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Norman's artful debut

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When the world’s most successful architect exhibits his emotional touchstones, order prevails, reports Jay Merrick

Norman Foster has become an absolute beginner by personally curating the summer exhibition at the Carré d’Art Museum in Nîmes, a building he designed more than two decades ago. Three weeks before the opening, he was still sketching individual vitrines and pedestals, fretting about the thickness of the acrylic and the degree of overlap.

This is the first time that the 77-year-old Foster has assembled an art exhibition and also the first time that he has, in effect, put his emotions on show – via more than 100 artworks in 25 spaces. There are many big names in the show – Turner, Ai Wei Wei, Hockney, LeWitt, Rothko – and new commissioned pieces by Bill Fontana, Ólafur Elíasson and Nuno Ramos. But two thirds of the artworks are by relatively unknown artists whom Foster describes as ‘extraordinary talents’.

Two thirds of the artworks are by relatively unknown artists whom Foster describes as ‘extraordinary talents’

Thus, the once opaque, pared-down man in black (now given to thick corduroys) has found a cipher that allows him to experience form, colour, and texture in a far more atavistic way than in his architecture. The clamorous sensual assault of Foster’s Gateway video installation at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale gave some idea of his growing interest in the fraying or overlapping of perceptual boundaries. His longstanding admiration for Richard Long’s work, which he describes as primitive and anonymous, was an earlier sign of this.

A decade ago, Foster might not have admitted, as he did in a recent interview with the Carré d’Art’s director, Jean-Marc Prévost: ‘To stand in front of Mater Dolorosa, by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, is to go back almost four centuries. The image of a mother grieving for the loss of her child is so tragic and heart-rending that it is carried in the mind’s eye for a lifetime.’

Foster’s interest in art began when he was a postgraduate student at Yale, studying on the top floor of the university’s Louis Kahn-designed art gallery: he clearly remembers a Henry Moore bronze, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. When he returned to London, he frequented the Whitechapel Gallery and bought his first artwork in 1963, a Constructivist piece by Simon Nicholson; and when he set up his first practice in Covent Garden in 1967, he hung a Marc Vaux canvas in reception.

His commitment to art in buildings reached its most intense level in the Berlin Reichstag, where the roll-call of artists he commissioned, and worked with, was stellar: Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, et al.

Art has become an almost obsessional part of Norman Foster’s life

Art has become an almost obsessional part of Norman Foster’s life since his marriage, in 1996, to Elena Ochoa, who holds a number of important positions in the art and publishing worlds. The first artwork that they bought together was Andy Warhol’s big canvas, Lenin, in 1995. Their properties in Switzerland, Madrid, New York and Martha’s Vineyard are, as he puts it, ‘saturated’ with art.

Foster says the only reason he would acquire an artwork is if it moves him emotionally or intellectually: ‘My wife and I live with art. It reflects our tastes, our intuitions, so we also have work by relatively unknown artists – mostly abstract, in the pure sense, or abstractions of the human figure. Abstraction is associated with the birth of Modernism, but it goes back 23,000 years to primitive art. Abstraction is in the long tradition of communication.’

There are two oscillating intuitions at play in Foster’s curation in Nîmes. One is triggered by obvious Modernist precedents; the other by his craving for visual or formal transcendence. Artworks that express the latter release his most emotional responses. In rare instances, forms that suggest both Modernism and something more purely and mysteriously beautiful can tick both boxes.

The piece that does this to perfection for Foster is Constantin Brâncusi’s L’Oiseau dans l’espace. It’s not in the Nîmes show, but Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 Futurist Forme uniche nella continuità dello spazio is, and it’s almost as significant to him. Foster says that when he first saw the sculpture ‘it literally stopped me in my tracks and my pulse quickened. Years later it still has the same power to move my spirits.’

So, too, do pieces by relatively unknown artists on show at the Carré d’Art. A video by Miguel Angel Rios, for example: ‘It’s called Love. He uses spinning tops. They pirouette around each other. They touch, they kiss. They fall and die. It’s operatic, it’s Shakespearian. In another sense, it’s abstract.’ There are similar, rather beautiful ambiguities of texture in other works, such as Lluís Hortalà’s Mineralogie Visionnaire V, and Jason Martin’s oil-on-steel pieces.

Among other relatively low-profile artists that Foster has singled out are Prudencio Irazabal, Gotthard Graubner and Yoon Heechang. The delicately nuanced colour in these works – particularly those by Irazabal, which recall certain watercolours by William Tillyer – have little to do with Modernist art and architecture.

On the other hand, we find Max Bill’s blocky geometries and a big anodised aluminium tank by Donald Judd in the same gallery; watercolours by Henry Moore in another; and a space that gathers Juan Asencio’s exquisite, Brancusi-like forms, Equipo 57’s sinuously twisting pieces, and Richard Serra’s brutish Two Plate Prop from 1982.

The curation is quite orderly. In Room 21, for example, Foster has put together Sol LeWitt’s Modular Cube, Marc Vaux’s E3.1, two pieces by Philippe Decrauzat that explore V-forms, and rosewood sculptures by Ai Wei Wei that are very like Bucky Balls. In Room 16, we find works by Terence Haggerty, Bridget Riley and Corsin Fontana – Op Art central, as it were.

The Swiss artist, Not Vital, gives us an architectural anorak moment

There are one or two surprises: gangling, vividly coloured sculptures by Alexander Calder, and a playfully shattered object, Cuarteto Rebelde, by the Cuban collective, Los Carpinteros. The Swiss artist, Not Vital, gives us an architectural anorak moment. His marble and plaster Dali Stones take the form of deeply punched round and angular windows, with faux mountain views. They immediately recall the apertures at Ronchamp, or St Pierre church, Firminy. Not Vital’s light-catchers are typical in historic farm buildings in the Lower Engadine valley.

The Nîmes show puts Foster on the spot in terms of so-called relational aesthetics. He quotes the critic Hal Foster as saying that ‘the [art] institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star.’

How does an architect counter this Tate Modern or Bilbao iconisation of the encounter with art? Museums of the future, Norman Foster suggests, will have big multi-purpose social spaces at their heart, connected with the civic realm. These core spaces would be girdled by galleries and there would be large, flexible spaces for experimental and media installations. In the meantime, he’s making do with a glinting, mod-classical building in Nîmes.

  • Jay Merrick is the architecture critic of the Independent

Moving: Norman Foster on Art, Carré d’Art Museum of Contemporary Art, Nîmes, France, 3 May to 15 September. A 420-page exhibition catalogue is published by Ivorypress


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