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Contemporary conversations with the Old Masters

Malcolm Cossons takes a look at three London exhibitions in which artists Tom Ellis, Cindy Sherman, David Salle and Jeff Koons address what Koons calls their ‘connectivity’ to the past

In Trafalgar Square, London, Caravaggio’s distinctly provocative pictures and their impact on his peers are currently the subject of the latest National Gallery blockbuster. The enduring appeal of the Old Masters to more recent artists, however, is directly addressed in three other shows currently taking place in the English capital.

The first, entitled The Middle (until 27 November), is a site-specific creation by Tom Ellis at the Wallace Collection. It is the product of four years of conversation around the museum’s eclectic mix of fine art and furniture. ‘Taking one’s work into the Wallace Collection is almost like creating a physical engagement with history,’ says Ellis.

Video: Tom Ellis introduces The Middle at the Wallace Collection

The exhibition starts with a sculpture outside the Wallace’s Hertford House home in Manchester Square and goes on to occupy the Front State Room and exhibition galleries within. Ellis’s paintings draw upon motifs from the collection, for instance, David Teniers’ Gambling Scene at an Inn from the 1640s. However, the pictures remain blurred and unresolved, and are displayed in impermanent settings — installed on runners built within the galleries, allowing them to ‘hover’ against the ornate decor — and combined with custom-made pieces of incomplete and hybrid furniture. Co-curator Simone Stewart elaborates on the exhibition title. ‘To me this is so refreshing. It’s actually talking about what’s unclear,’ she says. ‘The middle ground is open to all sorts of meanings and perceptions.’

The Middle — Tom Ellis at the Wallace Collection, Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, Copyright Benedict Johnson

The Middle — Tom Ellis at the Wallace Collection, Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, Copyright Benedict Johnson

The Middle — Tom Ellis at the Wallace Collection, Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, Copyright Benedict Johnson

The Middle — Tom Ellis at the Wallace Collection, Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, Copyright Benedict Johnson

Although not an artist in residence charged with creating a response to the collection, Ellis did uncover different aspects of the historic works. ‘That earthiness and humanity within the Dutch and Flemish schools is so contemporary,’ he observes. ‘The fact that they include the rough-and-tumble of everyday life speaks to that sense that we are first and foremost rooted in our humanity, which is where The Middle comes back in.’

The crossover between the historic and the contemporary is also being examined in the commercial art world. Skarstedt Gallery opened a new space in St James’s with an exhibition of American artists Cindy Sherman and David Salle, whose History Portraits and Tapestry Paintings (until 26 November) respectively contain overt historical references. 

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #206, 1989. Chromogenic colour print in artists frame. 67½ x 45 in (171.4 x 114.3 cm). 75 x 53 in (190.5 x 134.6) framed. This work is number one from an edition of six. © Cindy Sherman 

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #206, 1989. Chromogenic colour print in artist's frame. 67½ x 45 in (171.4 x 114.3 cm). 75 x 53 in (190.5 x 134.6) framed. This work is number one from an edition of six. © Cindy Sherman 

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #213, 1989. Chromogenic colour print in artists frame. 42½ x 33 in (108 x 83.8 cm). 49½ x 41 in (125.7 x 104.1 cm) framed. This work is number six from an edition of six.  © Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #213, 1989. Chromogenic colour print in artist's frame. 42½ x 33 in (108 x 83.8 cm). 49½ x 41 in (125.7 x 104.1 cm) framed. This work is number six from an edition of six.  © Cindy Sherman

Bona Montagu, Director of Skarstedt, assesses what attracted these artists to the earlier masters. ‘They draw upon existing imagery as source material for their work. In Salle’s case he uses many visual references, from classical paintings to photographic images; he overlays drawings of prison furniture and speech bubbles from magazines. Sherman, however, directly addresses the way the subjects are portrayed in Old Master and Renaissance portraits. Her interest is in their nature as portraits in the classic sense of the term.’

David Salle, Young Krainer, 1989. Acrylic and oil on canvas with two inserted panels. 84 x 104½ in (213.4 x 265.4 cm). © David SalleLicensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt 

David Salle, Young Krainer, 1989. Acrylic and oil on canvas with two inserted panels. 84 x 104½ in (213.4 x 265.4 cm). © David Salle/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt 

These pieces have in their turn inspired other artists, extending the influence of their creators’ Old Master references. ‘By inaugurating the new gallery with a joint exhibition of historical works by Cindy Sherman and David Salle,’ Montagu explains, ‘we hope to give a renewed perspective in which to consider the importance of the artists’ earlier works, and their influence on subsequent generations of painters and photographers.’

Another inauguration in London this month is a second space for the Almine Rech Gallery. The first exhibition is dedicated to Jeff Koons (until 21 January), placing blue gazing balls, each with his characteristic highly polished finish, within the context of celebrated examples from the artistic canon. 

Tinteretto’s The Origin of the Milky Way, Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan and Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women, accompanied by Titian, François Boucher, Giotto and Hendrick Goltzius, are replicated in exact detail, though not at actual size. The surfaces of the canvases, despite appearing to show the cracks of age, are smooth, and projecting from each is a painted shelf upon which sits the mirrored ball. They are joined by freestanding sculptures, two highly polished ballerinas echoing Degas and another that presents Duchamp’s bottle rack topped by another mirrored ball.

Jeff Koons. View of the exhibition Jeff Koons, Almine Rech Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech Gallery. Photo Melissa Castro Duarte

Jeff Koons. View of the exhibition Jeff Koons, Almine Rech Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech Gallery. Photo: Melissa Castro Duarte

In a conversation between the artist and his gallerist in the October 2016 issue of Monocle magazine, Koons explains his relationship with these earlier artists. ‘The richness of life, whereby we can become greater beings and enjoy ourselves more, is achieved by giving it up to things outside the self. If you’re Manet you can give it up to Giorgione or Titian; or you can give it up to Courbet if you’re a contemporary artist... To see that something is greater than you are — all that connectivity, that’s what love is.’

The reflections in each shining sphere project the viewer — and the gallery — into the picture, giving each timeless painting a shifting, misshapen panorama of the world around it. The use of gazing balls, a common feature of American gardens and yards, echoes Koons’ familiar appropriation of everyday objects for grander purposes.

From Ellis to Koons, these artists all draw upon those who have gone before them in a similarly acquisitive fashion. Through the application of their own ingenuity and vision, they build upon the historic and the classical to create something wholly of the present day.