Back down in London after a pleasant, eventful and stormy weekend amongst the nation’s crime writers at Theakston’s International Crime Festival in Harrogate – (Sorry, Val McDermid and doubtless others – I should move that apostrophe to the other side of the final S) – and what was I going to with my first morning back in the capital? As it happened, other matters took me out Pimlico way and thus it was more or less decided for me … a visit, far from unusual, to Tate Britain. I was there close enough to opening time to be the first one up the spiral staircase to the newly elevated Members’ Room and the barista’s first flat white of the day, which I enjoyed in peace and tranquility until a fellow member chose to park herself near me and conduct a mobile phone conversation with a presumably deaf friend, detailing the problems, that morning, of changing trains at Wimbledon.
Stopping only to pick up a complaints form, I hightailed it down to the main floor where my eye was caught, quite by chance, by the elongated and superbly controlled explosion of red that is Anthony Caro’s Early One Morning from 1962.
Made from steel and aluminium and marking a shift in Caro’s work away from more realistic forms towards abstraction and the strong, flat single colours favoured by the American Abstract Expressionists, it carries with it, nonetheless, echoes of Henry Moore and his sculptures of mother and child.
And this, of course, is one of the marvels of Tate Britain as it is now hung, step into one of the rooms and an area of British art at a particular period surrounds you; one piece of work leads painlessly, pointedly to another. Beyond the Caro, on the left hand wall, are two of the more famous David Hockneys – A Bigger Splash and Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy – bisected by a beautiful – joyous, even – John Hoyland, in thrall also to the Abstract Expressionists but none the worse for that, it’s Rothko-like, maybe more Elsworth Kelly-like reverberating red offset by strips of dark green and paler grey.
Continue along the wall and at the furthest end, beyond the arch, is one of Frank Auerbach’s paintings of Primrose Hill – accompanied, it seems, by a persistent bird song that first of all has me looking up at the ceiling to see if one has somehow sneaked in and then draws me through the arch and into the adjoining room, where, beside Michael Andrews’ marvellous Melanie and Me Swimming, a small and old-fashioned looking television screen is showing Gilbert and George’s In the Bush, a blurry piece of video focussed vaguely on said bush, in front of which a figure (or are they figures?) of someone (or ones) seems to be moving. George, perhaps? Or Gilbert? Possibly both. And what are they up to in there? No doubt about the bird though, which, while I can’t identify it’s particular call, just keeps on singing.
Placed just a little further along is Tony Cragg’s Stack, a rectangle of compressed materials – wood, concrete, brick, metal, plastic, textiles, cardboard and paper – which instantly calls to mind Phyllida Barlow’s gargantuan many-part sculpture, dock, which is currently clambering all over the inside of the Duveen Galleries – the high-ceilinged, classically proportioned central corridor of Tate Britain – with its wonderfully messy assemblages of timber, card, plasterboard, fabric and polystyrene.
Turn away from the Cragg, in fact, step back through the arch and look up past Hoyland and the Hockneys and the Caro and there are the pink, orange and red panels that form one section of Barlows’ work filling the frame and echoing back into the room. Turn again and proceed through the opposite arch, passing between Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking and Roger Hilton’s exuberant and de Kooning-like (those Abstract Expressionists again) Oi Yoi You and a visual corridor of magnificent earlier sculptures stretches away – from Henry Moore’s Working Model for Unesco Reclining Figure and Barbara Hepworth’s Corinthos to Epstein’s monumental alabaster Jacob and the Angel.
There. An hour, give or take, mooching about Tate Britain. And what delights, what wonders it contains.