Apollo Magazine

Why has Tate consigned painting to history?

Painting isn't dead, but it has been prematurely buried in Tate Modern's Boiler House

Switch House, Tate Modern

Switch House, Tate Modern. Photo © Iwan Baan

Visitors walking down the ramp into Tate Modern now have a choice of direction: they can turn left to the Boiler House or right to the new Switch House. One way points to the past, the other to the future, with consequences for their experience of the collection.

The stated reason for Tate Modern’s expansion is to accommodate the international acquisitions that have enlarged its holdings by 75 per cent since it opened in 2000. ‘The world has changed and the view of art has changed’, the gallery’s director Frances Morris explained to journalists at the press launch of the Switch House last week. Correcting the collection’s gender bias and broadening its global scope are two changes that have been much publicised. But another change to the displays has gone unmentioned: the shift of emphasis from two to three dimensions, away from painting towards sculpture and installation.

Herzog & de Meuron’s spacious new Switch House galleries – housing work from the 1960s to today – are ideally suited to sculptural installations: the architecture flatters the art and vice versa. As if in homage, the Level 2 displays titled ‘Between Object and Architecture’ even feature several works made out of building materials, from Carl Andre’s bricks to Charlotte Posenenske’s ventilation ducts. But look for paint on canvas and you look in vain – I counted two pictures over three floors of galleries. The implication of the Switch House displays is that the new global ‘arte povera’ originates in places without art shops.

Installation view of ‘Between Object and Architecture’ in Tate Modern’s new Swith House extension.

Over the bridge on Level 4 of the Boiler House – housing art from 1900 on – the ‘Materials and Objects’ displays relay the same message, showing how artists from Picasso to El Anatsui ‘have embraced a range of new materials and techniques’. Duchamp’s Fountain is accompanied by wall texts supplying answers to the question: ‘Why make art from everyday things?’ Only on Level 2 in the displays titled ‘In the Studio’ are traditional art materials admitted. Here the walls are crowded with canvases, rubbing in the fact that 3D works have hogged all 60 per cent of the expanded gallery’s additional space.

Approached from this direction, the picture galleries feel like an add-on – a time capsule of the way things were. It’s as if by creating a paint-free zone in the Switch House, the curators have flicked a switch and made painting history. While the Tate doesn’t wish to appear prescriptive, first-time visitors should be at least encouraged to take a left at the entrance and begin their journey in the Boiler House’s ‘Start Display’, where Kandinsky’s Cossacks meet Ellsworth Kelly’s Yellow Curve. Otherwise they’ll arrive at the picture galleries already persuaded that painting is dead, when it’s only prematurely buried.

The Switch House displays, we’re told, explore ‘how art became active’. Has looking at an image on a flat surface now become a passive experience? If so, it might make more sense for Tate to ship all its paintings off to Millbank. That would have the double benefit of relieving Millbank of the millstone of the name ‘Tate Britain’ while leaving Bankside free to pursue its active agenda, until that too is consigned to history.

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