How paradoxical that in the forward-thrusting, future-busting, uber-progressive and instinctively go-ahead world of contemporary art, we should be wallowing in so much nostalgia. This year is the 10th anniversary of Tate Modern. The reasonable man is entitled to ask, so what? In the larger scheme of things, the 10th anniversary of Tate Modern constitutes a pee in the Pacific. A hundred years from now, when the young turks have become the old masters, nobody will give a damn about our neurotic need to examine our relationship with new art on a
That will be then, however. Right now, a media cornucopia of radio talk-ins, critical dine-and-wines, important mayoral pronouncements and a 60-minute Culture Show special is seeking to insist that Tate Modern’s 10th birthday is an occasion worthy of nationwide commemoration. Last year, it was the turn of the 25th anniversary of the Turner prize to trigger the chicken dinners and TV fanfares. Rarely can progressiveness have received this much backdated back-slapping.
Some of this weird national urge to remember every modern-art anniversary is a Pavlovian response to obvious prompting. Tate Modern has grown immensely skilled at media manipulation. It is, let us not forget, the quintessential Blair baby, unveiled with appropriate timing in millennium year itself. As the Tate empire is funded by your taxes and mine, it makes prime political sense for this ruling institution to bulldoze through the story of its own success with enthusiastic march-pasts and banner-wavings. Kim Jong-il employs exactly the same strategy.
None of which is to say that there is nothing here to celebrate. That is not what I am driving at. I watched from a ringside seat as Britain completed her remarkable transformation from a nation of modern- art bashers (remember the Tate bricks?) to a nation of modern-art grou pies; my aim, too, is applause, not retro-urination. I can honestly describe the great turnaround as the most welcome development of my life as an art critic. But we need here to cheer the right man. And that is Charles Saatchi.
Regular readers will know that Saatchi and I enjoy a stroboscopic relationship. He used to be quite pally with me. Then I wrote an article pointing out how his art tastes seemed to change every time he changed wives, and the portcullis came down. Yet what Saatchi has always done, and what Tate Modern can never do, is back hunches with cash. The Tate doesn’t have any FU money. Its investments are our investments. Which is why it remains so chronically and conspicuously image-conscious. When it comes to rewriting agendas, the Tate is a scaredy-cat. Saatchi, on the other hand, is not.
Twenty-five years ago, it was his support of the new generation of pushy and rebellious Brit Artists, with Damien Hirst at their helm, that first caused the aesthetic plates to shift. Saatchi’s pioneering encouragement of the Brit Artists at his superb private gallery in north London gave the rebels a forum at which to commence the reconnection of modern art with its public. Their most powerful enemy — their sheriff of Nottingham — was actually the Tate itself, which I, too, remember as a haughty institutional iceberg, entirely unwelcoming of the fresh, the warm, the contemporary.
That was in the 1980s. So, even in these unusually nos talgic times, it would hardly be relevant to go over it all again here were it not for the arrival of Newspeak at the new Saatchi Gallery, the posh one in Chelsea. Newspeak is a selection of new British art collected recently by Saatchi. Ever since he discovered the Brit Artists a quarter of a century ago, he has sought desperately to repeat the trick. In the 1990s, he claimed to have discerned another movement in British art, which he dubbed, hilariously, new neurotic realism. This nonsensical name deserved its nonexistent future, and no sooner was NNR unveiled than it was hastily redrawered.
In more recent times, the Saatchi chequebook has been nondommed, and the past few shows at the Saatchi Gallery have been devoted to modern art from China, the Middle East and America, with India on the way. My guess, though, is that only half of the Saatchi heart — the half that likes to sell on at a profit — has gone into these international speculations. What he would still most dearly love to achieve in his collecting is another national discovery to rank alongside Brit Art.
Has he done it with Newspeak? Not quite. But nearly. This is a rousing exhi bition, Saatchi’s best for many a year. In unveiling for us artists as talented but unfamiliar as Steven Claydon, Karla Black, William Daniels and Lynette Yiadom Boakye, alongside the better-known Ged Quinn and Goshka Macuga, the show proves that Saatchi still has the energy to make the rest of us sit up, and that Britain still has the talent.
The journey begins with a set of big, blowsy sculptures by Black that float gently across the gallery like coloured clouds. There are three of them, all made from big expanses of unpromising materials — painted cellophane, huge rolls of clingfilm — to which have been added some ethereal colours. A beautiful apricot pink. A lovely pale blue. The delicate way these pastel colours seem to hover in space kept reminding me of Monet’s Water Lilies: instead of flowers on water, you have ethereal shades on clingfilm. Black lives in Glasgow. One of the reasons I have not encountered her beautiful art before is that I do not go to Glasgow nearly enough. Saatchi, who does, has identified a rich seam of Scottish art, which constitutes an important slab of this show. Iain Hetherington, who is also from Glasgow, paints sensitively dappled abstracts, out of which an unexpected baseball cap will suddenly loom. It’s like wandering into a pretty garden and encountering a hoodie there.
The Glasgow collective known as Littlewhitehead work with an old Saatchi favourite, the illusionistic, life-size human stand-in, to create some amusing scenarios. Outside the gallery, in the portico, a little boy holding a bunch of helium-filled balloons seems to have floated up to the roof. Inside, huddled in a corner, a crowd of blokes has gathered to watch something utterly fascinating that they can see but you cannot. It’s modernism lite. Nothing too revolutionary. But it is well achieved and suggests that Scotland has stirred, and that the rest of us need to get up there, pronto.
As with all recent Saatchi displays, the mix consists entirely of paintings and sculptures. This is not a forum for blinking nocturnal videos or haughty conceptual installation. Not much sex, either, or the harsh shock tactics of old. Saatchi of the Nigella years is a collector in slippers, no longer seeking to frighten his public to attention, but displaying instead a softer set of popular ambitions. Yet even in this tangibly gentler vein, he discovers some dark and unsettling talents. Steven Claydon is a new-age surrealist. A set of his light boxes features a large brass helmet on one of its illuminated display levels, and golden chicken bones on another. The combination of Design Museum settings with voodoo materials and moods is spooky.
So are the pictures of Ged Quinn. From a distance, they appear to be repaintings of the idyllic 17th-century landscapes of Claude or Poussin, and it is only when you inspect their details that you discover the classical gods have been kicked out and various kinds of modern weirdo have moved in. Thus, a building in a forest turns out to be modelled on Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, while the strange piece of technology floating across the river to ancient Troy is actually the spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This clash of new and old, scientific and irrational, experiment and belief, is typical of the show’s prevailing mood. As a group, the artists gathered here are nowhere near as united by shared times and values as the Brit Artists were. Nothing here constitutes anything as coherent as a new movement. But most of the exhibitors can be described as samplers, or scavengers, whose art takes from then and now, from Claude and the comic book, from the cabinet of curi osity and the science journal, in what seems to be a search for missing meanings.
Thus, it isn’t only the Tate that has grown tangibly nostalgic on us. Peter Peri’s black paintings hark back to the early days of abstraction, with their strict arrangements of graphs and circles, while Goshka Macuga has covered an entire scientific table with Newtonian diagrams and graphs. I also admired the contribution of William Daniels, who re-creates famous paintings as paper collages, then paints the collage, rather than the old master. The results look like delayed examples of cubism.
This constant referencing of other movements, other disciplines, deeper theories, strikes me as an important tendency to have noticed. Few here have set out to declare what they think. Most are ruminating on what others have thought before them. It’s a shame the word “scientology” has already been claimed. There is much here that would have fitted it perfectly.