Keeping It Real: Subversive Abstraction, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

This is the real thing – putrid cheese and all

Dieter Roth's Grosse Landschaft (Big Landscape) seems strangely familiar, a golden sun setting on a brown field, some German take, perhaps, on Gustave Moreau.

Then it strikes you that Roth's sunset is familiar not from art history but from the deli counter, it being made of cheese. The work is now 40 years old, so it is difficult to say what kind of cheese has been used – a nice, round gelber Käse, maybe? – although its rotting has been coincidentally painterly. And why not? Raphael worked in egg yolk, after all, and most painters use linseed oil.



To make things sicklier, Roth has pressed his cheese on to roofing felt – yuck – and squashed the lot behind a clear plastic membrane, giving his landscape the puckered air of a particularly unhygienic supermarket. (Roth also liked to be known as Dieter Rot.) Its fascination with food fits Grosse Landschaft into a strain in modern German art which remembered postwar hunger; Roth's use of felt steers us towards Joseph Beuys, who likewise had a yen for saturated fats. It is thus the representation not of one but of many things, a history painting with a number of histories. And Grosse Landschaft is also a picture of nothing at all, a putrid cheese squashed against clear plastic, which is presumably why Roth's work is in a show at the Whitechapel called Subversive Abstraction.



What is abstraction? And, more narrowly, how long is a piece of string? To the English of the 1920s, Paul Nash was an abstract artist, although he painted landscapes that were clearly landscapes and had names such as Stone Cliff. One obvious way to subvert abstraction is to paint known things and then call them abstract, or to make abstracts out of materials that are recognisable as objects: cheeses, say. This is the opposite of abstraction as we more usually know it, a style whose aim is to look like nothing at all – the anti-representational rectangles of Mondrian, say, or the flicks and drips of a Jackson Pollock. Roth's allusive abstraction may sound like a case of having your cheese and eating it, but then that is rather the point.



Take Robert Gober's Unfolding Door. Gober's sculpture is more or less what it says it is, a traditional white-painted wooden door sliced up, reassembled – sideways-on, it looks like a swastika – and hung on a wall. If it wasn't a door, it might be a Donald Judd, a piece of Minimalist sculpture. But it is, insistently, a door. A Judd wall piece may look like a shelf, but it doesn't mean to; Gober's sculpture looks like a door, and it does. Why?



It's a question that runs through the Whitechapel's show. The second in a series of four called Keeping It Real, Subversive Abstraction is drawn from the collection of a Greek yogurt millionaire called D Daskalopoulos. Food is a visceral thing to have made your money in, and Daskalopoulos's collection seems commensurately gutsy. Not for him the cerebral agonising of Neo-Geo Abstractionists such as Tomma Abts, but an (occasionally cheesy) abstraction which starts from the known object. Thus Mike Kelley's Transplant consists of three rag rugs with toy pooches on them made out of scraps of fabric; here a yellow gingham leg, there a Laura Ashley tail. Part of the uncanniness of Kelley's work lies in a process of what you might call de-representation, making familiar things look unfamiliar, the representational feel abstract. So, too, with the space capsule/hot-water boiler of Nikos Kessanlis, an artist I'd always thought of as a painter but who seems to have gone in for a kind of Hellenic Arte Povera sculpting as well.



The problem with all of this – a niggling one only – is that of intent. I'd imagine that Mr Daskalopoulos collects things he likes, but I'd rather doubt that he starts off by saying, "Today I'm going to buy something that subverts abstraction." That spin on his collection, or at least this part of it, comes from the curators of Subversive Abstraction. In these anti-elitist days, you can't really put on a show called Loans from the D Daskalopoulos Collection. Things have got to be contextualised, de-personalised. And so the Whitechapel has squeezed the work to fit a theory, convincingly so most of the time but not all of it. Why does Daniel Subkoff's slashed-canvas canvas count as subversive abstraction? Search me. But this is a nice show, and a clever one, and I should go if I were you.



To 5 Dec (020-7522 7878).



Next week

Charles Darwent seeks the definitive Monet at the Grand Palais, Paris

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference