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Constellations

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

6 rooms in Constellations

Max Ernst

Max Ernst

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Max Ernst
Men Shall Know Nothing of This 1923
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

Reconfiguring American Abstraction

Reconfiguring American Abstraction

Explore the diverse range of approaches in the art of post-war America

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Mark Rothko
Light Red Over Black 1957
© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2020

Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger

Explore the pervasive power of images in contemporary life and mass media

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Lorna Simpson
Five Day Forecast 1991
© Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York

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.’

Gallery label, July 2008

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

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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.

Gallery label, November 2015

© Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York

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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.

Gallery label, October 2016

© Lynda Benglis

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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.

© Nicholas Hlobo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

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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

Gallery label, July 2017

Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

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Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20

Aubrey Williams, Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20  1981

© The estate of Aubrey Williams

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Light Red Over Black

Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black  1957

In his mature work, Rothko abandoned specific reference to nature in order to paint images with universal associations. By the late 1940s, he had developed a style in which hazy, pulsating rectangles float within a vertical format. He explained that these shapes 'have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognises the principle and passion of organisms'.

Gallery label, August 2004

© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2020

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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.

© 2020 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London

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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.’

Gallery label, September 2016

© The estate of L.S. Lowry/DACS 2020

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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.

© Cao Fei

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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