of earlier recordings is being overlooked. Artists’ Lives, part of the British Library’s oral history archive, is a collection of interviews with 370 artists, 200 of which are available on the British Library Sounds website. As an account of British art of the past century they are more comprehensive than Vasari’s Lives and more reliable, coming as they do from the horse’s mouth. They are also exhaustive. But for those who haven’t got all day to follow the fascinating career of Guyanese-born Frank Bowling RA through 17

Slight: Steve McQueen at Tate Modern reviewed

Steve McQueen’s ‘Static’ (2009) impresses through its sheer directness — and it’s very far from static. A succession of helicopter-tracking shots around the Statue of Liberty, it’s the first film you encounter in this quasi-retrospective from the Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist-turned-Oscar-winning film director. Shot shortly after the monument reopened after the 9/11 attacks, it offers the eye an exhilarating whirl of light and colour, while the mind — given the potency of that historical context — goes on an equally dizzying train of associations through the notion of American liberty. While you bring these associations yourself, they seem to emanate naturally and directly from what you’re seeing. It’s that essential

Why has figurative painting become fashionable again?

The figure is back. Faces stare, bodies sprawl, fingers swipe, mums clutch, hands loll. The Venice Biennale was full of it. After decades of being pushed to the margins, figurative painting is once again dominating the art world. Peter Doig, Alex Katz, Chris Ofili and Jenny Saville head the sales at auction houses, but there is a whole market of up-and-comers snapping at the heels of these established names. How has this happened? Until quite recently, the figure, like melody in music, was associated with the most reactionary elements within art. The body emerged out of the second world war a wreck, blinking amid the glare and slash of abstract

Seeing things

At its best audio can be a much more visual medium than the screen. Making Art with Frances Morris (produced by Kate Bland), which I caught by chance on Radio 4 last week, gave us insights into the work of the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle that were so vivid it was almost as if we had been to an exhibition of her work. Calle, now 65, is known for her unconventional approach to what art can be. In 1980 she was invited to show one of her first works, The Sleepers, a collection of photographs, in New York. ‘I asked people to give me a few hours of their

What’s That Thing? Award for bad public art 2018

Not a bad year for the award. Honourable mentions must go to the landfill abstractions of Oxford’s new Westgate Centre, to the bees that have appeared in Manchester’s streets to promote the ‘unique buzz’ of the city and to Gillian Wearing, a once decent conceptual artist who has taken to sculpture like a cat to water with her statue of Millicent Fawcett. Nothing, however, brought more mush to our towns than the first world war commemorations. As Simon Jenkins wrote in these pages, ‘reaching for a grand sweeping gesture, something “profound”, is too tempting’ in commissions about war. ‘The search for wishy-washy universals soaks up all the energy and bromides

The play’s the thing | 9 August 2018

Nothing was so interesting to Yves Klein as the void. In 1960 he leapt into it for a photograph — back arched, chin raised, spread-eagled. The same year, he took out a patent for International Klein Blue (IKB), a colour inspired by the limitlessness of the sky itself. He even went so far as to stage an exhibition of white walls and an empty cabinet. If there is a less appropriate place to exhibit his work than the lavishly adorned Blenheim Palace, I can’t think of it. Klein was born in Nice in 1928 and learned judo as well as art. In his late teens he visited the Scrovegni Chapel

It’s the thought that counts

During a panel discussion in 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright made an undiplomatic comment about Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated picture of 1912, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’, in the presence of the artist. ‘I am sure he doesn’t himself regard it as a great picture now.’ At this Duchamp bridled, exclaiming in his excellent English, ‘I beg your pardon, sir!’ However, the architect had a point, as the exhibition Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy bears out. I came away from it reflecting that Duchamp wasn’t a very good painter. This is not the point, obviously, that the RA intended to make. The idea was to reveal how much this improbable pair

Snap happy

These days the world is experiencing an unprecedented overload of photographs, a global glut of pictures. More and more are taken every day on smartphones and tablets. They zip around the world by the billion. When I went to Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition at Tate Modern, the galleries were full of people taking snaps of the exhibits. Some visitors posed to have their pictures taken in front of the larger ones — huge photographic prints of such diverse subjects as the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, a weed growing in a London garden and a hugely enlarged close-up of a male bottom. These, and a great many more, are shown in

Root and branch

Eventually,’ said Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘it became a movement. In fact, I believe that arte povera was the last true movement. Since then all artists have been individuals.’ We were sitting one baking hot day last month in his cool study in Biella, a small town in the foothills of the Alps where he has established a huge museum and foundation in a series of disused 19th-century textile mills. He was discussing the group of Italian artists of the 1960s of which Pistoletto himself was a founding member. Arte povera is an umbrella phrase that covers a number of diverse artists, several of them marvellous, who emerged in Italy about half

In defence of conceptual art

At the tail end of last year, an artist called Peter Goodfellow mounted an exhibition of paintings titled Treason of the Scholars. The works were a garish parody of the signature styles of blue-chip artists including Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Joseph Beuys — not so much satire as aggravated assault. In terms of nuance, it made the giant inflatable butt plug artist Paul McCarthy had installed in Paris’s Place Vendôme in 2014 look subtle. But that, Goodfellow stressed, was precisely the point. His complaint, he wrote in an accompanying essay, was that the ‘charlatans’ of the contemporary art establishment had come to neglect his medium in favour of figures

In praise of affectation

Aversion to pretentiousness was probably an English trait before Dr Johnson famously refuted Bishop Berkeley’s arguments for the immateriality of the world by booting a stone. There are plausible historical reasons for this. Suspicious of the Catholicism of neighbouring Ireland and France (where words were thought to contain spiritual power even if they were not understood), the English easily adapted the Reformation’s injunction to simplify scripture into a more general doctrine of ‘say what you mean’. This attitude is exemplified most famously in George Orwell’s essay of 1946, ‘Politics and the English Language’, in which long and Latinate words are anathematised. It ought to be read as a work of

Best in show | 31 December 2015

Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space? Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum.

High life | 31 December 2015

This is going to be one hell of a year, hell being the operative word. It will be the year the greatest Greek writer since Homer turns 80 (but we’ll keep quiet about that for the moment). Our world is so stuck in reverse that a woman who was stabbed in Miami during the Art Basel shindig, and was bleeding and begging for help, was mistaken for an artwork and ignored. The woman survived but will art? Conceptual art must be the biggest con since Bernie Madoff and then some. And speaking of con artists, I’ve never had any respect for Mark Zuckerberg, someone who is reputed to have copied

Bursting the bubble

The conventional history of modern art was written on the busy Paris-New York axis, as if nowhere else existed. For a while, nowhere else did. People wondered, for example, whyever the mercurial Whistler volunteered for the unventilated backwaters of Britain. But London was eventually allowed into the international conversation following successful pop eruptions that began in the Fifties. Germany followed. Now, perhaps as a response to a wired and borderless planet, where images can be instantaneously transmitted and sacred cows may be frivolously slaughtered, there is a revisionist and more inclusive policy for entrance to art’s pantheon. The braided cord has been lifted. Everyone can join the club. New York’s

The Long view

On the green edge of Clifton Downs, high above the city, there is a sculpture that encapsulates the strange magic of Richard Long. ‘Boyhood Line’ is a long line of rough white stones, placed along the route of a faint, narrow footpath. When Long was a boy, this was where he used to play. There are children playing here today. They pay no attention to Long’s new artwork. Already ‘Boyhood Line’ has melted into the scenery. Half a century since he rolled a snowball across these Downs, and photographed the wobbly line it left behind, it feels as though Long has come home. Richard Long was born here, in Bristol,