Ken's Show review – sublime choices from a non-expert put the pros to shame
Source:The Guardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2018-04-04 Size:
No curator at any Tate gallery is allowed to touch a work of art ……

‘What a fantastic artist’ … Hodgkin’s Rain.Photograph: Howard Hodgkin

No curator at any Tate gallery is allowed to touch a work of art. That has to be done by art handlers, whose skills are a mixture of conservation science and DIY ingenuity. Until his retirement last year, Ken Simons was art handling manager at Tate Liverpool.

It’s 30 years since the gallery opened and Simons was a key part of its team from day one. So to mark the anniversary, the museum had the sweet idea of getting him to curate an exhibition of his favourite works, drawn from all the art he has handled through the decades.

If the title – Ken’s Show – suggests a populist, matey flavour, it’s misleading. Far from an accessible grab-bag of People’s Favourites, this is a sensitive, thoughtful exploration of some of the most sublime works in the Tate collection. Simons has evidently spent as much time pondering art as installing it. And what better way is there to get to know art than by touching, carrying and protecting it? There is a passion here that frequently gets smothered by theory and fashion in the exhibitions that supposedly expert curators bolt together to prove some tenuous proposition.

Ravishingly beautiful … Lake, Ruin and Pine Trees by Richard Wilson. Photograph: Richard Wilson/Tate

No fashion-conscious selector would give wall space to Richard Wilson. This Welsh artist, who died in 1782, is often left to languish in storerooms or, at best, held up as an example of the way the 18th-century aristocracy mythologised nature and ignored the peasants it was making homeless. Simons includes Wilson’s Lake, Ruin and Pine Trees, a ravishingly beautiful painting that is a glowing rhapsody of sun-filled sky, dappled leaves and ethereal watery reflections. The crumbling walls of a decrepit Roman building on the edge of a still lake are perfectly mirrored by its luminous surface. Water and sky melt into one another. This is a dream of a place: let’s live there.

“Temples were often used in this way in the landscaped parks of wealthy British aristocrats,” I read when I look it up on the Tate website. So much for the expert view. Instead of seeing this painting through eyes blinkered by such complacent soundbites, Simons has simply responded to its beguiling light. Yet his decision to rescue it from the Tate stores is in no way naive. JMW Turner was powerfully influenced by Wilson’s lofty vision of landscape. Simons shows the extent by hanging Lake, Ruin and Pine Trees next to Turner’s Sunrise With a Boat Between Headlands. It is thrilling to see how the structured luminosity of Wilson’s vision has evolved, in Turner’s mid-19th-century work, into a near-abstract symphony of swirling light.

‘A whirlpool of cascading water’ … Turner’s Snow Storm – Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Photograph: Tate

To see the next leap, look across the gallery. Mark Rothko’s 1957 Light Red Over Black warps the light around it like a black hole sucking in stars. Walk up close – as close as the art handlers will allow – and the two dark rectangles sunk into its redness seem to beckon you in, like a pair of arms pulling you into the painting’s pitiless depths. Just like Wilson and Turner, Rothko uses light to create space. His unbearable colours suck you straight into the storm of his soul.

Rothko recognised his debt to Turner. When he made an extraordinary gift of nine of his greatest paintings to the Tate in 1965, one of the reasons he gave was that he wanted them to hang near its unparallelled collection of landscapes by the great British artist. Since Tate Modern opened, that has rarely happened, for the Rothko Room and the Turner Bequest are now housed in separate museums, a river journey apart. But Simons reunites them. Looking from Rothko’s painted wall of mystery to the whirlpool of cascading water, pummelling ice and streaming smoke in Turner’s 1842 masterpiece Snow Storm – Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth, their affinity is obvious – and breathtaking.

This is a moving and lucid exploration of how the Romantic movement that inspired Turner’s ecstasy in nature still lives on in abstract art. Simons seems to love halfway houses between the real world and the visionary realm of the abstract. On either side of his Rothko are paintings by Mondrian and Howard Hodgkin. Each teeters in very different but equally captivating ways on the border between representation and visual music. Hodgkin’s Rain, painted in the 1980s, takes its place naturally next to Mondrian and Rothko, proving what a fantastic artist we lost when he died last year.

Simons’ Romantic sensibility encompasses Samuel Palmer and Barbara Hepworth, too, as well as Graham Sutherland and Rachel Whiteread. Most of the works he’s chosen are fascinating, all are well worth a look – except at the end, where some of the contemporary art looks incredibly minor. I’ve got good at telling myself to like Anish Kapoor but his art looks trite, easy and unconsidered when placed near Rothko. Antony Gormley also delivers a typically glib statement in which an abstract field is divided by an elongated human figure. It’s as if Giacometti had designed a fabric for curtains.

A feel for art … Ken Simons with Graham Sutherland’s Entrance to a Lane, from 1939. Photograph: Roger Sinek/Tate Liverpool

I suspect the curator’s heart was not in this last section. Ken Simons has a feel for art that goes beyond the fashionable, into the secret places of the heart. If only more exhibitions had this much poetry.

[Editor] 姜鑫