BY Mark Godfrey in Fan Letter | 22 JAN 19
Featured in
Issue 200

Mark Godfrey on Pierre Huyghe, Charline von Heyl and Kerry James Marshall

‘Do you remember what that was like seeing great art and knowing nothing about its maker or context?’

BY Mark Godfrey in Fan Letter | 22 JAN 19

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Underpainting), 2018, acrylic and collage on PVC, 2.2 × 3 m. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner, London 

About 20 years ago, I spent consecutive springs in New York doing doctoral research on Barnett Newman and Morris Louis. My MA had been spent reading Clement Greenberg’s and Harold Rosenberg’s debates on ‘modernist’ vs ‘action’ painting and, at that point, I knew next to nothing about living artists. Alone in the city, I spent every Saturday seeing shows. At the Dia Art Foundation, illusions of glass planes like force fields were conjured with nothing more than stretched yarn. On 57th Street, I recall an achingly beautiful Irish voice accompanying slides of teenage girls rehearsing in a school gym. In Chelsea, there was the pleasure and absurdity of crouching over an immense table of slides taken all over the world. In another gallery, an army of dolls confronted me – all of them rescued from flea markets. Once, I was handed a tiny blue LED light and led into an immense darkness, shining the light in circles to find other people and the edges of the space. I did not know the names James Coleman, Fischli & Weiss, David Hammons, Zoe Leonard and Fred Sandback; much less, anything else they had made. I just knew that each work seemed incredible: concise, intelligent and moving.

Do you remember what that was like, seeing great art and knowing nothing about its maker or context? Twenty years on, it’s almost impossible for me to experience the amazement of such encounters. Once I started writing and teaching, I would see fantastic work and ask: what argument can I make about this? What would my students think? And, I confess: ‘What would the OCTOBER critics have to say?’ Now, with the privilege of working for a collecting institution, I think: does this make sense in the Tate collection? What would it take to install it? How could we find the funds?

Pure enthusiasm is now rare but I felt it at the end of a long day at documenta 13 in Kassel in the summer of 2012, when I found myself in a zone where the neo-classicism of the 18th-century gardens made way for a strange terrain of mounds, swamps, concrete slabs and plant growth. It was hard to tell if this was a site half-destroyed or half-created. Carnivorous and hallucinogenic plants sprouted from the earth and, at the foot of the mounds, the head of a stone female figure was covered with bees. A pale, thin dog with a bright pink leg dozed by a pile of earth. With the memory still fresh, five years later, I cycled with my daughter to a disused ice rink, which was part of Skuptur Projekte Münster. Here, Pierre Huyghe had created yet another living landscape: After ALife Ahead. We clambered under ground level and up the sides of termite-mounds. Spiders bred in stagnant pools while the roof opened and closed above us. A giant aquarium, whose inhabitants darted between concrete shards, was illuminated before its glass panels darkened, turning it into a black monolith. On both days, I thought: this is just so fucking cool. Not just because Huyghe can turn fantasy into extraordinary reality but because, in doing so, he subverts all the histories and conventions associated with the leisure spots in which he operates.

I felt a similar rush of enthusiasm last summer at the opening of Charline von Heyl’s survey ‘Snake Eyes’ in Hamburg. With characteristic bravado, Von Heyl took possession of the cavernous space of the Deichtorhallen and made it her own, dressing it up with a few walls of yellow/white stripes, all the better to show off her paintings from the past 15 years. Each one looked pretty different from its neighbour but, in every surface, you could recognize an acute intelligence that is unique to painting and unmistakably Von Heyl’s. I love how she pushes the medium so close to the decorative, patterned, vulgar; how she will deploy deeply unfashionable aspects of painting’s history (Georges Rouault, Bernard Buffet) without ever quoting her forebears; how she will corral shapes as silly as a skittle or a duck into her compositions; how she won’t shy away from the ugly and absurd; how each stroke, scratch, smear, drip, layer of paint is never what it seems. She screws with your mind while delighting your eyes and does this all with confidence in her ability and her medium. In the last weeks, it has struck me that her work is to abstract painting what Killing Eve (2018) is to every tired spy/assassin television show/film you’ve ever seen: fresh, quirky, weird, witty and moreish.

Isn’t it in the nature of the enthusiast to say: ‘More please, more’? So, I’d like to overstep my wordcount by offering just one more example of something that’s got me gasping: ‘Wow!’ Kerry James Marshall has, for decades, argued that figurative paintings showing black subjects should take space within the largest rooms of the world’s great museums. Yet, he had never painted this vision until 2018: when he did, it was astonishing. Untitled (Underpainting) shows us a gallery like the one in the Louvre with works by Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, and it’s full of black viewers, teachers and school kids. We look in from just beyond the edges of two walls in the room’s centre. On each of these walls there is a big painting, but we can only see the side of its frame. The scene is almost symmetrical: a woman is teaching a crowd of school children on both sides, but she’s watched by a man in the foreground on the right, and a woman on the left. Other than the stark white of the two wall edges – which read a bit like a Newman parked centre-stage, only so that Marshall can acknowledge abstraction while insisting on the figurative tradition – the whole scene is painted in browns and blacks, as was the convention for under-painting and, accordingly, aspects of the scene are ‘unfinished’, forever awaiting the final layers. The sketchiest parts are the pictures on the museum’s walls. So, we can only imagine whether these visitors are looking at paintings from art history, or ones yet to be made, and whether this utopia is set in a museum that could exist now, or one that artists like Marshall are in the midst of creating.

Mark Godfrey is a curator and art historian based in London, UK. He recently co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader (2021) with Allie Biswas, and co-curated ‘Laura Owens and Vincent van Gogh’ at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.