The inmates of the artistic hothouse that was New York in the 1950's were energetic, noisy, narcissistic and in a few cases highly talented individuals. Sometime in the mid-fifties a coterie of gallery owners, investment bankers and curators on the make got the keys to the asylum and let the inmates out, undreamed of wealth was their prize. When I sit to put down a few thoughts I am always conscious that I might be going on a rant so I feel I must preface this piece by saying that I am a great fan of the New York school, Johns, Rauschenberg, Pollock. but with all groups and movements there are those who ride on the bus without a ticket. They are the opportunists who hang in the right bars or climb in the right beds, it's the way of the world. In the foundry when bronze is poured from the crucible into the mould the impurities in the metal the dross or slag which gathers on the surface of the molten bronze are held back to prevent impurities getting into the mould and marring the cast. It appears now that everyone wants to do the pouring but few want to deal with the dross. Where am I going with this, Cy Twombly is where I am going. Twombly is everywhere labelled as a hugely influential artist. This expression should read like a health warning when applied to artists, it gives the impression that all influence is a good and beneficial, it isn't.
Running naked through a shopping precinct with a feather up your bottom could be described as an act of self expression, it could be an influential event for many, how you would measure it's beneficial influence could be problematic. If our naked runner was declaiming Shakespeare as he waggled his feather about we might feel inclined to applaud, admire the choice of text, the angle of the feather, the jetes, the pirouettes or we might just call security! Twombly demonstrated to us the importance of scribble, any child development practitioner will second that notion, then came the daub and the dribble and the scratch and the scrape and the unintelligent scrawl.
Marginally interesting you might think but when the images become linked to the Greek myths, the works of Homer, the poetry of Rilke and John Keats, they acquire a whole new status, they become intellectually invested and consequently influential, more pretention more profit. More importantly they become mega investment opportunities, no one held back the dross, no one called for security. In all honesty I am not as concerned by the works as I should be, what get's me is their legacy, their far from benign influence, the dross that no one calls out that fills our galleries and allows those who didn't buy a ticket to run amok on the upper deck of the bus. A bit of rant then!
I have been reading Lachlan Goudie's 'Story of Scottish Art' and reached the section of the book that deals with William Gear. I have written about Gear before, often referred to as 'the artist that Britain forgot', so no secret that he rates highly with me. What I didn't know about Gear was the fact that during his war service he had become one of the 'Monuments Men'. The officers of the Monuments and Fine Arts division were European and American historians, art experts and curators who were tasked with scouring war torn Europe to save and recover the masses of artworks, cultural and religious artifacts that had been stolen from all over occupied Europe and stock piled by the Nazis in secret locations. Many of these treasures were in danger of destruction by the defeated and retreating Nazis and the search to save them was often a race against the clock. The story of these men was turned into a highly entertaining and successful movie.
Billeted in a German castle with a horde of rescued art and artifacts Gear came across works by artists such as Klee and Kirchner which made a lasting impression upon him, also to make an impression was a visit to the nearby concentration camp of Bergen- Belson. His responses to this experience can be detected in many of the paintings produced in his early post war period. In Germany Gear came into contact with, and was able to help, many artists who had suffered under the Nazi regime. One of these artists was Karl Otto Gotz, who in time joined Cobra, an influential European art movement with which Gear was associated. Weeks before his death Gear received an award in Germany which recognised his work for ' democratic art and artistic freedom'. A citation which encapsulates his lifetime attitude to art and his own career.
I admired William Gear as an outstanding and innovative abstract painter, brilliant colourist, influential teacher and curator, but as with most men of this calibre there is usually a fascinating backstory.
The Maggi Hambling sculpture celebrating the life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft is truly problematic. I celebrate the decision to go with a challenging, thought provoking piece of work, the alternative it appears would have been another bland, safe wax work from the likes of Martin Jennings. So in theory, the choice of an artist capable of producing a meaningful contemporary monument was a brave one. So it's a plus, well no, unfortunately this is simply a really bad piece of sculpture, truly a third rate effort. I fear the response to this work will feed into the mannequin minded and challenging works are going to find it harder to get a place on the plaza! There you go, I have just had a notification that a crowd fund raiser is being organised to raise 15,000 pounds for a Jennings jobbie to be erected on another site, well begger the bourgeois, this is another bad week for public art.
Grayson Perry made the news last week, well intentioned thoughts that produced instant uproar in some quarters of the art world. If you are a national treasure your perusals will always attract attention, and frankly Grayson has a glorious reputation for courting controversy. In an interview Grayson stated " I think every part of life has probably got a bit of fat that needs trimming, a bit of dead wood.......It's awful that the cultural sector has been decimated but I think some things needed to go....... Too often, the audience for culture is just the people making it.......exhibitions put on to impress other curators..." Well I certainly know where Grayson is coming from, and some sympathy with the views expressed, it just seems a little crass to hitch your views about the contemporary artworld to the coronavirus wagon. The pandemic mainly wipes out the poor, those at the bottom the ladder, the well heeled are holed up safely in their country retreats or ivory towers. The dead wood that needs a prune isn't on the shady lower branches of the tree but on the well established growth at the top, basking, bankrolled, in the sunshine. Grayson has since attempted to clarify his thoughts but they're out there now, it's not easy being a treasure.
I have been unmoved by the alter ego, the punditry, the television shows, the panel game appearances but I am going to be ever thankful for the pottery. After fifty years of ash glazes, raku firings, beards and denim clad hand throwers, Grayson grabbed the world of pottery by the throat and took it to new place. Pots could be beautiful again, glazes vibrant, decoration intricate and detailed, and even more it could transmit ideas, make social comment and still get gilded, fantastic. Grayson took pottery from a sad, gloopy boring place and has produced art of great relevance, that's the real treasure.
William Orpen found his way into conversation this week, I am not in the business of sketching out biographies but I would suggest you look at the work of this wonderful painter. I first became aware of him through the portrait he produced of Augustus John, a compositional tour de force, brilliant in every regard. Orpen and John were fellow students at the Slade and became constant companions, the painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Orpen excelled at the Slade, Steer, Tonks and Brown acclaimed him as a prodigy. He produced drawings of extraordinary brilliance, his observation and mastery with paint were second to none. At the end of his time at the Slade he was considered 'the only show in town'. In his lifetime he became incredibly wealthy, materially one of the most successful painters to have ever worked in England. Much of his career was devoted to portraiture, he painted Princes, politicians, the great, the beautiful and the wealthy. At the height of his success Rolls Royces' queued outside his grand studio in South Bolton Gardens, sitters awaiting their appointments.
,Rothenstein however maintained that John was a more considerable artist than Orpen who now sits somewhat neglected on the periphery of artistic achievement. Rothenstein felt that despite all his gifts Orpen lacked the all important intellectual rigour and curiousity essential for greatness. Rothenstein's comments, which have marred Orpen's legacy, are in the context of the times, quite understandable. In an art world full of new ideas and experimentation Orpen failed to take on the new questions being posed by his contempories. Nevinson, the great exponent of Vorticism, called him 'the last great Victorian painter'. But Orpen knew where his strengths lay and within his personal parameters he created an unrivalled body of art.
Orpen made many self portraits, and I think they are amongst his most fascinating work. Dressed in a variety of guises, often painting the same profile, he never flatters and gives us an insightful glimpse into his character. In the story of English portraiture he is a master class. Knighted and feted in his time he is now sadly neglected, but remains an artist worthy of scrutiny and admiration, check him out.
The decision to postpone the Guston exhibitions is scandalous, this is the moment when the work of Philippe Guston is more relevant than ever. Robert Storr writes, " It's cowardice, it's saying that art cannot speak for itself, that the audience cannot engage with art on complex levels. It is a profoundly patronising move by the cultural establishment to protect itself from criticism " If any art can tell us that Black Lives Matter then it's the art of Phillipe Guston. Shame on the Tate!
Stephen Gilbert is one of the few British artists who can be truly described as a Continental artist, hugely talented, and for me there is something quite heroic about his lifetime dedication to his art. Born in Scotland, the grandson of the Edwardian sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert he studied painting at the Slade from 1929 to 1932 and then to Paris. In Paris he was reunited with the sculptor Jocelyn Chewett who he had met at the Slade School, they married in 1935. At the outbreak of war Stephen was declared unfit for military service and the couple spent the war years in Ireland. Painting in Ireland he worked and exhibited in Dublin in 1944 with the White Stag Group.
In 1946 Stehen and Jocelyn returned to a very frugal life in post war Paris. They set up studios together in Montparnasse, studios Stephen would work in for the rest of his life. Showing at the Salon des Surindependants in 1948 his work came to the attention of the Danish painter Asger Jorn who invited him to join the newly formed radical art group Cobra. He was a central figure in the group, working in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Paris. The English painter Willam Gear was also associated with Cobra in Paris.
Through Cobra he formed a friendship with the Dutch artist Constant and they worked together on architectural projects, Stephen's interest in working in three dimensions became manifest and his attentions turned to sculpture. Working mainly with sheets of aluminium he created spatial sculptures with gleaming and reflective surfaces. He became associated and exhibited with the British Constructivist Group. In 1954 he won the First Prize for sculpture at the Tokyo Biennale
In the 1970's Stephen began working on welded sculpture and after the death of Jocelyn in 1979 he produced what was to be his last series of sculptures, groups of tall sombre copper pillars. In the 1980's he returned to painting, loose and bold abstract work that was perhaps redolent of his Irish painting.
This picture is of Stephen, taking a glass in the sunshine with two of my daughters at his atelier in Monparnasse. A modest and self effacing man he had been involved in major art movements in the Netherlands, France, Ireland and England, never seeking the limelight just dedicated to his art. His work is held in many of the worlds leading museums and collections, but despite the acclaim of fellow critics and fellow artists he never sought the spotlight. Early days in Paris for Jocelyn and Stephen had been frugal and his life continued to be lived in a simple fashion, a small rent controlled apartment and modest studios and workshop. It was a life lived for art, Stephen died in 2007.
AGED AND AWKWARD