Mortal concerns against a dark background

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There was a moment last week, just before the bouncers snapped back the ropes on the eve of its opening, when White Cube, the chic gallery in Hoxton, north London, was empty and tranquil, its atmosphere as contemplative as a church shining with icons. Except that in this secular church the background is blazing white and the icons are black – the 14 black works making up White Cube’s summer group show Dark Matter. They range from abstract paintings to a photograph, a neon sign, Katharina’s Fritsch’s small geometric plaster sculpture “St Katharina”, covered in saturated matt-black pigment so dense it appears to suck in the brightness around it, and a painted bronze bin-bag – Gavin Turk’s “Waste”. Even rubbish looks seductive in this moving show, which peels apart art’s hierarchies and, in a stunning installation, sets the oldest human speculation of all – the dialectic of light and dark – in dazzling contemporary context.

Most of the commercial galleries’ group shows that dominate London’s summer season wheel out bits of stock, maybe set up the odd dialogue, and leave the jumble to sell itself somehow. But at White Cube every work holds its place in a superlative balancing act that surprises, mesmerises and constantly throws you off tilt.

Perceptually, this has much to do with Ellsworth Kelly’s brilliantly dis-orientating 4m-square canvas “Dark Gray Panel”, which faces you as you enter and never quite leaves you alone. A giant monochrome parallelogram with graceful, curved edges, it seems to float, or be about to take flight, across the room. Is it a painting or a sculpture? The brushstrokes are nearly invisible, and the canvas is several inches thick. It engulfs you in its smooth surface and sweeps up the room in a serenity that recalls Brancusi as much as Matisse.

Even in a near-black painting, Kelly has a lightness of being that is optimistic, humanist, harmonious. “Dark Gray Panel” echoes down to the opposite end of the gallery, where its wit and two-/three-dimensional ambivalence is picked up in the play of light and dark, inner compression and outward pressure, in Richard Serra’s delightful 1997 drawing “Willie Dixon”: a sculpted paper circle layered in black paintstick suspended on a white paper ground, splattered with a Pollock-like skein of black marks. These two face one another; at right angles to them is the secretive black paint of fellow American Ad Reinhardt’s 1958 “Abstract Painting”. Reinhardt’s severe darkness is astonishingly different from Kelly’s – a contrast that conveys the triumph of painterly values, pure paint’s ability to express emotional and spiritual states.

Reinhardt would have none of this. “The laying bare of oneself, autobiographically or socially, is obscene,” he said. His flat black square in a black frame is a postwar minimalist take on Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 “Black Square”. The Russian suprematist is the ghost at this feast, hovering behind every work, but Reinhardt is the American Puritan who most closely evokes him. Both strip art to its barest nature, testing the power of austerity. “The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less,” argued Reinhardt. He brings intellectual and historical gravitas to this show: it catches you short to realise that Reinhardt and American abstraction are now chronologically – and
ideologically? – closer to revolutionary Moscow than to our own era.

Malevich called “Black Square” “the naked unframed icon of our time”, seeing it as a transfiguration of the material into immaterial, infinite space. White Cube traces the way minimalism – exemplified by Reinhardt and by Art & Language, in the 1965 “Four Suprematist Squares”, painted directly on the wall, low down to deny the image a sense of presence – pared Malevich of mysticism.

Behind them all lies the century-old debate about the death of painting. It continues here in the British conceptualist Gary Hume’s “Black Door with Sash” (2006), painted in gloss paint on an aluminium panel so that the surface looks wet, a black mirror reflecting back the activity in the gallery. I think Hume is just such an empty cipher. Yet White Cube argues valiantly for his place in art history, and the dialogue between old and new is an animating force of this show.

Half the works here date from 2004-06; many are shown for the first time, and their juxtaposition with work by important American artists of the last century is a mixed blessing. Kelly towers over recent banalities with classical grace; Reinhardt is a still, lofty reproach to those artists who would, he lamented, play to the gallery as “entertainer, parasite, sufferer, actionist, cry-baby, primitive”. There is no shortage of those, especially among the Brit artists whom White Cube champions. The overrated Cerith Wyn Evans has made a variation of his tedious illuminated pop phrases with the monochrome neon “And if I don’t meet you no more in this world/Then I’ll meet you in the next one/And don’t be late, don’t be late”.

Originality turns to mannerism in Damien Hirst’s stylish but vacuous diamond canvas encrusted with black flies. It reeks of resin and is called “Infanticide”. Like Wyn Evans’ piece and the work of another patron saint of 1990s conceptualism, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Party Platform 1980-1992)” – stacked black sheets of paper that can be removed one by one by viewers – it is about fragility and loss. “This refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favour of disappearing, changing, unstable . . . form, was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having [my lover] Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes,” wrote Gonzalez-Torres.

Malevich once depicted Lenin as a white cube, to the baffled fury of party officials. What about mortality as a sheet of black paper, a piece of neon tubing, an insect carcass? On the one hand, the triteness of these is glaringly obvious in a show that contrasts them with great paintings. On the other, they are redeemed by historical context – clearly, here, Britart is part of the long postscript to Warhol’s crossing of pop images with a moribundity that is almost religious, and thus references Malevich all over again.

Warhol’s “One Grey/Black Marilyn (Reversal Series) II”, in which the artist’s original silkscreen process is reversed to produce an X-ray-like negative, transforming Marilyn Monroe into a spectral goddess, casts its shadow across White Cube like a corpse. It holds its steely own against the pervasive beauty of Kelly, and the conversation between the two Americans, born five years apart, gives this profound and playful show its magnificent tension. The Britart crew are reduced to pawns, but it doesn’t matter.

This is a generous exhibition, about wonder, enquiry – dark matter is the term astronomers use to describe the invisible material bulk of the universe – the freedom to explore darkness and chaos. But it is also about mortality, an obsession even greater than fame for Warhol. “Everything I do is connected with death,” he once said, and here Monroe the celebrity suicide is a shimmering reminder that, without death, art would be meaningless, or unnecessary, or would not exist at all.

‘Dark Matter’ is at White Cube Gallery, London, until September 9. Tel 20 7749 7450

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