LONDON — Fancy visiting an artist’s studio? The French are good at this sort of thing. Try the Left Bank of Paris. There, you can hobnob with the lively ghosts of Brancusi, Zadkine, and Delacroix. All their studios are within walking distance of each other. There is one problem that these spaces all share, though: They are all the studios of long-dead artists, and they could be described as reconstituted spaces. They are silent, for example. Everything that might have happened has already happened. We are seeing (often behind glass) of the fruits of their labors and perhaps the tools with which they worked, and even the chairs into which they collapsed, with sighs of pleasurable exhaustion, at day’s end. They are regularized, curated spaces — tidy, odorless, and a little feelingless too. This matter of feeling is very important because the studio of any living artist is not an inert backdrop — and to be encouraged to experience it as such is a misrepresentation of what the idea of the studio really means.

Which brings us to a new show at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London, loomed over by the brassy prosperity of the City, the financial district. A Century of the Artist’s Studio is many things in one: an overview of what the idea of the studio has meant to a multiplicity of artists between 1920 and 2020; an examination of the idea of the studio as a subject for art; and a tour of the different kinds of spaces that the word “studio” can encompass. There are even “studio corners,” in which parts of actual studios have been reconstructed. Spend a few moments with a photographic blow-up of Henry Moore, with some of his works behind him, for example, or at the desk of Dieter Roth, a much more tidy and clinical experience altogether. In short, this exhibition is all about engaging with the fluid and ever-changing idea of the studio now and in the recent past — many of the 80 or so artists represented by more than 100 works, which include painting, sculpture, installation, and film, are still alive. 

Louise Bourgeois, “Cell IX” (1999), steel, marble, glass, mirrors, 213.4 x 254 x 132.1 cm (courtesy D.Daskalopoulos Collection, © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021)

The thrust of the show’s argument is this: the studio is not what it used to be. It is both a physical space inhabited by an artist (though it needn’t be) and a mental construct, too. It is a place of self-mirroring, self-haunting, a space where the artist plays out the day-to-day reality of the fantasy of being an artist. One sound dominates the downstairs galleries as I walk around, that of the tap-tap-tap of feet. When I arrive at the film that it accompanies, I spot a young Bruce Nauman dancing out the perimeters of a canvas. This is the work of art, and this is my Bruce Nauman studio experience, the filmed record of the artist in action.

Studios can of course be clean or dirty, messy or austere. Some artists, past masters of reticence, deliberately avoid turning the studio into an extravagant site of self-display: Howard Hodgkin turned all his canvases to the wall when preparing for a visitor. Why show your heart to a nosy stranger? The studio was as coolly clinical as any hospital operating theater. Other artists positively revel in — and eagerly feed off — the drama of self-exposure that the sight of a heap of images in disarray always involves, the need to see the material, which will goad them toward the final coherence of the made thing. A good deal of time and space in one of the upstairs galleries (of seven galleries in all) is devoted to Francis Bacon’s last studio, which was re-created after his death in a Dublin gallery. What a bomb site it is! In a photograph of 1984, Bruce Bernard shows him seated in his studio, the exhausted, uncrowned king of his own self-willed chaos.

Wolfgang Tillmans, “after party (c)” (2002), inkjet print, 138 x 208 cm (© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London)

Some of the show’s most interesting works reflect on the experience of making art in an environment that contains the stuff that all artists must always have at their disposal. Otherwise there would be nothing to show off to the waiting world. All this stuff finds itself dragged into the story. Jasper Johns shows off a bristle of brushes crammed into a Savarin tin, in a lithograph from the late 1970s. Their perkiness, their flourish, makes them look like triumphal weaponry, well-punished objects that have enabled him to win out against near-impossible odds. Phyllida Barlow’s black paintsticks (reverentially recreated in bronze) give off a similar message, but with a significant difference. They lie flat and on their sides, as if done in by all the effort of trying to keep pace with the artist’s no-holds-barred madness. Antony Gormley draws himself, upright and haunted, if not trapped, by his own shadow on the wall. A recent painting by Lisa Brice reveals an artist playing peek-a-boo behind her cruciform stretcher, as if about to take on the burden of crucifixion by and for her art. Seeing “Cell IX” (1999) by Louise Bourgeois — a block of marble from which human arms emerge, loomed over by multiple mirrors — in the context of this exhibition seems to speak of the potential menace of the studio space, of its cell-like, entrapping nature. How to wrest meaningful art from all this obsessive self-examination? How to contend with the demons of the self? A studio is never an inert or a neutral space. It shapes everything that an artist is and does. It can itself be a work of art, even an act of self-portraiture.

The show’s main theme is subdivided into many — far too many — sub-themes: studio as refuge, studio as sanctuary, etc. The design of the show doesn’t help either — too many twists, turns, and doubling back on yourself. It all gets a bit bewildering, if not confusing, in the end. Why is this here and not over there? That said, it peers into its subject more thoroughly and more eye-delightingly than any other show on this subject that I’ve ever seen.

Installation view of A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 at Whitechapel Gallery, London. Left: Mequitta Ahuja, “Notation” (2017), oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Right: Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled (Painter)” (2008), acrylic on PVC panel in artist’s frame, 73 x 62.9 cm (courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London)
Nikhil Chopra, “La Perla Negra: Plaza de Armas” (2015), 60 hours performance-installation (12th Habana Biennale, Cuba), elements: 6 canvases, props, fabrics, accessories, cage with roof (courtesy Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge. Photography by Stephen White & Co.)
Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian, “From March to April… 2020” (2020), single-channel color video with sound, 7:46 mins (courtesy the artists and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai)
Installation view of A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 at Whitechapel Gallery, London (courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London)

A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 continues at Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, England) through June 5. The exhibition was developed by Iwona Blazwick OBE, Director, Whitechapel Gallery, with a curatorial committee made up of Dawn Ades, Inês Costa, Richard Dyer, Hammad Nasar, and Candy Stobbs.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...