Gwarlingo Visits the Tate Modern

A painting from Cy Twombly's "Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos" series (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

This week I paid a visit to the Tate Modern in London. The museum is the most-visited modern art gallery in the world with over 4.7 million visitors a year. Currently, the Tate has special exhibitions by Joan Miró and Taryn Simon. (The Simon exhibit is particularly interesting, but more on that in a future Gwarlingo article).

Jenny Holzer's "Blue Purple Tilt" (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


Another painting in Cy Twombly's "Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos" series (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Some of my favorite highlights from the Tate Modern’s collection were Jenny Holzer’s “Blue Purple Tilt” and Cy Twombly’s striking Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos series, which is comprised of three large-scale, canvases covered in whorling, red brushstrokes. Like Matisse in his later years, Twombly created this 2005 series by attaching a paintbrush to the end of a long pole. The deep vermilion color is reminiscent of both blood and wine.

"Maroon and Orange" (Seagram Mural) by Mark Rothko (Courtesy photo)

The Tate’s Rothko Room, which showcases Mark Rothko’s luminous, large-scale murals originally commissioned for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, is particularly memorable and offers a welcome respite to weary museum-goers. Rothko’s soft-edged rectangles radiate deep maroon, orange, gray, and black and glow meditatively in the dimly lit gallery. I also enjoyed Cindy Sherman’s 1975 Super-8 film “Doll Clothes,” which dates back to Sherman’s art school days, as well as a collection of posters by The Guerilla Girls.

One of the many works by The Guerrilla Girls on view at the Tate Modern (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

While the gallery’s permanent collection of modern and contemporary art is excellent, what makes a visit to the Tate Modern especially memorable is the building itself. The museum is housed in the former Bankside Power Station on the south bank of the Thames River. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of the original station, was also the designer of the the now-famous, red telephone boxes scattered across Britain. The massive Turbine Hall, which once housed electricity generators, stands five stories tall and has 11,155 square feet of floor space.

The height of the power station chimney at the Tate Modern is 325 feet. It was intentionally built shorter than the Dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, which stands at 375 feet. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

The architects Herzog & de Meuron wisely chose to retain the character of Scott’s original design and have successfully transformed this utilitarian building into an engaging public space. The old and the new complement each other perfectly. I was particularly struck by Herzog and de Meuron’s sensitivity to the surrounding vistas. There are numerous vantage points for visitors to enjoy. I found myself lingering in one gallery contemplating a panoramic view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The way the scene is framed through the large, rectangular window encourages visitors to consider the cathedral as a work of art, just like the Twombly and Barnett Newman paintings hanging nearby. Another balcony offered a lovely vista of the river, Millennium Bridge, pigeon-filled courtyard, and London skyline.

View of Millennium Bridge from the third level gallery

A view of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge from a third level gallery (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge from the Tate Modern

A view of the London skyline from a balcony at the Tate Modern (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

But some of the most unique views were of the building’s own interior. Each level of the museum offered a different perspective of Turbine Hall. From the upper galleries I watched visitors move through the geometric shadows and ascend and descend the stairwell below. From this bird’s eye perspective, I had the sense that I was inside an M.C. Escher drawing. The Turbine Hall was especially striking at sunset as the light and shadows shifted minute by minute.

Looking down on a stairwell in Turbine Hall (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


A bird's eye view of Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


Turbine Hall in the late afternoon (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


The hall at sunset (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Between October and March each year, the Tate Modern uses the hall to display large commissioned pieces by contemporary artists. Louise Bourgeois was the first artist commissioned to create a special installation for the space. Since Bourgeois’s 2000 piece “I Do, I Undo, I Redo,” a number of memorable works have been installed there. Olafur Eliasson filled the space with a giant orange sun (“The Weather Project”), Rachel Whiteread cast and stacked 14,000 white boxes (“Embankment”), Doris Salcedo created a giant crack running down the center of the hall (“Shibboleth”), and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei filled the massive room with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds.

"Embankment" by Rachel Whiteread (Courtesy photo)


"Shibboleth" by Doris Salcedo (Courtesy photo)


The scar from "Shibboleth" is still visible in Turbine Hall. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

These large-scale installations have proven so popular that Unilever has extended the special series through 2012. Unfortunately, the series has been plagued with a number of small dramas. Fifteen people sustained minor injuries when they lost their footing and fell into the crack running the full length of Turbine Hall. Considering that “Shibboleth” had over 870,000 visitors, 15 minor injuries seems quite a small number in the scheme of things. There was brief talk of fencing off the crack, but to the Tate’s credit they insisted on leaving the work accessible and responded with less-intrusive security measures instead.

Ai Weiwei's installation was composed of 100 million porcelain seeds (Courtesy photo)

Most recently, the museum had to prohibit visitors from walking on Weiwei’s ceramic sunflower seeds because of health concerns over the porcelain dust being created by the large amount of foot traffic. But these incidents have done little to lessen the power of these imaginative art works. I applaud the Tate Modern for continuing to take risks with each new installation.

Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

For more information on the Tate Modern you can visit their website.

If you’re interested in learning more about some of the installations mentioned above, I recommend watching these short videos:




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By | 2016-11-11T21:56:06+00:00 06.22.11|Design, Greatest Hits, Images, Spaces|2 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Alistair Kay June 29, 2011 at 6:45 am

    Hi Michelle, thanks for posting this shot of one of the Bacchus series. This was the one work that really knocked my socks off when I visited the Tate Modern last week. I was so glad to catch this mini exhibit, as I missed his retrospective at the Tate in 2008.

    Cy Twombly is 83 and he just keeps getting better. One has to marvel at how he managed such big bold and fluid gestures on such a huge scale at his ripe old age. Cy rocks!

    Ps. I love the name of your blog.

    • Michelle Aldredge June 29, 2011 at 7:08 am

      Hi Alistair. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on Cy Twombly. It’s an amazing series, isn’t it? I think it is some of Twombly’s best work to date. It just proves that an artist can be original and inventive at any age.

      I appreciate your positive feedback on the name “Gwarlingo.” I hope you’ll be a regular reader. Please visit again!

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