University of Nottingham students Kate Foulds and Chloe Austin let us listen in to their discussions about the Homage the Bauhaus exhibition…
Let’s do some introductions, Kate is somewhat of an art novice (a third-year English student) and Chloe is a self-deprecating ‘art expert’ (a third-year History of Art student), so we hope our different perspectives will provide you with some interesting insights into the exhibition (or at the very least, our minds).
We begin our chat next to Larry Bell’s Untitled cube…
(Looking at Larry Bell’s ‘Untitled’)
KF: I think a lot of people would look at this and think that this is the height of modern art. At first glance it seems to be nothing and represent nothing.
CA: It’s definitely something that modern art sceptics would mock, but it does a good job of reminding us of the craft of art-making. Unlike other artists working at this time, Larry Bell made his art himself. So rather than going and buying glass and metal already formed in this shape, he taught himself how to make it, which when you think about it, is an incredible feat. It’s also funny that you say that is seems to represent nothing, because it actually contains nothing. By that, I mean a vacuum. Again, can you imagine how hard it would be to make a vacuum? So, what I think this piece could really be about is the complexity of seemingly simple things. When you think of traditional art, you think of painting and drawing. Those are really accessible mediums, making something out of glass and metal is far more technically complex. These two materials are associated with modernity and are often overlooked as they surround us in everyday life. We don’t consider the process going into making these things and don’t consider the craftsmanship of it. I think that might be what Bell’s getting at.
(Now standing in front of Donald Judd, ‘Untitled’ circa. 1986)
CA: This is another artwork that plays appears very simple but is actually very complicated to make. It seems quite happy sitting in the middle of the wall, but it weighs half a tonne, and the wall that it’s hanging on is fake, hiding the engineering that’s holding it up.
KF: Why is it suspended off the wall? Does it have a practical use?
CA: Well, both Judd and Bell were related to an art movement called Minimalism, and this movement overlaps with another called Institutional Critique, which was all about questioning our assumptions about art and how it should be displayed. In this piece the artwork interacts with the space around it. There is a spotlight that creates shadows around the artwork because of its position on the wall, the shadows are left underneath it and that’s why I think it has been placed on the wall.
Its placement also has an appeal for visitors, it’s at your eye level so you want to lean in and see what’s around the corner. When Mark Rawlinson (one of the curators of this exhibition and an Art History lecturer) gave us an introductory talk and tour around this exhibition, he told us that when this work was displayed in another gallery, there were no ropes around it, which led people to actually touch the piece and try to look inside (which ended up damaging the finish, so it now lives behind a rope). It raises questions about why Judd bothered to make something incredibly fragile look functional, it’s a bit of a trap! To me, that brings us to a much broader question of what the purpose of art is because most art isn’t functional and is very hard to maintain.
(Looking at Max Bill)
KF: I have a lot of questions about this painting. Why is it on its side? What do the lines mean? Why this exact composition? Why the colours?
CA: I don’t have the answer to any of those questions. Nevertheless, I’m going to put my art historian hat on and pretend I know what I’m talking about. The thing that stands out to me is that the canvas is diamond shaped, whereas conventionally canvases are rectangular. Actually, if you look around the room, a lot of the art is on oddly shaped canvases, so this seems to be a trend among artists associated with the Bauhaus. This could be about questioning the conventional way of doing things, which I think is what the Bauhaus was all about, really.
In terms of the colour choices, Josef Albers who was one of the founders of the Bauhaus, was really interested in colour experiments and he would encourage his students to play with colour. If you look around the exhibition, you’ll see lots of interesting colour combinations and experiments. Sometimes you see artists from completely different time periods and locations using the same colour palette because lots of these artists associated with the Bauhaus were really interested in how colours interact with each other and were coming to the same conclusions in completely different contexts.
KF: The more you look at it, the more interesting it becomes. You think the central line runs straight up and down between the top and bottom corners, but it’s actually a diagonal line and doesn’t meet the corners centrally. The more you look the more you notice.
CA: There’s quite a few artists in this exhibition who play with ideas of perception, so it’s worth spending a decent amount of time in front of these pieces to really understand what’s going on.
(Now looking at photographs in the first room)
KF: I think it’s interesting how these photographs are showing ordinary things in different ways and from new perspectives. There are some big structures and pieces of architecture that are scaled to a tiny photograph, then you have a comparatively huge photo of an egg nearby. The sizing of these photos is quite disarming and unexpected.
CA: Yeah, I completely agree with you on the sizing point. I think it prompts us to remember that although photography is a medium that is thought to be very close, almost indistinguishable from reality, photographs are actually a complete manipulation of reality. Sizing is just one of the ways in which photography manipulates real life. Colour too; these are black and white images of things that were originally colourful. Framing, as well, the photographers have made a choice of what to include and what to leave out of the photographs and they’ve made decisions about composition. For example, Alexander Rodchenko’s, Radio Station Tower, 1929 is taken from a close upward angle. These poles are familiar to us as we see them everyday walking down the street, but do they ever look like that?
KF: You have to go to the gallery to appreciate the scales of the photographs. It’s almost unnerving how size is experimented with, it’s not what you expect when you look at photographs, especially when they are juxtaposed alongside each other in this way. It really makes the ordinary seem extraordinary.
CA: Yeah, that’s a theme of the Bauhaus: making the ordinary, extraordinary. For many years, photography wasn’t thought of as an artform. The Bauhaus photographers experimented with what photography could be and proved that it could be innovative and exciting. I think in general, the experimentation of the Bauhaus and its ability to look at the world differently has a lot to do with its enduring appeal.
(Now looking at Thomas F Barrow)
KF: It’s interesting because if you imagine these photos without the crosses, you could expect to see something like this on Instagram. The landscapes are picturesque and more familiar to what we are used to seeing, compared to the other photos in this exhibition. People have a set idea of what constitutes a ‘good’, aesthetically pleasing photograph.
CA: I think the crosses over the Barrow images are saying: “you may think this is a nice picture, but anybody could take it and you have probably seen it a thousand times”. The subject matter of a lot of the other images are urban and I think that shows that these artists were trying to find the beauty in the landscape that surrounded them. On Instagram we are really searching for nature a lot of the time, like when we wait for a sunny day to take a nice picture of the blossom tree in our garden. Whereas the Bauhaus artists accepted that we no longer live in a pastoral utopia.
(Now standing in front of Paul Klee, ‘Ascending Village Paths, 1930 and Harry Callahan ‘Weeds in Snow’, 1943)
KF: The photo by Harry Callahan is visually similar to Klee’s drawing, yet Callahan’s lines are bolder, the image feels more succinct and is more interesting and attention-grabbing than Klee’s, to me. Yet it is interesting because I have heard of Klee and would expect his name to draw in more people than Callahan.
CA: Yeah, it’s interesting. Often, when galleries have group exhibitions, they’ll have a few artists who are better known, and I think some people feel they should go to see those artists. However, I find the Paul Klee piece to be one of the least engaging, whereas some of the artists that I’ve never heard of have interested me a lot more.
It shows that you shouldn’t go to exhibitions just because you know the name of an artist, it is much more interesting to discover new artists. I’m now going to completely contradict myself, because around the corner is a painting by Josef Albers, one of the most well-known artists in this exhibition. His painting is the yellow one with all the squares, I think it’s beautiful; he’s a master of colour and definitely lives up to the hype (imo).
(We’ve now moved in front of the Josef Albers)
KF: I think Albers’ piece here is more simplistic in its appearance then at first glance, as it’s just a few squares layered on top of each other, yet the colours are so bold and eye-catching that it’s interesting.
CA: This little corner is very colourful. Next to Albers’ painting is one by his wife, Anni Albers… the placement of her next to her husband slightly irritates me. She, like many female artists, is often talked about in relation to her husband, which is fair because they did work together and shared many ideas, but it would ne nice to see her spoken about on her own. From the wall text, I’ve learnt that she didn’t want to work with textiles but was kind of forced to because she was a woman. She did amazing things with textiles and pushed that artform forward, so she is quite inspirational as she was someone who was discriminated against because of her gender, but she made the best out of a bad situation. It’s also important to remember that the 1960s was the time when second wave feminism was only just emerging. Working as a woman at all was just not normal, so to be a successful female artist at that time was incredible. Also, textiles are often devalued as an artform because they are related to women (and women are often undervalued in general!), and I think some female artists would not want to be associated with textiles because they want to be considered as “serious artists”. But Anni Albers shows that textiles aren’t gender-specific and they can be a fantastic medium.
KF: Anni’s painting is so much smaller and more detailed than Josef’s, but plays with shapes in a different, more intricate way. I think we take fabric design for granted, like what you said earlier about Larry Bell and glass. Making a piece of fabric is probably far more complicated than painting a picture like Josef’s.
(We are now entering the third room)
(We’re now looking at Abraham Cruzvillegas, ‘Dos pequerños cuartetos para voces a boca cerrada en cuartos de tono’, 2005)
CA: In this piece you can see the influence of the earlier artists like Donald Judd and Larry Bell. Cruzvillegas is playing with the gallery environment like they did. He’s relying on the gallery spotlights to reflect his sculpture onto the ceiling. It’s very beautiful and perhaps says something about the self-sustaining relationship between artist and gallery – the artist needs the gallery to complete the work, and the gallery needs art from the artist to be a gallery.
(Now looking at photos and photograms, Christian Shad and Arthur Siegel, Motion and Light Study)
CA: These photos are my favourites in this exhibition, I’m not sure I can explain why in an art historical way, but they just appeal to me aesthetically. Sometimes it’s fine to like something just because it’s pretty, you don’t have to explain yourself. I like this Arthur Siegel photo because it makes me think of Blade Runner. It’s incredibly futuristic for something made in 1940. It looks like something made on photoshop, but it was produced manually, and you only get one chance with that.
A lot of people seem to struggle with work from the mid-twentieth century; they don’t think it’s that impressive. I think that’s because, especially with photography, we unconsciously compare it with things created today, but it’s important to remember that this was a completely different time period, the technology was far more basic. The photo manipulation in these images was pioneering.
KF: We definitely live in a world that is seeking perfection in our images, especially with the accessibility of these photo editing apps. It’s nice to see something that’s messy here!
(Chloe attempts to take photo of Arthur Segal photograph, but fails terribly. Which just goes to show that it’s not about the technology, its about what you do with it).
(Now we move into room 4, ‘The Next 100’ room featuring work from Nottingham Trent University students)
CA: We’re in the typography room. I said this earlier, but I’ll say it again, it’s so difficult and impressive to design something new. I think this is especially relevant to typography, because there are already so many typefaces out there. I think the students have done a great job of designing new fonts, especially considering all of the precedents that must have been on their minds.
KF: It’s interesting that some of them are such complicated designs. We’re used to simple fonts in word documents and on advertisements, so it’s nice to see some more decorative designs.
CA: It’s turning the ordinary into the extraordinary again! I really like the inclusion of Nottingham Trent University students in the exhibition. The Bauhaus was originally an art school in Germany, and then it moved to America with the outbreak of World War II. The original artists took on students, and those students took on more students, and the ideas of the Bauhaus have really been disseminated across the world, as we see in the diverse group of artists on display in the exhibition. The involvement of NTU students is very relevant to the motivation/mission of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was all about constant innovation, experimentation and questioning artistic conventions, so it’s great to see contemporary students continuing this tradition.
If you’ve made it to the end, thank you! We hope this long ramble will inspire you to talk in galleries, and not to feel intimidated.
Homage to the Bauhaus: The Kirkland Collection is open in the Djanogly Gallery until 2 June.
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-5pm