By confrontations, on 28 August 2022
By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
The exhibition A Century of the Artist’s Studio 1920-2020 at Whitechapel Gallery set itself the goal of surveying the modern history of artist studios as “crucibles of creativity,” adopting the overt curatorial strategy of setting up “striking juxtapositions of under-recognised artists with celebrated figures in Western art history.” It was this premise that appeared immediately problematic to the Confrontations group, who grappled on their visit with the contradiction between the global reach of an exhibition assembled from more than 100 works by over 80 artists and collectives from “Africa, Australasia, South Asia, China, Europe, Japan, the Middle East, North and South America,” and the continuing dominance in practice of the so-called “modern icons.”
We encountered the show in the company of a representative of the curatorial team at the Whitechapel, Candy Stobbs, and a member of the exhibition advisory committee, editor in chief of Third Text Richard Dyer. The two main thematic threads of the exhibition were “The Public Studio – Artists Together”, looking at the studio as a factory, exhibition space or collective workspace, and “The Private Studio – Artists Alone”, considering the studio as a home, refuge, laboratory or site of political resistance. It was certainly due partly to lack of space that the potentially rich associations of these categories with the history of artist studios in Eastern Europe were barely explored. For example, although Edward Krasiński was a logical inclusion in the show, the display of a blue line at 130cm across half a door could not convey the scale and significance of his conceptual interventions into his studio in a communist era apartment block in Warsaw.
As Richard Dyer explained to us, what began as a western-oriented survey expanded over the course of curatorial research in new geographical directions. However, the question that the exhibition implicitly posed but left unanswered is how the complex histories of the artist’s studio could be approached comparatively and from a global perspective in such a way that its entanglement in place or system-specific economic, social and political processes could be made visible. From the evidence of this exhibition, it seems that as soon as the anchor of Western art narratives is loosened, then the task of articulating the multiplicity of even an apparently straightforward notion such as the artists studio becomes both more challenging and potentially much more rewarding in the long run.