Structure and Absence, White Cube Bermondsey, London

Picasso’s dealer Kahnweiler loved collapses in business because they gave him time to write art history. Vollard, Cézanne’s gallerist, made a fortune then retired to commission lavish artists’ books. By contrast today’s dealers seek immortality in bricks and mortar. The confidence is in London – during Frieze week 2010, Iwan Wirth inaugurated sumptuous premises in Savile Row with a museum-quality Louise Bourgeois show; yesterday Jay Jopling answered by launching White Cube Bermondsey, his third gallery in the capital. At 58,000 sq ft, with – inevitably – a dramatic, naturally top-lit nine-foot cubed room at its centre, a massive, flexible “South” gallery, plus three smaller “North” galleries, an auditorium and bookshop, Jopling’s new space, cannily situated within 20 minutes’ walk of Tate Modern, is by a stretch Britain’s largest, most spectacular commercial gallery.

A convergence between the roles of private and public institutions is a leitmotif of our age. Last year Gagosian’s London Picasso show upstaged Tate Liverpool’s; in 2009, Damien Hirst paid to display his paintings at the venerable national Wallace Collection; now his dealer Jopling opens with a highly curated thematic exhibition, Structure and Absence, about contemporary abstraction. Money talks, but increasingly in a scholarly, sophisticated voice to rise above market babble. The most ambitious galleries are aping museums while, crucially, preserving their commercial identities.

In this context, two aspects of Structure and Absence compel. The first is that only half the 14 artists shown are represented by White Cube. Although these include Hirst with a pastel spot painting and “Neverland”, the shiniest, biggest, most rigidly ordered pharmaceutical cabinet I have seen, and some painterly glossy arabesques such as “Pink Brown Smoke” by Gary Hume, most of the Young British Artist generation with which Jopling made his name, notably those who have barely developed since the 1990s – Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marc Quinn – are absent.

Instead, in a move towards gravitas, prominence is given to the weighty figures of Andreas Gursky – “Paris Montparnasse” anatomises thousands of individual living spaces into a monumental, rhythmic grid structure; “Dusselstrand” plays gleaming tonal shifts against formal patterning – and Jeff Wall, who opens the show with the ambivalently figurative/abstract, tactile/flat “Rock Surface” and concludes it with the lyrical depiction of melting ice and vanishing classical columns in “Cold Storage”, a battle between order and entropy, geometry and organic forms. Important non-gallery artists shown alongside, amplifying the show’s contemplative mood and formal concerns, are Hiroshi Sugimoto with the broken horizons and contrast between asymmetry and the grid in “Colours of Shadow”, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin and a superb young Canadian, Erin Shirreff. She builds flimsy architectural models, photographs them, then destabilises her grainy monochrome images by bifurcating each picture, suturing one structure into another, to create imbalanced sculptural diptychs on paper.

Photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, morph seductively in these high, white, light rooms. What determines the tone as playful rather than museum-earnest, however, is the show’s second organising principle: the conceit of placing Chinese “scholar’s rocks”– abstract found objects whose peaks, protuberances, smooth or rough surfaces nevertheless variously suggest mountains, plants, bodies, flames – as ancient readymades in the centre of each gallery. These come from Hirst’s murder me collection and a catalogue essay explains that although they are objects of the earth, historically only those with a provenance of being traded in the world of commerce and fashion were deemed significant. What’s aught but as ’tis valued? Hirst’s celebrated Sotheby’s sale “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” was an installation about the art market as well as a selling vehicle. Similarly, with wit and self-parody, Structure and Absence offers the Frieze-frenzied art crowd a provocative, collective self-portrait.

To November 26,

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