Society Running on Empty at White Cube by Edward Lucie-Smith




From the Vapor of Gasoline, the odd title of the new mixed exhibition at White Cube Mason’s Yard comes from a slogan Jean-Michel Basquiat scrawled across one of his paintings. The phrase, so the exhibition list tells one ‘conjures [up] a society running on empty’. That may well be so, but one has to remember that the painting concerned was produced in 1985, more than thirty years ago, at the very height of Basquiat’s success in the New York art world, then much closer to being globally dominant than it is now.

What comes across from the show is a strong sense of nostalgia for dear dead days, even though, paradoxically, those who were around at the time seem to have experienced a strong feeling that American culture was running out of gas. This, at least, is what the slogan actually implies.

What comes across from the show is a strong sense of nostalgia for dear dead days

The show contains just one work by Basquiat himself, in black and white, non-figurative, and not very characteristic. Apart from that, it ranges in date from the early 1960s – a series of sometimes slightly pornographic black-and-white photographs by Larry Clark, dating from that year until the start of the 1980s – up to a work by Barbara Kruger, dated 2016. Conspicuously present, with no fewer than five works, is Richard Prince, all of them text-based. Three of them are entitled Joke. Another is called Are You Kidding?

Conspicuously absent is anything in the least brightly coloured, though there is one small work in neon by Bruce Nauman called Double Poke in the Eye II. Despite its title, it doesn’t seem to express much in the way of aggression. One’s eye glides over it, just as it glides over the rest of the exhibits.

The show offers an interesting coda to the big Basquiat and Jasper Johns shows currently on view in London. Though Johns is not present, there are a couple of Johnsian appropriations of the American flag. One of them is Untitled (Walker) by Cady Noland, which consists of the kind of aid to locomotion used by elderly geriatrics, with a shopping basket attached to it, and a neatly folded stars-and-stripes draped over it.

At a time when the market for contemporary art – or, if you prefer, ‘almost’ or ‘nearly’ contemporary art – is dominated by a handful of names, 25 at most, who are responsible for more than 50% of turnover for material in this category in the world’s auction rooms, the show at White Cube delivers a perhaps unintended warning. The artists you meet there aren’t, with the exception of that solitary, uncharacteristic Basquiat, the products of the really big names at auction. But they are by well-respected practitioners, feted by theoreticians and critics, promoted, as here, by major, internationally established dealers.

The show is beautifully installed. It couldn’t be more professionally presented. But, boy, does it look barren. If the gas was running out when Jean-Michel was still around, the tank is empty now. Either that or the big dealers like White Cube are inviting us to look in the wrong place. I suspect the latter. Somewhere, in some corner of the art world, there’s a revolution brewing. It can’t come soon enough.

From The Vapor of Gasoline White Cube Mason’s Yard until 21 October 2017 FREE

Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Lead image: Installation view, ‘From the Vapor of Gasoline’, White Cube Mason’s Yard, 20 September – 21 October 2017, © the artists. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)


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