Barbican: the critics' verdict

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  • Architecture | Art | Classical | Dance | Film | Theatre

    Features_barbican art.jpg

    Work of art: concrete alcoves drilled
    out by hand

    Art

    By Ossian Ward

    While the Barbican Centre’s architects travelled all over Europe to research their concert hall, one look at the art gallery tells you it didn’t get the same courtesy, and that the visual arts were way down their list of priorities. In fact the gallery space was nothing more than an extension of the library and fell under the administrative remit of the City of London, neither part of the Barbican nor entirely separate. Nevertheless, John Hoole, the gallery’s director for its first 20 years, relished his department’s black sheep role and set about presenting exhibitions of underdog disciplines such as photography and design, as well as surveys of unfashionable British artists such as Gwen John (1985) and Stanley Spencer (1991). The show of ‘American Images’ in 1985 and of Cecil Beaton a year later cemented its reputation for photographic exhibitions, predating blockbusters such as Tate Modern’s ‘Cruel and Tender’ by almost two decades.

    Features_Barbican art1.jpg

    A major refurbishment three years ago undoubtedly helped, but this could not disguise the disjointed upstairs-downstairs feel to the gallery (Cindy Sherman went as far as cancelling her show after a site visit in 1998). Perhaps even less suited to art appreciation is the Barbican’s Curve space, in effect a sound buffer for the concert hall and originally intended as a double-height, post-show bar. Under Mark Sladen it became a curated space for contemporary art and hosted the annual ‘New Contemporaries’ show of graduate artists and the 2002 Grayson Perry show for which he received a Turner Prize nomination.

    For a while the main galleries stuttered into populist nonsense with the execrable ‘Art of the Harley’ in 1998 and ‘The Art of Star Wars’ in 2000, although it has to be said that the computer-filled ‘Game On’ of 2002 was less nauseating. However, considering the unpromising start offered up by the architects, the Barbican’s art teams and their new director, Kate Bush, can feel proud that they have fashioned something remarkable out of its ungainly spaces.

    Triumphs

    ‘Van Gogh in England’ (1992), ‘The Sixties’ (1993).

    Disasters

    ‘The Art of the Harley’ (1998), ‘The Art of Star Wars’ (2000).Architecture | Art | Classical | Dance | Film | Theatre


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A major refurbishment three years ago undoubtedly helped, but this could not disguise the disjointed upstairs-downstairs feel to the gallery (Cindy Sherman went as far as cancelling her show after a site visit in 1998). Perhaps even less suited to art appreciation is the Barbican’s Curve space, in effect a sound buffer for the concert hall and originally intended as a double-height, post-show bar. Under Mark Sladen it became a curated space for contemporary art and hosted the annual ‘New Contemporaries’ show of graduate artists and the 2002 Grayson Perry show for which he received a Turner Prize nomination.For a while the main galleries stuttered into populist nonsense with the execrable ‘Art of the Harley’ in 1998 and ‘The Art of Star Wars’ in 2000, although it has to be said that the computer-filled ‘Game On’ of 2002 was less nauseating. However, considering the unpromising start offered up by the architects, the Barbican’s art teams and their new director, Kate Bush, can feel proud that they have fashioned something remarkable out of its ungainly spaces. ‘Van Gogh in England’ (1992), ‘The Sixties’ (1993). ‘The Art of the Harley’ (1998), ‘The Art of Star Wars’ (2000).Architecture | Art | Classical | Dance | Film | Theatre

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