Putting you in the picture

Not all abstract art can `speak for itself' - nor should we always expect it to. Sometimes, says Rosie Millard, the viewer could do with a little extra help

Simon Jenkins really should know better. Reviewing the Tate's Ellsworth Kelly and Mondrian exhibitions in a double bluster of spiel earlier this month for The Times, he trots out all the old warhorses against that old bugbear of the rightful-minded: abstract art. Yea verily, and we will once more enjoy the much-loved reference to ye emperor's new clothes, for 'tis the season to be cliched.

Yet, if Jenkins had bothered to flick through the (free) pamphlets given out at the entrance of either show, he might have had a better time, albeit with no article to write at the end. For, in its paperwork, the Tate has provided a comprehensive explanatory service to anyone wanting to understand two undeniably tricky exhibitions.

Take this summary of the rationale behind Kelly's vast curves of pure colour that comes out of the Tate's modest eight-page freebie. It tells us that the artist has "a desire to make art that has its own reality, that is an object in its own right, not an imitation of something else. This is why some abstract artists have insisted on calling their work realist." Fairly simple, you might agree; yet Jenkins still labours under a deep suspicion of anything that has to use supplementary material to provide clarity. Finally, he grumpily suggests that "an artist who needs 80 pages of flowery catalogue prose to explain his work must have something to hide", and stomps off out of the building.

But should art be expected to prove its greatness by an ability to please and stimulate its audiences without so much as an explanatory sheet to help the viewer work it out? Simon Wilson, who wrote both the Mondrian and Kelly pamphlets and resides at the Tate under the splendid moniker of Curator of Interpretation, thinks not. "One of the problems of modern art is that people feel excluded. You have to give people a feeling they have understood it, which they can then take away with them. It's a kind of stakeholder approach. You need to give a cultural context, particularly with abstraction. People still expect art to represent the real world and, with abstract art, unless you have an understanding of what the artist is trying to do, there's no handle to grasp. It is very difficult for many people."

Isn't this a bit of a cop-out, then, with the Curator of Interpretation helping Mondrian and Kelly out of a tricky corner? "Not at all," says Wilson. "You can't enjoy a football match unless you know the rules. If you don't know what you are looking at, you miss the whole thing. Whenever I go to other museums, I avidly reach for the guide. I like to be told what I'm looking at."

Indeed, although contemporary art's increasing reliance on guides, literature and so on has been derided by some critics, artists themselves say they relish having a chance for an explanatory chat about their work with the viewer. Ellsworth Kelly was so pleased with the way his concepts had been explained in the Tate's pamphlet that he rang Simon Wilson from New York within an hour of receiving a faxed copy. Meanwhile, the artist Patrick Hughes, whose "Reverspective" canvases also play with ideas of perspective and space, has produced his first catalogue on video which, in 15 minutes, carefully explains how the pictures in his recent show for Flowers East at London Fields in East London actually work.

Hughes, whose art works on a play-off between 2-D and 3-D, says moving images are an essential facility for those who haven't yet seen the exhibition to understand what his work is all about. "When I tell people the paintings stick out, they don't get it," he says. "It's just impossible to convey the idea in words, or with stills."

He's right. Try illustrating how a Hughes painting works in mere words and the explainer gets ferociously confused with issues of perspective and false vanishing points and ends up merely waving his or her arms around. Sling on the video catalogue and, for those who haven't been to the show, the whole idea is explained neatly and fluently. Not only that, but you also have the appearance of the artist himself working, drawing and chatting in the studio. "The viewer ends up being involved in the making of the work itself," says Hughes. "Which hopefully will give them a feeling for the work. I hope, when they watch it, people might feel a bit like when I went to Barbara Hepworth's studio in St Ives. When I actually saw the plaster casts in her studio, I understood how her work had been created and appreciated it so much more."

Simon Wilson agrees. "Our research at the Tate shows that visitors like to understand what the artist was doing and see what the artist was up to. Some purists will say that you should let the art speak for itself, but these are people who have a sophisticated understanding of art. I pitch our information at our average visitor. People who are intelligent and interested, but not particularly well-informed."

Do the punters appreciate the Curator of Interpretation's concern? "For every exhibition ticket we sell, we tend to give away a pamphlet," says Wilson. Of course, whether the pamphlets are actually read or not by every visitor is a piece of Tate research that has not yet been, as they say, interpreted

Rosie Millard is the BBC's arts correspondent. Elsworth Kelly to 7 Sept; Mondrian to 30 Nov at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000)

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