The Tate Modern was my next stop. Truthfully, I could have spent the whole weekend there...4 1/2 hours seemed very rushed. Going in, I had very little familiarity with modern art. Coming out...well, I guess I now have some familiarity with it.
The Tate Modern opened earlier this year in what was formerly a "redundant" power plant on the South Bank of the Thames (right next to the Globe). It's a huge building. It has three main floors of exhibitions. The third floor alone took me two hours to view, and I didn't linger for all of it. One of the nice features is a digital voice player you can rent for a pound. When you see a number underneath the description of a work of art, you can punch in that number and hear a curator or an artist speak about the work. That's a good improvement on the self-guided tour with the tape player.
One of the photographers whose work I liked the most was Andreas Gursky. In particular, I liked Rhein II, which you'll have to picture as an oversized landscape rather than a...er, image in a browser. He also does some pictures with interesting special effects.
Some of the works I saw fell into the old "Is it art?" category. For example, one picture (Lucio Fontana's "Spacial Concept 'Waiting'") was just a blank canvas which had been slashed. I think the artist was trying to make some sort of point about getting beyond the traditional two-dimensional canvas. OK. Interesting-looking, actually. But now that you've made the point... Also in that category, I'd put Yves Klein's "IKB79". "IKB" stands for "International Klein Blue," a color he "invented" and patented. And I must admit it's a pretty neat color. I'd love a shirt in that color. But do I really want to see a canvas painted completely in that color? More than once?
I particularly liked their Dali paintings, such as Autumnal Cannibalism and Metamorphosis of Narcissus. There's something about the surrealist pictures that really strikes a cord with me. Some of his other work, however, I just found odd, such as Lobster Telephone. According to the Tate Modern, Dali found both lobsters and telephones to be erotic, so he liked the juxtaposition. I think that tells more about Dali than anyone else. And more about Dali than we need to know.
Speaking of Surrealists, I was interested to see a painting by Rene Magritte. Not because I have a particular interest in Magritte's work. In fact, not because I knew anything about Magritte. I just knew the Paul Simon song "Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War". So that's who Rene Magritte is. Incidentally, there's a pretty interesting interview with Paul Simon where he describes how he came to write that song. "It doesn't actually make sense, but why should a song about Magritte make sense?"
Duchamp's "Urinal" was interesting. Some of the story is told here; basically, Duchamp bought a urinal, signed it, and entered it into an exhibition that was open to any artist who would pay 6 bucks. The urinal mysteriously disappeared before the exhibition. Once again the question is, "What is art?" "Is it art if an artist says so?" Good questions, but too much navel-gazing can become tiresome.
I think that's one of the things that makes Gilbert and George (warning: naughty language at their site) so enjoyable.
"We want our art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People."
OK, still pretentious, but "speak...directly to people about their life and not about their knowledge of art" is a worthy goal.
Which is one of the fun things about Andy Warhol. You don't stare at his pictures and say, "What the heck is that?" It's Elvis! Two of them! Or Marilyn Monroe. And, yes, it's more complicated than that, but at least you don't have to worry that you're missing everything because you don't know about his strange relationship with lobsters. For the Andy Warhol room, the digital voice player had David Bowie's "Andy Warhol" which I cranked up to maximum volume while walking around the room to the disconcerted looks of other patrons.
On the other hand, sometimes things may speak too directly to us. Sam Taylor Wood's "Brontosaurus" features a film of a naked guy flailing around while classical music plays. She explained that she had a friend dance naked to techno music while she filmed him. When she played around with things, she said she found that the slowed-down images without the original sound looked alien to her. I don't know; the first thing I thought was, "Hmm. Naked guy dancing. Probably to techno music, but it's been slowed down."
Anyway, I look forward to future visits to art museums a little closer to home, now that I have some exposure to twentieth century art. After touring two floors of galleries and taking the voice player's recommended "architecture tour", I visited the gift shop and hurried back to my hotel to drop off the day's purchases.