Art Review: Shape of Light, Tate Modern ‘Abstract Photography at its Finest’

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It’s interesting that this new exhibition – the largest ever held of abstract photography in the UK – is being held in the galleries opposite the blockbuster Picasso show for you couldn’t get more diametrically opposed shows in modern art.

Picasso’s works are an instant hit. Though there are complexities worth exploring in his paintings, your reaction to them is immediate – their colours, their forms, even his instantly recognisable style… And his paintings too are huge. HUGE. You can’t miss them. And, of course, everyone knows Picasso.

That’s not the case with this show of over 350+ works from over 100 artists, most of whom you will not have heard of. These wonderful photographs – many of which are tiny, tiny – reward close examination and a slow, patient approach. This isn’t a show you can whirl through in half an hour. Well, you could, obviously, as I’m not stopping you(!) but you wouldn’t be getting the most out of these images for there are some wondrous works to discover.

The purpose here is to explore photography in relation to the development of abstraction, and it has done this (quite remarkably, it must be said) by displaying this development, whether that be in exploring the abstraction in the physical (such as the human body, landscapes and cityscapes) or in the technical, where developments in technology has enabled more contemporary artists to use this as a source of ideas, alongside famous abstract paintings and sculptures, demonstrating how photography has worked in parallel, and at times diverged, from the wider abstraction movement.

The paintings you will know – Miro, Riley, Braque, Mondrian, Pollock, Kandinsky – but it’s fascinating that these don’t at all distract or overshadow from the marvelousness of the photographic works.

I admit that my preference was for the abstraction that used the human body as the source. Maybe it’s the interesting sensuality that these arouse, or the emotional attachment that will automatically exist with any examination of the human form. How wonderful Imogen Cunningham’s Triangles is, the breasts and nipples of a female body creating the lines and angles needed. Similarly, with Brassai’s blurring and stretching of the bodies in his images to pull and blur the figures. To find abstraction in our own physiques fascinated me.

Minimalism is a popular thread for artists on display in this show, Big in the 1960s and 1970s, this approach saw photographers arrange objects, construct scenes and find order in the world around us. Reducing what we see around us to its essential basic form. Now, this is a popular approach in abstraction generally but can be a real challenge – for both artist and viewer – in photography as this medium has always lent itself to more representational images.

It’s also no surprise, given the urbanisation in the 20th century, that cityscapes provided a fruitful source of minimalist ideas for photographers such as Paul Strand, whose works luxuriate in the curious shadows cast by the sunlight on these urban structures, And I remain a huge fan of Ed Ruscha’s series of photos of parking lots, all shot from a plane up in the sky. These odd myriads of lines, grids and rows, all patterns brutally carved into the earth in order for consumerist capitalist society to continue and work as designed.

The Tate has also gone out of its way to showcase some (very) rarely seen works, such as a series of photographs taken by Man Ray that are exhibited here for the first time in almost sixty years. And these are an interesting collection for they demonstrate the increasing battle in abstraction to remove human consciousness and planning from artworks.

To remove all human thought – conscious and subconscious – from creating, directing art is unbelievably hard. Abstract artists continue to battle with it and Man Ray’s attempt here, in these seven prints, was to swing his camera around his studio, on a strap, and to just go with whatever the resulting images were. And they are a blur of light and form, as you might expect, but this push to examine abstraction at its most extreme continued – and continues – with other artists.

The exhibition ends with works from contemporary artists pursuing this level of abstraction, including Paul Graham, who has used extreme close ups of the different structures of photographic film to create his images, an approach that instantly suggests Sigmar Polke (some of his own photographs hang nearby), and James Welling who uses exposure to examine colour.

I found this show hugely rewarding. I admit a weakness for photography anyway, but this show is a critical study in how photographers have pushed the exploration of this genre as an art form, rather than simply a social documentary or journalistic output. The debate on whether photography is art remains an interesting one and this exhibition is a fantastic counterpoint to those who are rocky on their conviction that it can be, Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Tate Modern, London, to October 14, 2018.
Admission from £16 (concessions available)

Image Credits:
1. Imogen Cunningham, 1883-1976, Triangles 1928, printed 1947-60. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 119x93mm  Pierre Brahm ©Imogen Cunningham Trust. All rights reserved
2. Edward Ruscha b.1937, Gilmore Drive-In Theater – 6201 W. Third St. 1967, printed 2013. Photograph, gelatin silver prints on paper 356x279mm. Courtesy Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery ©Ed Ruscha
3. Man Ray1890-1976, Unconcerned Photograph 1959. Museum of Modern Art, New York ©Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018
4. James Welling, born 1951, Untitled 1986. Photograph, C-print on paper 254x203mm Jack Kirkland Collection, Nottingham ©James Welling.  Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong and Maureen Paley, London

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