Previous: The Guerrilla Girls Get Shut Out At Frieze Art Fair | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios
Next: Peter Liversidge - Proposals | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios



View count:15,397
Last sync:2017-07-16 07:40
To check out any of the lectures available from Great Courses Plus go to

For our second international art trip, we travel to London during Frieze Art Fair. We saw a lot of art! Almost too much. (Definitely too much.)

Subscribe for new episodes of The Art Assignment every Thursday!

1) Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth, ft. David Shrifley:
2) National Portrait Gallery, London:
3) Royal Academy of Arts:
4) Courtauld Gallery:
5) Whitechapel Gallery:
6) Hauser & Wirth London:
7) Serpentine Galleries:
8) Tate Modern:
9) Frieze London:

Follow us elsewhere for the full Art Assignment experience:
Response Tumblr:
and don't forget Reddit!:
This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus.

London is a big city, a crowded and lively global metropolis. It holds an embarrassment of cultural riches, and we had only a few days to take advantage of them. Our timing aligned with what a handful of art and media people call Frieze Week in early October, when the Frieze London Art Fair pitches its tents in Regent's Park. All of the galleries and art venues put forward some of their best shows of the year, and fancy art collectors descend. We were there too.

We began our art trip in Trefalgar Square, whose fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV, but instead stood empty due to lack of funds for over 150 years. In 1999, the plinth became a site for temporary art commissions, and has since featured an inverted replica of itself in resin, an architectural model for a hotel, a platform for members of the public to say and do anything they wish, a replica of Horatio Nelson's ship in a bottle with sails made of African batik fabric, a boy on a rocking horse, a big, blue rooster, and the skeleton of a horse around whose front leg is tied a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange.

And its now host to a very large thumbs up forged in bronze by David Shrigley, and it's titled "Really Good," which doesn't sound right unless you have a Brit say it. 

[British woman speaking] Really Good.

Our mistrust of this symbol of positivity creeps in almost immediately. The unnaturally elongated thumb makes us notice not only how phallic the sculpture is, but also how phallic Nelson's Column is, and how grandiose architectural expressions of confidence in general can be. So here we have this monumental expression of confidence in London's locus of protest, and just post-Brexit. Despite uncertainty and unrest at home and abroad, we're still really good, everybody, right? 

We then took a short walk to the National Portrait Gallery, which is filled with a great many paintings of kings, and queens, and generals, and wealthy people throughout British history. Walking through the galleries, I kept thinking about the stories not told through these pictures - contemporaneous events not reflected in these highly staged portraits - even, or perhaps, especially in the more recent portraits, which made me think about how and why portrait painting kept being  a thing after the invention of photography. And then, as if the curators could hear my thoughts, I came across an array of truly stunning photographic portraits highlighting black presence in Britain before 1948. The humanity and intimacy of these pictures was in stark contrast to those in the previous galleries, telling more compelling, nuanced stories, and showing off a rich collection, only a fraction of which can be on display at any time. They also had a temporary exhibition of photographs by American photographer, William Eggleston, a pioneer and master of color photography. These photographs were printed using a dye transfer process that yields brilliantly saturated colors and brings Eggleston's subjects from the '60s and '70s to startling life. It's not just the people in the pictures; it's the frame, the time, the place, and the light that make me feel like I was there, taking complete strangers and causing them to feel familiar, sympathetic, and dimensional. 

We moved on to the Royal Academy of Art, which is hosting a big, bold, celebratory exhibition about abstract expressionism. It has all the heavy hitters: Still, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, Kline, Rhinehardt, a woman artist, Smith. To be fair, there are more women in the show than the magnificent Joan Mitchell, and there are efforts throughout the show to complicate the usual story about this time in the mid-20th century, when a number of artists (mostly in America, mostly white men) starting making big, expressive paintings. Of course, they weren't all big, and they weren't all expressive, and they weren't all made by serious macho dudes in New York; but, in general, it reinforces the usual heroic narrative about this time in art. And I couldn't help but think about how it's as much about the stories we choose to tell as how we tell them. Okay, it is impressive. You will like it. But what if all the effort of bringing these works together in one place had been devoted to another subject? A new subject? One that hadn't yet been told?