When a bank lobby is better than a white cube for viewing art – 71Bait

At this point in the history of corporate capitalism, it’s fair enough to ask what a public company does with an art collection. Given their checkered history since the turn of the century as stewards of financial, let alone cultural, capital, it is even more legitimate to wonder this about banks. And the questions are particularly acute in the case of UBS, whose stock had been nowhere for almost 15 years and is still worth a fraction of its value before the bank wreaked above-average havoc during the financial crisis.

Technically, the approximately 30,000 works in the UBS collection are, of course, the pictures of the shareholders (the bank does not publish its budget for art purchases). And it could be, I suppose, that these shareholders would rather have some nice things on the walls of the bank than a cent or two more in dividends. UBS’s core business is wealth management, and rich people like their service providers to get a little polish. UBS’s global head of art collections, Mary Rozell, says the collection is a “great connection point” with clients. As far as I know, that’s true, although (to reverse the logic) I wouldn’t choose an art dealer based on their stock portfolio.

However, those who enjoy looking at paintings and sculptures will enjoy themselves wherever we find them. And, perhaps surprisingly, there’s plenty of joy to be found at the UBS gallery in Midtown Manhattan. It is currently being presented Think new: new perspectivesthe second of two shows highlighting some of the recent acquisitions for the collection.

“UBS Wall Painting” (2001/2019) by Sarah Morris © Sarah Morris. Photo: Tom Powell Imaging

“Gallery”, it must be said, is not a perfect word for the space. It’s really just the lobby of 1285 Sixth Avenue, UBS’s New York headquarters. That might sound unattractive, but it’s a nice place to look at art even if you’re not a big fan of mid-century skyscrapers, of which 1285 is a fine if not historically interesting example. The lobby is spacious and extends along three sides of the building and the walls are made of glass. Many of the 25 works on display can be viewed up close while standing outside.

On the weekday afternoon that I saw the show, I was the only person there because of the art. Business people came and went. A tradesman barked construction logistics into his cell phone. I found this to be a personable and uninhibited environment for aesthetic experiences, better in many ways than a large white room full of other people all trying the same thing.

The gallery is also free, which speaks for itself. A few blocks east, the Museum of Modern Art charges $25 through the door. The art is better there, of course, but to get a good view you have to push past the tourists, and the price of admission forces you to stay longer than you’d like.

As for the works themselves, the exhibition offers a knockout: Hugo McCloud’s “Rush Hour” (2021), which features heavy loads of plantains being delivered by bicycle. The medium is plastic made from plastic bags that is heat applied to a platter. The wall text states that this humble material is “a vehicle to open a dialogue about economic inequality and the environment.” Seems like hypocrisy to me, but the picture looks great. The plastic is only slightly translucent but also saturated with color and the image is painterly while retaining some of the character of the photograph on which it is based.

Another notable work, Theaster Gates’ “Out of Bounds” (2017) of his ground rules series, is more uneven. It’s made from boards salvaged from abandoned school gym floors, complete with lines, peeling laminate and layers of varnish worn to varying degrees. The boards are rearranged so that the markings and signs of age form new patterns, maybe ordered, maybe not, turning everyday things into abstractions. However, the work is slightly better in idea than execution. The construction feels unsafe, which interrupts the transformative effect.

Flat sculpture with lines in different shades of brown

Out of Bounds (2017) by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates, courtesy of the artist and White Cube

There are two works in the gallery, although not part of the reinvent exhibition, are worth a visit. The huge “UBS Wall Painting” (2001/2019) by Sarah Morris behind the main reception shows that art does not have to be boring in a corporate environment. Two interesting features are the alternating combinations of deliberate, lustrous flatness and illusion of depth that characterize Morris’ work, and the way in which the predominate pretty and soft colors make the black areas of the painting spring forward.

Carlos Cruz-Diez’ “Transmuro UBS” (1975) is a series of tall, thin, colored, translucent acrylic panels, arranged tightly and symmetrically. As the viewer moves past, light passes through multiple color fields simultaneously, creating new colors in a shifting but systematic pattern. I have never seen Cruz-Diez’s work in person. It’s electrifying and I’ve been thinking about the piece ever since.

Until May 30th. A virtual tour of the exhibition is available at ubs.com/artcollection

Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US financial commentator

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