Britannia rules at RISD’s “Made In the UK”

Top of the pops
By GREG COOK  |  October 4, 2011


"Made In the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection," a survey of post-World War II British art at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through January 8), arrives as British artists are the top of the pops. When British figurative painter Lucian Freud died at age 88 in July, The Washington Post said he was "often considered the greatest living master of the human form." Team Britain also includes Banksy, regarded by many to be the greatest living street artist; Andy Goldsworthy, a preeminent land artist; and Damien Hirst, the sensational self-promoter best known for a 1991 artwork consisting of dead shark floating in a formaldehyde-filled tank that he poetically dubbed The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living.

Everything here is from RISD's collection of British art (which the museum trumpets as "uniquely strong in the United States") thanks to Baker, a Providence native and major New York art collector who died in 2002 and bequeathed some 170 British works to the museum, as well as funds to continue to purchase the best new stuff made by Redcoats. RISD curators Jan Howard and Judith Tannenbaum showcase a mixed bag of some 100 works from the 1950s to now by 32 artists loosely grouped by style.

Ben Nicholson's 1955 still-life of a glass on a table is a cubist-flavored abstraction, but in contrast to Picasso's brawling cubism, Nicholson's approach is fine lines floating on flat shapes, all delicate and refined.

Artists here like Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton pioneered Pop art in the '50s — before Americans figured it out. But the finest work in that mode is David Hockney's 1964 acrylic painting Plastic Tree Plus City Hall, featuring a cartoony palm tree in flat greens and red against a brushy blue and gray background that could be sky or a parody of Abstract Expressionism. White bubbles between the tree and a realist rendering of Los Angeles' City Hall (Hockney has long been based there) make it look like the tree is thinking of the building, and vice versa. And it reveals Hockney's long interest in teasing the conventions of representation.

The '70s feature photorealist works like John Salt's striking 1979 painting of wrecked autos and Margaret Priest's 1972 pencil drawing of a theater that verges on abstraction in the manner of Jazz Age British Vorticists or the op-art of Bridget Riley. Riley is represented by three works, the best of which is a striped 1965 screenprint that plays perspective games that just hint at the eye-popping illusions of depth in her best abstractions. Howard Hodgkin's 1972 painting Moonlight might be an abstracted sunset and rainbow that spills from the panel over the frame with hot, humming colors.

Hamish Fulton's portfolio of nine screenprints commemorates nature walks in Scottish mountains in the '80s and '90s ("No talking for 7 days in a wood February full moon"; "Geese flying south . . . counting 396 barefoot paces on one deer path"). They document Fulton's unique meld of land art and performance (it can be seen as a pioneer of psychogeography) as poetic broadsides.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , World War II, Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island School of Design,  More more >
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