‘Pop Life’ and ‘John Baldessari’ at Tate Modern

Two superficially very different exhibitions at Tate Modern at the moment. One is Pop Life: Art in a Material World; to quote the blurb:

Andy Warhol claimed “Good business is the best art.” Tate Modern brings together artists from the 1980s onwards who have embraced commerce and the mass media to build their own ‘brands’. Pop Life includes Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and more.

Which is flashy, exhibitionist, loud — several rooms have music playing — and vulgar. I don’t mean to be snobby; much of it is intentionally vulgar. Not least Jeff Koons’ kitschy hardcore porn imagery.

The other is John Baldessari: Pure Beauty [which doesn’t have much of a website just yet… they may just be running a bit late]. The tone of which is much more Serious and Arty. Not that it’s humourless, there’s plenty of dry wit on show; but it’s all very restrained and low-key. Series of small photographs, made with an eye on content rather than beauty. Stills from black and white films with sections blanked out. Rather formally-constructed photocollages. The later work gets larger in scale, more complex and I think more human, in the sense that his collages refer more directly to emotions and issues and almost form proto-narratives; but it’s still very tightly controlled and visually restrained.

So stylistically, they’re quite different. It’s a distinctly different experience going round them: the Baldessari is much less likely to give you a headache, for a start. To some extent, though, I think it’s as much a difference of personality as of kind. Not everyone enjoys celebrity and celebrities, and money and noise and going to Studio 54 with Grace Jones — or whatever the equivalent was for Damien Hirst in the 90s. But if you were an art critic from Mars, or a few hundred years in the future, the similarities might seem more significant than the differences.

Though having said that, the artists brought together in the Pop Life show are themselves a slightly mixed bunch, so perhaps I should resist making any more sweeping generalisations anyway. I mean, Tracey Emin, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons don’t necessarily have a great deal in common beyond a talent for self-promotion. Perhaps the Tate thought it would be a bit blunt to just call the show ‘Masters of Hype’.

Incidentally, having been at school at the time when Keith Haring merch — bags, pencil cases, whatever — was all the rage, it seems odd to find him in the Tate. It’s like finding a room dedicated to seriously analysing the artistic importance of Hello Kitty. Or Thundercats.

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