"The Triumph of Painting: Part One"
The Saatchi Gallery, London

Titling an exhibition "The Triumph of Painting" is like putting out a CD called "The Greatest Hits of 2005" in June: safe, if a little myopic. This three-part exhibition spread out over the Saatchi Gallery's 20th Anniversary year comes at a time when Charles Saatchi would be well advised to play it safe in the short term and rack up a few easy victories. After a span of very public misfortunes (battles with his new landlord, a fire in his storage warehouse, sniping about his sale of Damien Hirst's shark), "The Triumph of Painting" is Saatchi's chance to return to what he does best: assembling blockbuster shows whose excellence and uniqueness is sufficient to shift a paradigm or two.

Unfortunately the trilogy has gotten off to a bad start. "The Triumph of Painting: Part One"is an odd exhibition of six established artists (Peter Doig, Martin Kippenberger, Jorg Immendorf, Hermann Nitsch, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans) with some dizzying high points. Tuymans' Still Life (2002) dominates one of the small side rooms like a montrously out-of-proportion salon painting that still manages to feel weightless, like it's made of light. Elsewhere Kippenberger's UN Building - the Home of Peace (1984) is a dark, repellent muddle -- a top-notch example of his sly blend of humor and pathos.

Unfortunately, as groundwork for the following two installments (which will feature larger and much younger casts -- 13 artists in the second episode, 37 in the third, some of them barely out of art school),"Part One" is somewhat lumpy and precarious. Part of the problem may be Saatchi's fondness for artists who fly in the face of institutional approval. His gallery's history is studded with large payoffs against long odds. To stand in front of the nine Immendorf canvases in "Part One" is to realize that if Saatchi had instead devoted the exhibition solely to artists like Tuymans, Kippenberger and Dumas, to whom the years have been kinder, he would have had a much more persuasive case on his hands.

And a case is exactly what he's trying to build. Around every corner in "The Triumph of Painting: Part One" enthusiastic wall texts argue the case for these artists' eminence, accompanied by further texts rhapsodizing on the merits of their paintings. Meanwhile a pair of critical essays on the current role of painting hang from the wall like opening and closing arguments for the defense.

Then there's Hermann Nitsch, best known as founding member of Viennese Actionism. What's he doing in this show? Painting has never been Nitsch's focus, and while his multimedia collage Golden Love (1974) may be a standout in the show, its inclusion is puzzling as it isn't, after all, a painting. His later splatter paintings fit the theme better, but still work better as souvenirs of his 'actions' than as paintings in their own right. Only upon walking into the gallery's gift shop and spotting the 'blood' splattered Nitsch t-shirts does it become clear. Saatchi is playing a game whose boundaries extend far beyond the gallery walls, and evidently the fact is not lost on him that those twenty years of success owe much to a robust diet of headlines, scandal and animal entrails. It's just too bad for painting that it finds itself a guest at a party for the Saatchi Gallery instead of the other way around.

by Craig Garrett

[originally published in Flash Art no. 240 (Jan/Feb 2005)]

copyright 2005

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