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Opening of the new Tate a disappointment


The New Tate Modern opened on the 17th June with great expectations. Artist and art historian Marie-Anne Mancio was among one of the first to visit


The new Tate Modern © Hayes Davidson and Herzog & de Meuron.

The new Tate Modern opened June 17th 2016. In terms of the western art history canon as it stands, it may be ‘the world’s most popular gallery of modern art,’ but its collection cannot compete in quality or scope with, say, the Thyssen in Madrid or MOMA in NYC. Perhaps recognizing this, its curators have always taken a different tack and given us thematic displays. The current Tate remit aims to be even more international and diverse, showing works by over 300 artists across the existing Boiler House and the new Switch House. These include acquisitions from Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe of artists such as Meschac Gaba, Sheela Gowda and Cildo Meireles. Ai Weiwei’s monumental Tree, currently in the Turbine Hall, is one excellent buy though it worked better in the Royal Academy’s courtyard.

Arguably, the democratic hang makes something of a nonsense of having a Tate Britain at all. However well curated, the latter’s existence smacks of nineteenth century world fairs we hosted which divided displays into ‘Britain’ and ‘The Rest of the World.’ That said, the bold move towards representing more artistic developments across continents contributes to the kind of expanded art history feminist art historians have long been arguing for. It’s also resulted in more female artists; a belated acknowledgment of live art practice; more playfulness through interactive works, and of course a stunning, light-filled space by Herzog and de Meuron which has improved the circulation of the original building. Some iconic works (Rothko’s Seagram murals, Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII,’ Matisse’s ‘Snail’) are also back on display which is a major strength. And ironically, where the Tate works best is where it focuses on individual artists: the rooms for Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, and Rebecca Horn are excellent, even if it seems perverse not to have Picasso and Warhol rooms too.

Sadly none of this suffices to make the new Tate anywhere near as great as it should be. The overall curation is confused. The “Start” display is linked by a focus on colour. Encouraging someone new to art to think about the formal properties of an artwork as a ‘way in’, is a staple of introductory art history courses but then why just ‘colour’, why not line, composition, materials and so on here? After this, there are loosely thematic suites such as ‘In the Studio’ that make finding a particular artist an art form in itself. Within those suites, some rooms are so specific to a time and place (‘A View from Sao Paulo: Abstraction and Society’) they are ‘isms’ in their own right proving that ultimately there is no substitute for proper contextualization.

So: great to see Norman Lewis (why hung so high?) and Lee Krasner in the same room as Pollock (‘The Disappearing Figure: Art After Catastrophe’) but the label explaining that Lewis was African-American is not prominent enough and of course without Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan etc. the female contribution to Abstract Expressionism seems thin. And incidentally, why is the room so lacking in colour (yes Barnett Newman’s ‘Moment’ was a significant turning point in his career but looks underwhelming where the monumental ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ would have represented him better).

This is still better than ‘Painting with White’ (here are a lot of white paintings made in different historical contexts but let’s hang them all together because they are white) which is the worst kind of curation, IKEA style.

Over in the Switch House, painting is almost non-existent (notable exceptions Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu) – a wasted opportunity given what Tate has in store (oh for a Kiefer, Morris Louis, Paula Rego…). But with so many rooms dedicated to massive sculptures, it’s no surprise. The minimalist room that worked so well in the Tate’s original ‘Structure and Clarity’ suite has now been absorbed into the vague ‘Between Object and Architecture.’ A necessary evil but a pity nonetheless to see so many roped off displays (in the case of Roni Horn’s stunning ‘Pink Tons’ you have to be tall to see its top). In its placing, Bruce Nauman’s ‘Corridor with Mirror and Bright Lights’ looks so unlike a corridor and so much like a partition wall that someone forgot to pack away that it loses all effectiveness.

The gallery itself will always be worth a visit, if just for the views from the outdoor platform on the tenth floor. But overall, maybe this is £260 million that would have been better spent on regional art.

The Tate Modern

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Admission to Tate Modern is free, except for special exhibitions. Become a Tate Member or Patron and get free entry to all special exhibitions. Visitors with a disability pay a concessionary rate, and carers' entrance is free. Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian) and family tickets are available (two adults and two children 12–18 years) - see individual exhibitions for more information.