How Tate Modern transformed the way we see art

Enlightenment and learning versus bewilderment and awe — how one gallery transformed the way we experience art and the rest followed

“When a new work of art is created,” TS Eliot said, something “happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” Louise Bourgeois’s spider “Maman” made us see expression in brutal-big steel sculpture. Olafur Eliasson’s blazing artificial sun “The Weather Project” forged a social context for the romantic sublime. And Tate Modern, which launched these works in the early 2000s, transformed at a stroke and forever the idea of a museum.

Eliot believed art’s evolving tradition created “the mind of Europe”, and through the 20th century the primary role of museums was still to preserve the canon. Tate Modern worked to a new reality: that 21st-century artists and their audiences are global, multi-referential, democratic, and easily bored. Replacing monument and hallowed masterpiece with fleeting experience and temporary spectacle — hanging out under Eliasson’s sun, hurtling down Carsten Höller’s slides — it has, since opening in 2000, reigned unchallenged as the world’s most popular modern art museum.

Housed in a former electricity generator, Tate Modern was always about power. How small and inconsequential the vast Turbine Hall made us feel from the start. When the new £260m ziggurat-like extension the Switch House opens next month, how much more overwhelmed and happily conquered we will be. This twisting, angular structure screams out postmodern jaggedness and plurality but it is also as grandly intimidating and definitive as an ancient pyramid.

Why is Tate Modern so successful? Who is it for? Half of its annual 5m visitors are tourists: does it define British or even global cultural life? Or, standing on the river between the Shard and the London Eye, is it just a good view for free?

After all, in an age of ubiquitous image reproduction, are unique canvases on walls an outdated attraction? Paintings have played a decreasing part in displays in Tate’s original Gilbert Scott building, now renamed the Boiler House. Does Herzog and de Meuron’s new 10-storey edifice symbolise a fresh role for museums as laboratories for ideas in flux, actions, networks, rather than static treasure troves?

Architecture confers authority in all great museums — Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim housing abstract paintings is the celebrated modernist example — but Tate Modern’s beyond-human scale exerts a particular kind of mastery: it encourages us to surrender to, rather than closely engage with, works on display. This is especially the case in regard to its immense installations, but the effect ripples on in the exhibition galleries. Counter-intuitively, feeling small brings liberation, the excitement of being swept away, not needing to judge or even make sense of the museum or the art. No place here for the old-fashioned, lingering connoisseur.

Carsten Holler’s ‘Test Site’ (2006) © Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The “wow” factor, which Tate Modern introduced into gallery culture, now drives commissions, acquisitions and displays in public institutions worldwide — from Huang Yong Ping’s 240-metre aluminium snake currently curving in rhythm to the Grand Palais’ iron and glass roof in Paris, to the 1961 E-type Jaguar that is a central exhibit at New York MoMA. The pleasures encouraged here are bewilderment and awe, rather than age-old museum values of enlightenment and learning. In his 2002 Turbine Hall show, Anish Kapoor constructed the flayed-skin scarlet trumpet “Marsyas” to be so long that it was impossible to see in its entirety from any single position. In “These Associations” (2012), Tino Sehgal filled the space with actors randomly accosting individual visitors, trying to tell them intimate stories and confessions. The point was confusion but also communality. None of us any longer understand the world, with its unceasing deluge of images, voices, viewpoints, or our place in it; everyone is looking for some sort of belonging.

The 21st-century museum is evolving into a place of encounter, social nexus, a contemporary agora. That was a subject of “The Weather Project” and it underpins the emphasis on, and selection of performance art inaugurating Tate’s Switch House and former oil tanks. Surrounded by the work of Brazilian constructivist Lygia Clark and Bruce Nauman’s playful minimalist sculptures, two actors holding strings of bunting will perform Amalia Pica’s “Strangers”. There will be queues of people leading nowhere — Roman Ondak’s “Good Feelings in Good Times” — and a quartet of steel mesh cages with foam mattresses and pillows inviting a “new base for personality”: Ricardo Basbaum’s “Capsules (NBP x me-you)”. And in a work emblematic of Tate’s re-energising of tradition, Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş’s “Public Collection Tate Modern”, five dancers act out live equivalents of familiar paintings and sculptures as a series of poses, transforming the notion of an art collection into an ephemeral act.

The new Tate Modern cannot fail to entertain; it cannot really fail at all. If Tate builds it, they will come — partly because the Bankside museum has globally conditioned how we see and consume art. It has been an essential component of the move by which the contemporary has become the most glittery jewel in a cultural crown interlaced with crossovers: art and fashion, high and low, virtual and real, ancient and just-made. So successfully has Tate enticed audiences towards the contemporary that even Old Master galleries now have to court visitors this way. London’s National Gallery is showing My Back to Nature, George Shaw’s paintings in humbrol enamel, including a self-portrait urinating against a tree, in response to Titian and Cézanne. Since 2007 the Louvre has commissioned contemporaries — Cy Twombly, Anselm Kiefer — to create installations. But as established hierarchies collapse, and proliferating commercial galleries, fairs and online portals swoop in for the kill, the picture shifts. The market is drowning in overpriced baubles for the global super-rich. “Anyone can argue a case for anything”, one dealer told me glumly. What matters, what is any good, who decides? More than ever, museums determine points of cultural reference. And that means picking sides.

Tate Modern was decisive in laying out battle lines in 2000, when its inaugural hang controversially abandoned chronology for a thematic presentation: Monet alongside Richard Long, Matisse’s mighty bronzes of women’s backs facing Marlene Dumas’ ink-drawn nudes. A rehang at New York’s MoMA took the same approach. The Metropolitan Museum with a 20th-century collection installed thematically (“The Metropolis”, “Work”, “The Bodies”), the Brooklyn Museum, Denver Art Museum, Atlanta’s High Museum, and regional museums across Europe, followed.

The paradigm shift has been so persuasive that mixing old and new is now orthodoxy to the point of cliché. It pervades museum exhibitions (“Twombly and Poussin”, Dulwich Picture Gallery 2011, “Rembrandt-Auerbach”, Rijksmuseum 2013-14), biennales (the 2011 Venice biennale made Tintoretto a central exhibit), art fairs (Frieze and Frieze Masters). And it licences ideological displays such as 2009’s dispiriting elles@centrepompidou — a rearrangement of the permanent collection to show only works by women, beginning with gender-swapping buttons advertising Francine Bacon and Annie Warhol.

Anish Kapoor’s ‘Marsyas’ (2002) © Getty

Behind all this loom culture wars unleashed in the 1960s when sociology, feminism and structuralism began to transform study of the humanities, questioning the possibility of any objective history. These ideas came late to museums, traditionally concerned with objects not concepts, and their contribution there remains questionable. For if they sex up the story of art, they also disrupt it, diminishing a museum’s ability to educate without bias.

The Pompidou, after experimenting with various approaches, returned last year to a shimmering chronological presentation from Fauvism to minimalism, overseen by Bernard Blistène, director from 2013. “We’ve decided to strip everything back and return to something simpler and clearer”, he said. “I have been a teacher for 25 years of my life and remain a strong believer in pedagogy.”

“Chronology is not a tool of art-historical interpretation which can be used at one moment, discarded at another,” wrote critic David Sylvester in response to Tate Modern’s first hang. “It’s an objective reality, built into the fabric of the work.” Which was exactly what Tate challenged, arguing rather that every display is necessarily a selection, and that western-centric highways of modernism — expressionism, suprematism, surrealism and so on — must be dismantled to tell a more nuanced, global story.

The new Tate reflects this even more strongly. Seventy-five per cent of work on display has been acquired since 2000, mostly from Latin America, Africa and Asia. Three-hundred artists from 57 countries will be on show, 36 per cent of them women — up from 17 per cent in 2010. All solo shows this summer are devoted to women (Mona Hatoum, Georgia O’Keeffe) or non-western artists (Bhupen Khakhar, Wifredo Lam).

‘Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs’ at Tate Modern in 2014 © AFP/Leon Neal

Inclusive and culturally diverse? Or a retreat from history? In 2000, Charles Stuckey, former curator at Washington’s National Gallery, noted that MoMA’s and Tate’s rehangs reflected “the pressures of political correctness. They want to show that the history of art is not about masterpieces”.

Today the arguments are even more politicised, as shown by responses to two major extensions this spring: the Met Breuer in New York and, a fortnight ago, San Francisco MoMA’s $300m extension. The Met Breuer’s acclaimed first solo show, devoted to Indian abstract painter Nasreen Mohamedi, ticked boxes of female, ethnic minority, while connecting comfortably to American minimalism. But its larger exhibition Unfinished, surveying incomplete works from Titian to Kerry James Marshall, was criticised as European and American-centred. It seemed to me to speak both of current “unfinished” uncertainties about history but also cravings for it: although superficially another old-new jumble, it slipped in historical narrative, charting art’s overarching development from polish to lack of finish, product to process, over five centuries.

In California by contrast, conservative became, proudly and blatantly, the new radical. At SFMoMA, Snøhetta transformed a modest regional gallery into one of the world’s largest modern and contemporary museums, its distinctive rippled white façade echoing the rolling ocean of the bay city. Inside, scores of luminous galleries are given over to solo artist presentations, mostly from the collection, on a 100-year loan, of Gap retail magnates Doris and Donald Fisher: 26 Ellsworth Kellys on display; some 23 Gerhard Richters, seven floaty Agnes Martin abstractions in a chapel-like setting.

“Phew! It’s a blue-chip blowout”, wrote the Los Angeles Times. “You might also notice that this is entirely a selection of New York wares, almost all by men . . . all vetted in Manhattan’s governing marketplace.” As San Francisco’s sense of community suffers from injections of Silicon Valley money, and social division grows, a heroic A-list presentation was felt to be insensitive. “It’s very, very obvious,” said Dena Beard, director of San Francisco gallery The Lab and former curator at Berkeley Art Museum. “They’re missing women and people of colour.”

But the Boston Globe predicted that “museum directors everywhere are going to be driven crazy fielding the same question: ‘Have you seen what they’ve done in San Francisco?’” The installation triumphantly counters prevalent thematic arrangements where, says SFMoMA director Neal Benezra: “The curator has authored an idea and the pictures illustrate that idea. We’ve done something just the opposite, and terribly old-fashioned . . . We’re refocusing on the artists and letting each one speak. The curators are not imposing their will on the paintings at all.”

A game-changer? I hope so. For Tate Modern’s thematic displays not only revolutionised how museums tell — or don’t — the history of art; they also promoted a reversal of power between artist and curator. Chronological arrangements more or less protect art from curatorial interference. Thematic ones put a curator’s theoretical agenda first, prejudging and predetermining our responses, and selecting work by content or ideology rather than quality.

No great art is immune to its zeitgeist but it is always richer than any single theme. Not so those weak works that need curatorial explanation as a crutch, or which turn in spirals of curator-approved self-congratulation on museological issues. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s twee am dram performances? Andrea Fraser’s laboured video about class and gender in “temples of culture”? Extraordinary, in the long view, that such narrow dull works are billed as stars at the new Tate Modern while complete amnesia rules at all the Tates concerning pleasure-giving British 20th-century painters with no conceptual agenda: the Scottish Colourists, forgotten modernist Joash Woodrow, 40-50-60-somethings Lucy Jones, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown — all now at the top of their game.

A loss, too, that marvellous historical paintings remain in storage. Of Tate’s eight Bonnards, including the important “The Table”, none are displayed at Tate Modern. Yet as the recent Bonnard retrospective — touring Paris, Madrid, and ending in San Francisco this month — demonstrated, this painter of memory whom Picasso called “a potpourri of decision” speaks vibrantly to today’s doubting young painters.

Tate Modern’s Switch House extension © Iwan Baan

For here is a fantastical disjunction. Tate Modern’s achievement at being an emblem both of multicultural London and the globalised art economy, at balancing conflicting demands to reflect social issues and offer world-class glitz, and all this with free admission, is wholly admirable. It is not, however, what we really, really want — because that is revealed by what we are willing to pay for. Nine of the 10 most popular paying exhibitions since the museum opened have been monographic shows of dead, pioneering European and American painters, all but one men: in descending order, Matisse, Picasso, Hopper, Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Klee, Miro. The exception — 463,087 visitors, below Matisse and Picasso, above the rest — is Damien Hirst’s solo show.

Next year’s major exhibitions are Giacometti and Modigliani. Turn history upside down, globalise, feminise, democratise it, and the greats still come out on top. Tate Modern compels as a clever cathedral of conceptualism and a fast-moving circus of fun. It works because the heart of a serious traditional museum goes on beating.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic

Photographs: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images; Tate; View Pictures; AFP/Leon Neal; Iwan Baan

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