Walking around London at present, it’s easy to think that Pop Life is the only exhibition on offer at Tate Modern this winter: Jeff Koons’ silver bunny shines at you from innumerable billboards like a sanitised version of Donnie Darko’s rabbit nemesis desperate for your cash. Were this the case, you might feel ready to question the government’s recent decision to award the Tate extra funding, because Pop Life is, by a long way, the worst exhibition I’ve seen in ages.
The exhibition starts with two rooms of middling Warhol and has a brief upturn in Piotr Uklanski’s The Nazis, a work that subtly questions Hollywood’s glamorisation of the SS room, but overall, the exhibition is one where room after room is filled with instantly forgettable work, or with art you only remember because it annoyed you so much.
Jeff Koons and Cosey Fanni Tutti may once have seemed challenging to dealers and fans, but now they look like little more than shallow exhibitionists, while Damien Hirst’s sub-adolescent musings on death continue to bewilder by their presence in exhibition after exhibition. Overloud music that long since ceased to be hip but follows you into every gallery compounds the sheer awfulness of the exhibition, and once again it’s hard not to leave this Tate exhibition with the suspicion that it’s main purpose is to sell badges, posters and innumerable stocking fillers.
Fortunately, there is another exhibition for those who venture to Bankside, and it’s so good that you can almost forgive them for Pop Life. In fact, walking around the much more sedate but infinitely more interesting John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is a chance to remember that there are artists for whom experimentation is crucial, artists for whom art is less about making money and more about making the viewer think about the world around them.
John Baldessari was one of the main players in the west coast’s conceptual art movement in the 1960s. But he followed his initial success with his Cremation Project in 1970, literally burning the majority of his work-to-date to ashes in an act that was at once both creative and destructive. The Tate exhibition includes some of the few pieces to survive this project, such as ‘Pure Beauty’, which in their ability to simultaneously question both art and language hint at what would come in Baldessari’s later career.
Baldessari’s work in this exhibition is so varied it would be impossible to give a full account of it without entering into a room-by-room account of it, but one thing that shines through consistently is his constant need to question the nature of art. Already in the late-60s he was producing works like ‘Wrong’, one of a series of works that incorporate photographs whose angles and composition contradicted the advice given in a book on the correct way to take photographs, and this questioning attitude never seems to have diminished.
However, while in the hands of a lesser artist the impulse to confront the question of ‘What is (good) art?’ may have led to a self-indulgent and solipsistic body of work, Baldessari’s engages with the viewer through a wonderfully dry and quirky sense of humour, and it never loses sight of the world outside the studio either. ‘Inventory’ (1972) combines an image of smiling shoppers and stacked supermarket shelves with an image of the stacked corpses of holocaust victims to create a profoundly unsettling work on historical amnesia in our consumer society.
Where Pop Life is an exhibition full of shallow art whose purpose often threatens to be little more than the artists’ self-aggrandisement, John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is an exhibition of work that is consistently profound, challenging and rewarding. The former may have glitz and the cold glamour of neon, but the latter is the real gem, warm and imbued with the sparkle of fantastic art.