There was a moment on Monday, at the Pace gallery in Mayfair, when was I looking at a Robert Mangold painting, and I felt suddenly moved. Red/White Zone Painting II (1996) is a typically lyrical abstract formed from shaped canvases joined together. A white rectangle is sandwiched by two curved red forms with sensual ovals drawn within them. What absorbed me, what suddenly had me spellbound and choking up, was a tiny detail you only see up close and in the flesh: where the sections meet, the red paint bleeds gently into the the white, creating a subtle pink stain over the tightly woven canvas. I might not have noticed it in pre-Covid times. But back looking at real art in real galleries, it has never seemed so abundantly physical and special.
Much of the focus this week has inevitably been on how the cafe and the pub, the swimming pool and the hairdresser have re-established vital human connections. And because commercial galleries are classed as non-essential retail (something they’d never have admitted to before the pandemic) they, too, could provide that experience for the first time in months. But they also create another profound relationship: something happens in that intimate communion between a viewer and an artist, who may be alive or long dead. It only occurs when we’re face to face with the work, something many of us have missed so keenly in these long lockdown months.
Of course, museums and galleries opened for a few months last summer, yet I didn’t feel this same absence or a comparable urgency to see art then. Perhaps it was how little understood the virus remained – I recall being filled with anxiety on returning to gallery spaces as the first lockdown lifted. But in lockdown three, the online initiatives that amused me for much of last year, providing a hint of an art fix, wore thin. I’ve grown tired of looking at art reproduced on screen, however accomplished the virtual spaces created for them might be.
And the need to engage with it has only grown as I’ve been hosting a podcast for The Art Newspaper called A brush with… in which I talk to artists about their life and work. It’s as if I’ve been experiencing art vicariously through them, trying to absorb the smell of paint, the feel of clay or plaster, the cold touch of glazed ceramic.
Julia Peyton-Jones, the former director of the Serpentine, who’s now senior global director of special projects at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, has been talking to artists remotely throughout the pandemic and there have been online shows. But she admits that nothing compares to spending time with the work. “Art is essential to how I feel about myself and how I connect to the world around me,” she says.
Ropac’s reopening shows (Robert Rauschenberg and Not Vital) are “absolutely, completely spot on for this moment”, Peyton-Jones says, and she’s right. The Rauschenbergs are from the early 1990s Night Shades and Phantoms series, in which he printed his own photographs, mostly of urban scenes, onto aluminium. The Phantoms, in particular, just don’t reproduce – you need to walk around them, as the images appear and fade away into the lustrous surface. Swiss artist Vital’s portrait paintings (which I had never seen) are densely worked, and as Peyton-Jones points out, his images of Laos monks, using the luminous orange fabrics they wear, are particularly enrapturing. “You have to really look hard to see if you can somehow access the person,” Peyton-Jones says.
When I visited on Wednesday, the Ropac space was, like most of the central London galleries, quiet. “The first morning was very busy,” Peyton-Jones says. “And then it’s kind of sporadic. It’s like all of us are coming out from hibernation and blinking in the sunlight. It feels like: ‘Is this what the world looks like?’”
And nothing is quite the same in galleries. Previously mundane elements take a while to get used to. When I talk to sceptics about contemporary art, particularly participatory installation art and video art, I always advise that they suspend their disbelief and throw themselves into it. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, the worst that can happen now is catching a horrible disease. An Infinity of Traces, the excellent group show at the Lisson Gallery, features multiple video works for which you need to don headphones to hear the audio. Every time, I found myself pondering if it was wise to do so. And my hands are, yet again, sanitised to shreds.
That Lisson show, along with the accompanying John Akomfrah exhibition in the sister gallery down the road, were the first shows I saw. I couldn’t have been luckier. Yes, Akomfrah’s films are on screen, but they envelop you, fill your field of vision, their sound sends shockwaves through you. It’s as visceral as any painting or sculpture.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: after Akomfrah, Damien Hirst. I wondered if being so thrilled to see art would dim my critical faculties. Hirst’s terrible show at Gagosian in King’s Cross proved otherwise. But it’s the only weak exhibition I’ve seen so far. Charles Gaines’s Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces at Hauser & Wirth, amazingly the first solo UK exhibition of this hugely influential figure in US conceptual art, is wonderful. It fills both of Hauser’s galleries on Savile Row with the latest in a long series called gridworks, in which Gaines takes photographs — here, portraits of people who identify as mixed race, and images of trees in Dorset — and then transfers them one after the other onto a painted grid system, on plexiglas frames. It might sound dry but I got so much pleasure from following Gaines’s sequences, tracing his colours as they build and mix, finding joy in their subtle mechanics, pondering the rich social arguments underpinning his work. I was dazzled.
One show was so good I’ve already been back: Rachel Whiteread at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill. The big deal here, as she told the Standard last week, is her painted, blasted sculptures, Poltergeist and Doppelgänger, like ghostly post-apocalyptic sheds. But there are numerous beautiful new pieces where Whiteread builds on her more familiar language of casting — one, where corrugated forms undulate below clear, daylight-blue resin to create this strange effect of pure driven morning snow. In a series of Night Drawings, window shapes in deep black paper mache are speckled with a constellation of white dots.
As so often, Whiteread’s sculptures have that profound connection between touch and vision, not just in palpably displaying her own hand, but in imploring us to physically engage with them. Again, I choked up looking at them. Great art affirms our living presence and yet it transports us; it has never seemed more necessary.