the british art show 1984

12 August 2011 § Leave a comment

I recently noticed an old show catalogue in a second-hand bookshop window. entitled The British Art Show.  At first I thought it referred to this years excellent Arts Council touring show – British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet, however, apart from acquiring a ‘The’, and losing a number, the older catalogue also had appended, in very small lettering,  Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984.

This was therefore the second ever show (the first in 1979 and with some hiccoughs being held every five years) and I bought it to take a look at how things are changed. I was also intrigued as to how the featured artists careers have fared in the intervening years. I will leave analysis of the styles and techniques of the artists together with their themes, and influences to others more knowledgeable than I, but there some interesting points that are quickly apparent.

Anish Kapoor

The shows were created to present an overview of the previous five years work. The first in 1979 featured a whopping 112 artists, by 1984 it was down to 80 whilst by 2011 it was less of an overview and more of a curated show and down to just 39. It is also noticeable that the 1984 show featured many then-established names – half of the artists were aged over forty and many much older – and it is noteworthy to see just how many are now big names: Frank Auerbach, Gillian Ayres, Anthony Caro, Leon Kossof, RB Kitaj, John Hoyland, Paula Rego, Howard Hodgkin and many more.  In stark contrast this year it is a narrower, curated show with pretty much only the young guns who got a look in.

Peter Bailey

Essays in the book provide interesting contexts to the show. It is startling to be reminded of how much the post-war hegemony of the New York school was still a sore wound. Many of the artists featured had worked through obscurity whilst abstraction reigned supreme and it had only been in 1980 at the Venice Biennale that the American shackles had been truly thrown off. In England Bacon, Freud, Kitaj & Hockney were part of a figurative renaissance in the 1970’s and nobody was sure what post-modernism had brought – or even whether it had happened.

The essays are full of contradictions and contrasts – which reflect the title of the show and the work exhibited. Consider this statement: ‘The exhibition veers from figuration to abstraction, idea to object, observation to invention, recalcitrance to enthusiasm, sentiment to empiricism.’  Actually those words are taken from the 2011 show – but it is clear they apply equally to the works in 1984. True, many works had more obvious modernist influences but the post-modern era had arrived even if they were not too certain of the fact.

It is interesting to see the parallels to today regarding the oft-predicted ‘death of painting’. Through the fairly recent arrivals of performance art, minimalism and conceptual art some had felt that painting had had its day and there was now a brave new world of new artistic practice. Of course the ‘death’ never happened (and never will) and here in 1984 the biggest representation was for painters who made up about half the show (quarter in 2011).

About 50% of the young painters became established names: Gilbert & George, Graham Durward, Jock McFadyen, Adrien Wiszniewski and Tony Bevan for example. A pretty good talent-spotting rate but the sculpture hit rate is spectacular. There was a hugely talented British School of sculpture working at that time. Here is an (unedited) list of the young sculptors in the show: Helen Chadwick, Tony Cragg, Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon, Shirazeh Houshiary, Anthony Gormley, Richard Wentworth, Bill Woodrow and Barry Flanagan. Wow – a hit-rate of 100%! OK I cheated and didn’t mention Stephen Johnson (sorry Steve), but an impressive list all the same.

There is also a hit rate of 10o% or film and performance – of relative ‘failure’ that is: Paul Bush, Sandra Goldbacher, Rose Finn-Kelsey, Gerald Newman, Jayne Barker and so on (perhaps those specialised in the field know them?) plus those practitioners with installations and mixed media are also almost entirely names that have slipped from memory.

Christian Marclay 24

So to 2011. Is there anything to learn? Which artists will be well-known in another 25 or so years and which art will be the best investment (usually the same but not always)? It is certainly hard to produce film and video art that is stands the test of time, but surely Christian Marclay‘s ’24’ will? Installation art is not often ‘easy’ – to store, exhibit, transport and so on – time again is not often kind.

Maaike Schoorel

If the younger painters of 1984 are anything to go by well over half of those showing in 2011 will be established names 27 years hence – and with only ten showing it is not a tough choice. Simple, powerful and well-executed pieces should have the easiest ride. My feeling is that Phoebe Unwin, Maaike Schoorel, George Shaw and Michael Fullerton‘s are fairly safe bets as painters as are Sarah Lucas, Roger Hiorns and Brian Griffiths’ sculptures, Wolfgang Tillmans‘ photographs and Christian Marclay’s film(s). Will I be right? In my inter-galactic cyber blog of 2038 I will let you know….

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