David Hockney, “A Bigger Splash” (1967) (All images courtesy The Tate)

LONDON — It is with the pairing of two 20th-century giants in one room, Jackson Pollock and David Hockney, that the relationship between performance and painting is introduced in A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, an exhibition currently on view at the Tate Modern. Pollock’s “Summertime: Number 9A” (1948), is presented horizontally on a raised platform, characteristic black drips sprinting over an unprimed canvas with references to Mondrian located in blue, red, and yellow blocks filling certain spaces where lines intersect. Projected above is a video made by Hans Namuth and Paul Fallenberg of Pollock painting in 1951, documenting a process Harold Rosenberg described as a recasting of the canvas as an arena of action.

Then there is Hockney’s 1967 “A Bigger Splash,” rendered by a painter resistant to Abstract Expressionism. “When you photograph a splash,” he noted, “you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else.” Realizing a splash could never be seen this way in real life because it happens too quickly, Hockney chose to paint “A Bigger Splash” “very, very slowly,” so as to capture the essence of the moment. In the flesh, the painting is a testament to Hockney’s ability. Considering street photography’s debt to Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment,” “A Bigger Splash” is a painter’s challenge to photography; reclaiming the painting as a frame that captures action at a time when the representation of life in motion was taken over by the street photography movement.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Shooting”

Between Hockney’s representation and Pollock’s non-representation – both approaches driven by a certain reactivity – the exhibition continues on. It charts a history of artists engaging with the physicality of motion, and the possibility (or impossibility) of capturing movement within the often static surface of a white frame, be it a canvas or a cube. Yet in this apparent stasis, a drama unfolds as artists grapple with the paradox of  how to contain and preserve live action after the act within a representational space.

From this Pollock/Hockney prologue, the exhibition extends into curated rooms. These open with an example of action painter Niki de Saint Phalle’s thick, plaster ‘canvases’ literally shot at (once by Robert Rauschenberg) to reveal paint contained within the surface. In the same room, a Kazuo Shiraga foot painting rendered in thick black and red oil paint is paired with a Shozo Shimamoto canvas painstakingly pierced in uniform lines. Both artists were members of the Gutai Art Association, which explored the theatricality of painting in Japan. Then there is Pinot Gallizio’s comment on modernization’s impact on painting, “Industrial Painting” (1958), which was created with a team of assistants marking a roll of canvas that was cut, presented as fabric on live female models and sold.

A blue Yves Klein monochrome completes this grouping, hung next to “Anthropometry of the Blue Era” (1960), a video showing Klein’s body paintings being produced in a gallery, a polite audience watching Klein, the ultimate performance-painter dressed in his Sunday best, directing his naked muses. It is this image of Klein, the gentleman action painter, that lingers when entering the next space, dedicated to the Viennese Actionists. Photographs of an orgiastic performance by Günter Brus and Otto Mühl, “Total Action: Ornament is a Crime/Material Action No. 26 ” (1966) depicts naked bodies lathered in a red-brown paste, wrestling on the floor.

Valie Export, “Identity Transfer 1” (1968)

It feels weighted by the destructive tendencies of a male-dominated movement in this space; making it almost fitting that a wall text nearby explains how Mühl, after establishing the Action Analytical Organization in the 70s, was jailed in ’91 for drugs and sexual offenses. As if in response, the next two rooms, addressing issues of gender, queerness and subversion, opens with two images by Viennese Actionist contemporary, Valie Export, “Identity Transfer 1 and 2” (both 1968), an artist whose work, though linked to the Actionists, was singular in its feminist focus.

In the first room,  practices dismantling rigid socio-political constructs approached through the metaphor of surface and space take place: Geta Bratescu’s “Towards White,” 1975, a remarkable series of black and white photographs, shows the artist turning her studio into a white frame, herself included. In Kang So Lee’s “Painting,” 1978, the artist paints his body, imprints it on a sheet and exhibits the resultant sheet like shed skin. Wu Shanzhuan’s “Public Ink Washing,” 1987, shows the artist hurling ink at Chinese characters referencing state control pasted on a wall in a room. It’s a performance that reflects on the political currency of the performative act both in the moment of its genesis and as it is preserved for posterity. In these staged performances, how one represents performance is equally as important as how one renders the performance’s representation, recalling the Pollock/Hockney pairing at the outset: an Abstract Expressionist action painter paired with a Pop realist.

In the next curated gallery, the exhibition seems to have illustrated the performative turn in its entirety; a turn that, according to Eda Cufer, coincided with the time when art became contextualized by ‘total politic’: the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s and all their political (and representational) battles. Exploring the transformative power of painting using the body as its canvas, it is here that the politics surrounding representation transfers to self-representation. From Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits to Luigi Ontani’s camp portrayals of himself as Krishna and Saint Sebastian, Sanja Iveković’s video, “Make Up Make Down,” 1974, and Bruce Nauman’s “Flesh to White to Black to Flesh,” 1968, the subject is the object, the body is the tool and the surface and the artist are one. It is action painting taken to its absolution.

Lucy McKenzie, “May of Teck” (2010)

But the turn is not yet complete: the viewer must enter the next room devoted to Edward Krasiniski, who taped a blue line at a fixed height to the walls of his studio and home to connect his paintings into the spaces they inhabit. Here, aside from the taped line, rows of small, portrait-sized mirrors hang from the ceiling, transforming the space into a three-dimensional canvas with the line becoming the point of perspective; a horizon of sorts. Gazing into the mirrors, self-portraits captured by the mirrors’ reflection, viewers are caught within a live, representational space as both subject and object; activated and implicated in the performance of representation entirely. Total Politic.

If only the exhibition could have stopped in that dramatic moment. But it continues hereafter with a series of cabinet-style solo presentations that fail to connect, ranging from a literally inaccessible installation by Marc Camille Chaimowitz to Lucy McKenzie’s imagined stage for Muriel Spark’s 1963 novella, A Girl of Slender Means. It feels like a different exhibition altogether. A show illustrating how sometimes, the desire for active art can result in empty installations that feel as if they’ve sucked the air out of the room, even if these were once the stage in which action did indeed occur.

Yet all is not lost. Thinking back to the works leading up to this anti-climax, the exhibition ends with an affirmation. Sometimes, even a single image produced by action, for action, can be more effective than a contrived space that stops action dead in its tracks.

A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance runs through April 1, 2013 at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London). 

Stephanie Bailey covers contemporary art and culture from around the world for publications including ART PAPERS, ARTnews, Artforum, LEAP, Modern Painters and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art....