in Interviews | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25


frieze talks to Richard Flood, curator of 'Brilliant!: New Art from London' at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

in Interviews | 11 SEP 95

frieze: How did the exhibition, 'Brilliant: New Art from London' come about?

Richard Flood: I met several of these artists when we organised a show of young British artists at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York three years ago. All the artists came over and it was a very interesting process. Many of them were really quite close to each other in a variety of ways and there was a kind of shorthand communication going on between them. That exhibition allowed me to test my thinking and to switch allegiances from time to time, and I realised that some of the work was really getting to me. When I arrived at the Walker, much of that art was still in my mind.

For my first group show I wanted to do something that would honour a contract with the history of the museum. I didn't know this before I got here, but exactly 30 years ago Martin Friedman curated an exhibition at the Walker called 'London: The New Scene'. Our archives are amazing - there are pictures of people with beehive hairdos and big bows on their heads. I'm sure at that moment it was very brave and very new, though it looks so archaic now. But Martin's catalogue text could have been written yesterday. I thought it was a very interesting construct and I became really intrigued by a 30th wedding anniversary of the Walker and London. That's a pretty simple trajectory - it wasn't much more complicated than that.

Do you see this show as a comprehensive survey of current young British art?

I think when you start off with a limitation like a city, you surrender the historical construct. If I'd been thinking that this exhibition was about a long-range situation and I'd gone into it looking for artists who were related to the history of British art, it would have killed any spontaneity I might have had in terms of responding to work which was happening very quickly in front of me. So the show is about a single moment in a specific city, and I think the moment is visible.

Is there really anything so special about the artists in London?

You used to be able to go to Cologne, to Milan, to Los Angeles or Chicago and find work that at least had the texture of forward movement, and at the moment that's simply not true. The wheel turns, and at the moment it's pointing at London, for whatever reason. It's pretty clear that for at least the last three years, there has been a tacit understanding between people in the commercial and institutional arenas that something was going on. If you look at the biographies of the artists, you'll find that an awful lot of them are showing up in exhibitions in Germany and Italy, for example. The cast of characters changes from show to show, but it's there.

The entrepreneurial activity going on amongst the artists themselves in London is unusual too. You don't see that happening in any other city, nor do you see a core who were at college together staying, for the most part, in place.

You could argue that since artists are working in such an international arena, geographical groupings are increasingly irrelevant.

I don't disagree. Everyone is aware of what everybody else is doing. However I do disagree with the idea that one should withdraw from looking at a particular point of geographic creativity. In New York, for instance, you really don't have a large number of people who are coming out of the same institutions, living in the same areas and up against the same economics as you do in London. I think there's probably a consensus that the three strongest mature international painters at this moment in time are Germans - Baselitz, Polke and Richter. These are all artists who are distinctly German. No other culture could have produced them and no other moment in time compares with the period when these artists came to the West from East Germany, with no credible image bank available to them, and had to start over again. You have to look at them in a regional way as well as in an international way - it would be crazy not to.

So what is it that's specific to art from London?

Well, formally, none of what I say is going to hold for everyone. But much of the work initially appears to be rather poorly made, to have been generated in the seconds before you see it. There's a really interesting kind of aggressive insolence about how it's supposed to function within a formal space. Basically, the art is moving away from a complementary relationship with the traditional white box. When it's shown in a very glamourous gallery it really subverts the space, and begins to make the gallery look a little vainglorious.

Might this be because a lot of this work was not necessarily made with a pristine gallery space in mind?

Here's what I would say: if you have an artist like Sarah Lucas - and I don't think you've got that many artists who are like Sarah Lucas, I think you've got Sarah Lucas - but in the case of Sarah Lucas, I don't think she's sitting around cogitating about the space at all. However, I believe that when that work goes into a space like Anthony d'Offays, White Cube or Gladstone's, it becomes a subversive element within the space. It is not simply a selection of objects that she has chosen to make and put there, but because of the nature of her particular vision, her work changes the space, it is at odds with it. It gives the situation another kind of tension. If you look at a number of the other artists in the exhibition, particularly those who are involved in making sculpture, that also begins to play out in varying degrees. I think that once you put Michael Landy's work in a formal space, for instance, a battle is engaged immediately.

Why do you think this occurs?

We're talking about a situation where this group of artists - again, unlike any other group that I can think of - have an intentionally adversarial relationship with the gallery system. I would really be hard-put to think of another city where this is true. Everywhere else, there is a scramble to get a gallery, and when you get a gallery you are home, until it goes wrong. But in London, artists will go in, they'll let the dealers work a show, have a relationship for a couple of months or a couple of years, and then they're out of there. What has gone wrong? Nothing in particular, except control - the imposition of control from another party.

This is also reflected in the relationships between artists. You can't simply go into one studio and decide to call it a day, because the artists are very aggressive about referencing you to the next set of artists. I visited very few artists who were not intensely interested in the promotion of another artist whose work they felt was essential to their own excitement about being an artist. It's very generous.

You seem to be saying that the artists are doing a better job at promotion than the dealers.

You know, in a funny sort of way, dealers can only respond to the circumstances that befall them. You cannot in truth make something happen. Even if you're capable of generating excitement for one show, it is a very limited kind of excitement. It can't last without consensus and there is nothing a gallery can do to create consensus, not a thing in the world. In terms of British art, it's not since the Lisson sculptors that there's been a moment of unified excitement around a specific gallery with a regional stable.

Do you think some art travels better than others?

Oh, absolutely. Some art is unfortunately damned from inception to be regional, because the artist is concerned with issues that are specific to where they live. I don't think that means it's insignificant art. It's just going to play in a different arena from the work of someone else who, for whatever reason, has the good fortune to have interests which parallel larger, international concerns.

Have you come across artists in London who are making work that is very popular here, but for you, just didn't connect?

Yes, but... look, a curatorial call is a personal one and when you're talking about 22 artists you're never going to make the same choice as anyone else. The show was never set up to be a steeplechase, and we have tried to be as even-handed as possible in terms of conceptualising the exhibition. But I think the question you're asking is another kind of question and I would go back again to my experience of Manhattan. During the 80s you had wave after wave of interest in art by nationality - the Germans, the Italians, and one terribly ill-fated season of French. After the first ARCO art fair in Madrid everybody was in love with Spain - the next season all the galleries were showing a Spanish artist, and that lasted for about two seconds. But if you had the luxury of being in New York during that period of time, you really could see what could travel and what couldn't. You could watch the process of absorption of work from a regional moment into the international art scene, but that process of absorption took about five years. It didn't happen that way with British art because you basically had a group of sculptors - Richard Long, Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon - who all came through gradually and individually. Also, in the commercial system, sculpture moves at a much slower pace than painting.

Would you say some artists were damaged by being promoted as part of a group?

Absolutely, no doubt about it.

So it helped that the British dealers never organised themselves in that way?

Not necessarily. The fact that it hurt some and helped others doesn't mean that it wasn't worth doing and it wasn't worth looking at, because even the ones that, let's say, got hurt were only perhaps seen earlier than they should have been. And for 90% of those, being seen in the fullness of maturity would not have made things any better, so at least they had a shot. Years ago Rene Ricard said - this is a paraphrase - that if there is a really good artist within a radius of a hundred miles of Manhattan, somebody'll know and somebody'll show them. And I think that's true internationally now. Look at the number of art professionals - however you want to define that phrase - who turn up at the BA degree shows in London now. There are a lot of people looking at artists who are really still in their nappies, seeing which one they want to adopt. That's another thing about London - the art schools are pretty critical. Nowhere else is there the locus of degree-granting art schools that London has.

If you were a teacher at one of these colleges, would you encourage these art professionals to come?

Well, yes, I would encourage them to come. I taught for a while at the Rhode Island School of Design. These students were very isolated from the art world that I knew, and I felt it was really critical to grab interesting or influential people whenever I could, and get them on a train up there. I was adamant that the students should maintain direct eye contact with them at all times, shake their hands and draw attention to themselves in whatever way they thought appropriate, so that once they got out of the cloister they had half a chance of picking up a telephone and calling somebody and saying 'I met you when you were up at R.I.S.D.', or at the very least 'I heard your lecture'. If you ignore the aspect of how you earn a living as an artist, you're heading for disaster. You have to find a way in which to make your presence viable. Nobody can help you make the work; in the end no one can give you that extra whatever that's going to differentiate you from the thousands of other people who are calling themselves artists. But what an institution can do is to allow you to understand that there are ways in which you can proceed in the world.

One of the worst things that happens in any profession - it could just as easily apply to a curator as a teacher - is that if you stay too long, you become the enemy. While what you originally believed might once have been extraordinarily daring and innovative, time passes, and if it was right initially, it becomes part of the tables of law, and eventually you're going to be wrong. So I think you absolutely have to keep exposing students to as many people as possible and as many ideas as possible, especially if they deviate from your own.

While we're talking about influencing how people get ahead, would you say it's still New York that decides which art becomes international?

For maybe 30 years New York has been just about to become yesterday's news, but it continues. New York is still the place where careers get made fastest. But I also think the German and Swiss institutions are crucial. The Kunsthalle system can still move with incredible speed.

Do you think the 'art stars' of this British scene have already been decided?

The ranking system is really hard. For example, in Great Britain Damien Hirst is a major figure in popular culture, but in the United States, he isn't, and never will be, because American culture doesn't move in the same kind of crucible-like way as British culture.

Sarah Lucas has talked about the way she works the British public's hostility to contemporary art.

Again, I think that is something that is uniquely British. There is no interest from the American tabloid press in the visual arts, and I think Sarah is quite right to take enjoyment from it because it's a real luxury that no other culture has.

Do you see those ideas about the wider audience in other work as well?

Well, yes, because I think that unholy interest allows the artists to operate with a very well-defined programme of subversion. They can actually make work that, within the culture, is quite anarchic and that's important - it provides a real energy. In the United States, there is no interest in art outside of the art world other than as something that is going to end up on the floor of the House of Representatives, denounced by Jesse Helms. In London you still have this choreography between the press and the art community, whereas here it's just a sapling in front of a bulldozer.

But wouldn't you agree that the work made in Britain is much less overtly political than that in the States?

In terms of art dealing with issues of race, Chris Ofili is probably one of the most subversive artists out there; I think Steve McQueen is doing fascinating work. Who is playing with gender with more aggression than Sarah Lucas or Sam Taylor-Wood? We're right back to issues of nationality. There is just as much a construct about nationality that's placed on artists from the States as that which is placed on artists coming into the States from abroad.

How does the art market in London look from your perspective?

The situation in London is not unlike New York's East Village ten years ago. There you had an entire section of a very large city given over to a proliferation of galleries, artists, collectors, and other dealers. It was basically one of the most bizarre art world safaris I've ever witnessed. The galleries were open, very intelligently, on a Sunday, and you would go over there and see everybody in the art world - curators, collectors, other dealers - looking unbelievably delighted, feeling younger than they had in years, friskier both intellectually and emotionally. That ended partially because of economics, partially because many of the people who were entrepreneurially involved had no sense of how to run a business, and also because the most obviously talented of the artists were picked off by larger dealers. It was over in two years because it really was a safari and nobody went in with cameras - they went in with guns.

I think London's in danger of that at the moment. Whenever you have enormous commercial escalation, it's dangerous. There really is a consensus now that something is going on in London, and that consensus has been in place for, let's say, two years. People are still waiting for the system to pump out the next one, and the next one after that, but now, like the East Village, they are getting greedy. It's not as if they're going to sit around and grow with three or four artists, because they want the excitement of the next one. So it puts the artists who are already moving into place in jeopardy because the minute they are collected to saturation then the collectors move away: unless it's the next, best thing, they aren't interested. The more artists the system produces, unfortunately, the fewer people there are to collect them and the less room they have in their houses. And what I've seen thus far in London is that there's also no market for these people created by British collectors.

Is that a problem? Couldn't it continue with collectors from abroad?

It can continue until it stops. I don't know... you had a bunch of people who knew how to promote themselves and knew that there was strength in numbers and were not, as I said before, reliant on a gallery system within their community. So I do believe they will keep going within their community but as they continue to be unrepresented, it's very difficult. Dealers are useful to artists, not just for selling work, but for moving the work through the community. They are always there to answer the phone, because if the artist isn't there, even if they have their answering machine plugged in or their phone-fax available, the caller will perhaps not be patient enough to wait around till they get back from a vacation and opportunities are lost. I think the galleries are an incredibly important part of the machinery and if the galleries are unsupported by people in their own community it makes it really difficult. There are enormous numbers of people who could afford to support the art, who feed off of the excitement around the art, who are socially only too happy to be available to the texture of the art world, but then they walk away, they don't want to support it, not even institutionally.

I understand that there is a fear of being laughed at because the press is so antagonistic, but if the same caution were pervasive in terms of the national consumption of literature, fashion or music, it would be a disaster. In the visual arts there is a kind of suicidal queasiness about consumption. In a city like New York, or Los Angeles, being part of a creative community has to do with the perceived individuality of your position within that community. At that point, art becomes a very interesting way of signalling your difference, but it only works in a city that rewards difference, and there are not that many cities that really do. London is antagonistic towards difference, whereas New York and Los Angeles have the understanding that if difference disappears, they're dead.

The one thing that is still perceived as unique about Britain is its class system. Have you seen class influencing the work you've seen?

I see the class system everywhere. It's also impossible not to see what 16 years of Conservative rule has done. The truth is that on one level it's interesting for me to bring this work to the States because it is the result of the kind of government that we are about to experience here. It's both good news and bad news. In terms of the class system, I don't think you can be in Britain and not see it, but I don't think you can be in Italy and not see it - it is a major pollutant in every culture, and we're in a post-colonial world where the onus of colonialism is more obvious and more brutal than it was when everybody was ignoring it. The state of California is passing laws which will mean that they can deport any alien they find, other than the one who's cleaning their house, and if that's not one of the most degenerate aspects of a post-colonial culture with a rigid class system, then I don't know what is. In Britain you have your problems, but I don't see it as being any worse than anywhere else. Wherever you go, the art world itself is a game about class. The artists have to remain dangerous and the collectors have to be titillated by the danger, and the dealers are the politicians in the middle performing to both sides of the fence. There is an enormous amount of energy that is brought to the art world by the oppositions that are very carefully maintained within it.