Don’t be deceived by the title. A Bigger Splash, Tate’s final show of 2012, takes its name from David Hockney’s iconic 1967 painting depicting the moment after a diver has plunged into a Californian swimming pool. One thinks back to A Bigger Picture, Hockney’s blockbuster which inaugurated London’s exhibition season in January. Framing a year that saw the launch of Tate’s Tanks and the first performance artist shortlisted for the Turner Prize, both shows consider one of the most perplexing issues of today’s art scene: how – whether – painting can survive in an age of spectacle and performance.
Hockney argued that it could. Tate answers with a divided exhibition that is partly a substantial historical survey, partly a devastating refusal to acknowledge the complexity of painting’s future.
An opening face-off shows two of Tate’s most popular pictures, “A Bigger Splash” and “Summertime”, displayed flat on the floor as the canvas lay when Jackson Pollock drip-painted it in 1948, alongside a pair of the best films about artists ever made. Canonising their subjects, both Hans Namuth’s Jackson Pollock ’51 and Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash changed the cultural image of the painter. Namuth’s dramatic account turned Pollock from oddball loner into the first American artist-superstar, a chain-smoking, jeans-clad enfant terrible. In Hazan’s insightful, improvised portrait of Hockney and his circle (Celia Birtwell, Ossie Clark, Henry Geldzahler), the painter’s life and art converge – the birth of modern celebrity.
Pollock and Hockney, Tate suggests, offered different models for painting – the former as a field of action, the latter as theatre, inviting entry into a fictional construct. It is Pollock’s influence that this show traces, especially in 1950s-1960s Europe and Japan, where American free expression was co-opted by artists in countries suffering orgies of self-doubt and recrimination after wartime defeat. The dark, thick, blood-obsessed abstractions of Hermann Nitsch (“Poured Painting”) and the Austrian actionists, accompanied here by photographs of violent staged happenings evoking animal sacrifice such as “Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism”, and the painting performances of the Japanese Gutai group – Kazuo Shiraga swung from a rope to paint with his feet; in “Gutai on Stage” artists fired arrows at white canvases – are worlds away in sensibility from the optimism of American expressionism.
By contrast in France, almost parodically, native formal elegance prevailed over the inherent anarchy of performance painting. Jean Tinguely’s film of Niki de Saint Phalle shooting sacks of paint at a canvas stars a chic, precise Frenchwoman in a white jumpsuit; the result, “Tirage” (“Shooting Picture”), in which rivers of coloured paint course down mounds of plaster, has the inescapable balance of French modernism. Yves Klein’s “IKB 79” is a tranquil blue monochrome, redolent of the Mediterranean and of Matisse, while also anticipating minimalism.
In the film “Anthropometry of the Blue Era”, Klein, a pioneer of performance art, directs naked models covered with blue paint to imprint themselves on canvas; they glide and swoop gracefully to the accompaniment of a live orchestra playing to camera. The nude paintings created by such performances are unfortunately not here but visitors to Frieze Masters will recall a stunning example, “Ant 91”, on offer at Hauser and Wirth for $4m-$5m.
It was a step, formally small, conceptually huge, from the apolitical Klein to the body art of feminists and activists such as Ana Mendieta, who photographed herself smeared with blood – “Untitled (Self-portrait with Blood)” – and Yayoi Kusama, whose anti-Vietnam war film “Flower Orgy” documents her daubing naked performers with polka dots. At Tate, these form part of an impressive display, including many little-known works, demonstrating how performance art worldwide became a natural genre of protest.
In Geta Bratescu’s “Towards White” (1975) the artist swathes herself and her studio in sheets of paper and fabric to become a monochrome expanse; eventually Bratescu is almost wholly camouflaged within an entirely white interior – metaphor for the erasure of individual identity and political whitewashing in Ceausescu’s Romania. In “Public Ink Washing” (1987), an early Chinese performance piece, Wu Shanzhuan “cleanses” Chinese calligraphy tainted by association with the Cultural Revolution; overwhelmed by brightly coloured inks, the symbol on Wu’s back in the final photograph means “emptiness”.
At this intriguing halfway point, the exhibition loses its way, wholly abandoning the subject promised at its beginning: “the dynamic relationship between painting and performance, and how experiments in performance have expanded the possibilities for contemporary painting”. Photography and film with no connection whatsoever to the medium of painting dominate a large gallery showcasing 1970s conceptual practice – Cindy Sherman, Derek Jarman, Bruce Nauman, plus many also-rans. Seven staggeringly random rooms follow, each devoted to a dismal solo display by a contemporary artist.
Karen Kilimnik’s “Swan Lake”, a stage-set of gauze curtains, sledge, plastic snowflakes, is a twee store-window outfit that would fail to turn a head in the high street. Wood and Plexiglas constructions referencing a Moscow embassy interior from 1983 by a Slovenian collective called IRWIN have the downbeat, eastern European aesthetic of that epoch and nothing to do with painting. Enormous, dry-as-dust trompe l’oeil depictions of 19th-century doors by Lucy McKenzie are judged performance-paintings because they appear as backdrops in Lucile Desamory’s forthcoming conceptual film “ABRACADABRA”.
It is notoriously difficult for museums to show performance art, or even contemporary painting, which is fluid, hard to pin down, not yet historicised. But that is no excuse for this feeble off-topic denouement. Celebrated recent works – Anish Kapoor’s “Shooting into the Corner” and the paint-train “Svayambh”; Hockney’s iPad paintings and monumental landscapes – would have made a spectacular, relevant ending. And among emerging names, what about New Yorker Ryan Trecartin, who employs make-up as paint to transform identities and narratives in sensory-overload collaborative films, or Londoner Nathan Cash Davidson, whose original figurative paintings evolve alongside his mesmerising rap performances?
Visitors can meanwhile pursue the story of art’s hybridisation of forms by viewing William Kentridge’s recently donated eight-screen video “I am not me, the horse is not mine”, which opened in the Tanks this week. Kentridge is not a painter but an outstanding draughtsman and animator, as well as an actor. He combines all roles, collaging charcoal drawings, silhouettes, paper cuts, archival documentary material and performance, in a multilayered projection about the rise and fall of Russian modernism. With Kentridge himself playing the character of the Nose, from Gogol’s eponymous absurdist short story, this conflicted narrative and its timeless themes – the irrationality of evil, the political uses and abuses of art – come alive provocatively, movingly, in the Tanks’ immersive audio-visual environment. It is Kentridge’s masterpiece, and its display is the best use so far of this innovative space.
‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’, Tate Modern, to April 1; William Kentridge, ‘I am not me, the horse is not mine’, Tate Modern, to January 20, www.tate.org.uk