On ViewNational Museum of Modern Art
February 26 – October 11, 2020
It’s pretty stupid to take to the computer screen to look at an image of a Peter Doig painting, even more so to take a virtual tour of a major exhibition of his work, scrolling from room to room, picture to picture, with pixellation restraining us as if by the back of our necks. After more than 30 years of reviewing exhibitions that I traveled down the street or to the other side of the planet to see, standing still and walking, taking notes and the occasional photo, and often drawing a floor plan to assist my recollections, how could it be anything but nonsense to point and click my way through assessing Doig’s first survey in Japan? But, then again, Gerhard Richter, Doig’s game-changing predecessor, once said painting itself is “total idiocy.” OK then, I’ll get off of my experiential high horse and get to what struck me about this successful exhibition that I won’t see in person.
Nevertheless, I try to not be an idiot, and it never has worked for me to review an exhibition unprepared. So it is true that I didn’t go to Tokyo to face what is a remarkable range of Doig’s work brought together in Japan for the first time, including over thirty paintings from 1986 to 2019, and a substantial selection of his “StudioFilmClub” works on paper from 2003 to 2015. However, I have had the good fortune to visit the MOMAT on several occasions, seeing presentations of the permanent collection as well as special exhibitions, including the first Jackson Pollock retrospective in Japan that I reviewed in the June 2012 issue of the Rail. I know that these first-hand experiences have prepared me to be mindful of the aesthetic and philosophical richness of Japan as it would especially impact Doig’s work and its visual and temporal reliance upon the slipperiness we call memory. Take, for example, his well-known painting Ski Jacket (1994). Quite large, its diptych format structurally reinforces a potent sense-memory, anchored by large pine trees that come together in the painting’s center seam, with mountain peaks behind, and small pointillist skiers dotting the slopes surrounding them. Those dot-people are in a “floating world” reminiscent of a Hiroshige woodcut, partaking of a particular form of pleasure that Doig first found in a photograph that has now been transferred to a location flush with its corresponding activity of life itself. Moreover, the painting is a reminder of the incompleteness and malleability of that activity: is its center seam a break in continuity, a rift that removes part of each tree, or the edge of a mirror that instead has conjured a hallucinatory doubling of a single moment on one or the other side?
I have had the privilege of seeing this painting for real on several occasions, and it took it being shipped from the Tate to Japan, and me experiencing it virtually, to recognize that the center of this painting is everything and nothing all at once.1 This, then, brought me straight back to the brilliance of Roland Barthes who, in his Empire of Signs (1970), wrote about Tokyo as follows: “The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who.”2 (You could walk from the museum to the grounds of the Imperial Palace in fewer steps than it would take to walk around this exhibition.) Like Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” (1856-9), Doig’s Ski Jacket, and many of his other paintings, take a moment that happened, give it context and history, release it from temporal continuity, and relocate it in a complex materiality that while fixed remains fluid. This is what provoked me back in 1998, when first writing about his work, to suggest that “the best painting at the end of the 20th century has reworked its unmistakable ‘presentness,’ not as a final (modernist) resting place, but a ‘right now’ situation to support a perpetual ‘what’s next?’”3
Doig’s mastery of the ins-and-outs of memory was established at the very beginning of his mature work. One disappointment of not going to Tokyo is that the earliest painting in the exhibition is one that I haven’t seen: At the Edge of Town (1986–1988). At the right edge of the canvas a shirtless male figure dominates that side of the picture and also holds the part of a large tree that is cut off by that edge. A single branch travels almost the entire way across the painting, branching off itself near its end. This type of “here and over there” composition doesn’t make an emphatic comeback in Doig’s work for at least another decade; in fact, the vista the young man is taking in could easily replace the one found in the next painting in the exhibition, Milky Way (1989–1990), another painting that I am very familiar with, and not only because it wears its Van Gogh-ness unapologetically. What I took as the utter shamelessness of Doig’s borrowings is one of the characteristics that struck me about his work when I first saw it at Gavin Brown’s in New York. What has impressed me the most over the years is the extent to which Doig includes his own work in the borrowing, and I found myself drawn to another painting I have never seen in person: Two Trees (Music) (2019). In intriguing ways it is a role reversal of At the Edge of Town, its trees moved to the “here” of the foreground and what I take as the shadow of an unseen human figure embedded in its flat background, a trace that could be the residue of the person’s earlier appearance in the picture. Nothing in Doig’s work is ever left completely to the mercy of what memory can do to what we always try to call the past, and nowhere have I absorbed this more than I have in Japan. I would like to think that the absent presence of this exhibition will linger for me to take in the next time I am there, or at the next Doig exhibition I see, wherever it may be.
- I have had the privilege of seeing four major surveys of Doig’s work: in 1998 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, in 2003 at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, in 2008 at Tate Britain in London, and in 2015 at the Louisiana Museum just north of Copenhagen.
Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982), p. 30.
From my “Jumping the gun, better than dead: what’s next in Peter Doig’s paintings,” in Peter Doig Blizzard seventy- seven (exh. cat.) (Kiel, Nürnberg and London: Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kunsthalle Nürnberg and Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1998), p. 66.