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Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery

One school of thought is that galleries should let the art do the talking. Aside from the often bland voice of the institution, nothing can rile more than interpretation that leaves no space for original thought or reaction. Therefore, it might seem odd that Tate Britain’s latest BP Spotlight exhibition, Artist’s Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery focuses not so much on the art displayed, but the narrative surrounding its conception and consumption. Except it’s not Tate doing the talking.

The British Library’s National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives project began in 1990 with the aim of collecting an oral history of British art. Since then the project has amassed hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews with artists, curators and dealers. Surrounded by paintings and sculpture displayed and sold at the Kasmin Gallery, visitors can listen at a central console to a vast array of interviews that detail the importance of John Kasmin, and the gallery he founded, to the development of the burgeoning London art scene in the 1960s.

The Kasmin gallery opened at 118 New Bond Street in 1962 and was one of the first commercial art galleries architecturally designed for the purpose of the display and sale of modern art. Kasmin’s tastes were pioneering, given the atmosphere in London at the time was, as he said himself in one interview, ‘grey’ where a ‘great number of people still went to work in bowler hats and with rolled up umbrellas’. Meanwhile, the Kasmin Gallery, with its white walls and the huge vivid paintings by the likes of Frank Stella and sculptures by Anthony Caro was brash and bold. Kasmin championed the media-conscious mod art scene and as a result the gallery didn’t struggle for attention, noting in one soundbite that you ‘didn’t have to chase when you represented someone like David Hockney’.

The Artist’s Lives project offers something new to the art historian and gallery visitor alike. While an institutional voice is often intensely measured and neutral in tone, the testimonies of artists, curators and collectors can be confessional, anecdotal, confrontational and are always partisan. It’s not all positive – art making is a messy business – but the different stories layer over each other, sometimes contradicting but always connecting as they become increasingly intertwined. We’re reminded of the ever-present networks that exist outside of the isolating environment in which art is usually offered up. This allows other histories to be present; one of which is Tate’s own. Self-evident is the influence Kasmin had over the acquisitions made by Tate, with the result that you can now sit in a room full of works he sold all drawn from their permanent collection. This also allows Tate to show off the international nature of their collection within Tate Britain (Kasmin brought together American and English artists in the 60s) and it reminds us that art objects have their own history of sale, movement and ownership that is more often told in the auction house than a public collection.

The BP Spotlight slot allows Tate to do something different. There are a lot of interviews available for visitors to listen to, all in short bursts, with Kasmin himself, with artists like Robyn Denny, or with independent curators and Tate staff who worked with or helped to acquire art sold at the Kasmin Gallery. Interestingly in this exhibition, the relationship between art works and archive material is less hierarchical; the interviews physically take centre stage. Somewhat disappointingly, Anthony Caro’s Yellow Swing, 1965 sits in a corner - so too does Frank Stella’s Hyena Stomp, 1962. However, the images displayed on the screens and the wall panels tie the aural archival aspects of the exhibition to the visual – creating a conversation that extends beyond the recordings into the room. It’s a question posed rather than one answered. This exhibition is about highlighting the possibilities of projects like Artists’ Lives; possibilities in terms of research, in terms of exhibition making and how we conceive of art within the social and economic networks it exists in before it reaches the public gallery. The exhibition seeks to bridge the gap between the archival and experiential aspects of an exhibition, and it’s through listening to the interviews, surrounded by art that passed through the Kasmin gallery, that the display comes into its own.

Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery is at Tate Britain until autumn 2017.

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