One of two flagship group shows to stem from Anthony d’Offay’s gift to the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate last year (the other is at Tate Modern), Artist Rooms is bright and inspiring and bulges with defining work from some of the 20th century’s finest artists. It may only be after a second look and much consideration, in fact, that it becomes apparent that the show’s over-riding theme is death.
One of the first artists to be presented here is Francesca Woodman. Active as a photographer through the late 1970s, Woodman killed herself at the age of 22; the majority of works here belonged to her boyfriend Benjamin Moore, and it’s the largely nude self-portraits of Woodman which remain in the mind. Lying prostrate and vulnerable next to a live eel or crawling on all fours over a mirror, naked from the waist down, her complicity in her own death and in images which might otherwise be exploitative lends the art we see here a kind of unimpeachable conviction.
For the artist’s stubborn adherence to the same old Pop Art ideas so late in his career, at least, a similar effect is inherent in a group of ‘stitched’ photographs by Andy Warhol, from a period in 1986 when his interest in photography had reignited. Essentially sets of four, six or nine identical photographs sewn together in grids, the series includes striking portraits of Grace Jones alongside a homoerotic male nude and a skinned cadaver being examined in a mortuary (more death, then).
There’s also a certain defiance of mortality to Vija Celmins’ charcoal drawings of spiders’ webs and the night sky, and to the high-concept racial commentary of Ellen Gallagher’s paintings, but mainly in so far as each is painstakingly executed. An extensive selection of Damien Hirst’s work is the inescapable centre-piece of the show, however; particularly the formaldehyde-dipped sheep and fish of ‘Away From the Flock’ and ‘Something and Nothing’, and the innocuous but horrifying photograph ‘With Dead Head’.
Whether you like or dislike his controversy-courting persona, the emotional impact of Hirst’s last taboo-crushing best work is undeniable. Afterwards, the simple landscapes and portraits of Alex Katz act almost as a decompression chamber back into the world of the living.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until Sun 8 Nov