The Titanic Tate Modern

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Expansion is everywhere in London. New shops, new boutiques, new moneys destined, if one trusts the headlines of the city's newspapers, to turn the place into the financial capital of Europe. Even the city's Victorian drinking hours are threatened with expansion, a move that would make the infamous pub bell that tolls at 11 another Empire relic, as quaint and nostalgic as rationing cookbooks and the bison hats worn by the Queen's guards. Facing the future with a cockiness not seen since King George's day, London has got elbow room on the brain, an idea the city is currently pushing into practice in a series of large-scale public projects.

    There's the Millennium Dome, a £758-million monstrosity in Greenwich, south London, that has been roundly panned both for its staggering expense and its poor attendance; a new £16-million wing for the National Portrait Gallery; a £100-million for new galleries, a library and other improvements to the British Museum; more than a dozen exhibition rooms for the newly redesigned Tate Gallery, now known as Tate Britain; and, most ambitious of all, the Brobdingnagian, awesomely handsome Tate Modern, the first British museum to be solely devoted to displaying and promoting international modern and contemporary art.

    Located inside the 63-year-old former Bankside Power Station, a hulking, brick-clad monolith straddling the Thames' edge immediately opposite St. Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern boasts a few international firsts. Measuring some 360,000 square feet, the eight-floor Tate Modern is to world-class museums what Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers are to tall buildings the globe over: the biggest thing of its kind on the planet. Boasting a 325-foot chimney and what may be the world's most dramatic building entrance, the museum establishes itself as an architectural Titan-on-the-Thames with all the authority of a mythical colossus and the quiet politesse of a newly minted Dallas oil millionaire.

    Inaugurated on May 12, London's £134-million mega-museum fits the city's grandiose cultural aspirations to a tee. Banking on nothing less than overtaking New York as the world's art capital, upstart London has thrown down the gauntlet to its more seasoned and complacent transatlantic counterpart. You glean London's challenge in the normally subdued but now spirited talk of important gallery directors, like Anthony Wilkinson and Victoria Miro. You see it in the profusion of new, Soho-size spaces cropping up throughout London's scattered exhibition territories, among them Jay Jopling's White Cube, Victoria Miro's new East End digs and Mary-Jane Aladren's new warehouse-scale Nylon gallery. And you hear it outright in the speech of Anglo-American painter Michael Craig-Martin, once mentor to the Goldsmith College art punks who eventually became the original YBAs: "It changes everything," Craig-Martin recently enthused of the new Tate. "It's the best museum of modern art anywhere."

    This highly un-British, broad-shouldered confidence is precisely what the new Tate Modern evinces in spades. A massive block of a thing, it manages to look both functional and elegant, particularly at night, when its huge rectangular glass roof lights up the Thames' south side like an enormous fluorescent box. Originally designed in clunky 60s international style by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect who originated Britain's signature red telephone boxes, the building has been utterly retooled while preserving its original structure and strengthening the site's ties to the area's remaining industrial architecture.

    Revamped entirely by the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Tate Modern prominently features a concrete ramp at the west end of the building that descends into a soaring vault the Brits call Turbine Hall. Skylit, measuring some 500 feet in length and 115 feet high, Turbine Hall is vast on a scale comparable only to the world's largest monuments. An industrial cathedral of art carved from the rooms that used to contain the huge alternators that once generated London's electrical power, the hall is a man-made space of awe-inspiring immensity. Had it been built from scratch, this Grand Canyon of art galleries would not escape comparisons to Albert Speer's Nazi architecture. Recycled, as much British contemporary art is, from the detritus of existing, outspent structures that litter dear old London, Turbine Hall feels both powerful and ingenious, a sort of svelte giant of a building containing a promise to remake Britain's largely stagnant art tradition this century into a series of continuous, adaptable and genuinely novel advances.

    Adaptability also appears to be a leitmotif of the museum's exhibition rooms. They are, above all, orderly, well-lit and principally functional boxes for the unencumbered, serious enjoyment of art. Curated with a view to eschewing rigid chronologies and senescent art-historical formalities like school, style and medium, Tate Modern reorients its still-limited collection of modern and contemporary work into flexible working groups of art ideas. "Landscape, Matter, Environment," for example, stirs together Monet's Water Lilies and Richard Long's land-based sculpture. "Still Life, Object, Real Life" pits a vibrant Cezanne still life against a set of Donald Judd's dull minimalist boxes. "Nude, Action, Body" whirrs together the work of Matisse, Giacometti and Barnett Newman, resting briefly on a group of installations by Bruce Nauman, quite possibly the most influential American artist to have touched the British nerve. "History, Memory, Society" revisits the manifesto-spouting art of constructivism, fluxus and minimalism, and includes the more up-to-date political work of Third World artists Doris Salcedo and Mona Hatoum. In a word: eclecticism reigns at Tate Modern, showing most artworks (especially British art) to good advantage, while evoking exciting new connections from a seemingly endless supply of surprising associations and juxtapositions.

    But there are still more high points to the Tate experience; far too many, frankly, to mention here. There is a fantastic room full of Bridget Riley's op-art paintings, eye-strainingly beautiful in their overlooked precision and formalism; Mark Rothko's murals, painted originally for the Philip Johnson-designed restaurant in New York's Seagram building, full of the dark, brooding bullheadedness that led Rothko to renounce the commission; a number of Patrick Caufield's beautiful pop-art paintings, virtuosic in a way Warhol's could never be; and last, but by no means least, the humongous 30-foot-tall steel spider by veteran artist Louise Bourgeois, the first in a series of $400,000 commissions for the Turbine Hall underwritten by Unilever, the multinational consumer-goods company turned British art patron with the help of a fine-tuned ad campaign: "The Turbine Hall. Where better to help generate powerful ideas?"

    Where better, indeed. Bigger, better and far less reliant on expressionistic pizzazz for attention than Bilbao's flashy Guggenheim museum, less authoritative but more up-to-date than New York's MOMA, Tate Modern has got out of the blocks at blinding speed as the art museum of the 21st century, thanks chiefly to a countrywide campaign that views the promotion of art and culture as very much in the national interest. Will deeply conservative America and comfortable, navel-gazing New York, one wonders, ever catch up?