Of language and timing

I write the occasional reviews for the New York magazine, ARTNews. They are splendidly  relaxed about deadlines and invariably publish reviews after a show has closed. Makes them that rare thing, a publication of record. Not to be sneezed at, though I did jib at the addition of ‘tween’ in the Epstein piece. Two countries separated only by common language….


Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015

Whitechapel Gallery, London.  January 15 – April 6

Black Quadrilateral, an undated painting by the Russian-Polish artist Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) consists of a slightly off-kilter black rectangle on a white field. A mere six and a half by ten inches, the painting is small, slightly scruffy, and unassuming. Yet it was among Malevich’s works that inaugurated the Supremacist movement, whose artists were closely associated with the Russian Revolution.

The painting, which was one of more than 100 works by 100 artists, opened “Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015,” which examined the influence of Modernism’s utopian ideals through the lens of geometric abstraction.

    Like Malevich, Aleksander Rodchenko spoke to the Russian avant-garde’s rejection of bourgeois figurative art with the black-and-white photographs, Shukhov’s Tower Moscow, 1929, like a spirograph doodle, and the stark spike of Radio Station Tower, 1929. 

    One of the most radical members of the early movement was El Lissitzky, who regarded art and architecture, design and typography as shared disciplines. His Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) represents the red, revolutionary Russians overthrowing the old regime and paving the way for cities which were functional, free of elitist pomp and fit for the workers.

    The theme of abstraction’s relationship to society and politics and the purity of the artists’ vision becomes less precise with the later works on show as typified by Mexican Gabriel Orozco’s Light Signs #1 (Korea), 1995, for example, which, with its lustrous coloured circles, is more pretty than political.



Jacob Epstein; Babies and Bloomsbury.

The Foundling Museum, London. January 31 – May 10

Think Jacob Epstein and you most likely conjure up images of angular modernistic works such as Rock Drill (1913-15), blocky primitivist monuments, or expressionistic portrait busts. But the exhibition “Jacob Epstein: Babies and Bloomsbury,” a selection of likenesses of Epstein’s children and their mothers, revealed an unexpected side to the British sculptor. 

The venue was appropriate. The Foundling Hospital was London’s first home for abandoned children, and between 1914 and 1927, the period covered by the show, Epstein lived in its environs. His life was complicated; his first wife was unable to have children, but he fathered five—three daughters and two sons—with three other women. 

On view were strikingly sensual portraits in bronze of two of these women—Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s longtime mistress and second wife - pouty and fierce - and Isabel Nichols, an art student who lived in Epstein’s household and was the mother of his youngest child, Jacky. But it was the likenesses of children that held one’s attention. Among Epstein’s most appealing sculptures are those of his eldest child, Peggy Jean, which show her as a laughing, pointing infant, and, in Sick Child (1928), a dejected tween. 

Epstein’s interest in depicting the young predated parenthood; the show included two bronze heads of babies made when the artist was only 24. As the exhibition made clear, he had a talent for capturing not only the appearance of children but also, surprisingly, the ability to capture their inner lives with tender insight.