Andrew Pulver grills the art world on the work of octogenarian Francis Bacon.


Spalding’s Revenge

Glasgow’s Great British Art Exhibition, the next show at the McLellan Galleries, has already been dubbed ‘Spalding’s Revenge’. Hilary Robinson talks to Julian Spalding, Director of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, about his cheekily titled response to the British Art Show.

Controversy builds audiences. The British Art Show eventually pulled in around 20,000 visitors, despite or because of the almost universally negative comments from critics, and the knowledge that Julian Spalding had tried to cancel it and was organising a response. I spoke to him about his criticisms of the strategy behind the British Art Show, and his criteria in selecting the forthcoming Glasgow’s Great British Art Exhibition; but before that, I checked out the opinions of other critics of the British Art Show. Most praised the refurbishment and reopening ofthe McLellan Galleries John Russell Taylor in The Times said it was ‘likely to be one of the most useful permanent legacies of Culture Year’ and launched into an attack on the show. Many noted as positive the almost equal representation of women, and the ethnic diversity though no one (in the newspapers at least) noted the tokenistic slotting in of the seven non-caucasian artists; not quite one from each continent, but something similar in effect. Clare Henry (Glasgow Herald) went so far as to say that people were likely to be put off because it was ‘very multicultural‘ (not, presumably the Chinese and Bengali commumities living in Garnethill, behind the McLellan). Peter Fuller (Sunday Telegraph) in usual form echoed that comment, then dubbed it ‘pathetic’ and ‘confidently predicted that the McLellan will be rather empty‘. He was wrong. Andrew Graham Dixon (Independent) called it ‘doctrinaire in its argument about what is worthwhile in British Art now’; Tim Hilton (Guardian) suggested that the artists were ‘below their best‘ and that the selectors should reselect work from each one. Against this background it would be easy to see Julian Spalding’s selection of Glasgow’s Great British Art Exhibition (GGBAE) as a knee-jerk

reactionary response to the argument that the British Art Show (BAS) selectors were making in favour of the avant guard and notions of inclusivity. Is it really Spalding’s Revenge? ‘Well, yes, I suppose it is in a way,’ he laughs. ‘I was wrong to want to cancel it. It wasn’t that I decided not to; I was persuaded not to, by the Glasgow local authority, for which I work, on the grounds that it would be considered censorship and cause a row about which it would be difficult to have a clear debate‘. Certainly, the way in which the GGBAE has been set up will encourage an either/or argument - though with luck, the fact that both Spalding and the BAS selectors emphasise that they are trying to show the ‘best’ will at least generate discussions ofthe nature of objectivity.

Spalding himself is interested in this. ‘lt’s difficult to talk about standards in the abstract no particular form is better than another. There are no rules about it; it’s obviously a reflection of your own upbringing and background, a lot of things that are difficult to be aware of’. He is however insistent that it is possible to arrive at a consensus about standards: ‘l’ve been very ambitious: my aim has been to show the best British art being done now. I wanted to show it across the whole spectrum . . . Glasgow and to an extent Scotland has not been able to see the big names, and I wanted to introduce them. To that extent it isn’t a personal selection. That would have been different. But it would have taken very much longer to consider. Gilbert and George are a casein point: they have an international

reputation, and should be in a survey of British art’.

There have obviously been several restraints in the organisation of the show, the main one being time. It was September when Spalding first thought up the idea, after being persuaded not to

cancel the BAS. Because of this decision he and the McLellan staff have had just five months to organise a show that ideally should have over a year’s work. Because of this, it has to be an easily managed show with little in the way of elaborate installation, and one priority has been to create a show that looks good in the space as it is.

The 50 artists who are going to be shown include RB Kitaj, Barry Flanagan, lan Hamilton Finlay, Susan Hiller and Stephen Conroy. After the BAS there will be discussion of the constituent groups represented, where the artists come from, and so forth. Hockney has been living in the US for long enough to call into question whether he can represent art being made in this country; ditto Michael Sandle. who lives in Germany. Kitaj and Hiller are Americans who moved to Britain in the Sixties; Paula Rego moved here from Portugal. There are a significant number of Scots numbers vary. according to whether you count recent incomers. or long-term outgoers, as really Scottish. But this is all fairly academic when Anish Kapoor is representing Britain in this year’s Venice Biennale, although this show includes none of the ‘New Europeans’.

Asked what he thought he would be criticised for, Julian Spalding responded immediately: ‘For not having enough women in the show (there are only six), and there will be arguments over why did I include that person and not that person. But generally I think people are going to be stunned by the quality of the show nothing to do with me, it‘s the quality of the art. I think it‘s going to bowl people over. It will be new and powerful. it won‘t be tired. They‘ll forget about me and look at the art'.

Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition. The McLellan Galleries, 27 Mar-9 May. See Listings.

The List 23 March - 5 April 1990 55