Tate Modern’s Switch House: art comes first

The 'marvellous' Louise Bourgeois room in the Switch House extension. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

With the opening of the Switch House, Tate Modern has become the biggest museum of modern art on earth. But did it not exceed every rival already? The only achievement in doubling the size, Jeremiahs predicted, would be to increase the space for strolling, spending and scoffing, for looking at each other rather than at actual paintings, films or sculptures. More room for people, less place for art.

The good news from Bankside is that something quite different has happened and it has very little to do with the building. In fact, rarely have the inside and outside of a museum seemed more divergent. The brise-soleil brickwork, like moss-stitch knitting, and the twisted pyramid with its irresistible car park associations, suggest something defensive and forbidding. But inside, the differently-sized spaces open to embrace works of art that often felt lost in the high white chasms of the old main building, the Boiler House. A huge Louise Bourgeois spider and a tiny Cindy Sherman photograph are perfectly presented in terms of distance and intimacy. The art comes first, in other words, and in a new narrative.

A Louise Bourgeois spider and a tiny Cindy Sherman photograph are perfectly presented in terms of distance and intimacy

A great complaint about Tate Modern was that its relentless thematic shuffling meant that nobody could begin to discern any kind of story. Specious but dramatic pairings and counterintuitive groupings would keep the crowds moving along fast. There was no chronology, of course – heaven forfend. You could never find what you went in looking for because it was always in a different place. Visitors would as likely find Warhol in cubism as pop.

It is enormously to the credit of the new director, Frances Morris, and her team that this kind of curatorial condescension is over. The Switch House, for instance, is a beautifully cogent chronicle of movements in the last 60 years or so, not just in Europe but across the globe. It begins in the mid-1960s in the theatrical gloom of the basement tanks. Here are Robert Morris's waist-high mirror cubes among which visitors thread their way, watching the surfaces appear and disappear according to their changing presence, before opening and closing the doors of Charlotte Posenenske's infinite permutation of rooms or making their own sculptures out of Rasheed Araeen's minimalist cubes. All of these works have now come out from behind the customary museum barriers and can be handled as the artists originally intended.

Frances Morris, the new director of Tate Modern, in front of untitled: upturnedhouse, 2 (2012) by Phyllida Barlow. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Up the gorgeous sweeping staircases, fit for Fred and Ginger, you come across what happened to the cube next, in the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Tony Cragg builds a cube out of old rubbish, a curious monument of archaeological geometry. Bruce Nauman extrudes the cube into a long corridor, dark and claustrophobic. The cube is becoming a rectangle.

This emphasis on shape focuses the mind. Laid flat on the floor, Rachel Whiteread's arrays of rectangular resin casts invoke brass gravestones as Andre's pale bricks do not, so that one then begins to reflect on colour and materials. Rectangles of unglazed porcelain upended and attached to the wall become blank scrolls, perfectly new, waiting for words in the Buddhist works of Liu Janhua; and quite possibly invoking the memory of all the white abstract paintings seen in an earlier gallery.

Up the gorgeous sweeping staircases, fit for Fred and Ginger, you come across what happened to the cube next

Artists don't come out of nowhere fully formed. They learn from each other, respond to each other, are part of an immense mutual culture. The Switch House is carefully choreographed to express these connections. David Medalla's lovely bubble tower trails clouds of iridescent glory through the gallery as Lynda Benglis's flaccid grey blob slumps depressed in the corner. Saloua Raouda Choucair's wonderful heap of stone blocks, pierced with little holes, evokes a whole teeming town while Kader Attar's domed city, and the silent desert from which it rises, are made out of gritty couscous.

Tate Modern turned us all into performers long ago, with Olafur Eliasson's midnight sun, Carsten Höller's corkscrew slides and Tino Seghal's audience participations (to be reprised, incidentally, in coming months). In the Switch House, the live parrots in Hélio Oiticica's sandy beach of an installation respond to your whistle. You can lie down and sleep in Ricardo Basbaum's steel-mesh cages, and enter Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's light installation as tall blue shadows. But though live performance is crucial, with an ever-changing repertoire of events in the Tanks, as you ascend the building what grows uppermost is a resurgence of narrative in contemporary art.

This is most apparent in the rooms devoted to Marina Abramović's turbulent life as the world's most famous performance artist and Rebecca Horn's eerie but seductive body extensions – black wings, pencil masks, a unicorn costume designed to startle walkers in the woods. But it is there, above all, in the marvellous rooms devoted to Bourgeois that amount to a condensed museum of their own. Here are gigantic spiders, mute and gaping heads, limbless torsos lying soft and forlorn on their backs, a whole community of lost yet defiant souls. They show this great sculptor in all her stupendous inventiveness, a grand finale for the Switch House.

The galleries in the new building vary in size much more than the old. But even there the news is far better. The Boiler House suddenly feels more intimate and human, the paintings often displayed two deep on the walls so that many more are on show. Sculptures are gathered into communities and the rooms have come to life, no longer the old sterile voids.

The opening gallery flows successively through the decades of the 20th century, beginning with a beautiful room full of Degas, Bonnard, Braque and Gwen John, among others, often choreographing the famous with the unfamiliar. The sightlines are superb – from Monet's water lilies to Rothko's numinous blurs to Bridget Riley's fresh abstract haze. I specially liked the wry connection between Degas's Little Dancer, in all her strained grace, and one of Antony Gormley's body castings, in this case a graceless tin man.

'Fresh abstract haze'... Bridget Riley's Nataraja, 1993. Photograph: Tate

The curators have thought hard about the entire Tate collection and their selection is judicious enough to make the weaknesses all but invisible. Of course there are numerous omissions – major works by Bacon, Hopper, Guston, Eva Hesse etc – but the best way for the museum to attract such donations is precisely by putting out their best. And the absences do not seem so bad in the face of masterpieces by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and on through to Carmen Herrera, Agnes Martin and Bourgeois. (A Georgia O'Keeffe show opens on 6 July.)

All praise to Frances Morris for tipping the scales in this respect. She has done something that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. She has righted the balance so that the next generation, now young and witnessing art through this international institution, will understand that great art is made by women as well as men.

Of course there are flaws, as with any organisation that allows its internal voices to be heard. There are scarcely any paintings and too many photographs in the Switch House, plus a preponderance of underwhelming art from shopping trips to Latin America and the Pacific Rim. There is still vastly more room for socialising than for looking. Of the 17 floors of the two buildings combined, only seven are given over to art.

But this art is not compromised by the gigantist architecture, as in the past. With double the wall space, the sense of being jammed into overcrowded rooms with too little to see has also dissipated. What's more, the presentation is purely and concertedly visual, as opposed to curatorial. Tate Modern, fully grown, has expanded the narrative of art to include views from all over the globe and found a way to show them with a degree of peace and slowness. The world's most visited modern art museum at last deserves its popularity.


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