Whitechapel Gallery exhibits 'A Century of the Artist’s Studio'

The monumental show with over 100 works by 80 artists originates from deep research on the subject of studios as works of art and the documentation of artists’ place of work.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Feb 23, 2022

Studio – a place of work for the creative professional has a deep impact on the psychology of the artist, and therefore the work produced. I am a ceramic artist with a modest, yet well-equipped studio space. It is close to where I live, overlooking a green patch with lush trees. The interior of the studio, however, is cramped and looks like a hoarder’s den. Though the ideas I explore with my art are deeper, my immediate studio environment inadvertently has a role in how I approach my work. I have also had the fortune to visit studios of other contemporary artists. Seeking inspiration from the view out of the window, to making small works due to a lack of expanse, the space they occupied was a significant factor influencing the practice.

(L) Akbar Padamsee in his studio 2012; (R) SH Raza in his studio, 2011 | STIRworld
(L) Akbar Padamsee in his studio 2012; (R) SH Raza in his studio, 2011 Image: Manisha Gera Baswani

Whitechapel Gallery in London, UK, researched for four years on the theme of artist studios to develop an art exhibition with over 100 works by 80 artists.  The curatorial team for A Century of the Artist's Studio: 1920-2020 includes Candy Stobbs, Iwona Blazwick, Dawn Ades, Inês Costa, Richard Dyer, and Hammad Nasar. The introductory text elaborates the intent: whether it be an abandoned factory, an attic or a kitchen table, it is the artist’s studio where the great art of our time is conceived and created. In this multimedia art exhibition, the wide-ranging possibilities and significance of these crucibles of creativity take centre stage and new art histories around the modern studio emerge through striking juxtapositions of under-recognised artists with celebrated figures in Western art history.

Painter Video, 1996, Paul McCarthy | A Century of the Artist’s Studio | STIRworld
Painter Video, 1996, Paul McCarthy Image: Courtesy of Paul McCarthy

I speak with Candy Stobbs, Senior Assistant Curator at Whitechapel Gallery on the eve of A Century of the Artist's Studio: 1920-2020.

Candy Stobbs, Senior Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery | STIRworld
Candy Stobbs, Senior Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery Image: Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Rahul Kumar: Why is it important to visit working environment of artists through images, paintings, or ‘studio-corners’ that have been recreated at the exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery?

Candy Stobbs: Over the past decade, artists’ studios have become increasingly under threat due to rising costs and lack of affordable building stock in urban and rural areas, pushing artists away from the centres. Given this ongoing acute situation, we wanted to offer our audiences a glimpse into the working practices of artists from all over the world and to celebrate the sites of creativity where it all begins. In her introductory essay to the catalogue that accompanies the monumental exhibition, Iwona Blazwick, Whitechapel Gallery Director, writes of the excitement and adventure of the studio visit and never really knowing where you might end up or what you might find.

From March to April... , 2020 ,Single channel colour video with sound, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian | A Century of the Artist’s Studio | STIRworld
From March to April... , 2020 , single channel colour video with sound, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian Image: Courtesy of the artists and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai

Rahul: What was the curatorial framework to choose the works for the show – the significance of the photographer or the contribution of the artists whose studio/space was documented?

Candy: We have been developing the themes of the show with our curatorial committee made up of art historians and writers Dawn Ades, Richard Dyer and Hammad Nasar, led by Iwona Blazwick, over the past four years. We were guided by the two overarching themes of the private and public studio, and we also wanted to expand our research beyond Europe and the US to artists’ studio practices across the world. First, we were looking at how the studio is represented across a range of media including film, painting, photography, sculpture and installation. And then we looked into the long and rich history of documenting the studio through digital photography; from Brancusi’s own photographs of himself with his sculptures in his Paris studio, to major figures like Henri Cartier-Bresson photographing Matisse in his hotel studio in the south of France, to Gordon Parks’ iconic images of American artists like Alexander Calder and Helen Frankenthaler in their studios. Through ten studio corners, we hope to evoke a sense of particular studios from Francis Bacon’s London studio of ‘highly controlled chaos’, an environment in which he worked alone inviting few people to visit, and the action-packed Silver Factory in New York where Andy Warhol made his most well-known works surrounded by assistants, friends, hangers-on, and sometimes the police.

Drawing Lesson 47 (Interview for New York Studio School), 2010, Single-channel video, William Kentridge| A Century of the Artist’s Studio / | STIRworld
Drawing Lesson 47 (Interview for New York Studio School), 2010, Single-channel video, William Kentridge Image: Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Galleria Lia Rumma, and Goodman Gallery

Rahul: Are the images/paintings only depicting the spaces as they were, or intending to connect the dots for an uninitiated eye as information directing to interpret the practice of the artists whose studios are in the images?

Candy: The works in the exhibition both illustrate various studio spaces as they were, and offer artistic illustrations of the studio, demonstrating the ever-expanding significance, and historic importance of the artist’s studio.

Notation, 2017, Oil on canvas, Mequitta Ahuja | A Century of the Artist’s Studio / | STIRworld
Notation, 2017, Oil on canvas, Mequitta Ahuja Image: Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary

Rahul: What are some of the interesting things that emerge when two sections of the exhibition are juxtaposed – the private studios and public/shared working spaces?

Candy: As our research developed, we began to notice associations between artists and further themes revealed themselves across geographies, from collective studio practices which includes groups like Laboratoire Agit’Art in Senegal, the Arpilleras workshops in Chile and the collaborative artistic community of Charleston established in rural Sussex in the 1920s. We noticed how artists cannibalise elements of their studios in their work from Helen Frankenthaler’s studio floor in 1960s New York to Walead Beshty’s mural-scaled 2014 art installation of cyanotypes of materials, tools, and bills from his workshop, which finds an echo in an earlier photographic work from 1942 by Raoul Ubac of ghostly objects arranged in the studio. The studio as a place of refuge from political oppression or the struggles of everyday life brought together artists like Geta Brătescu in communist Romania and Maud Lewis in rural Nova Scotia in Canada.

L'Atelier (The Studio), 1955, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso | A Century of the Artist’s Studio / | STIRworld
L'Atelier (The Studio), 1955, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso Image: Courtesy of Succession Picasso/ DACS, London, 2021

Rahul: Several of the works in the show are layered with additional context of the creator – for instance portraiture used in works of Marshall, Ghadirian, and Ahuja. How do these interventions add to the idea of understanding working spaces of the artists?

Candy: All of these artists employ portraiture to explore identity and represent figures who have been ignored or overlooked in western art history and whom they stage in the studio. Both Mequitta Ahuja and her mentor Kerry James Marshall place the black figure at the centre of their narratives to counter European genre painting traditions. Ahuja uses self-portraiture and connects art historical references with personal autobiography, presenting the daily activities of an artist in her studio space from the physical work of painting and handling canvases to subject reading and writing. The painting by Kerry James Marshall in our exhibition, Untitled (Painter), is part of a series of paintings with female artists and models in the studio controlling both the production and their own representation, and upending the historical continuum of the ‘old master’. In a similar vein, Shadi Ghadirian’s series of sepia-toned photographs of herself and her friends explores the tension between social traditions and modernity for young women in Iran. She borrows the tropes of traditional studio photography but subverts these by inserting objects like a can of Pepsi or a pair of sunglasses from contemporary life into her constructed tableaux.

L'Atelier (The Studio), 1955, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso | A Century of the Artist’s Studio / | STIRworld
Studio Interior (Red Stool, Studio), 1945, Oil on canvas, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Image: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust
02 mins watch The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli & David Weiss, 1987| A Century of the Artist’s Studio / | STIRworld
The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli & David Weiss Video: Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

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