Category Archives: Artists

Velvet Buzzsaw: Horror in the Art Business

Toni Collette comes to a gory but artistic end in Velvet Buzzsaw

I love movies about art and artists. There never seem to be enough of them. I know they are often cheesy and the art is fake and the stories are inaccurate or overblown or just plain wrong, but it’s so rare to be able to enter the world of art at a visual level apart from going to galleries or looking at pictures online. Even the good movies can be hard to come by: they often have short releases and disappear completely unless you are old school and collect DVDs.

Mostly they are biopics. A recent unexpected hit was Mr Turner (2015), an interesting attempt to explore the art through the strangeness of the man.

Was Turner really such a sourpuss?

Other titles since 2000 include Frida (2002), Modigliani (2004), El Greco (2007), Shirley (2007), an attempt to bring to literal narrative some of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Probably the most famous movies (and books) are those about Vincent van Gogh, including the recent At Eternity’s Gate, with Daniel Defoe in the role (2018). Haven’t seen it yet, but no doubt will do so soon (and write a review).

Velvet Buzzsaw is something completely different. It is a kind of horror film, a kind of parody, a kind of postmodern fantasy and a trenchant critique of the excesses of today’s art world. A remarkable cast includes Toni Collette styled after a famous (real) museum director, Jake Gyllenhal as the awful but powerful art critic Morf and Rene Russo as the art dealer. It is also a great outing for British actor Zawe Ashton, playing Josephina, the only likeable character in the ménage.

The Variety reviewer calls it “a tarted-up throwback to a certain kind of trashy ‘70s horror movie”. As a dedicated fan of trashy 70s movies, I disagree. While writer-director Dan Gilroy uses some of the tropes and gestures of that genre, he is also offering more than cheap thrills. Just as his creepy and unforgettable film Nightcrawler forced us to focus on what it means to “get the picture” (in that case, video footage of ultra-violent late night events in Los Angeles) Velvet Buzzsaw insists on the bizarre linkage between art, consumption and the ultra-wealthy elites who circulate and control the market in art and who destroy art (and truth) in the process.

Dan Gilroy
Director Dan Gilroy: he doesn’t look happy either.

It is interesting that Gilroy originally wanted to make a film about Weegee, a crime photographer in New York in the 1930s. 

“Weegee”: New York Crime Scene Maestro

Weegee was known as “The Father of Crime Scene Photography” and after being considered a weird outsider for decades he is now being recognized for his major innovations in photography, documentary and journalism. What he has in common with Gilroy is that he shows the kind of horror which everyone wants to see – a desire they can’t admit to. This would have made a fine follow-on from Nightcrawler but the logistics of recreating the era which calls for a brutalist noir approach would have been difficult and the result might have been too much altogether for the contemporary movie audience.

What matters to me in Gilroy’s work to date is that he is exploring the consumption of images, art, photography and the unconscious. He is tracking something about the hidden (or not-so-hidden) truths behind the emergent forces created by contemporary excess-capitalism. Art and media representation collide along a continuum of cruelty and inequality. The viewers want the gore: the super-saturated world of elite wealth and good taste masks a limitless violence against art in its deepest meaning. Although elements of the film jarred somewhat and the idea of a dead artist’s works having a kind of demonic intention is a bit OTT, see the film for its inventive depictions and wonder how much further the art world can go with its exuberant destruction of the concept of value and its embrace of very expensive cheap thrills. For Netflix fans, Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming now (February 2019).




Gerhard Richter and Never Look Away: scandal, the biopic and the register of truth


Film Still used to advertise Never Look Away, 2019 release in the US

Gerhard Richter is the towering figure of contemporary European art. You’d never know it in Australia though. Apart from the brave retrospective at the GOMA in Brisbane (October 2017-February 2018) Richter’s art and reputation barely registers here. One can speculate about the reasons: his early art was weird (he painted full-scale black and white oils which were blurry copies of old photographs), his landscapes were almost abstracts and then when he started painting abstracts they looked like landscapes) but quite apart from the art, he has never comported himself like a suitably glamorous and dramatic/exotic figure and of course there is the contemporary sticking point, he is an old white male and a German at that.

Richter was born in 1932 and spent his boyhood in obscure Lower Silesia, now Bogatynia, Poland, and in the Lusitian countryside. The family moved to Dresden where his father, a teacher, struggled under the emerging Nazi education system. He was forced finally to join the Nazi party. Gerhard aged 10 was conscripted into the Hitler Youth but was too young to be an official member. Somehow the worst effects of the war passed the family by, and Gerhard was able to study at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, where his first application was rejected because his work was too “bourgeois”. Now he was living under the DDR, but managed to escape to the West two months before the building of the Berlin wall.

So, an early life under the shadow of the Nazis and the Commies, then freedom in the West and a dazzlingly successful career in art. So has gone the accepted story. Richter has been extremely protective of his privacy and although he has given many interviews and written his own books (wonderfully stimulating books) he has never strutted the stage as the kind of glamour boy which the art world so adores. He hasn’t been a drug addict or murdered anybody and he has nurtured his reputation by judicious management and with a quiet sincerity which is so against the grain these days.

Perhaps this reticence has aided his growing reputation. As the international art scene became big business in the new millennium a strange phenomenon occurred: the older and quieter Richter became, the greater and greater were the sums being paid for his work. Richter has become beyond collectible. In 2012 one of his Abstraktes Bilde set an auction record for a living artist at $34 million US. In 2013 his 1968 piece, Domplatz, Mailand sold for $37.1 million and in 2015 another Abstraktes Bild sold for $44.52 million.

Richter himself has watched this bizarre development with no little distress. These staggering prices do not go to him, of course, but to whoever had the foresight to buy his work earlier. He has described the situation as “absurd” and “daft” in 2011.

As this huge and unstoppable process continues, he has been saying less and less about it.

But now everything has changed. In this age of self-curation and self-revelation, everyone has to have a narrative and they have to share it with the world and if it contains a lot of bad stuff so much the better. For some unknown reason Richter permitted famous German film director and Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others, 2006) into his life and thoughts. For weeks they met and Donnersmarck recorded candid conversations with Richter about his life, on the understanding that the resulting screenplay would be “fictionalized”. The film, titled in German Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author) was released in Germany in 2017 and while its central character is not called Gerhard Richter and none of his actual paintings are shown (one of his assistants was hired to paint pictures like them for the movie) everyone is referring to it as the biopic about Richter. Now it is about to be released in the US, although at this date (January 2019) there has been no release planned for the UK or Australia.

Director Donnersmarck, 2018

What did he imagine would happen? Perhaps it speaks to the naivety of an older person about the operations of the new technologies of knowing (of knowing everything about everybody all the time whether they like it or not) or perhaps he trusted Donnersmarck as a fellow-artist. But the resulting film has resulted in a scandal of a horrible kind. No, it’s not allegations of sexual impropriety or dirty secrets, it’s somehow worse than that.

It turns out that between 1937 and 1967, while Richter was consolidating his art practice and developing his early career in East Germany he was benefiting from the support and patronage of his first wife’s father, a former Nazi officer who worked in the euthanasia program. One of Richter’s most famous early monochrome blurred photo-paintings “Aunt Marianne” is based on an image of his aunt, who was herself captured, sterilized and executed as part of the euthanasia program.

tante marianne
Tante Marianne,  1965: Oil on canvas 100 x 115 cm

Richter is very angry and upset about these revelations. He rightly judges that the fictionalization will become the truth. He has repudiated both film and director, although Donnersmarck says he hasn’t even seen the film yet, only the trailer. Never Look Away has been nominated for an Oscar and for the Golden Globes, and will be released in the US shortly, so everyone will be seeing it soon.

Donnersmarck’s film is an act of provocation, both to the art world itself and to the continuing German reluctance, or refusal, to face up to the realities of the twentieth century past. More and more films focusing on this issue have been emerging lately, and this can be seen as just another in the series. By putting this world-famous artist’s story, even in disguise, at the centre of an ethical demand it creates a compelling focus for the kind of coming-to-terms with the past which every Western nation needs to undertake. The role of art in collective self-recognition, and its role in the revelation of trauma under the unfolding of historical events, has never been more compelling. In a way Donnersmarck’s films make the psychoanalytic demand: live in the register of Truth!

Has Richter’s famous privacy been an effort to cover up or disguise his entanglements with German history? If so, why has he made these revelations to a film director famous for his work in disrobing historical disguises? Did he really think such a film would not be “about” him? Or is there some inner compulsion at work, where his own reality is demanding a release? In some ways the whole situation reminds me of what happened when Martin Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks” were published recently. Right-wing critics and philosophical conservatives went through them line by line, trumpeting “See we told you all along he was a Nazi” as if this disproves the validity of his writing and hence the whole of contemporary leftist philosophy.

Is this about to happen to Richter and the “value” of his art? Or will it only make it more valuable?

But there are more profound questions here. Is everybody always responsible for decisions they made in the distant past when everything was different including the meaning of behavior? Was Richter wrong not to denounce his wife’s father? How much did he in reality accept from her family, to what extent is his present success the result of these murky antecedents? Has his whole life been a kind of cover-up? And isn’t everybody’s?

Poster advertisement for the German release

In the poster for the German film (above) we are confronted with a beautiful young man who seems to be hiding behind his own blurry hands. This is the director’s message, perhaps. I haven’t seen the film and I look forward to it. At over three hours long it probably won’t receive a release in Australia but who knows, maybe SBS will get some cojones after the next election and go back to its original mandate.



READERS PLEASE NOTE:  IN THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THIS BLOG POST I INCLUDED IMAGES OF THE RICHARD PRINCE PHOTOGRAPHS  AT THE CENTRE OF THE CASE.  These are widely published and included in many discussions of the appropriation issue. However, the images were all removed  from the post.  I find it very interesting that it is not possible to discuss the issue using the examples of the images which caused the problem in the first place.

In the discussion which follows, a small icon appears at the points where I reproduced the images, with a brief reference attached. However the icon does not lead to anything. The use of these images  should be regarded as Fair Dealing for the purposes of review and analysis – see the discussion below. However … if you want to know more about what Prince actually did, you’ll have to search through the many online images which are freely available, though many are without context or explanatory discussion. For reproduction of the main images at issue go to:


Appropriation art takes a piece of existing art work, borrows and transforms it. The end product is obviously not a copy, since the purpose of the artist is to create something new and notably different. No-one would mistake the new piece for the original although it will be obvious what it is.  All those famous comic pictures of the Mona Lisa with a moustache, or in disguise, are a commonplace example. How far can appropriation art go and still stay within the boundaries of the law? This question has been tested recently especially with regard to the works of Richard Prince.

In US copyright law a Fair Use test exists to determine the legitimate re-use of someone else’s works including photographic works. It consists of a number of elements which singly or in combination can give protection to someone wishing to re-use another’s work.

There are four factors in the test. Only a Federal Court judge can give a definitive answer on whether a particular use meets that test. The four factors are:

  •             The purpose and character of the use
  •             The nature of the copyrighted work
  •             The amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  •             The effect of the use on the potential market


In 2000 French photographer Patrick Cariou published a book, Yes Rasta (Powerhouse) about the lives of Rastafarians.  yes-rastaHis striking photographs were the main element of the book.

Portrait, from “Yes Rasta”. Republished in the NY Times, from Cariou’s blog.

In 2008 artist Richard Prince created a series of 30 art works which were based on Cariou’s paintings for a show, “Canal Zone”, at New York’s prestigious Gargosian Gallery. In 2009 Cariou brought a copyright infringement suit against Prince, his gallerist and the publisher of the exhibition catalogue. In March 2011 US District Judge Deborah Batts ruled against Prince and ordered the defendants to destroy remaining copies of the catalogue and the unsold paintings which were closely based on Cariou’s photographs.

Cariou’s original photograph at left; Prince’s modification at right.

The decision was overturned on appeal in 2013, except for five paintings which were referred for further evaluation of claims of Fair Use.

The argument in favour of Prince was supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Along with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation they argued that the intellectual content and aesthetic meaning of a work of art is not always visible outside of art-historical context. The court decided that the case would depend on whether or not a reasonable observer would find Prince’s works to have been transformative, and thus protected under Fair Use. Because the case for the five paintings was settled out of court there was no legal ruling on them which has been seen as a loss for those seeking clarity in the operation of the law with regard to appropriation art.

Report on the Settlement appears in Art in America magazine.

In the latest copyright suit against Prince, photographer Donald Graham has claimed that Prince used a photograph of a Rastafarian which he took. The photograph was used in Prince’s 2014 Gargosian exhibition “New Portraits” which present prints of other people’s Instagram posts with comments.

Grahamn’s original at left: Prince’s version at right
Part of Prince’s “New Portraints” exhibition: the Graham photograph in context.

This case differs from Cariou’s in several respects. In terms of the fourth element, the market infringement test, Cariou had made no fine art prints of his work and had not exhibited them as prints. But in the Graham case, the photographer has ONLY sold his work as prints and has never licenced the copyrighted photograph or made it available for any commercial purpose other than sale to fine art collectors. Another element of Fair Use relates to whether or not it has been used for commentary. In the present case the new photographs may be thought to be commenting on the way social media is intersecting with photography.

Another factor is the amount of copyrighted work taken. In this case, the photograph uses almost all of Graham’s image. There is a change in the framing and presentation. Moreover, the image, and the others appropriated for the show, is a striking and compelling image. It is not just the random snappings of amateurs.

However others disagree. Conceptual and appropriation art cannot be judged only on its formal and aesthetic qualities. One NYU law professor says it is “the art-law equivalent of Zombie Formalism”.

The rise and rise of Zombie Formalism – or is it just The Blur?

[Zombie Formalism is a new art movement based on the long discarded principles of Clement Greenberg. For a discussion see an upcoming post].

Also the market test is different because Graham has a track record as a fine art and commercial photographer and makes his living from those photographic activities. If the court finds in favour of Prince, it profoundly affects the concept of copyright in photography and maybe other forms of art.

A longer account of the legal issues can be found here.

CONCLUSION:  Appropriation art  has increased in the Fine Art field at a rapid pace in recent years. Cases such as those of Richard Prince described above serve to highlight the extremely uncertain situation of current copyright law and tests of Fair Use. The fact that each nation has its own Copyright law makes it even more complicated when cross-national jurisdictions must decide what is legal and what is not and even then cannot necessarily impose any penalties.

UPDATE: I am doing some research at present regarding the Australian law regarding the use of others’ photographs/paintings in fine art. This is a difficult issue given the increasing popularity of original paintings referencing other Australian artists and their work. It is estimated that there are hundreds (or more) of such paintings now in circulation in the secondary market. Some of these may be deliberate fakes, but others are works done using the styles and techniques of well-know contemporary artists. The question of what constitutes a “copy” is very unclear.  

Recently a Victorian court quashed the conviction of two painters who were said to have created imitation Brett Whiteleys, for instance.

In reproducing an image of this allegedly “fake” painting here, without permission, I may  also be offending against copyright law. If the painting in question is indeed a deliberate fake, is it nonetheless covered  by existing copyright law? 


Big Blue, Lavender Bay: Allegedly a fake Brett Whitely painting, but a court cleared the painter and the dealer in 2017.



Gerhard Richter and the market for German Art


Gerhard Richter: Portrait by Lothar Wolleh. Wikimedia Commons.
Gerhard Richter: Portrait by Lothar Wolleh. Wikimedia Commons.

More thoughts on the Germans.  Gerhard Richter is by far the leader in the top ten most expensive living German artists.  But even leaving Richter aside, German art, particularly painting, is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popularity among international collectors. Alexander Forbes writing for Artnet News in April 2014 reported that the power of German art in the market has actually increased since the 2008 recession. There is no sign of it slowing down. Richter himself believes the market for art generally, and for his own art in particular, has gone crazy.  Richter criticizes the art market.

Forbes suggests that German art’s penchant for “stringent conceptualism and a highly art historical approach likely proves a safe bet for value retention regardless of economic conditions.

I want to hold that idea. It suggests that art which reflects both conceptual thought – a philosophical element – as well as an embedded engagement with history is likely to hold its value best. On this analysis the German art market is likely to continue to ever higher peaks.

Richter’s mysterious  Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan) painted in 1968 during the height of his blurred monochrome period sold recently for $37,125,000 at Sotheby’s 2013 contemporary art sale. His paintings hold the first 53 places on the top achieving auction sales of German art, 33 achieving over $10 million.


Gerhard Richter
Auction house employees pose for the photographers in front of a 1968 oil on canvas painting by artist Gerhard Richter, entitled: ‘Domplatz, Mailand’ (Cathedral Square, Milan), in central London, Friday, April 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The range of Richter’s work is astonishing. Probably best known for his “blurred monochromes” of the 1960s, his abstract works have also taken on a special aura of mystery, seeming to move away from figuration and narrative completely. You really need to read Richter’s own writings (which are extensive) to get an idea of what he is thinking in this strand of his work, which seemingly just gets better and better. Cage 5, 2006, (below) is a vastly large oil painting reflecting back on his early vision, yet imbued with endless hints and depths of experience which could be landscape or water-surface or a close-up of a lot of brushstrokes – something he also explored in the 1980s. But he invites us to think of a cage, and that opens up a whole different set of associations.

Cage 5 2006
Gerhardt Richter  Cage 5, 2006

The sheer scale of Richter’s work is entrancing, but so is the sense of our shared collective history, that mid-twentieth century Europe with its horrors and excesses which he opens up to us from the 1960s on.  Neo Rauch, my second favourite German artist, does the same, although it a totally different way. You can read my academic article on Neo Rauch here.Neo Rauch Post Socialist Vision, Collective Memories

It is overwhelming in so many ways to enter the Richterian world. Fortunately it is also easy, as Richter’s own website is an absolute miracle of clarity, order and revelation. You can find  (almost) anything he has ever done there, complete with full references, links to written and audio discussions and interviews, the ability to zoom in onto details, and the complete presentation of his Atlas project, which really is no more than a full record of every image he has collected (or photographed) in his life. Explore the miracle of Richter’s work here.

Unbelievably there is almost nothing of Richter’s art in pubic collections in Australia. The AGNSW at least made some effort and holds three items, a painted monochrome sphere from 1989, a photograph from 1967, and his strange version of a nude descending a staircase, titled Ema, from 1992.

The Art Gallery of South Australia holds one of his luminous abstracts (Abstraktes Bild) from 1977 (Catalogue Raisonne: 424). * (Eric Clapton sold another in the Abstraktes Bild series for 21.3 million British pounds in 2013). One of Richter’s finest 1990’s abstracts CR:752-3, 1990, 225 x 200cm) is held in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, purchased with corporate funding assistance from Westpac Bank,  and the NGA in 2003 purchased Juno, oil on canvas 300 x 250 (NGA 2004.2).Richter’s 1995 Abstract at the NGV

Clapton's Abstraktes Bild
Sold by Eric Clapton: Abstraktes Bild at  Sotheby’s for 21.3 million

Gerhard Richter’s work is now so valuable that there will be little or no opportunity to ever acquire it in Australia. Should public collections in Australia be more open to contemporary work from outside Australia? Why German artists, and not those from Romania, Holland, or wherever?  Should we just focus on local art and artists and make a kind of nationalist stand? This might be a valid position but when you consider the extent of Australian gallery holdings of recent American and UK artists you just cannot help but conclude that the good old neo-colonial world order underpins every level of public culture, including public art. Sensible use of public assets or parochialism and subservience to a highly limited Anglophone culture sphere?

*Strangely though this rare work hardly features on the Gallery’s site. No image of it is available there. It has been shown only once in public as part of the exhibition “Making Nature: Masters of Early European Landscape Art” (June-September 2009). Why it was included in that collection is a mystery as Richter can hardly be considered “early” and this painting is very far from one of his landscapes. An image of it is available on Richter’s website – just click on the “Abstracts” collection with the CR number 424.






Elisabeth Cummings: ABC Interview

Cummings in studio 2015

Was so delighted to see the ABC interview with Elisabeth recently. She expresses herself vividly on camera and you get to see a little more of her beautiful bush studio and workspace, and of the bush around which so invigorates her perceptions. The interview was prompted by her participation in the Destination Sydney three-gallery exhibit meant to showcase Sydney and its surrounds. Does this mean she is now officially “discovered”? (Or is this, as she would say, a ridiculous concept?)

The link is here – in an earlier version of this post I used an outdated link, sorry, and thanks to Cultural Conversations for the correction.

And if you go to Youtube, there are some great interview segments with Elisabeth, as well as one with her and Luke Sciberras.

She is showing at Manly Art Gallery and Museum, along with Brett Whitely and Lloyd Rees – stellar! – but the show finishes soon (February 14th) so if you are a Sydney local and a big fan better get there soon.


I think this is actually a picture of Darwin Harbour but the feeling could be Sydney.




Not long ago I wrote an appreciation of Elisabeth Cummings here (see Elisabeth Cummings: Slow Art,  March 24th 2014). The theme of the piece echoed comments by art critic John McDonald, who has repeatedly championed Elisabeth’s work and expressed dismay at its failure to receive the acknowledgment it deserves. He expressed astonishment that her work had not been included in the NGA show of 200 years of Australian landscape painting headed for London in 2013 (SMH, January 21 2012).  She had also been excluded from the Wynne Prize more than once, although that was not the case in 2013 when her  Sunrise, the Kimberley out-glowed everything else on the walls, although it did not win. Imants Tiller’s Namatjira was a puzzling although not unworthy choice.

Cummings Sunrise Kimb Wynne 2013
Elisabeth Cummings. Sunrise, Kimberley. Oil on canvas, 175 x 300 cm.

When I sent my 2014 post to Elisabeth, a personal friend for decades, she protested mildly at my emphasis on the scandalous lack of critical recognition and my reference to her being “overlooked”. She was right to do so. If certain precious art-world critics and habitues had nothing to say about an older woman landscape artist … Excuse me? A what? … many others especially collectors have no doubt about her worth. Her  paintings (and prints) sell reliably from her long-time gallery (King on William) at show after show, some at astronomical prices for a living artist.

Over the past couple of years a new appreciation of her work has become widespread. By late 2015 you could hardly move in fine art circles in Sydney without someone mentioning her name. She was being described as “Australia’s greatest living female landscape artist”.  At a lively discussion around Luke Sciberras’ Hill End diner table in October the question was raised whether or not the “female” descriptor could be omitted. Hmmm.  Luke, her semi-protege, who could reasonably think the title should be his,  didn’t know how to respond.  This year she and Luke collaborated on a stunning show in Hong Kong, responding to that spectacular Asian city with the same kind of delicacy and intelligence as she had long shown for remote Australia’s dry creek-beds and scrubby sandhills.

cummings hong kong 1
From on High 2015.  Oil on canvas 91 x 86 cm

Such a tragedy that this exhibition will never be seen in Australia! Most of the pieces have been snapped up by private collectors and will rarely if ever emerge again in their lifetimes.(“Flying Goose Hill” at the Nock Art Foundation, Hong Kong, October 17 – November 14)

lis and luke
Elisabeth and Luke being interviewed for the Hong Kong show, 2015.

Now she is named alongside John Olsen among Australia’s greatest living artists, along with Cressida Campbell, Peter Kingston and Kevin Connor. The summer exhibition (Mosman, Manly and S.H Ervin galleries), offers 140 paintings and drawings celebrating Sydney as a source of artistic inspiration. The SMH arts and books writer Linda Morris hails the group as the living successors of Brett Whitely, Lloyd Rees, Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston.


Both Connor and Kingston have had recent major exhibitions in Sydney while Cummings’ current King on William show ( until 19th December) was an astonishing record of recent work and almost sold out by the opening night.

Stemmed Flow 2015.  Oil on canvas 115 x 130 cm

It is so wonderful to see Elisabeth  moving to this level of recognition.  She has been utterly consistent in her vision and commitment over her entire career as an artist but the development of her work has been powerful beyond expectation over the past ten or so years. She shuns fame and all the hoop-la but we should be so grateful for everything she has offered not to mention what is yet to come.


Ryan Hoffman Paintings: “Third Person”

Ryan Hoffmann:  Liverpool St Gallery Sydney 11th August – 3rd September

Ryan Hoffmann is a young artist from Sydney’s National Art School, one among few to have been given a solo show in a reputable gallery while completing his Masters of Fine Arts degree.

There has been a buzz around Hoffmann for some time, and this show gives him an opportunity to demonstrate why. It doesn’t entirely succeed although the concept is great. But the “hang” and the lack of documentation are a problem. Most pictures in gallery shows exist in their own right, each with its unique qualities, capable of standing alone. Hoffman’s are part of a larger vision and the viewer needs to know more about how they relate to each other and we should care about them.

As pictures they are of varying quality. Overall they seem barely painted, more like gestures, although they look much stronger as photographs for example on the gallery website. The images are thrown together on varying supports, some very small. The smaller paintings are no better resolved than the larger ones, if anything they are even more random and sketchy.

The gallery wall is covered with what looks like cloth or paper or maybe paint in a vague wash of pastel colours. Most of the paintings are hung close together in what seems to be a random array, large and small, bright and monochrome, square and rectangular. A few of the larger paintings – the “hero” pieces- occupy spaces of their own and two of these are especially striking (more on this later). Art lovers like to see paintings in a show as separate entities, each existing in its own terms, able to be translated to a different space, for example to a wall at home or in an office. Diptychs or triptychs are fine, creating a single visual statement, but otherwise each painting is seen as its own entity. Are these images telling a story? Is there something we should know but haven’t been told? Well yes there is, and it is quite complicated.

Installation, Liverpool St Gallery
Installation, Liverpool St Gallery

Hoffman has exhibited these, or related, paintings in at least two previous shows.  While Artist in Residence at the Glasgow Art School earlier in 2015 he offered a similar show with more paintings, at least fifty.  Some of them, many in fact, are also being shown here.  The concept for the hang was the same: a single wall, a lot of pictures jammed up together in seemingly random order.

Later, in a show called RREALITY PROJECTIONS, part of the requirements for the MFA at Sydney’s National Art School, the same layout includes many of the same paintings. An exegesis accompanied the show, called “Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography”.

The show is engaged with digital photography, and is telling a kind of autobiographical story. This story can be told in many ways. No images take any particular priority, they can be arranged in any order. They are not art photography but the kind of images which everyone now shoots on their phone. If they bother downloading the images at all they can rearrange them in any order, make new “albums” from them, send them round the world in various forms, pin them on Pinterest, send them to their Instagram account. These seem to be paintings of casual snapshots on the digital device, to be treated in the same random way.

NAS final show

Ryan Hoffmann, RREALITY PROJECTIONS (exhibited as a requirement of a MFA at the Nation Art School accompanying the exegesis ‘Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography’ )  room #2, 2015; oil on linen; dimensions variable (Photo courtesy of Peter Morgan).

Earlier still a show called The Inter Galactic Image Factory at Liverpool Street brought together four of the NAS 2014 cohort including Hoffmann (with Seth Birchall, Mason Kimber and Conor O’Shea). Hoffmann’s paintings in this show are different to those in the later shows but clearly show the same impulse. An artist’s statement appears on Hoffmann’s website which explicitly connects his practice to the use of smart technologies and the Internet. While this statement is in a rather tortured form, it illuminates what this work is about.

Images are now simultaneously representing, existing and omnipresent as a form of “virtual reality”. 
By regarding the digital image as a form of readymade imbued by its time, place, culture, Hoffmann’s practice investigates the potential for a new paradigm in painting which courts a contest between photographic representation and painterly application. Through the negation of linearity and hierarchy in subject, Hoffmann locates images in painting from this “virtual reality” to form an autobiography. 

And so we see that, without explicit reference, Hoffmann is in Gerhard Richter territory, struggling with the same issues about reality, image, painting and autobiography, now in the digital age.

It would have benefited the Liverpool St show if something to this effect had been made available in the catalogue or on the wall. There is an argument against spoon-feeding the art public but in a case like this the “sense” of the work shifts into a radically new position when it becomes clear that we are looking at deliberate engagement with a specific problem in contemporary representation. There is a difficulty with work which lives on the border between commercial art practice and art theory: how to connect the results of such a practice with the conventions of the art-buying public. Around less than half of these works had been purchased in the first two weeks of the show. Some were the smallest works, barely sketches, priced very modestly. The others were the strongest and generally the most “stand-alone” pictures in the show, with the very strange exception of the main hero-piece, “Penumbra”, which in spite of its striking qualities and painterly aesthetic had not been snapped up.

Penumbra. Oil, polyester, wood and copper.99 x 78 cm

 Penumbra, 2015, oil on polyester canvas, 90 x 78 cms

 By far the most effective works for me were those expressing the manifold possibilities of semi-monochrome. Small works such as Alpine Resort shine with hidden depths as, on the very small canvas lights beam out in pale reflection.

Alpine Resort 2015

Alpine Resort, 2015, oil on linen, 30.5 x 35.5 cm

 Some of the most interesting works feature grids and shadows on windows, or views through windows into empty spaces. In the relatively large-scale I forget where we were there is the sense of the sudden experience of light and dark which opens up to an unexpected which could be anywhere.

I forget where we were I forget where we were, 2015, oil on canvas, 63 x 138cm

In the tiny very sketchy Passing the viewer looks out of a window at a building in a snowy landscape. Inside, there is a sense of enclosure or capture, but also a feeling of relief at being safely in an interior while the outer world is unknown.

Passing 2014

Passing, 2014,oil on polyester canvas, 26 x 31 cm

One of the most effective pieces in the show is the graceful, well-balanced landscape Tracks. The eye moves between the snowy peak on the horizon and the network of traces proceeding from the viewer’s position into the distance. The trees form a kind of entryway into the mid-distance, where the traces disappear. The absence of human figures is contradicted by their presence, the landscape could not look like this had they not been there but now they are evacuated. The subtle colouration in this painting is picked up clearly in photographs although in bright sunlight on the gallery wall it is much harder to discern.

Tracks 2015

Tracks, 2015 oii on canvas, 94.5 x 115cm

Among the numerous small pictures are several sketches which suggest the reality of a journey which could be universal, any airplane, any seat, any destination. The composition in Untitled is very powerful but on such a small scale and with so little depth on the canvas it is hard to feel engaged. If this was a painting on a much larger scale – one which emphasised the abstract aesthetics of these moments of everyday life – it would be extremely effective. As it is, it is easily overlooked.

Untitled 2015

Untitled, 2015, oil on polyester canvas 61 x 89cm

Another striking image is offered in Sniper. In earlier work Hoffman clearly reflects on military themes. But this sniper might not be military. He (or at a pinch it could be a she) is sighting down the barrel at an unknown target: it could be people coming out of a picture theatre or some other expression of the random mayhem in the contemporary world. The thin vagueness of the paint and the limited use of tone and colour in this little picture makes it particularly effective.

Sniper 2015

Untitled (Sniper), 2015oil on linen43 x 56cm

This brings us to the key issue of whether the conceptual qualities of this work can engage with the commercial market. The ideas behind the project are compelling, but the images need to be able to stand alone, unless of course someone chooses to purchase the entire suite of works, which would make best use of them. Many seem to be barely painted, which creates an interesting quality at one level but is not what the art buyer is accustomed to. Hoffmann has a lot of raw talent and strong presence on the wall but the work needs to be re-oriented or harnessed differently if it is to move forward into the fraught terrain of post-art school life.

Anne Judell “Void” – Review.

Anne Judell. “Void”. Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks St. Waterloo NSW 2017. 10th September-4th October 2014.

Anne Judell Void 2


Anne Judell is a quiet presence in Australian visual arts. Her public profile and challenging works are seldom out front in the hurly-burley of the contemporary art scene. Even those who deeply appreciate her achievements struggle to articulate what it is that compels and enchants them.

Her recent exhibition at Janet Clayton Danks St gives a glimpse of her subtle technique and surprising mark-making. Yes, these are “drawings”, but not in any ordinary sense. Two forms of vision are offered. Layers of pale pastel on Canson paper create an effect which seems to hover at a microscopic level while expanding into universality. These pastel works are small in size and mounted in white frames, so they seem to blend into the wall-space. The mixed media works on Hahnemuhle paper are loosely attached, the heavy paper slightly curved in places, creating shadows and depth behind the work itself. The pastels are profoundly dense and subtle, calming; the mixed-media pieces, constructed mainly in multiple dark and light tones, demand a different kind of attention. These works use acrylic, pastel, charcoal and gesso, worked deftly and pushed repeatedly into the surface of the paper. (Above, Left: Void 2). Judell has said:

 I spend half my life closely observing the natural world. The other half I spend in the studio, attempting to translate this experience into two-dimensional form. I am always drawn to the minutiae exposing the evolution of form. Fragility, intimacy, cycles and sequences are what interest me, as opposed to the heroic and the sublime. (Judell 2005).

Judell’s work requires time: time to produce, and time to view, to sit with it quietly and let the subtle effects engage your consciousness. A somewhat noisy gallery is probably not ideal. The initial impression can be puzzling. What are we looking at here? A comment by Stella Rosa McDonald is offered to gallery visitors. She speaks of comparisons and similes, suggesting that Judell may have “figured out how to hit pause on the universe”. A lengthy interpretive essay by Luke Davies goes straight to quantum physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, seeing Judell’s work as embracing a negative capability, a border-zone between abstract and figurative, the felt and the known, the seen and the heard, the physical and emotional. Davies speaks of meditation and trance, suggesting that her work offers “portals” into another frame of experience, between “outward expansion and inner compression”.

These are strange claims for works created in small scale on paper. Such works are often associated with a feminine delicacy, and certainly Judell refuses the usual apparatus of heroic masculine art. Yet this work is far from gentle or decorative. The mixed media works have something of the visual impact of the older indigenous desert women’s dot paintings, without the colour field. Designs and suggestive associations emerge from dense marks which offer many possibilities. Nos 18 and 19 especially have an animal quality, reminiscent of fur or scales. Others might be reflections of the surfaces of tree-bark or the earth itself. Strong, deep shapes emerge without warning. Paleness, greyness, hints of blue, dark stripes in stipples, “Glory be to God for dappled things” (Gerard Manly Hopkins). We could be traversing roads, mountains, depths of earth, the night sky, the infinite universe, maybe even the reflection of stars in different galaxies of darkness.

Anne Judell Void 1

And there is the “thump” of Rothko, especially the Houston chapel works. It may seem an odd comparison, the grandeur of Rothko’s huge paintings and these seemingly modest works on paper. But in both cases the longer you view the more a sense of shimmering depths and a shuddering emerges, almost as if we are at the edge of emergent Being itself.


Anne Judell, Void 1.

The title of the show, “Void”, points directly towards this philosophical realm. More than just a cute title, the idea of the Void has been emerging recently into a new significance for metaphysics, artistic and creative expression, and in scientific debate around the nature of human experience. The idea of the Void is usually seen as a manifestation of nothingness, associated with the contemplation of emptiness. An awareness of a void at the centre of phenomenal existence has long been central to Asian metaphysical traditions. In the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. The idea points towards an apprehension of a whole reality, before it is sliced up into concepts, especially via the effects of language. Yet the Void also points to a presence, rather than a lack of it, involving particles and antiparticles erupting into being, a constant hidden dimension of which we are usually unaware. Artists have tried to point in this direction: Alberto Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) 1934 was an early example, while Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void 1960 tried to capture the sense of something in nothingness as the human body engages with space and gravity.

Recent research at the University of Ljublana, Slovenia brings together the need to redefine the problem of the Void, in particular the idea of the generation of “something” and ultimately of Being and the universe. Empty space, it turns out, is not empty but the seat of the most violent physics. The theory of relativity and quantum field theory have altered our understanding of the fabric of physical reality, in which the void becomes the key element in the structural functioning of existence itself. Heidegger, in his essay “The Thing” (Das Ding) poses the void as the deep essence of thing, as opposed to its manifestation in the form of material objects as such.

Ann Judell’s work seems to be guiding us towards these unsettling perceptions. The limitations and potentials of the human body, the vision system and its links into the sub-microscopic level of cells and life-forms are called into action in the contemplation of her work. It is as if she is telling us to Be carefully and cultivate our own awareness of the absolute mystery behind everyday existence.

Anne Judell, Moonlight 3. Mixed Media.


Anne Judell, 2005.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE at Annandale Galleries 2014

 9 April – 24 May 2014

William Kentridge is now included within the “canon” of contemporary political artists. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955 he is one of the relatively few colonials to reach such a level of success in circles which remain dominated by Western European and United States’ artists.  Kentridge’s identity as a white Jewish South African anti-apartheid supporter has played a central part in the interpretation and reception of his work.

Kentridge has had a long association with Australia, largely established through the support of Ann and Bill Gregory at the Annandale Galleries, who began showing him in 1995 when he was virtually an international unknown.  His eighth solo exhibition there ran to coincide with the 2014 Sydney Biennale although it was not part of the official program.  This small gallery in Sydney’s inner west remains associated with him even though his international profile is now so high.

Kentridge’s work is both overwhelming and deeply puzzling.  He is best known for prints, drawings and the animated films he constructs with them.  Sheet after sheet of paper is covered with charcoal or graphite drawings, each sheet being photographed and then partially erased and changed, the final sets being made into a film using a kind of primitive animation technique.  He is also a sculptor, designer and interpreter of opera.

There is nothing easy in Kentridge’s work.  The viewer needs an instinctive gut reaction, and some knowledge of South African history and politics, to grasp the intent behind his sparse, rough and expressive works.  He began making prints and drawings in the 1970s with a series of monotypes and small format etchings showing domestic scenes and localities.  Later he made charcoal and pastel works focusing on the blasted dystopian urban landscape.

Between 1989 and 2003 he made a series of nine short animated films, “Nine Drawings for Projection”.  This elaborate project established him as a practitioner of a new kind of visual art. His most recent work, of which the 2014 Annandale Galleries show is an example, is linked to the use of text, word and image in animated films alongside startling graphic images printed on old texts such as the pages of the Oxford English dictionary.

The 2014 show is called “SO”, just one more element of the puzzle of what is going on in Kentridge’s imagination these days.  It fills both floors of the gallery, offering mainly prints and some sculptural pieces, along with a series of three animated films.  The latter, along with some associated graphic prints which make up the components of the films, are shown downstairs, irritatingly close to the front desk and subject to all the noise of a small gallery space as people enter and leave.  This is a great disappointment as the viewing of these films is in my view the key to understanding the exhibition as a whole.

The prints take a lot of looking at and demand intense focus.  “The Hope in the Charcoal Cloud” offers a series of drawings of the artist printed on the pages of an old dictionary, as he steps up and down on a low stool, interspersed with the printed word “SO”, a single red-coloured sheet, and a sequence of four images which look like the earth or the moon, prefaced with a printed statement “TIME IN THE GREY PAGES”.

time in the grey pages

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this represents a statement of the artist’s own sense of his (and our?) existence.  He hopes every day to achieve success in the charcoal cloud which he creates as he works diligently on his sheets of paper, creating graphic images of himself.  He repeats his actions, going up and down that low stool over and over again.  Having got onto it the first time, he says “SO”, which could mean “so what?” or something completely different.  Off he goes, doing it again.  He runs into the red barrier, which might be his own blood, but off he goes again, and finally realizes that he is facing his mortality as the grey pages he is creating pass by over and again.  The earth, maybe a dark moon, and a globe on a stand complete the sense of Time and its passing.

But this is just one interpretation and there is nothing in the work to encourage us to think that any one might be better than any other.  It is almost like encountering a Rorscharch test.  One wonders if the same sequence was shown to twenty others, how many would come up with a similar interpretation?  And to what extent is this, or any other, interpretation dependent on the written texts that bookend the images?  It is a kind of narrative art which refuses to disclose the narrative.

Kentridge has long been fascinated by trees, particularly the species indigenous to South Africa.  This is something Australian viewers might find particularly compelling.  Many of his recent images, including those at the Annandale show, involve a combination of prints forming images of large trees.  These were obviously popular with the audience as most were sold.

Big Tree-2012-Linocut

Universal Archive: Big Tree 2012 linocut

The sense of intrigue in the work, evident in the Charcoal Cloud discussed above, becomes even more compelling in the animated films.  These works invite the viewer to consider them as a philosophical event.  In the midst of striking images and forms, texts appear which seem to suggest a platform or conceptual grid beneath the surfaces.  For example, in the midst of an animated film certain messages suddenly appear and disappear:  ANYTHING TO SAY?  With the question mark hand-drawn clumsily.

anything to say?

Universal archive:  Ref 52, 2012.

Or, in the midst of a series of images printed on the old pages of The Universal Technological Dictionary, a lively black bird carries a sign:  WHICHEVER PAGE YOU OPEN THERE YOU ARE.

whichever page you open


40 1/8 X 39 3/4 IN. (102 X 101 CM)

His use of three old book texts and their pages in the 2014 film work also invites philosophical discussion.  The pages of the Oxford English Dictionary provide one support.  The second (above) is the Universal Technological Dictionary;  and the final one is Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.  Do the images and interspersed texts relate to anything specific in these works?  Is the film printed on Burton’s old work, one of the first discussions of depression in English writing, to be interpreted as a meditation on the meaning of sadness and sorrow, or even as the product of a period of depressive illness?  There is nothing to tell us and no way to know, and it is especially frustrating with the films as there is no way to slow them down and “read” them through a narrative grammar, even though one is implied by the very form of the work.

Kentridge’s use of animated film seems to be accepted by most critics and commentators as just another element in his diverse art practice.  Arguably, though, it is the key medium through which he has approached the political underpinnings of his work. Like most white South Africans he has been forced to confront the issue of white guilt.  In the 1990s he made a series of nine remarkable semi-autobiographical films, including Felix in Exile (1994) and History of the Main Complaint (1996).  This series is read by Erickson (2011) as being shaped by the confrontation of two strong needs, to acknowledge white guilt and to find a means of redemption. In these films the key structural elements of gender and race undergo shifting patterns.  He creates two characters, both of which can be understood as elements of himself.  Soho Eckstein represents the dominant white male, Felix Teitlebaum the artistic and sensitive male.  The only real female characters are both black females, a woman called Nandi and a black nanny.  Hence the fundamental model for white-black exchange lies in transactions between a white male and a black female.  In Tide Table (2003), Kentridge goes into his past to retrieve the memory of his own black nanny seeking for a tentative act of blessing through gestures of recognition.  Erickson’s fascinating analysis unpacks clearly what is going on in this series of films which traverse themes of guilt and redemption in surprising ways.  Today, though, this series of films seems to have virtually disappeared from critical comment on Kentridge.  It is as if the in-depth exploration of a deeply disquieting personal memory, infused with a horrifying history and politics, is many steps too far for our contemporary awareness.  That era, and those questions, seem now to have been repressed.  Perhaps, for Kentridge, he has gone through them and has nothing more to say about it.  His recent animations reflect his earlier pre-occupations only in the most minor register.

Viewing his three animations in the 2014 show, one is struck by their apparent incoherence.  Boer (2013) offers a highly nuanced account of what is going on in these and other of his films, from the viewpoint of a history of film animation. She shows that Kentridge uses many familiar stylistic features and techniques of this medium, which Krauss has referred to as “stone-age film-making” (Krauss 2010: xiv et seq). Krauss concludes that Kentridge’s work is even more “primitive” than the first forms of Disney cartoons and the thaumatrope.  Boer describes the elements of commonality between Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection and the early black-and-white Disney cartoons (Boer 2013:1148).  Without an extended commentary on her very subtle and ingenious essay, it is helpful to note that the intersection between art, violence and technology is exactly the intersection where Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art (1935) situated Mickey Mouse.[1]  A full comprehension of the import of Boer’s analysis makes the reception of Kentridge’s film work even more problematic than it would seem at first glance, which is the only glance which most viewers of his work will ever have, that is, a quick view of some flickering scenes in a gallery somewhere.  Following a careful analysis of specific scenes in some of his films (eg Weighing … and Wanting, 1998 and Tide Table (2003) Boer suggests that Kentridge is drawing attention to the artificiality of reconstruction and questioning the idea that reconciliation, both personally and in the larger South African context, can paper over cracks seamlessly even while leaving them intact.  The technology of animation allows for a visual demonstration of this idea, so that “the viewer is called upon to view these shots with suspicion, exactly because they seem to erase the consequences of the oft-violent events that took place on-screen during the filming” (Boer 2013:1167).[2]

To what extent can the traces of this political past retain an equivalent vitality today, or has his concern with the chaos of those years transmuted into a more indirect autobiographical direction in his later work?  Terry Smith (2011:48) raises the question of whether today “we”, and the artist, can “relax a little” and “enjoy the fruits of his protean creativity”.  His major recent show (2010) offered a comprehensive survey of his career and toured many of the major museums and galleries around the world, including a show at MoMA in New York.  This show integrated his graphic and other works with a production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera.  Kentridge studied mime and theatre in Paris in the early 1980s, and the show Five Themes brought together a kaleidoscope of imagery in sixteen acts, referencing the constructivist scenarios of the early twentieth century.  This work used no direct elements from the political context of South Africa, although Smith argues that it retains a form of activist uncertainty and a sense of political art, which, in his own words, is “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings” (Kentridge, quoted in Christov-Bakargiev 1998: 136).

Nevertheless, in his 2014 show a major piece consists of a 42-panel gridded picture of a tree, called Remembering the Treason Trial (2013).  It refers to the 1956 trial of Nelson Mandela, in which he was successfully defended by Kentridge’s father Sydney.  As McDonald comments “the work is covered in sentences, some portentous … others more mundane” (2014).  McDonald remarks that in this work personal recollection and historical memory have been blended “drawing the private and public realms into one all-encompassing image”.  Kentridge’s use of text and writing is particularly striking in this piece, as if he is trying to blend his graphic art with a form of literary memoir.

The wealth and depth of Kentridge’s work makes it difficult to evaluate in terms of conventional forms of contemporary art.  In combining drawing, design, graphics, print-making, sculpture and animated film, and performance art of a kind if we include his opera-based work, it is as if he offers too much and not enough at once. The show at Annandale Galleries offers a small taste of the oeuvre, familiar in form to previous recent work, but if the viewer is unfamiliar with that work it seems to make very little “sense”.  Should contemporary art make “sense”?  In the case of Kentridge, it feels as if he insists on sense-making with the many texts and ambiguous written statements, while defying any attempt to put the narrative together.  That is, perhaps, his key message: it is impossible to get past uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.  Or, as Boer (2013) concludes in her essay, Kentridge is using his various forms of paper as a means of wrapping up South African social and political issues without attempting to resolve them. (2013: 1168).


Benjamin, Walter. 2008.  The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility: second version.  Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn.  In The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media.  Ed.  Michael W. Jennings et al.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. (See Endnote 1).

Boer,  Nienke. 2013. Taking a joke seriously:  Mickey Mouse and William Kentridge.  MLN, Vol 128, 5 1146-1169.

Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn.  1998.  William Kentridge.  Brussels: Societe du  Palais des Beaux-Arts/Vereniging voor Tenstoonstellingen van net Palais voor Schone Kunsten.

Hansen, Miriam.  1993.  Of mice and ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney.  The South Atlantic Quarterly 92.1: 27-61.

Krauss, Rosalind.  2010.  Perpetual Inventory.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McDonald, John.  2014.  William Kentridge: SO.  Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10 May 2014, accessed 14/6/14].< >

Smith, Roberta. 2010.  Anger and Angst.  New York Times, 26 February 2010.


[1] Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which is more accurately known as “The Work of Art it the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”) discussed the difference between early Disney cartoons as a form of mass entertainment and the role of Nazi spectacle.  This section of his essay was omitted from the well-known English version of the essay published in Illuminations (1969), a translation of the 1955 German version edited by Adorno and Podszus but included in the new edition of 2008 devoted specifically to his writings on media.  For more in this, see Hansen 1993).

[2] Boer’s long and elaborated argument suggests that Kentridge has chosen the medium of animation as a way of engaging in “developed play” since the rules of animation require the operation of visual perception in its relation to the unconscious.  The viewer has to be “trained” to read the arbitrary rules of animation, and Kentridge uses these rules in order to demonstrate their limits.




 Political Art as a category or genre of art history in the West is generally associated with the 1960s. A Marxist theoretical agenda gave it shape, form and legitimacy even if many who practiced or experienced it were hardly experts in political economy or understood the fine points of communist ideology. In the 1950s the world entered an era of apparently suffocating conformity dominated by the triumph of US politics and economy in the post-war era. This produced a generation of children who had known comfort and security – the first generation to have done so en masse for some time. In response, they turned against the mode of life and ideologies of their parents. This phenomenon first crystallised in Europe, but the same processes emerged in the US, Australia and elsewhere. One of the outcomes of US post-war triumphalism was a series of vicious post-colonial wars (most destructively in Vietnam), the rise of consumerism and mindless conformity at home, and the struggles of non-whites against the position of subordination and exploitation they had experienced for generations. The legacy of slavery within the US, the position of indigenous people in settler colonies (Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand) and the sense of revulsion against the imminent threat of nuclear catastrophe played a part in the emergence of new political movements around the world in the 1960s.

France was the hotbed of the new revolutionary consciousness and the idea of political art emerged from this matrix. Art as an expression “of the people” rather than “of the elites” linked to socialist ideologies which went back to the Russian Revolution and was inspired to a degree by the same writings: Marx, Lenin and others. Among the most famous of the Leftist students in Paris was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, generally known as “Danny the Red”. He took a leading role in articulating the relation between Western capitalist society and political and social oppression, and remains a vivid presence in French intellectual circles today, now known for his environmental activism.


“Danny the Red” in 1968. Source: Haaretz, Israel, April 11, 2014.


Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now “Danny the Green”. The Independent, London.  Saturday 13th June 2009.


The young people caught up in the revolutionary sentiments of the 60s and 70s regarded a new popular form of art as an integral part of their revolutionary commitment. In Paris where politics was being played out daily and dramatically in pubic places students took over art studios and printing shops and produced a range of posters which appeared overnight on streets and buildings.


“Workers Unite: French and Immigrant”           “Be Young and Shut Up”



Students riot on the rue Gay-Lussac, Paris, 23 May 1968. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone/Getty Source: The Observer, McKenzie Wark Review.

View an 8 minute video from French National Archives summarising the key elements of the confrontation between police and students in May 68.

Following the failure of the revolution, the political movement in France splintered. Ideology, tactics, and the mysterious role of particular individuals (especially Louis Althusser, prime theoretician of the student Left movement) resulted in the loss of any coherent platform or any means of continuing the struggle. The difference between political forms in the late 1960s and the mid-1970s was remarkable. Many subgroups and movements quickly emerged. Some attempted to overthrow the system through violence – including the first terrorist movements such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Brigadi Rossi (Red Brigades) in Italy.

Later, peaceful groups maintained opposition to the system through cultural processes.   The “Situationists Internationale” (The International Situationists) took their inspiration from the earlier cultural movements of the twenties and thirties, especially the dadaists and surrealists. They developed a contemporary style of communication which used cartoon and graphic novel styles to try to analyse why the revolution had failed. They did not want to “épater la bourgeoisie” (shock the bourgeois classes) but to work out what had gone wrong with Leftist theory. They combined a Marxist-style political analysis with a libertarian commitment. Theories which emerged from this movement included those of Guy Debord, who wrote presciently of The Society of the Spectacle, and Jean Baudrillard, who focussed attention on how media created reality, especially in his best-known early books The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970) and Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972).


Other forms of art which became popular in the sixties and afterwards included abstraction, pop art, installations and happenings. These challenged the conventional gallery-based form of art, almost by definition, but political art needed to go further and directly challenge oppressive and anti-revolutionary social forms.

An enduring result has been a continuing tendency to identify and support forms of art which can be clearly understood as anti-normative. Social movements of the 70s and 80s led into some clearly articulated programs aimed at raising consciousness of moral and ideological issues otherwise suppressed or hidden by social normativity. One of the most powerful and pervasive was the rise of feminist art, or rather, forms of art which challenged the idea of patriarchal domination and demanded recognition and legitimation of feminine experience from a woman’s point of view. Art of course had for centuries been mainly the preserve of men, and women (and children) appeared as subjects of art, not creators of it. The feminist art movement demanded not just the inclusion of women as artists in their own right, but the recognition of women’s experience as a legitimate topic of art. Gay and Lesbian rights movements, the rise of AIDS, the position of immigrants and people of colour and recognition of the rights of the disabled also provided the ground against with a politically committed art could emerge. These elements remain today.

However the question of what is political in art has become far more complex. Theories of the 60s and 70s for instance identified all activities associated with warfare and militarism as an aspect of patriarchal class domination. War and violence were seen as part of masculine culture, to be challenged and rejected by all who sought a more just society. Those who experienced the expression of US imperialism, in particular, were cast as victims and if they were to play a role in this social construction of morality, it would be through their suffering. But the black and white clarity of such a view has faded to Fifty Shades. Contemporary art has moved beyond the simple dichotomies which made it so easy to identify “political art” in earlier decades. The question “What is political art” today is very hard to respond to.

Our analytical understanding of the image world, for instance, might suggest that now there is never anything but political art. Advertising offers an endless cornucopia of imagery directed at constituting our collective self-identities as consumers rather than citizens. Consumption and material signs of affluence have become central to the idea of art itself. Even if we reject the idea of advertising as a form of art (but how can we, when we consider for instance the fantastic creativity which goes into the photographic representation of luxury goods) the meaning of art, especially for its practitioners, has become relentlessly commercial. Artists are graded according to what their work will fetch in the market. A complex and immensely valuable infrastructure supports the circulation of fine art especially. (Isaac Julien explores this issue through his own art (below) and I will discuss the commodification of high art in a later piece].

To clarify the transformations in the concepts of political art from a feminist viewpoint it is interesting to compare the work of two very different women artists working across the period from the 1960s to the present. Nancy Spero throughout her long career created art works which directly challenged the injustices and insults suffered by the victims of US aggression in Vietnam, but went on to express, in dramatic forms, the cruelties and unfairness experienced by women throughout Western history. In contrast, An-My Lê, originally a Vietnamese refugee, focusses on military might and images of warfare from a much more nuanced point of view, creating remarkable images of the aesthetics of militarism.




“Fuck you/Merde”. 1960, gouache and ink on paper.

Photograph: Nancy Spero @ Pompidou

 “I have deliberately attempted to distance my art from the Western emphasis on the subjective portrayal of individuality by using a hand-printing and collage technique utilizing zinc plates as an artist’s tool instead of a brush or palette knife. Figures derived from various cultures co-exist in simultaneous time … the figures themselves could become hieroglyphs – extensions of a text denoting rites of passage, birth to old age, motion and gesture … Woman as activator or protagonist dancing in procession, elegiac or celebrator a continuous presence engaged directly or glimpsed peripherally; the eye, as a moving camera, scans the re-imaging of women.”

Nancy Spero from an unpublished 1989 statement by the artist entitled “The Continuous Presence”.

Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was a well known New York City artist whose career spanned the years of the 1960s and 70s and stretched into the 2000s. Throughout this time she expressed a consistent political awareness and, working mainly in more ephemeral forms, remained an active participant in an art world which over time moved on beyond her primary commitments. Like a number of other women artists, she was married to an artist, Leon Golub, with whom she on occasion collaborated. His profile was at first far higher than hers and as was customary for the era from the 1940s-1960s she took second place to him, ran his home and looked after the children. But in later years, Leon Golub has been almost completely forgotten, whereas Nancy Spero went on making her remarkable and challenging art works into old age. She was a well-known activist strongly engaged with contemporary political and cultural affairs. She was also one of the pioneers in the representation of women’s personal and intimate experiences, including the delerious pleasures of birth and the cycles of life. Throughout her career she mostly worked on paper, using not only gouache and ink but also handprint and printed collage. This seems to have been a deliberate rejection of the oil-on-canvas forms of art, perhaps repudiating patriarchal conventions.

In the late 1950s-1960s she and her husband moved to Italy. She began to express interest in modernist representations of the human form, using narrative and art historical themes, even though Abstract Expressionism was then becoming the main trend in contemporary art. She was also exposed to and interested in the format, style and mood of Etruscan and Roman frescos and other antiquarian objects. She painted a series titled Black Paintings, depicting mythic themes including lovers, prostitutes and hybrid human-animal forms. In the 1950s she worked on a series on the theme of mothers and children. These heavy, blocked works look strong and contemporary today.


                                                  Mother and Children, 1956.

Returning to New York she was influenced by the images of Vietnam on television, and this led to her War Series (1966-70). These were small gouaches and inks on paper, showing the obscene destructiveness of war. The published pictures of her work of this period is fascinating in its simple schematism and sketchy mark making. While some images were over-blown and unsubtle (Peace, Helicopter and Hanging Christ 1968), others expressed a tentative grasp of the suffering in Vietnam without preaching (Helicopter and Victims 1968).

Image                 Image

Peace, Helicopter and Hanging Christ     Helicopter and Victims

By the 1970s she, like most other politically active women, switched her attention to women and their representation in various media. Torture in Chile (1974) and Torture of Women, 1976 – a long scroll 125 feet in length – wove oral testimonies with images of women through history. Notes in Time on Women was another long scroll (210 feet), and again in The First Language (1979-81) she created a series of hand-printed, painted and collaged figures as a kind of “cast of characters”.   By 1988 she developed wall installations, where printed images were moved directly onto the walls of museums and public spaces. Her wall paintings in Chicago, Vienna, Dresden, Toronto and elsewhere continued to focus on the validity of female experience.

Spero Victimage to Liberation

Victimage to Liberation

By the 1990s her style had undergone a complete turnaround. Rich and complex, sometimes reflective of art of the ancient world (e. g. The Flautist, 1995) her work in the 90s took on more certainty and determination.

Nancy Spero Flautist                                                               The Flautist, 1995


In older age, her work continued to focus on themes of power and war. One recent project created installations based on small images of headsblown up and printed on aluminium, the metal prints then being cut out and suspended.

She died in 2009 at the age of 83. Her political commitment was expressed in the US press after her death, especially her anti-war activism and commitment to raising the status of women artists in a male art world. A retrospective of her work was shown at the Serpentine Gallery in London (6 March 2011), featuring a lifetime of work which questions the artist’s duty in response to violence and suffering.

Her recurrent themes were evident in this show. Iconic feminist figures: Lilith, Medusa, the siren, the harpy, the Celtic fertility symbol with its open vulva were torn from their time and place and placed in conjunction in a delirious feminist chorus of “we are all here now”.   One of her more recent works, Azur, consisted of an entire wall covered with panels assembled in a massive frieze showing vestal virgins, Egyptian goddesses, porn stars and women being tortured.

 Spero Azur

                         Azur, Centre Pompidou Museum Publicity October 2010

She is sometimes compared with Louse Bourgeois. Both were married to more famous men, and both were rejected by the mainstream. Spero was not just an outsider, but much of her work looks like “outsider art”. The thematics of anti-war and pro-feminism are pushed very far in her work, although there is also demonstration of great subtlety and intelligence.

One critic, Laura Cumming, commented that her less overtly political work is her best. Perhaps this is because overtly political work itself no longer has a positive place in contemporary art, at least in comparison to its earlier dominance.[1] Assessment of work so clearly connected with a life-long political commitment, anti-war and pro-feminist, is difficult today especially as the work itself seems rather obvious and its themes generally outmoded or at least by-passed. While there are many admirably aesthetic and socially interesting elements, it becomes increasingly difficult not to turn aside with a degree of irritation at the obviousness of the imagery and its implications. The viewer today is inclined to say: well yes, obviously…




 An-My Lê.

An My Le with camera

An example of a very different form of political art, although with some common sources, is the work of Vietnamese-American photogapher An-My Lê. She was born in Saigon in 1960. Her family managed to leave Vietnam in 1975 as refugees and were resettled in the US. Today she identifies as Vietnamese-American and lives and works in New York, but has continued her connection with Vietnam. Her work is stimulating and unexpected. She examines war and its consequences, using elements of traditional documentary photography, frequently in conjunction with re-enactment. At first it is hard to see just where she is coming from with her work. On the one hand she seems to be looking at war as an historical event, showing the full panoply of military power through hardware and organisation, but in another way she forces a kind of beauty and aesthetic pleasure out of this normally severe and patriotic topic. In her on-going series “Events Ashore” – begun in 2005 and continuing – she documents her travels with the armed forces as they move to different sites of operation.

An My Le desert with tanks

“Tanks”  from Small Wars 2001

From jungle warfare training in Indonesia to shipboard scenes her images remind us of the immense global circulation of people, resources, power and capital which continue unabated from year to year. Her eye captures strange moments and juxtapositions: a soldier in uniform sits patiently next to a Buddhist nun in Patient Admission, US Naval Hospital Ship, Mercy, Vietnam (2010). This brilliant shot shows their equivalence in spite of their divergence. Both are bald, or almost so. Both sit facing the camera with their hands crossed in their laps. Both are silent – because no doubt they cannot speak to each other, yet there is a companionable kind of communication going on here.

Hospital Ship

Patient Admission, Hospital Ship, Vietnam 2010.

Although she shows military images which can be recognised at once as part of the canon of military representations in modern warfare, she also documents humanitarian missions such as those to Ghana and Senegal, relief efforts in Haiti, an aircract carriers deployed to Afghanistan and eventless days on a passage through the Suez Canal.

Beach Landing Site Haiti 2010

Beach Landing, Haiti, 2010

Her earlier work consists of careful and very traditionally shot photographs – relying on old style cameras using film resulting in the kind of picture which harks back to the golden days of black and white and to the visual or topographic documentary function of the photographer. Her work is now widely shown in the US, although there is little information available about her current reception in Vietnam.


Small Wars (Ambush 11) 1999-2002

Her photographs range from expansive to intimate, with machines dwarfed by vast landscapes in an expressive beauty. Her work has a debt to old-style landscape and portrait photography, expertly printed in a middle-gray scalereminiscent of Robert Adams. Returning to Vietnam in 1999 she expressed ideas of a lost homeland, evoking smell, memory, childhood stories and connection to war in the landscape. The alarming beauty of modern warfare, experienced by combatants wherever they are, is never far from her lens.

 An My Le Tracers

 Small Wars: Tracers                                                                                                                Source:

Her Vietnam images do not document relics but engage the viewer with Lê’s own struggle to reconcile memories of her childhood in Vietnam with the landscape which now exists. In many of her photographs, calm tropical scenes are intersected by disturbing images which might be dive-bombing planes but are instead birds, while fires in the fields and structures on construction sites recall the presence of massacres, graves and napalm. In this way, Lê is using photography to trace a memorial landscape which does not any longer exist but which has left its traces as much in her mind’s eye as in the camera’s lens. This is an imaginative creation of a different kind of war photography.

At the end of this project she became aware of the existence of Vietnam War re-enactors in North Carolina who restage battles as well as the daily life and training of soldiers – both ex-Viet Cong and US forces. She photographed and participated in Vietnam War battles for four summers. Both documentary and staged, the work is conceptually rigorous and fascinating. Re-enacting soldiers sit for portraits and battle compositions reproduce classic war photojournalism. [2] These men have a passion for military history and take a formal approach to the precise re-enactment of specific battles and situations. Obviously guided by deep-seated psychological motivations, Lê found this a way to enter her own experiences of war “and adolescent fantasies about soldiers in uniform”. She says:

The re-enactors and I have each created a Vietnam of the mind and it is these two Vietnams which have collided in the resulting photographs. Here I experience Vietnam in America as I experienced America in Vietnam: worlds of conflict and beauty.

(Lê 2001 np).


An-My Lê. Small Wars: Explosion.  1999-2002. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Murray Guy Gallery, New York.

Her series 29 Palms (2003-7) documents a military base of the same name located in the California desert. Soldiers train here before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. This then is a rehearsal for war, rather than a re-enactment of it.

The importance and uniqueness of her vision is receiving increasing recognition. She will have a solo show in Baltimore in 2014, with twenty-one pieces selected from four of her series, “Vietnam” (1994-98, b & w); “Small wars” (1999-2002, b & w); “29 Palms” (2003-4, b & w); and “Events Ashore” (2005-present, colour).

Her work highlights the role of artist as observer, using artistic freedom to engage with the topic of military action which many would have rejected as complicit with a masculinist ethos. Of course today, with women participating equally in the military at every level, it is hard to maintain that war itself is anti-female. She is exploring a kind of politics, but one well beyond the conventional understandings of political art. Without doubt her identity as Vietnamese-American gives her a subject position which allows the development of this vision. What might seem, coming from another artist, to run the risk of being American hooray propaganda is in this context a kind of meditation on the meaning of war beyond the crude idea of national sovereignties. It reflects connections between past and present, and often opens up the sense of common humanity between those in combat and those they are working among. It is a shame she was not permitted to work in Iraq; the kind of documentation she might have provided would have given a dramatic balance to the conventional war images from television and movies. She gives a profound sense of “Being There”, no matter where that is.

le family photo Hue 1961

Lê Family Photograph, Hûe, 1961. This Long Century.


 An-My Lê. 2001. Small Wars: Landscape Stories. Cabinet, Issue 2, Spring, np. <> [Accessed 17/4/14]

An-My Lê. nd. This Long Century. Photographs. <> [Accessed 4/4/14]

Centre Pompidou 2010.   On Nancy Spero@ Centre Pompidou. December. <> [Accessed 14/4/14]

Bui, Phong. 2008. Nancy Spero in conversation with Phong Bui. The Brooklyn Rail. July 16th.<> [Accessed 5/4/14]

Falby, Mac. 2013. The military is not simply the military. Bmore<Art>, December 23.

<> [Accessed 12/4/14]

Ivry, Benjamin. 2010. Nancy Spero and Leon Golub: a politically relevant artistic couple. Jewish Daily Forward, 16/4/2010. Retrieved: 7/7/2011. <> [Accessed 12/4/14]

Mathews, John. 2010. On Nancy Spero @Centre Pompidou. ArtKritique, December 20th. [Accessed 17/4/2014].

Vine, Richard. 1997. Where the Wild Things were. Art in America, May, pp. 98-111.

Walker, Joanna S. 2009/10. Nancy Spero, 1926-2009. Art Monthly , 332,

[1] Source: See also:

[2] This description comes from the bookshop site at: