Midway between lunch in Soho and Green Park tube I detoured down Albemarle street on a gallery trawl. My first port of call was Marlborough Fine Art, where I found a retrospective of Avigdor Arikha’s paintings and works on paper dating from the mid-1960s until his death in 2010 (‘Self-Portrait Hand on Head’, drypoint, 2003, above). The gallery represents the artist’s estate and has curated a concise exhibition representative of the many different mediums and subjects that attracted Arikha after his return to figuration in 1965.
Having begun as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s this was quite a sudden about-turn, which is attributed to the artist’s friendship with Giacometti whom he met after settling in Paris in 1954. Certainly Arikha’s etchings and drypoints reflect something of Giacometti’s austerely monochrome style with their layers of nervously jagged marks creating tight and psychologically penetrative portraits. Robert Hughes described Arikha’s works as having an “air of scrupulous anxiety”. The adoption of printmaking went hand in hand with Arikha’s return to figuration, as if in turning away from the abstract he felt the need to turn away from the loose painterly qualities of oils to in a definitive and decisive manner. Looking back on his abstract period, Arikha recalled “I was quite successful as an abstractionist. But I started painting my own set of forms over and over again. Finally, it repulsed me.” His portraits – mainly himself, his wife and his great friend Samuel Beckett – are precise, with an intimacy and directness that makes one feel almost uncomfortable (‘Samuel Beckett Seated’, etching, 1972, above right).
Alongside these are studies of trees and flowers in soft drypoint or sugar lift aquatint, and still lifes such as ‘Le Pain’ (etching, 1976, above left) or a pair of shoes that in their isolated centrality seem to deserve the status of ‘portraits’ too.
By the early 1970s, Arikha began painting again, but continued to experiment with different materials. The greater part of the hang alternates his charcoal drawings – soft, loose, expressive but ascetic portraits – with drawings in Sumi ink, pastels and oils that range from the human figure to still life and studies of natural forms (‘Jerusalem Bread’, oil on canvas, 1981; ‘Trees at Evian’, Sumi ink, 1997; and ‘Orange Tie Folded’, watercolour, 1975, above; and ‘Sleeping Nude and Indian Rug, 1985, left).
All have a contemplative stillness that turns the trivial – a piece of toast sitting on the grill, a jacket carelessly strewn or a glimpse through a doorway – into something abundant in meaning. These are almost surreal in their awkward simplicity, their latent anthropomorphism, speaking of a wealth shared history with poetic concision.
A little further up on Grafton Street Spruth Magers is showing the photographer and conceptual artist Keith Arnatt. ‘Absence of the Artist’ focuses on Arnatt’s work between 1967–72, key years in which modernism began to be replaced by a more sceptical post-modernist ‘dematerialisation’. For Arnatt, at the forefront of this movement, this took the form of site-specific or time-based performances, which he recorded by means of photography.
As the title suggests, Arnatt’s work questions the role of the artist. “He thought there was a governing idea of art as driven by a central figure – the artist – and he was interested in what happened if you made that person disappear,” explains Matthew Arnatt, the artist’s son. This is explored in literal terms in ‘Self Burial’ (1969, below) in which a sequence of nine photographs documents the gradual disappearance of the artist into the ground.
‘An interest in illusion (and delusion), in the sense of creating a false impression runs throughout much of my work. For example, the ‘Self Burial’ photographs create the illusion that something is happening to me’
‘… it is true to say that the apparent absurdity, or silliness, of Self Burial is an important part of what I liked about it … And I also rather liked the slightly Chaplinesque quality of the photographic sequence— the fact that it shows me just standing there whilst something quite alarming seems to be happening to me (a metaphor for my condition as an artist?).’
A self-parody-cum-postmodernist-critique perhaps – but with a good dose of self-indulgent wit. A more interesting investigation of illusion and perception is ‘Mirror lined pit (grass bottom)’ and its companion piece ‘An invisible hole revealed by my own shadow’ (1968-9) which trick the eye, the ‘invisible absence’ of the pit only revealed by the artist’s shadow, which is yet another absence. Performance art – by nature transitory and preserved only through photographs and documentation – gained status during the 1960s and 70s, and Arnatt’s work is closely related to land art such as Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967, above left). In this photographic piece the artist, though absent, records his physical presence within the landscape. It was a radical new approach and hugely influential in expressing contemporary concerns with impermanence, motion and relativity.
While Long’s work is ultimately reflective, and expresses a quietly powerful, elemental dialogue between man and nature, Arnatt takes radical ‘dematerialisation’ to ridiculous levels. ‘Is it Possible to do Nothing as my Contribution to This Exhibition?’ is a perverse and pointless pseudo-philosophical text. However, on the adjacent wall hang a series of eleven photographs representing Arnatt eating various bits of paper (‘Art as an Act of Retraction’, 1971, above right); the final frame contains the words in list form: ‘Eleven Portraits of the Artist about to eat his own words’. Perhaps a repentant acknowledgment of the lengthy and pretentious tract…
As a photographer, Arnatt’s talent is undoubted. And he is at his best here in the witty, quasi-surreal images that hark back to the visual puns of Rene Magritte, such as the eponymous ‘The Absence of the Artist’ (1968, above) – a sign bearing these words, pinned to a stone wall – and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self’ (1969-72, below).
The show is sparse. In fact, any fewer works and it would hardly justify the title of exhibition. Perhaps this is standard for the presentation of ‘conceptual’ art? But, having first come across his work at The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition in 2007, which considered his later career from 1972-2002, I have always considered Arnatt an inspiring photographer, and while interesting in revealing his early work, this display did not do justice to his considerable talent in this field.