Take a big splash: Performance and painting at Tate Modern

David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) is a classic work of pop art from the sixties, a gorgeous colour-rich depiction of a very enviable way of life. With clear blue skies, a chic abode and nothing to do, you can get your kicks from launching off a board and landing into a pool of water.
This is California at its best and the sharp composition of the piece accurately says as much – here is heightened fantasy at its most real. Tate has intriguingly borrowed the title of this painting for a captivating new show that surveys art post-performance. Though a static work, the splash appears to be in movement – here lies the link.
For Hockney, at least in this painting, the scene is an “artificial backdrop that opens up a theatrical space”, the gallery explains. The suggestion is that in some ways, the painting is like a window, through which the viewer can enter and explore a new, altogether exaggerated world.
It is a novel form of engagement, more active and in need of greater interaction. This was an idea that began to grow in importance after the Second World War, where people at large needed a release from what had been a dark epoch in human history.
The show explores how, inspired by performance art, painters were challenged and energised to break with the past and encouraged to venture into uncharted territory. Like Hockney, Jackson Pollock was quick off the mark in pursuing the unthinkable.
Summertime: Number 9A (1948) is a perfect example of this. The elongated canvas is a timeline of the artist in transit, recording the very story of the work itself through the visible progress of the paint. It is more than just splashes and swirls; it is a document of action, gesture and sentiment, which like a movie can be rewound, paused and forwarded.
Tate Modern has divided the show into two parts – one dealing with themes arising from the examination of performance art in relation to painting, and the other focusing on key artists within this framework. Though both can be explored as singular concepts, they ask similar questions.
How do you make a painting move? What is an active painting? Can performance art be a painting? One of the most meditative questions put forward concerns whether the application of paint onto a canvas is in itself a performance of an artistic kind. Do you even need paint?
There are videos on YouTube of Pablo Picasso painting on glass, with absolute nonchalance, making easy work in creating something so visually poetic. One perfect example is of a vase full of flowers. His movements are smooth, natural and beautiful to watch. You almost forget that the result of this is a beautiful work of art.
A Bigger Splash: Painting and Performance at Tate Modern runs until April 1st 2013.
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