It feels like time to go and see some art outside of the capital, so decide to take a trip to that great historical center of learning – the modern-day high-tech hub and focus for potential extra-mural iconoclastic activities – Oxford. Exiting the railway station, I sort of half-expect to be greeted by a picturesque reverie of medieval spires, decorated with bunches of gurning gargoyles but, sadly, there is none to see from this prospect, just the clunky green ziggurat that sits awkwardly atop the Said Business School. Just in front of this institution for the investigation of commercial acquisition stands the only piece of contemporary public sculpture I notice on my visit to the town – a great lump of metal cast into the form of a bull or, to be more pedantically precise, an ox. Frankly, it looks a bit dull, dumb and stolid although steadfast, strong and dependable were perhaps the adjectives its creator hoped to evoke. Either way, I think it must be a deliberate sculptural rebuke to the whimsicality of the self-consciously Post-Modern architecture it so ponderously guards. I suppose it might also be a sly academic put-down directed towards the exuberant arrogance of its famous transatlantic cousin, the Wall Street Bull, which strikes such a dramatic pose in downtown Manhattan.
Anyway, once past these initial distractions, there is little else of note on the walk into the centre of town as a parade of shabby Chinese restaurants and, what look to me like, scruffy warehouses or factory shops gives way to a run of family-friendly restaurant chains – the kind that so cheerfully and efficiently dispense identical pieces of chicken, pizza and the like to the ever-widening jaws of the inhabitants of every town in the country. It’s all a slightly depressing introduction to the place and even when I get upmarket and pass the famous Randolph Hotel, I find it looking a little distressed – half covered in scaffolding, surrounded by a temporary metal grill and with a couple of large skips dumped out in front. Having got this far, however, there is finally a sort of spire to see, albeit a grounded one, in the form of the Martyrs’ Memorial, a monument commemorating the incineration of a trio of bishops half a millennia ago, although the construction itself is a much more recent piece of Neo-Gothic eccentricity designed by George Gilbert Scott. No matter, by now I’ve reached my cultural destination, the country’s first public museum, the Ashmolean.
Founded in the 17th century, the Museum underwent a massive renovation a few years ago that was greeted with great excitement and general approbation but – and apologies in advance for having to continue my grumbling tone – I have to disagree with the consensus as I find the place all a bit shambolic. It’s not just that a slightly second rate Henry Moore figure, reclining outside the front of the building, is mirrored by a very much larger, very much weaker, ugly abstract lump of a sculpture, nor the fact that the central revolving entrance door has had to be closed off and garish cardboard signs placed either side to identify the entrance and exit. Neither is it the absence of a proper foyer, so that stepping into the building means immediately entering into a cramped, pinch point, where visitors are trying to move in all different directions at the same time and either bumping into one another or having to swerve in order to avoid a crash. And while the very sweet, but slightly bumbling, volunteers that staff one of the ticketing desks represent the sort of ancient, amateurish charm that once defined the nation, the fact that someone thought it appropriate to dump a pile of scaffolding poles on the other information desk confirms just how much that simple, genteel, good-mannered world has passed. On top of all that, the Museum almost matches the Victoria & Albert Museum in being so confoundedly difficult to navigate, with the visitor forever facing a maze of different routes to pick and rooms to enter with no obvious path to follow. There is a guide map available but it’s so thin that I can’t quite bring myself to pay the £1 voluntary donation to acquire a copy but nor do I want to appear a cheapskate and just grab one, gratis. Fortunately, I manage to stumble across the downstairs café although, even here, confusion reigns as an absence of signage means that two opposing queues start to form and the girl serving the coffees has to explain to one lot that they’re in the wrong place. Thankfully, and quite by chance, I happen to have joined the right line and, although there’s a bit of a delay getting the coffee to accompany my ham and cheese sandwich, I actually quite enjoy my brunch.
Refreshed, I get my £5 ticket (half-price on production of my Art Fund card) to see the Museum’s special temporary exhibition of works by Andy Warhol. It’s not a bad show but, if you’re at all familiar with Warhol’s works then this particular assembly of prints is all a bit unexceptional, revealing nothing new about the artist, his art, his thoughts or his working methods. In short, there are no new insights to be gained from attending the show but then, why should there be? The artworks here have not been gathered together to satisfy any curatorial conceit or attempt to prove some special theory or illustrate a particular point or stimulate some academic debate about some aspect of the artist’s oeuvre. And neither is it a proper retrospective, as there are far too many gaps and omissions for it to constitute anything so grand as that. No, what connects all the pieces here is that they are part of a private collection, they were all bought by Andrew Hall and, since there are several minor works, a few good pieces and no real stunners, it suggests that while the collector’s funds may have been large, the price of a first rank Warhol is very, very large indeed. It seems to me that even this obviously extremely affluent man is, just like the rest of us, still constrained as to what he can afford to buy. After all, if you wanted examples of some of Warhol’s later celebrity portraits would you not select a Liza Minnelli or a Grace Kelly in preference to the B-listers like Pia Zadora and Paul Anka showing here? The most interesting part of the exhibition is the selection of film excerpts that range in length from the five hours of somnolent John Giorno to the four-minutes audition clips from studio visitors including a very old Marcel Duchamp and a very young Bob Dylan – but these are on special loan from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
The exhibition seems to me to be one of those shows that the late, and sort of lamented, Brian Sewell used to rail about, although one with which Warhol himself would have thoroughly approved. A financially stretched gallery or museum is made an offer it can’t refuse – the chance to receive a ready-packaged show in the form of a private collection that will engage the public and be relatively simple to stage. In exchange for plugging a hole in the calendar of the respected gallery or museum, the collection receives the imprimatur of intellectual authority, credibility and respectability that comes with having been displayed in such a venerable institution. And, should the collector subsequently decide to sell his collection, he will, perhaps fortuitously, discover that the benefit that the works will have accrued from having been shown within the portals of the aforementioned prestigious establishment are not purely intangible. Rather wonderfully, the value of the artworks may have also increased, as measured by that most tangible of criterion, the retail value in good old American dollar bills.
Having said all that, I suppose I should repeat my faint praise and say that the exhibition is not bad but perhaps not worth a special visit. As for the rest of the Ashmolean’s permanent art collection, perhaps unsurprisingly it suffers from the confusing layout of the galleries that are such a characteristic of the whole Museum. At which point, I think I’ve probably said enough for now. So, if you want to know what happened next and what else I saw on my day out in Oxford, I’ll carry on from here in the next blog. In the meantime I apologise for having to end on a bit of a cliff hanger…scratching my head, wondering which way to turn and which door to walk through..