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Ah Yes, But Is It Art?

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2005
The highlight of the night was the Ivan the Terrible cocktail.

The London gallery scene may not be as on the edge as Manhattan's. It may not be as stuffed full of 20th Century classics as the working museums of Paris. London is home to a hugely lucrative and glitzy art universe which gave the world the cultural dog's dinner that is Brit Art, a universe where celebrity glamour and money mix freely with artists and art dealers.

London art reflects the huge confluences of class and race which make the city work. Many of the significant galleries are clustered around discreet Mayfair backwaters off Cork Street and Bond Street. In between the galleries you find top-drawer fashion outlets like the Gucci and Ralph Lauren stores. This reminds one, painfully, of the fundamental connection between art, commerce, and fashion. You have no business showing up for a reception at an important gallery in that neck of the woods unless you possess a handful of Paul Smith or Armani garments or, alternatively, know how to look on top of the world in rags or, alternatively, are jailbait.

I get invited to about fifteen openings a month and make it to two or three. The Timothy Taylor Gallery parties are typical. Taylor has art taste. There was a remarkable Sean Scully party, attended by the artist, and an equally fine display of early unseen work by Lucian Freud. I don't drink but I'm told that Taylor serves bad wine. This doesn't stop the great and the good from showing up. Taylor is married into the Royal Family - you sometimes see him in the papers making his way to Prince William or Prince Harry-hosted festivities. Taylor represents Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston.

The smartest opening this year was for a Robert Mapplethorpe show at the newish Alison Jacques Gallery (www.alisonjacquesgallery.com). Jacques, a denizen of the Groucho Club (which used to be London's Number One private members media hangout) is a savvy veteran of the Mayfair/Soho art world. She had a heavy duty PR firm on hand for an event attended by David Hockney, who curated this rather pedestrian selection from the dead photographer's work. Uri Geller, Brian Ferry, and the awful Salaman Rushdie kept the paparazzi happy. The highlight of the night was the Ivan the Terrible cocktail, a mixture of vodka, honey water and lemon juice with a dash of cinnamon. Hockney promoted the show by, mysteriously, giving press interviews in which he conducted a polemic against photography, arguing that digital cameras finally expose the naive nature of its claim to truth. (That said, I've seen more photographs of Iggy Pop than is good for a man - I wrote a book about him - and, yet, Mapplethorpe's Iggy portrait remains brutally direct and confrontational.)

The reception at Gimpel Fils (www.gimpelfils.com) for some deliberately dishonest photography by Edwin Zwakman was a civilised laid back event peopled by friendly, if somewhat entre nous, young rich folks all dressed in black as if the men were priests and the women were defrocked nuns. I think they think black looks chic. I think they're wrong. I think they have more money than taste. The Gimpels have been at this game a long long time. They're now fourth generation art dealers, having started in Paris when the great grandfather sold, amongst others, Renoir. The London gallery was founded in 1946 by brothers Charles and Peter Gimpel. In the 50s and 60s they were associated with the avant-garde, giving Lynn Chadwick and Anthony Caro their first exhibitions, alongside exhibitions of Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein.

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Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.

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