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Constellations

Take a fresh look at highlights from the nation's collection of modern art
Photo © Rikard Österlund

Highlights

Men Shall Know Nothing of This
Max Ernst Men Shall Know Nothing of This 1923
Five Day Forecast
Lorna Simpson Five Day Forecast 1991
Quartered Meteor
Lynda Benglis Quartered Meteor 1969, cast 1975
Ikhonkco
Nicholas Hlobo Ikhonkco 2010
Cossacks
Wassily Kandinsky Cossacks 1910–1
Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20
Aubrey Williams Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20 1981
Light Red Over Black
Mark Rothko Light Red Over Black 1957
Black Sun
Alexander Calder Black Sun 1953
The Pond
L.S. Lowry The Pond 1950
Whose Utopia?
Cao Fei Whose Utopia? 2006

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Highlights in Constellations

Men Shall Know Nothing of This

Max Ernst
Men Shall Know Nothing of This
1923

Ernst studied philosophy and psychology in Bonn and was interested in the alternative realities experienced by the insane. This painting may have been inspired by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s study of the delusions of a paranoiac, Daniel Paul Schreber. Freud identified Schreber’s fantasy of becoming a woman as a ‘castration complex’. The central image of two pairs of legs refers to Schreber’s hermaphroditic desires. Ernst’s inscription on the back of the painting reads: ‘The picture is curious because of its symmetry. The two sexes balance one another.’

Display caption, 2008

Five Day Forecast

Lorna Simpson
Five Day Forecast
1991

If portraiture is intended to communicate something unique about its subject, Five Day Forecast might be described as an ‘anti-portrait’. The economy of the images, their serial arrangement and the use of black and white recall the conventions of nineteenth-century ethnographic photography, in which the subject becomes a de-individualised representative of a wider group. But in Simpson’s work, rather than being available for scrutiny and categorisation, the figure is photographed cropped so only her torso is visible. In this way, she remains ultimately inaccessible to the viewer.

Display caption, 2015

Quartered Meteor

Lynda Benglis
Quartered Meteor
1969, cast 1975

This work was originally made by pouring polyurethane foam into the corner of a gallery. The bottom and two flat sides are effectively a cast of the floor and walls, while the slumps on the front result from the unpredictable behaviour of waves of slowly solidifying foam. It was cast in lead in 1975, giving the sculpture physical weight and presence. While many artists were interested in the literal properties of materials, Benglis wanted to suggest bodily and geological flows.

Display caption, 2016

Ikhonkco

Nicholas Hlobo
Ikhonkco
2010

Ikhonkco 2010 is a work on paper created using ribbon and rubber. Light pink and off- white ribbon stitches form chain-like shapes in a diagonal line across the paper. At the end of the chain, in the upper left hand corner, a three-dimensional shape made from sections of paper protrudes from the edges of the sheet, partially enclosing a circle of perforations resembling a plughole. Further across, towards the middle of the page, a small piece of black rubber is enclosed by pink stitches at the end of a meandering line. In the artist’s native Xhosa language ‘Ikhonkco’ literally means a buckle from a belt, but it can also relate to a genealogical chain, or family tree. Hlobo has cut and sewn the paper together with his signature ‘baseball’ stitch, which is not just decorative, but also very strong. The cuts in the paper are sharp and clean, determining where the ribbon sutures will be made and how they will overlap.

Hlobo always titles his works in Xhosa, an Nguni language widely spoken in South Africa. Attracted to the formal qualities of the grammar, the sounds of the words, and the linguistic flexibility of Xhosa, Hlobo’s use of the language, with all its poetic idioms, proverbs, and double entendres, is as much about defining himself as it is an effort to convey difficult truths and encourage dialogue around homosexuality, male circumcision and other culturally sensitive issues.

Hlobo typically stitches and weaves together disparate materials such as ribbon, rubber, gauze and leather to create tactile sculptures and drawings. His works are richly layered, anchored in references to Xhosa culture and the experience of life in post-Apartheid South Africa, while reflecting upon themes of language and communication, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity. The process of making is fundamental to Hlobo’s work. By utilising techniques such as stitching and weaving, traditionally undertaken by women in South Africa, he challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour. His choice of materials is similarly charged. The old and punctured inner tubes of car tyres that he gathers from repair shops in Johannesburg are a symbol of industrialisation and the urban experience. Resembling condoms, the inner tubes are also a symbol of masculinity and sex, something that is made explicit by his use of phallus and sperm shapes, and forms resembling orifices, umbilical cords and internal organs. The satin ribbon that he uses to make his marks on paper suggests femininity, domesticity and unification, in contrast to the more ‘masculine’ materials that it binds together.

Further reading
Nicholas Hlobo: Standard Bank Young Artist Award, exhibition catalogue, Grahamstown, South Africa 2009.
Gavin Jantjes (ed.), Nicholas Hlobo, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo 2010

Kerryn Greenberg
May 2010

Summary, 2011

Cossacks

Wassily Kandinsky
Cossacks
1910–1

WHAT EMOTION DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOU THINK OF A COLOUR?

The ‘cossacks’ of the title are Russian cavalrymen which you can just recognise from their orange hats at the top and right of the painting. However Wassily Kandinsky believed paintings did not need to represent the real world. He felt that emotions could be expressed through the way colours and lines were arranged in a painting. He linked musical tones to particular colours, and considered colour to have a powerful spiritual impact. Can you hear music when you look at the painting??

‘The first colours which made a strong impression on me were light juice green, white, crimson red, black and yellow ochre. These memories go back to the third year of my life.’

Start Gallery caption, 2016

Display caption, 2017

Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20

Aubrey Williams
Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20
1981

Light Red Over Black

Mark Rothko
Light Red Over Black
1957

Light Red Over Black is a large oil painting on a rectangular, vertically oriented canvas. As is suggested by the work’s title, the painting consists of two large black rectangles enclosed by a thick, vivid scarlet border, recalling the structure of a window. The unmodulated paint of the scarlet section contrasts with the blurred rectangles it surrounds. These areas of black paint have been sparsely applied and blended with blue pigment, creating pulsating, hazy forms that give the canvas a sense of movement and depth.

This work was painted by the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko on a single sheet of tightly stretched cotton duck canvas. The canvas was primed with a base coat of red, made from powder pigments mixed into rabbit-skin glue. Onto the base layer Rothko added a second coat, which he scraped away after application to leave a thin coating of colour. The central black rectangles have a velvety blue-black base, ‘modified with small amounts of cobalt violet and possibly manganese blue’, according to curator and art historian Bonnie Clearwater (Clearwater 2006, p.179). These areas were painted in fast, broken brushstrokes using a large commercial decorator’s brush, a technique that created the muddied edges between the blocks of colour. The glue within the red paint shrank as it dried, giving the surface of the painting its matte finish.

Rothko is best known as a pioneer of colour field painting, alongside fellow American artists Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, among others. This movement was characterised by simplified compositions of geometric shapes in unbroken colour. Rothko began creating such works in 1946, initially working in vibrant colours, and this early approach to colour field painting is represented in the Tate collection by Untitled c.1950–2 (Tate T04148). In the latter half of the 1950s the palette of Rothko’s paintings became more muted and sombre, as the artist observed in 1960: ‘The dark pictures began in 1957 and have persisted almost compulsively to this day’ (quoted in Alley 1981, p.657). As the hues in Rothko’s work darkened, he also began to concentrate on the interplay between light and depth, as can be seen in Light Red Over Black, which uses the opaque frame of the border to form a contrast with the texture of the enclosed rectangles. This created the impression of moving planes and recessions, as observed by Clearwater:

In Light Red Over Black, Rothko paired two black regions; the top one is painted more densely and uniformly with defined edges, while the bottom black is more thinly painted and allows more of the red field below to bleed through. The diffused top and bottom periphery of this form creates an atmospheric effect. Consequently, the top black area appears to recede in depth and expand at its sides, whereas the black at the bottom projects forward.
(Clearwater 2006, p.133.)

Light Red Over Black was exhibited in the US pavilion at the twenty-ninth Venice Biennale in 1958 and was acquired by Tate the following year. After the acquisition of Light Red Over Black Tate went on to develop a close relationship with Rothko and acquired a further thirteen of his paintings, including nine from his well-known ‘Seagram Murals’ series of the late 1950s (Tate T01031 and T01163–T01170).

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.657.
Bonnie Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London 2006, pp.133; 167.
Achim Borchardt-Hume, Rothko: The Late Series, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008.

Phoebe Roberts
December 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Summary, 2017

Black Sun

Alexander Calder
Black Sun
1953

Black Sun is a rectangular, horizontally oriented work on paper that is over a metre wide. It features a bold, abstract image of the sun and its emanating rays of light, all rendered in a deep black tone. A ball at the top right corner of the composition signifies the body of the sun, from which large black zig-zags extend, starting with narrow points near the sun and broadening out to thick mid-sections in the lower-middle of the paper before tailing off in faint brushstrokes in the left of the work. There is another black circle beneath the sun, positioned between two of the zig-zagged light rays, and a thick hollow triangle hovers in the white space below it.

This work was created by the American artist Alexander Calder in 1953. To make it Calder applied two to three layers of black gouache on top of one other using a brush, resulting in a slightly shiny appearance. The artist made the work in sun-drenched Aix-en-Provence in southern France, where Calder and his family spent much of the summer of 1953. It is one of a large number of gouaches that he created between June and September of that year and is among the first group of large-scale works that the artist made outdoors (see Alley 1981, p.93; and Calder Foundation, undated, accessed 26 January 2017). Aix had been the home of French post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and of Calder’s great friend, the surrealist artist André Masson. Both painted the local landscape obsessively, and although Calder did not produce landscapes, Black Sun may have been a response to the intense heat and light in the region.

Calder’s mobile sculpture Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c.1953 (Tate T00541) was made at a similar time to this work and also features solid black forms that distend in the middle and radiate from small circles – in the sculpture’s case the circles are yellow, white, blue and red. The shape of this suspended sculpture resembles an orrery – a mechanical model of the solar system – and taken together the two works suggest Calder’s interest in the heliotropic movement of the solar system.

The artist favoured astronomical motifs throughout his career and Black Sun is recalled in Calder’s paintings as well as his sculptures: for instance, in the thunderous waves emanating from a yellow and red sphere in Lightning 1955 and in the small black circle surrounded by sinuous rays in Santos 1956 (both Calder Foundation, New York). In 1962 Calder repeated the black sun motif in the tapestry Black Head (artist’s collection), made for his wife Louisa Calder.

Although Calder often worked with planes of pure black, they were commonly augmented with dashes of primary colour (see, for instance, Mobile c.1932, Tate L01686). The purely monochrome nature of Black Sun not only runs counter to this trend, but also to the common association of the sun with light and colour. This indicates that the artist may have been thinking about the effect of shadow created by the large-scale outdoor mobiles he was making in the hot, bright climate of southern France.

Further reading
‘Calder’s Work’, online catalogue raisonné, Calder Foundation, New York, undated, http://www.calder.org, accessed 26 January 2017.
Alexander Calder and Jean Davidson, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, London 1967, p.283.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.92–3, reproduced p.92.

Hana Leaper
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Summary, 2017

The Pond

L.S. Lowry
The Pond
1950

This industrial landscape contains many features typical of Lowry’s work: smoking chimneys, terraced houses, the Stockport Viaduct, and figures swarming through the city’s streets and open spaces. Though seen as a realist, Lowry’s works were largely composed from a variety of repeated motifs, becoming increasingly nostalgic as time went on. The artist said, ‘I hadn’t the slightest idea of what
I was going to put in the canvas when I started the picture but it eventually came out as you see it. This is the way I like working best.’

Display caption, 2016

Whose Utopia?

Cao Fei
Whose Utopia?
2006

Whose Utopia? is a colour video that is approximately twenty minutes long and is shown in a darkened room, projected onto a wall of two and a half square metres or larger. The film is set in a light bulb factory in China and consists of three parts. The first, titled ‘Imagination of Product’, begins with a series of close-ups showing light bulb components being produced and assembled by automated machines, followed by scenes of people working very quickly at workstations that are arranged into a grid formation. The second part, ‘Factory Fairytale’, shows individuals dancing and playing electric guitars inside the factory, often with staff working around them. Some of these performers wear labourers’ uniforms, but one is dressed in a ballerina’s outfit and another in a long white dress. This section of the film ends with footage of a woman going to bed, while the factory can be seen outside her window. The third part – ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ – shows individuals inside the factory, standing or sitting completely still and facing the camera, and in many of these scenes the operations of the factory continue around them. The film finishes with shots of people wearing white t-shirts bearing Cantonese characters that collectively spell out the phrase ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ (the English translation for which is provided using subtitles). The first two sections of the work are accompanied by ambient music including electronic sounds and bells, while the third part features a song that sounds like a kitsch version of American country music. This is performed in English by a man who sounds from his accent as if he is from China or elsewhere in the Far East.

Whose Utopia? was made by the Chinese artist Cao Fei and filmed at the OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan in the Pearl River Delta in southern China during 2005 and 2006. It was commissioned as part of a project entitled ‘What Are They Doing Here?’ that was run by the Siemens Art Program from 2000 to 2006 and involved Chinese artists undertaking six-month-long residencies at industrial facilities across the country. Cao Fei began her residency at OSRAM by sending a questionnaire to its employees that featured fifty questions, including ‘How do you feel about the factory?’, ‘Why did you decide to leave your home and go to the river delta?’ and ‘What do you hope to achieve in the future?’ (Cao Fei and Strom 2006, accessed 17 February 2015). The artist then invited fifty-five of her respondents to plan and participate in workshops in which they made installations and carried out performances, which she then filmed (see Cao Fei in Oyama Hitomi, ‘Cao Fei’, Art iT, no.15, Spring/Summer 2007, http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_interviews/ynp3HLEuY6UWvhZtz4XI?lang=en, accessed 17 February 2015).

This work’s focus on factory labourers in China and its title Whose Utopia? seem to question who it is that benefits from the significant economic progress that the country saw during the early twenty-first century. In 2007 Cao Fei noted that the Chinese migrants who comprise the majority of workers in the Pearl River Delta have ‘no rights, no benefits, and no power’ as a result of leaving their home provinces to work in large cities, and argued that the corporate and state pursuit of ‘huge business value’ has meant that the ‘personal value’ of Chinese workers is often overlooked (quoted in ‘L. Burel et N. Pujol: Rien n’a été fait’, Observatoire des Nouveaux Médias, École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and Université Paris 8, 21 May 2008, http://www.arpla.fr/odnm/?page_id=4536, accessed 17 February 2015). These ideas are reflected in the first part of Whose Utopia?, which shows workers in highly regimented production lines, and in the final scene in which the phrase ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ is presented. However, Cao Fei stated in 2007 that the second part of the video, which shows the workers performing, aims to counter their lack of individuality since in this section ‘we focus on the innermost feelings of every individual in this globalised production chain ... We place them at the centre of attention, so as to let them rediscover their personal value’ (quoted in ‘L. Burel et N. Pujol: Rien n’a été fait’ 2008, accessed 17 February 2015).

Cao Fei has also suggested that Whose Utopia? was designed to encourage the OSRAM labourers to think about how they might work in a way that is more creative or fulfilling, stating in 2007 that

What this project does is release the workers from a standardised notion of productivity. What we are doing is production, but a type of production that connects back to the personal. I am like a social worker. They don’t regard me as an artist.
(Cao Fei and Strom 2007, accessed 17 February 2015.)

Cao Fei’s interest in producing art that has a wider social function can be compared with the practices of contemporary artists such as Suzanne Lacey, Rick Lowe and Jeanne van Heeswijk, who have also undertaken community-based projects with the intention of instigating social transformation.

Further reading
Cao Fei, untitled artist’s statement on Whose Utopia?, undated, http://www.caofei.com/works.aspx?id=10&year=2006&wtid=3, accessed 17 February 2015.
Cao Fei and Jordan Strom, ‘Your Utopia is Ours’, Fillip, no.4, Autumn 2006, http://fillip.ca/content/your-utopia-is-ours, accessed 17 February 2015.
The Real Thing, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2007, pp.48–51, reproduced pp.42, 48–51.

David Hodge
February 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

Summary, 2015