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‘An Old Man’s Frenzy’: A Last Tribute by John Berger


Here is ‘A Last Tribute’, Chapter 3 of John Berger’s ‘The Success and Failure of Picasso’, which first appeared under the title ‘An Old Man’s Frenzy’ in Art International, issue no. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 21–30.

‘A Last Tribute’ by John Berger

The paintings which Picasso made as an old man, between the ages of seventy and ninety, were for the most part only shown in public after his death, and after this book was written. The majority of them show women or couples observed or imagined as sexual beings. I have already pointed out a parallel with the late poems of W. B. Yeats:

You think it horrible that lust and rage

Should dance attention upon my old age;

They were not such a plague when I was young;

What else have I to spur me into song?

Why does such an obsession so suit the medium of painting? Why does painting make it so eloquent?

Once more, Picasso forces us to question the nature of art and, for this, one must again be grateful to the ferocious, untameable, and unflinching old man.

Before attempting an answer to the question, let us clear the ground a little. Freudian analysis, whatever else it may offer in other circumstances, is of no great help here, because it is concerned primarily with symbolism and the unconscious. Whereas the question I’m asking addresses the immediately physical and the evidently conscious.

Nor, I think, do philosophers of the obscene – like the eminent Bataille – help a great deal because again, but in a different way, they tend to be too literary and psychological for the question. We have to think quite simply, about pigment and the look of bodies.

The first image ever painted displayed the bodies of animals. Since then, most paintings in the world have shown bodies of one kind or another. This is not to belittle landscape or other later genres, nor is it to establish a hierarchy. Yet if one remembers that the first, the basic, purpose of painting is to conjure up the presence of something which is not there, it is not surprising that what is usually conjured up are bodies. It is their presence which we need in our collective or individual solitude to console, strengthen, encourage, or inspire us. Paintings keep our eyes company. And company usually involves bodies.

Let us now – at the risk of colossal simplification – consider the different arts. Narrative stories involve action: they have a beginning and an end in time. Poetry addresses the heart, the wound, the dead – everything which has its being within the realm of our inter-subjectivities. Music is about what is behind the given: the wordless, the invisible, the unconstrained. Theatre re-enacts the past. Painting is about the physical, the palpable, and the immediate. (The insurmountable problem facing abstract art was to overcome this.) The art closest to painting is dance. Both derive from the body, both evoke the body, both in the first sense of the word are physical. The important difference is that dance, like narration and theatre, has a beginning and an end and so exists in time, whereas painting is instantaneous. (Sculpture is in a category by itself: it is more obviously static than painting, often lacks colour, and is usually without a frame and therefore less intimate – all of which demands another essay.)

Painting, then, offers palpable, instantaneous, unswerving, continuous, physical presence. It is the most immediately sensuous of the arts. Body to body. One of them being the spectator’s. This is not to say that the aim of every painting is sensuous; the aim of many paintings is ascetic. Messages deriving from the sensuous change from century to century, according to ideology. Equally, the role of gender changes. For example, paintings can present women as a passive sex object, as an active sexual partner, as somebody to be feared, as a goddess, as a loved human being. Yet, however the art of painting is used, its use begins with a deep sensuous charge which is then transmitted in one direction or another. Think of a painted skull, a painted lily, a carpet, a red curtain, a corpse – and in every case, whatever the conclusion may be, the beginning (if the painting is alive) is a sensuous shock.

He who says sensuous – where the human body and the human imagination are concerned – is also saying sexual. And it is here that the practice of painting begins to become more mysterious.

The visual plays an important part in the sexual life of many animals and insects. Colour, shape, and visual gesture alert and attract the opposite sex. For human beings the visual role is even more important, because the signals address not only reflexes but also the imagination. (The visual may play a more important role in the sexuality of men than women, but this is difficult to assess because of the extent of sexist traditions in modern image-making.)

The breast, the nipple, the pubis, the belly are natural optical foci of desire, and their natural pigmentation enhances their attractive power. If this is often not said simply enough – if it is left to the domain of spontaneous graffiti on public walls – such is the weight of Puritan moralizing. The truth is, we are all made like that. Other cultures in other times have underlined the magnetism and centrality of these parts with the use of cosmetics. Cosmetics which add more colour to the natural pigmentation of the body.

Given that painting is the appropriate art of the body, and given that the body, to perform its basic function of reproduction, uses visual signals and stimuli of sexual attraction, we begin to see why painting is never very far from the erogenous.

Consider Tintoretto’s Woman with Bare Breasts. This image of a woman baring her breast is equally a representation of the gift, the talent, of painting. At the simplest level, the painting (with all its art) is imitating nature (with all its cunning) in drawing attention to a nipple and its aureole. Two very different kinds of ‘pigmentation’ used for the same purpose.


Tintoretto, Woman with Bare Breasts

Yet just as the nipple is only part of the body, so its disclosure is only part of the painting. The painting is also the woman’s distant expression, the far-from-distant gesture of her hands, her diaphanous clothes, her pearls, her coiffure, her hair undone on the nape of the neck, the flesh-coloured wall or curtain behind her, and, everywhere, the play between greens and pinks so beloved of the Venetians. With all these elements, the painted woman seduces us with the visible means of the living one. The two are accomplices in the same visual coquetry.

Tintoretto was so called because his father was a dyer of cloth. The son, though at one degree removed and hence within the realm of art, was, like every painter, a ‘colourer’ of bodies, of skin, of limbs.

Supposing that beside the Tintoretto, we now put Giorgione’s Old Woman, painted about half a century earlier. The two works together show that the intimate and unique relation existing between pigment and flesh does not necessarily mean sexual provocation. On the contrary, the theme of the Giorgione is the loss of the power to provoke.


Giorgione, Old Woman, c. 1569

I met the Bishop on the road

And much said he and I.

‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,

Those veins must soon be dry;

Live in a heavenly mansion,

Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,

And fair needs foul,’ I cried.

Yet no description in words – not even Yeats’s lines – can register as this painting does the sadness of the flesh of the old woman whose right hand makes a similar but so different gesture. Why? Because the pigment has become that flesh? This is almost true but not quite. Rather, because the pigment has become the communication of that flesh, its lament.

Finally, let us add to the other two paintings Titian’s Vanity of the World, in which a woman has abandoned all her jewelry (except a wedding ring) and all adornment. The ‘fripperies’ which she has discarded as vanity are reflected in the dark mirror she holds up. Yet, even here, in this least suitable of contexts, her painted head and shoulders cry out with desirability. And the pigment is the cry.

Such is the ancient mysterious contract between pigment and flesh. This contract permits the great Madonnas and Children to offer profound sensuous security and delight, just as it confers upon the great Pietàs the full weight of their mourning – the terrible weight of the hopeless desire that the flesh should live again. Paint belongs to the body.


Titian, Vanity of the World, 1515

The stuff of colours possesses a sexual charge. When Manet paints the Déjeuner sur l’herbe (a picture which Picasso copied many times during his last period) the flagrant paleness of the paint does not just imitate but becomes the flagrant nakedness of the women on the grass.

What the painting shows is the body shown.

The intimate relation (the interface) between painting and physical desire, which one has to extricate from the churches and the museums, the academies and the law-courts, has little to do with the special mimetic texture of oil paints, as I discuss in my book Ways of Seeing. The relation begins with the act of painting or watercolour. It is not the illusionist tangibility of the painted bodies which counts, but their visual signals, which have such an astounding complicity with those of real bodies.

Perhaps now we can understand a little better what Picasso did during the last twenty years of his life, what he was driven to do, and what – as one might expect – nobody had quite done before.

He was becoming an old man, he was as proud as ever, he loved women as much as he ever had, and he faced the absurdity of his own relative impotence. One of the oldest jokes in the world became his pain and his obsession – as well as a challenge to his great pride.

At the same time, he was living in an uncommon isolation from the world: an isolation, as I have noted, which he had not altogether chosen himself, but which was the consequence of his monstrous fame. The solitude of this isolation gave him no relief from his obsession; on the contrary, it pushed him further and further away from any alternative interest or concern. He was condemned to a single-mindedness without escape, to a kind of mania, which took the form of a monologue. A monologue addressed to the practice of painting, and to the dead painters of the past whom he admired or loved or was jealous of. The monologue was about sex. Its mood changed from work to work but not its subject.

The last paintings of Rembrandt – particularly the self-portraits – are proverbial for their questioning of everything the artist had done or painted before. Everything is seen in another light. Titian, who lived to be almost as old as Picasso, painted towards the end of his life the Flaying of Marsyas and the Pietà in Venice: two extraordinary last paintings in which the paint as flesh turns cold. For both Rembrandt and Titian the contrast between late and earlier works is very marked. Yet there also is a continuity, the basis of which is difficult to define briefly. A continuity of pictorial language, of cultural reference, of religion, and of the role of art in social life. This continuity qualified and reconciled – to some degree – the despair of the old painters; the desolation they felt became a sad wisdom or an entreaty.

With Picasso this did not happen, perhaps because, for many reasons, there was no such continuity. In art, he himself had done much to destroy it. Not because he was an iconoclast, nor because he was impatient with the past, but because he hated the inherited half-truths of the cultured classes. He broke in the name of truth. But what he broke did not have the time before his death to be reintegrated into tradition. His copying, during the last period, of old masters like Velázquez, Poussin, or Delacroix was an attempt to find company, to re-establish a broken continuity. And they allowed him to join them. But they could not join him.

And so, he was alone – like the old always are. But he was unmitigatedly alone because he was cut off from the contemporary world as a historical person, and from a continuing pictorial tradition as a painter. Nothing spoke back to him, nothing constrained him, and so his obsession became a frenzy: the opposite of wisdom.

An old man’s frenzy about the beauty of what he can no longer do. A farce. A fury. And how does the frenzy express itself? (If he had not been able to draw or paint every day he would have gone mad or died – he needed the painter’s gesture to prove to himself he was still a living man.) The frenzy expresses itself by going directly back to the mysterious link between pigment and flesh and the signs they share.

It is the frenzy of paint as a boundless erogenous zone. Yet the shared signs, instead of indicating mutual desire, now display the sexual mechanism. Crudely. With anger. With blasphemy. This is painting swearing at its own power and at its own mother. Painting insulting what it had once celebrated as sacred. Nobody before imagined how painting could be obscene about its own origin, as distinct from illustrating obscenities. Picasso discovered how it could be.

How to judge these late works? It is too soon. Those who pretend that they are the summit of Picasso’s art are as absurd as the hagiographers around him have always been. Those who dismiss them as the repetitive rantings of an old man understand little about either love or the human plight.

Picasso, Nu couché, 1972

Picasso, Nu couché, 1972

Spaniards are proverbially proud of the way they can swear. They admire the ingenuity of their oaths, and they know that swearing can be an attribute, even a proof, of dignity.

Nobody ever swore in paint before.




On choosing a subject matter by John Berger


On choosing a subject matter by John Berger

Here is an extract from John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso:


The painter is now free to paint anything he chooses. There are scarcely any forbidden subjects, and today everybody is prepared to admit that a painting of some fruit can be as important as a painting of a hero dying. The Impressionists did as much as anybody to win this previously unheard-of freedom for the artist.

Yet, by the next generation, painters began to abandon the subject altogether, and paint abstract pictures. Today the majority of pictures painted are abstract.

Is there a connexion between these two developments? Has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom? Is it that, because he is free to paint anything, he doesn’t know what to paint? Apologists for abstract art often talk of it as the art of maximum freedom. But could this be the freedom of the desert island?

It would take too long to answer these questions properly. I believe there is a connexion. Many things have encouraged the development of abstract art. Among them has been the artists’ wish to avoid the difficulties of finding subjects when all subjects are equally possible.

I raise the matter now because I want to draw attention to the fact that the painter’s choice of a subject is a far more complicated question than it would at first seem. A subject does not start with what is put in front of the easel or with something which the painter happens to remember. A subject starts with the painter deciding he would like to paint such-and-such because for some reason or other he finds it meaningful. A subject begins when the artist selects something for special mention. (What makes it special or meaningful may seem to the artist to be purely visual – its colours or its form.) When the subject has been selected, the function of the painting itself is to communicate and justify the significance of that selection.

It is often said today that subject matter is unimportant. But this is only a reaction against the excessively literary and moralistic interpretation of subject matter in the nineteenth century. In truth the subject is literally the beginning and end of a painting. The painting begins with a selection (I will paint this and not everything else in the world); it is finished when that selection is justified (now you can see all that I saw and felt in this and how it is more than merely itself).

Thus, for a painting to succeed it is essential that the painter and his public can agree about what is significant. The subject may have a personal meaning for the painter or individual spectator; but there must also be the possibility of their agreement on its general meaning. It is at this point that the culture of the society and period in question precedes the artist and his art. Renaissance art would have meant nothing to the Aztecs – and vice versa. (If, to some extent, a few intellectuals can appreciate them both today it is because their culture is an historical one: its inspiration is history and therefore it can include within itself, in principle if not in every particular, all known developments to date.)

When a culture is secure and certain of its values, it presents its artists with subjects. The general agreement about what is significant is so well established that the significance of a particular subject accrues and becomes traditional. This is true, for instance, of reeds and water in China, of the nude body during the Renaissance, of the animal head in Africa. Furthermore, in such cultures the artist is unlikely to be a free agent: he will be employed for the sake of particular subjects, and the problem, as we have just described it, will not occur to him.

When a culture is in a state of disintegration or transition the freedom of the artist increases – but the question of subject matter becomes problematic for him: he, himself, has to choose for society. This was at the basis of all the increasing crises in European art during the nineteenth century. It is too often forgotten how many of the art scandals of that time were provoked by the choice of subject (Géricault, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Lautrec, Van Gogh, etc.).

By the end of the nineteenth century there were, roughly speaking, two ways in which the painter could meet this challenge of deciding what to paint and so choosing for society. Either he identified himself with the people and so allowed their lives to dictate his subjects to him; or he had to find his subjects within himself as painter. By people I mean everybody except the bourgeoisie. Many painters did of course work for the bourgeoisie according to their copy-book of approved subjects, but all of them, filling the Salon and the Royal Academy year after year, are now forgotten, buried under the hypocrisy of those they served too sincerely.

Those who identified themselves with the people (Van Gogh, or Gauguin in the South Seas) found new subjects and renewed, in the light of the lives of those for whom they saw, old subjects. A landscape by Van Gogh has a totally different meaning (and reason for being selected) from a landscape by Poussin.

Those who found their subjects within themselves as painters (Seurat or Cézanne) strove to make their method of seeing the new subject of their pictures. In so far as they succeeded in doing this, as we saw in the case of Cézanne, they changed the whole relationship between art and nature, and made it possible for every spectator to identify himself with the vision of the painter.

Those who took the first solution were mostly driven on by the terrible pressures of loneliness. Because they wanted to ‘belong’ they became socially conscious. Having become socially conscious, they wanted to change society. It is in this sense only that one can say that they were political, and that they chose their subjects by the standards of a future society.

Those who took the second solution were more reconciled to being isolated. Their devotion was to the logic of their vocation. Their aim was not to submit their imagination to the demands of the lives of others, but on the contrary to use their imagination to gain an ever-increasing control of their art. They chose their recurring subject – which was their method of seeing – to create the standards of a future art.

No artist will fit neatly into either of these categories. I am deliberately being diagrammatic so as to shed some light on a very complex problem. The important artists of this century can also be approximately divided into the same two categories: those whose method of seeing transcends their subjects: Braque, Matisse, Dufy, de Staël, etc., and those whose choice of subject insists upon the existence of another (tragic or glorious) way of life, distinct from that of the bourgeoisie: Rouault, Léger, Chagall, Permeke, etc.

We must now return to the consequences of Picasso’s isolation as they have affected his art. He has not lacked appreciation. Nor has he lacked creativity. What he has lacked are subjects.

“When it comes to it, there are very few subjects. Everybody repeats them. Venus and Cupid becomes the Virgin and Child, then a Mother and Child, but it’s always the same subject. To invent a new subject must be wonderful. Take Van Gogh. His potatoes – such an everyday thing. To have painted that – or his old boots! That was really something.”

In this statement – it was part of a conversation with his old dealer Kahnweiler in 1955 – Picasso unwittingly reveals his difficulty. No other statement tells us so much about the fundamental problem of his art. Only in the crudest sense is a Venus and Cupid the same subject as a Virgin and Child. One might as well say that all landscapes from the early Italians to Monet are the same subject. The meaning of a Venus and Cupid, the significance of all that has been selected to be included in the picture, is totally different from that of a Virgin and Child, even when the latter is secular and has lost its religious conviction. The two subjects depend on an utterly different agreement being imagined between painter and spectator.

Certainly Van Gogh painted new subjects. But they were not ‘inventions’. They were what he naturally found as a result of his self-identification with others. All new subjects have been introduced into painting in the same way. Bellini’s nudes, Breughel’s villages, Hogarth’s prisons, Goya’s tortures, Géricault’s madhouse, Courbet’s labourers – all have been the result of the artist identifying himself with those who had previously been ignored or dismissed. One can even go so far as to say that, in the last analysis, all their subjects are given to artists. Very few, such as he has been able to accept, have been given to Picasso. And this is his complaint.

When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces. When he has not, he has produced paintings which eventually will be seen to be absurd. They are already absurd, but nobody has had the courage to say so for fear of encouraging the philistines for whom all art, because it is not a flattering looking-glass, is absurd.

The experience is Picasso’s experience of his own way of painting. It is like an actor being fascinated by the sound of his own voice or the look of his own actions. Self-consciousness is necessary for all artists, but this is the vanity of self-consciousness. It is a form of narcissism: it is the beginning of Picasso impersonating himself.

It would be petty to draw attention to such a failure if it was incidental. What artist has not sometimes been vain or self-indulgent? But later, after 1945, a great deal of Picasso’s work became mannered. And at the root-cause of this mannerism there is still the same problem: the lack of subjects – so that the artist’s own art becomes his subject.

What is all the drama about? Unhappily, it is about being painted by Picasso. And that is the extremity of mannerism, the extremity of a genius who has nothing to which to apply himself.

Justin Mortimer and ‘The Unsayable’ by Martin Herbert


The Unsayable by Martin Herbert 

Midway through Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, a chemical accident occurs and a giant poisonous cloud blooms above a placid suburban community. An evacuation takes place: in the extended, Boschian crowd scene that ensues, swirling with misinformation and protective-suited operants, the main character receives a possibly fatal dose of contamination. Then the ‘airborne toxic event’ disperses, leaving everyone beneath it inwardly altered somehow, and news—or its opposite—arrives via someone carrying a television:

“There’s nothing on network,” he said to us. “Not a word, not a picture. On the Glassboro channel we rate fifty-two words by actual count. No film footage, no live report. Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore?”

The coming of the cloud, in the context of a book about fear of death, is metaphorical. It is the grim consciousness of inevitable demise—the broader recognition, too, that something really bad and life-changing can happen at any moment—with the terrible codicil that this is, apparently, ordinary. It doesn’t make the news. Later, the main character and his wife confess to each other their core-shaking fears of dying, allied to seemingly even greater fears of the other dying first. Each, it’s clear, has carried this burden—in the wife’s case, to the point where she’s taken an experimental drug designed to paralyse the fear-of-death receptors in the brain—alone, as we all do. The irony of the human condition, DeLillo writes elsewhere, is that the most evolved creature suffers most, being the only one that is aware that it will die. The ubiquity makes the fact almost a banality. But to someone involuntarily focused on that fact, nothing matters more.

Consciousness of the widescreen melancholia that comes with knowledge of the fragility and mindless cruelty of life is not easily represented. It can descend into howling illustrative kitsch so easily, the easiest route into triteness being to use the iconography, call a skull a skull. In his essay ‘Vermeer in Bosnia’ (2004), Lawrence Weschler discusses how the painter, within scenes of apparent placidity, subtly and contrarily points to a consciousness of perpetual, brutal human conflict, which flickers at their edges; in ‘The Sight of Death’ (2006), T.J. Clark extensively unpacks the equally unassuming pictorial strategies that Poussin used to represent death within a pair of landscapes. (If this is notable, it’s not least because Vermeer and Poussin might be considered two of the most Apollonian and untroubled painters in history.) A presentation of abiding mortal hurt requires strategies, proxies, perhaps a cloud that creeps across your face, that you breathe in before you even know what it is. Those proxies need not be serene in themselves.

It’s night. We’re out in the scrubby woods and something undefined but rough and ominous is going on. A naked young man stands, trousers dropped and genitals exposed, face dehumanisingly obscured by pinkish balloons. In a further humiliation, a dog rises up towards his crotch; another figure—clothed—is half cropped off, veering, on the left. In the background are tents, as if this were a camping trip gone badly awry. The main figure’s skin is greenish, as if decaying, but it’s just the light—the painting shows all the signs of descending from the everyday chill of flash photography, down to the giveaway white circlets on the balloons. The landscape is at a weird tilt. The whole thing is at a weird tilt—the image owes something to amateur porn, and also echoes the ritual disgracing we’re familiar with from photographs of Abu Ghraib. Move the canvas a bit to the left, and you imagine that the cropped-off figure—perhaps the one who put the balloons there, in a grim hey-prisoner-it’s-your-birthday move—is grinning.

But we’re projecting. None of this might be happening except in our heads, where it sets off blackened, discordant bells. Let the eye move down the canvas. In the foreground everything falls apart; it’s just paint, materiality. This is a construct, we’re reminded: the work originates in a digital collage of fragments, which Justin Mortimer has used as the starting point for a painting that has developed its own compositional and mood-driven rationales and needs. The imagery has been artfully pulled together to create an atmosphere of palpable disquiet, and the work advertises its demotic photographic origins. And this one is relatively coherent. In another work, a cavalcade of masked protestor-type figures, one wearing a Joker T-shirt, seemingly slide down a snow-bank before a Tudor-style house (passing by a washing-line, apparent symbol of civility) into painterly non-space on the canvas’s extreme right. It feels like a crevasse, but it might as well be the mental sinkhole you fall into when you broach the ever-swelling imagistic archive of the Internet, when—like Mortimer—you lose hours to typing words into Google Image Search and get confronted with images far too extreme, too literal, too obscene—in the sense that postmodernist theorists used to talk of an extreme, dismaying, all-on-the-surface literalism of images—to do anything with.

Such a painting pulls in two directions. On the one hand it partakes of a heavily vectored, Baroque pictorial logic that naturally, insistently moves the eye around. (Compositionally, Mortimer’s other main tendency is to agglomerate disparate subjects together into an architectonic form on a ground, like the surging flow of a nightmare.) On the other, what the eye is carried through is a discontinuous orchestrated chaos that’s clearly set in a number of places at once. Mortimer—a former portrait painter, replete with academic training—has rendering skills in spades, but he’ll also go to work with rags and newspapers to abrade his surfaces, so that the picture veers between being a window and a wall. On multiple levels the result is that, effectively, the work stutters. There are several reasons for that. First, clearly, Mortimer has something blue and internalised to get out, but doesn’t trust a single image to act metaphorically, is clearly even suspicious of the process: any one image is too bounded, too narrow for the condition he’s carefully approaching. Secondly, the anxious experience of navigating the canvas, of being on-course for a while and then falling in an optical ditch, is germane to that condition also; but it’s something to be felt physiologically, rather than decoded. And thirdly, this process sets up the idea that the painting is only an attempt to say something. The thing itself won’t be said and thus it becomes, to rehearse a well-worn metaphor, the thing behind the door in the suspense movie; the door that the smart director keeps closed.

Mortimer has spent some years getting to this apprehensive point, accumulating along the way a handful of skewed ciphers. From paintings circa 2007-9 featuring contextless explosions, hanged figures and clean-up crews, he’s departed ever further from his origins and training as a portrait painter (albeit one who, he says, would tend to knock out a painted eye in order to get closer to the physical experience of seeing the world in fragments). Around 2010-11 his paintings gravitated towards crepuscular hospital situations: here, Mortimer would zoom in on wounded limbs—legs, often. These were marooned, ominous edits, as was a work like ‘Contestant’ (2011), a young, close-cropped man sucking his thumb above some abstract flesh, a Bacon-esque blat of bloody paint coursing neatly off his skull. The continuity here, and in the most recent paintings, is the sense of being in what Mortimer calls a ‘perimeter world’: an involuntary observer placed on the edge of something unnerving and unfixed. When, as recently, he has painted party scenes, the party has already spun out of control and become, potentially, something sick and violent. In a reverse of that, scenes already brutalising become, with the addition of balloons, parties. See those woodland escapades; see the half-hidden hospital scenarios ‘Creche’ and ‘Annexe’ (both 2012).

Mortimer’s balloons are often placed over bodies. Balloons are a fullness that is always menaced—they’re also, Mortimer notes, less perfect than they appear, thinner in certain places and prone to bulging—and liable to violent, instantaneous destruction. This sense of an object that is barely sustained dates back to earlier paintings in which Mortimer limned polythene wrapping around boxes, sliding it off so that it retained its shape, and painting it. This might have been a technical exercise; but it was actually a way of presenting something at once fixed, specific and utterly tenuous. What the balloons and their interlacing with bodies did was clarify that bodies are tenuous too. Look at the figures in landscape; the branches become brachial. Everything’s a bodily synecdoche here, as temporary as a body, even as bodies are reduced to things.

Full-on articulation can make subjects go dead. Saying, directly, that reality is fucking fearful doesn’t get us very far; semaphoring that what you want to say can’t really be said gets us further. There are figures wearing makeshift gas masks in Mortimer’s recent paintings; protestors, evidently, and protest is generally necessitated by prior brutalising, but also, as we’ve seen, the site of the protest now is previously peaceable urban space. Consider that these paintings, then, are not directly about protest but about a world you knew and could navigate—somewhat like old-fashioned, perspectival painterly space—being turned upside down. That, on some level, has happened to all of us at some time, and for many of us there’s a constant, shifting sense that it could happen again, at any time, and worse: a thrumming electricity in the blood, a sense of premonition. We used to have a vocabulary for this nervy movement through the world, but then existentialism became an intellectual fashion and, as happens to fashionable things, it fell out of favour. But the world didn’t get any easier, and we need a vocabulary still. We need a vocabulary for realists; we need it for escapists, too.

In Mortimer’s art, as we’ve seen, the answer is a compelling economy of substitutions. But for all its darkness, at the same time this stuff is shot through with aesthetics. Art can balance opposites, and Mortimer does that; his paintings have compositional savvy, controlled textural abandon, and seductive colour. You’ll want to look, in other words. So you look at a painting whose background is orange and pink like a radioactive sunset blacking out trees and grass seen queasily at a couple of different points during the day. A welcoming garden umbrella is detached and airborne like a flying saucer, underneath which are smears of contaminated aqua paint, bursts of coloured smoke bomb, a soldier’s legs, and a hectically upended topless girl—a party girl—with male arms holding her up. We’re barrelling through about seven messy subworlds at once here: equalised, as they are in digital reality, just a click away. You notice that the sky looks like a Rothko, that the umbrella which won’t protect you and has become weaponised nods back to Bacon, that there’s a degraded sliver of English landscape in there. It’s seductive and scary and you wonder what this could be the acceptable face of. It’s there in your mind’s eye, and you should make yourself look at it.

Mainstream media and the digital world played a role in Mortimer’s practice long before the artist turned his attention to Pussy Riot and Femen’s web-savvy campaigns. “I was always looking for something beyond the life model,” he says, reminiscing about his student days at Slade School of Fine Art in London. His attraction to news images first led him to magazines. He remembers picturing Romanian orphans when their scandal first broke in Western Europe in 1990: “The first painting I made of the poor person outside of society,” he says, musing on the reoccurrence of outsiders in his subjects. As soon as the Internet was more widely available it became a natural hunting ground for the artist, sucked in by the bottomless wealth of images it offered. The moment a found image is painted, he continues, “it becomes impotent and neutral because you are not saying anything else than what already exists. So one has to choose an image that is loaded but also somehow twist it, or manipulate it, in a way that has mystery.”

Mortimer’s technique echoes the way information is broadcast, passed on and degraded over time on the World Wide Web. In his work, images are also appropriated, transformed and eventually shared in a visual game of Chinese whispers. His take on the heart-wrenching portrait of Ukrainian anti-government journalist Tetyana Chornovol, Donor VI (2014), is a case in point. The original snapshot shows the Euromaidan leader lying in bed, disfigured, after she was severely beaten up in December 2013; it went viral in hours. In his depiction, Mortimer turned the image forty-five degrees up, creating an awkward tension. Originally supine figure, Chornovol is now upright, her head at a peculiar angle. She could be a hanged woman. “It’s almost impossible to negotiate that plethora of instant imagery,” says Mortimer. “Everything is there, bang, when you want it. It’s so seductive, but it’s up to the artist to negotiate a way through that.” Although artists have explored the challenges and opportunities offered by mainstream media imagery since the rise of Dada   in the early twentieth century, the sheer volume of pictures that have become available online in the last decade has radically changed the deal, irreversibly altering the meaning of ‘mass media’. With his casual remark, Mortimer suggests a paradigmatic shift in the role of artists—particularly those tackling the web’s tantalizing cornucopia of imagery. From image-makers, artists have become image-filters, helping us to navigate an ever-expanding sea of images.

And choice is not all. The distance between the original snapshot of Chornovol and Mortimer’s painting is incommensurable. The former is immediate: instantly taken, instantly processed, shared and consumed. The latter requires the investment of this all-too-rare currency: time. The time the artist has spent scrutinizing the image, learning it intimately enough to be able to reinvent it on the canvas, is added to the time it will take a viewer to receive the work, as her eyes stumble on semi-abstract patches and her mind finds a way among the manifold stories unravelling on the canvas. Mortimer’s work uses the perpetual stream of online images defining our frantic contemporary life to decelerate our visual processing of the world.

Roger Hilton Night Letters


Roger Hilton Night Letters 

British artist Roger Hilton (1911–75) produced Night Letters during the final two years of his life. Confined to his bed, Hilton created upwards of 1,000 colourful gouaches and illustrated messages for his wife. With previously unseen works, this book includes 300 reproductions from the collection.


He produced the works now known as the Late Gouaches and Night Letters during the final two years of his life at his cottage in Cornwall’s West Penwith. Confined to bed and sustained mainly by the whisky and cigarettes that were at least in part the cause of his sickness, the insomniac Hilton created upwards of a thousand colourful gouaches and illustrated messages to his long-suffering wife Rose. Sometimes bitter, occasionally insulting, but always poignant and amusing, the letters record Hilton’s thoughts on art, his own imminent death, the irritations and pleasures of everyday life, and his often controversial assessments of colleagues and contemporaries. This full colour book reproduces nearly 300 of the artist’s Night Letters and Late Gouaches, and includes many drawings and gouaches not previously seen in public.

An exhibition ‘Roger Hilton: swinging out into the void’ celebrated Hilton’s major contribution to painting in the 1950s and ’60s, and this sequel looks at the final chapter of his life. Wracked by long-term drinking and smoking, Hilton was largely confined to bed. At Christmas 1972, he started to play with the poster paints given to one of his sons and began a prolific output of works on paper in charcoal and gouache, which only ended with his death in February 1975.


Imagery had never been far away, even in his most abstract works and, years before, he had announced his wish to ‘reinvent figuration’. Now animals and birds, nudes and boats were conjured up with apparent abandon but with extraordinary control. At times frustrated, at times joyous, frequently hilarious, these paintings are a poignant testament to his determination to make art in the face of death.

At night Hilton wrote letters to his sleeping wife. Frequently illustrated, by turns affectionate and rude, they set out his needs for food, drink and paints and reflect on his condition, and on art and life.

The illustrated letters Roger Hilton wrote from his sickbed during his final years (1973–1975), known as the ‘Night Letters’, are renowned for their fusions of word and image; although mostly addressed to his wife Rose, they anticipate a wider readership. Hilton once wrote that artists should remain silent on their work, but in these letters he not only discourses on the nature of art, but attempts to unify the act of writing with the act of spontaneous painting. Hilton’s letters may be taken to be at once honest and deceptive, private and public, specific and general. On first inspection they appear to give a remarkably frank account of his opinions and the sources of his creativity; yet this forthrightness also owes something to Hilton’s notoriously rebarbative personality, and the letters equally reveal him to be just as inclined towards obfuscation, braggadocio, and prejudice as towards self-knowledge and honesty, whilst revealing too the debilitating effects of his alcoholism. With recourse to performative theory, the concept of action painting, and the notion of Confessionalism in poetry, the author suggests ways in which Hilton’s writings and paintings can both re-evoke and transcend the immediate moment of composition, and how they may ultimately be seen to exceed the limitations of the single self. He argues that the letters’ combination of writing, drawing, and painting amounts to a breaking down of generic boundaries that presents a challenge to distinctions between word and image.


Two figurative sketches of the female form have been selected for display by Hilton including one from The Night Letters. Produced during the final 28 months of his life, the celebrated tome was posthumously published in 1980, and illuminates Hilton’s thoughts on art, his encroaching death, the “irritations and pleasures” he experienced at his cottage in Cornwall along with myriad gouaches and illustrated messages he penned to his wife Rose. Confined to bed and subsisting on whisky and cigarettes, insomniac Hilton was “encumbered by peripheral neuritis into senility and helplessness.” As the critic Robin Blake observed, it was “impossible” for Hilton to produce the large-scale works in oil for which he became renowned – “canvases that hovered between abstraction and figuration.” Yet the female figures he rendered for The Night Letters, were masterly and revered for displaying a “Degas-esque lucidity and perspective.” According to Joel Tomlin, Hilton’s depiction of women “went toward capturing the energy of primitive art. His practice as a painter focused largely on the alternation between purely abstract work and the depiction of female nudes, yet it is in the transition of this focus that my interest lay.


“Hilton described his drawings as ‘an instrument capable of embodying man’s inner truths,’ and clearly display, with their dancing women and landscapes of febrile limbs, an impulse, just as Rodin before him, to seek a Dionysic relationship between the body and his art.” Of the sculpture he produced for Women in Love, Tomlin writes: “My working materials, wood, copper, bronze and tin – all dealt with a nod to Art informel – display the ambition of making an object that is small and crystalline, yet contains the vestige of a legend. The wooden fig and the decorous pistol – both mute and incapable of practical use – are at once rendered with a purpose unknown and perform a piece of connective culture of what the Roman doorway would represent. A witty keepsake or portentous talisman.

“The transitional aspect of the object interests me. A cauldron becoming a pelvic girdle, becoming a makeshift plinth. Speech bubbles of wooden smoke contain a copper asp; all culled from the vocabulary of early Modernism, or rather its forgotten byways. Those which did not express themselves as a clean Classical agenda, but concurred a lyrical impulse; Delving into oblique, flea- bitten stories. (I can only think of Ben Nicholson collecting the paintings of fisherman Alfred Wallis.) This was where inspiration was formed by the introduction of the folk object, giving rise to the sensation of irrational impulse, of hidden superstition.


Introduction by Michael Canney to the first edition of “Roger Hilton: Night Letters and Selected Drawings”, 1981

The decision to publish a selection of the so-called “Night Letters” of Roger Hilton has exercised the mind of the artist’s wife ever since his death in 1975. It seemed originally that these personal and at times distressing documents should be accessible only to the family and close friends of the artist. Recently however, it has become apparent that the letters form an essential part of the documentation of Hilton’s life, recording as they do the physical decline of this uniquely creative man. In view of this, and of a growing interest on the part of many who have seen his letters for the first time, it was felt that they should now be published.

Regrettably, some of the most perceptive and entertaining letters refer in highly uncomplimentary terms to persons still living, and these have therefore had to be withheld from publication. The total number of Hilton’s writings is considerable, but even this small selection gives a vivid picture of the artist using his sense of humour and his art to blot out or combat persistent ill-health and the destructive effects of alcoholism. The letters may also give some indication of the motivation behind his sporadic displays of outrageous behaviour that enlivened the British art scene in the 1960s. Those who were his victims may be surprised, or mollified to discover in the letters a man who, despite his dogmatic and arrogant manner was subject to profound doubts, and even regrets.

A selection of Hilton’s later drawings complement the letters help to illustrate the intense creativity of his final years during which drawings and gouaches poured in profusion from his bedroom studio. A comprehensive book on the gouaches is long overdue, but in the interim it is hoped that the more modest Night Letters and Selected Drawings will provide a background to the artist’s later work.

In 1974, Roger Hilton, who was by then permanently confined to his bed as an invalid, dispatched a twenty-page letter to the editor of Studio International. Part manifesto and part biography, it made it clear that for him art and life were inseparable: “The tendrils in the art vine are infinite” he wrote. “At the bottom of it all is the poor artist who tries to keep some probity, malgré tout. Because he has all the usual things to cope with, he is not in an ivory tower –electrical appliances, cats drinking his paint water, and so on”. This bizarre conjunction of afflictions is typical of Hilton’s letters; the writing is extraordinarily direct, vividly reflecting his changing moods which run the gamut from resignation to frustration, and indignation to outright defiance. He was in fact, a man who had little patience with ordinary day-to-day problems. Again and again in the letters, complaints and specific wants are painstakingly listed, so many that a number would inevitably be overlooked or forgotten. As a result the “Night Letters” often imply that everything and everyone is conspiring to prevent him working. The closest and most obvious target is usually his wife. It is possible to take these torrents of abuse literally, but his “male chauvinist” attitude in the letters is more of a pose than a reality.

It was true that he could be extremely demanding with women, but he was not particularly possessive. Instead he acknowledged his dependence upon them, enjoyed their company, and spent much of his time celebrating the sensuality and beauty of the female body in his art. Indeed, few artists since the war have been as responsive to the nude as Hilton. Stylistically, Hilton’s drawings of the nude often recall Rodin and Matisse, both of whom he admired, and also Laurens, an artist whom he thought unjustly neglected: “Put into the back seats yet he shines like a beacon” he writes of Laurens – although it seems that in a list of his favourite artists he did not mention him as a major stylistic influence.

The spontaneity of these late drawings is perhaps their most immediately engaging quality, and this spontaneity seems to relate directly to principles that he enunciated in connection with his gouaches of the same period, namely: “Never rub out or attempt to erase; work round it if you have made a mistake. Make of your mistakes a strength rather than a weakness. As in life, it is not what you put in, but what you leave out that counts. Most pictures can be pulled round. If you run into head-winds, tear it up”.

Hilton’s ability to treat the sheet of paper and the drawing as an entity means that the drawings are eminently decorative in the best sense of that word. This is also true of the “Night Letters”, with their happy combination of writing and drawing recalling the great tradition of French illustrated books before the Second World War, or certain etchings by Picasso in which calligraphy is combined with lively marginal illustrations. Hilton’s successive periods in Paris –nearly two years in all between 1931 and 1938 – mark him as perhaps the most French of post-war British artists. His love of France is clearly present in the letters, some of which are in fact written in French. Not only did he enjoy using the French language, but he showed an obvious affection for French cuisine, for French literature, and for the traditional friendship between poets and painters in that country, witness his long association with the poet W. S. Graham, whose tribute to Hilton appears at the end of this book.

He also felt a certain nostalgia for the French ateliers such as the Academie Ranson where he had studied, with its rules of painterly conduct which he would quote with approbation: “When you change the colour change the tone. . . If your drawing is bad, don’t hope to get it better by painting. . . Don’t try to make a ’successful’ drawing or painting. Seek to learn something. . . Command your canvas, never obey it” and so on, dicta of his old master Roger Bissière.

Hilton never believed that there were any short cuts in art. For him a work could only be endowed with spontaneity and life if the artist had first of all mastered his technique through long years of apprenticeship. He devotes a number a pages to this in his collected writings, and his advice is as conventional as that of Cézanne in the famous and much-quoted letter to Emile Bernard: ”Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective”. Hilton, for his part writes: “Art results from the long battle and reconciliation of two sovereignties, the idea breathing life into technique, and technique giving idea the fleshly form. . . Most pictures have not enough technique and not enough idea. If l were asked what a person should have first, I would say technique”. And then, as if to expand this unexpectedly traditional view from an avant-garde painter he adds: “In the last resort I am arguing in favour of the sinking of technique to a level of consciousness where it can confront Man, I argue for art as revealed truth, not as significant form, and technique as the instrument of its exposition”.

In later years Hilton placed vitality and feeling above all else, but the vitality of his own line and the spontaneity of his gouaches owes much to his mastery of technique acquired during his apprenticeship at the Slade, in Paris, and during his austere abstract period of the early 1950s. It must be added, that the apparent ease of his drawings, and the shaky and searching line, make him a dangerous master. A note in his collected writings indicates that he was aware of the intensely personal nature of his own drawings: “As you live it changes the line you make” he writes. “As your life is, so is your line. As you live it becomes more your line. The line says more. . . at first you make many lines, and then you only have to make a few, and they say more”.

In Hilton’s best drawings it is impossible not to empathise with the rhythmic undulation of the outline and the frankly erotic poses of his nudes. The contained shapes of his figures and the containing shape of the paper on which they are drawn, are locked together in a unified image, so that not only the line but the paper itself shimmers with an inner life. The expansive quality of the drawing recalls, in an oblique way, his early interest in the expansive potential of form and colour in painting. He writes of these early abstract paintings, “They have the effect of projecting space back into the room. The advantage is that instead of space being empty it is filled. The colour and forms of the painting penetrate the surrounding space imparting to it their vibrations. It is a case of equalising external and internal pressures”. This is certainly relevant to the drawings, which possess an ability to generate pressure within the forms and across the surface, so that the margins of the page seem barely able to contain them.

The individuality present in the drawings is present in Hilton’s letters as well, even in their calligraphy which becomes more and more like his drawing as death approaches. Tinged with an Existentialist mood that derives from his days in Paris, it is clear in his more desperate letters that the struggle for existence and the revelation of a durable truth is what finally counts. “Art if it is anything, is a blood and death battle, into which you throw everything you’ve got”, he writes. “It is dangerous for artists to write or speak about what they do”. If latterly he ignored his own advice, those who knew him when he was young recall a private person who said little; he could, however, fix the unwary with a disconcerting look through his thin spectacles.

Whether is was the result of moderate success after years of obscurity or an increasing addiction to alcohol – a problem that he could never fully explain – sometime in the mid-fifties his character underwent a change. Although he had always possessed great charm and a sense of humour, he now became dogmatic and cantankerous and was subject to abrupt and violent changes of mood. Moreover, he developed an alarming tendency to probe the most vulnerable areas of a person’s psyche. He was it seemed, endeavouring to pursue truth not only in art but in his personal relationships as well, stripping away the conventions of everyday behaviour in order to confront the subject with his or her inner self. When this amateur psycho-analysis took place in public, the resentment of his victims sometimes led to physical attacks on the artist but he still persisted. As a thorn in the body of the establishment Hilton often punctured those who richly deserved puncturing, but latterly his aim became wilder.

It might be thought that his paintings and drawings would give some indication of this destructive side of his personality, but they give none. His art can appear anarchic or undisciplined at times, but it is an optimistic and generous art, sensual and sometimes comic, but never cruel. Although he was working seriously and consistently throughout the sixties striving to achieve a rapprochement between abstraction and figuration, the downhill trend in his drinking continued. In 1966, after a series of drunken driving charges, he was committed to Exeter gaol for examination. The effect was salutary and instantaneous. Incarceration was in itself a shock, but in some respects not as bad as he had feared: “This is much like a P.O.W. camp,” he writes to his wife, “more agreeable in some ways and less in others” – there is a reference here to the three years that he spent as a prisoner of war following his capture in the Allied Commando raid on Dieppe in 1942.

At Exeter it was realised that he was in need of medical help, and he was conditionally released after only six weeks so that he could undergo treatment at St. Lawrence’s Hospital, Bodmin. The cure there was temporarily effective, but two years later the old pattern had re- established itself and he decided to seek treatment at a private clinic in London. The letters that follow his admission there show a remarkable and almost immediate return to normality. This sharpening of his acute powers of perception once again meant unfortunately that he became unduly sensitive to his surroundings and to the abnormality of some of his fellow patients. Life at the clinic became oppressive and deadening rather than helpful. Originally he had intended to stay for six months, but he discharged himself after only twelve weeks and returned once more to his cottage in west Cornwall. A year later his friends and family were dismayed to see that he was drinking heavily once again.

Hilton’s career had begun to parallel the lives of those French writers and artists, often referred to in his letters, who despite drink or drugs devoted their remaining years to an increasingly intensive pursuit of their art. His health was now deteriorating; he could only walk with difficulty and by the end of 1972 he was so enfeebled that he took to his bed for good. He was suffering not only from peripheral neuritis, but also from an irritating skin condition that had in fact dogged him for years. However, despite this steady physical decline his work became increasingly colourful and light-hearted. It was as he said, the only thing left to him.

The cottage on Botallack Moor where he lived was in an area much despoiled by centuries of mining activity. The bedroom was on the ground floor, with a door leading directly into a field that served as a small garden. He disliked views as such, and there was certainly little to see from the cottage, although at the end of the lane was a dramatic coastline fringed by the ruins of old tin and copper mines. Having accepted his bedridden condition, Hilton now established an individual routine that enabled him to work consistently during his remaining years and until a few days before his death. The bedroom became his studio so that he could work whenever he felt inclined, whether this was in the daytime or indeed in the middle of the night.

The room presented a picture of extraordinary squalor. It was as many observed, reminiscent of a scene from Beckett, with Hilton conversing from his bed in a dry and pedantic voice. His conversation when he was in good form was humorous and engaging, punctuated now and then by his abrupt and characteristic laugh. Surrounding his bed was a bewildering collection of multi-coloured jars of gouache paints, books, discarded plates of dried food, the obligatory bottle of whisky together with milk bottles of water to dilute it in a yellowed plastic glass, letters, bills, cigarette packets, and a much abused transistor radio. His painting and writing was done on a low table beside the bed. Originally left-handed he worked leaning on one elbow. This, however, became so sore and inflamed that he had to teach himself to use his right hand as well. He observed, characteristically, that this had actually proved beneficial to his art for he had become too accomplished in the use of his left hand.

Part of Hilton’s charm lay in his ability to entertain, although he seldom indulged in a monologue, for he enjoyed the cut and thrust of discussion and argument too much. As a result an oddly assorted collection of friends, acquaintances, and anonymous passers-by could be found at his bedside when he was not working, poets and writers, artists, actors, students, members of the art establishment and collectors, fashion models, local farmers, and on one occasion a distinguished ambassador. His condition was distressing but there were still moments of high comedy. A friend’s donkey, brought into the bedroom to visit, discovered a collection a cigarette ends and refused to leave: “You’re an amusing animal” remarked Hilton smacking him on the nose, “You’re more intelligent than most of my visitors!” There were, however, periods when he felt neglected, in winter especially when his human contacts were largely confined to Rosemary his wife, and his children, Bo and Fergus. There were animal companions and these kept him company; a black and tousled dog with hazel eyes, a whippet, and a cat that maddened him, but they still could not alleviate the depression of a Cornish winter.

It was during the long night hours that he composed the “Night Letters” to his wife and occasionally to his friends. He wrote, as he himself remarked, because he enjoyed it and because it was something to do between pictures. As his health deteriorated his spelling became increasingly eccentric and the calligraphy shakier, sometimes disintegrating altogether into an indecipherable scrawl. When the family arose in the morning the artist was already asleep, the latest “Night Letters” lying on the table, instructions, complaints, advice, thoughts on life and art. Many reflect a longing for culinary delicacies, recalling the days in Paris, but these were often foodstuffs that were unobtainable in west Cornwall, or impossibly expensive, or if provided were too much for his weakened constitution.

Despite his condition, he possessed hidden reserves of energy, and he was therefore not an easy patient. Certain ideas obsessed him, in particular the tyranny of everyday objects; pens refused to draw, radio sets faded, cats ate his food, envelopes were the wrong size, paints the wrong colour, his stove kept going out, and the ringing telephone was always beyond his reach. On one occasion his stove caught the bedclothes alight, and then the room itself. It was only the prompt arrival of the local fire-brigade that saved the entire cottage and his work from destruction. Occasionally he would accompany his wife to Penzance where he would sit in an antique dealer’s whilst she shopped, but these trips became less frequent as he grew weaker.

By the spring of 1973 Hilton had completed a substantial number of his new gouaches and was anxious to show them, but there seemed to be little interest. He became convinced that he was being neglected, although this was not strictly true, for a London retrospective was already under discussion. However, it was a fact that his work was not selling and that he was financially at a very low ebb. He was therefore much encouraged when in June, the small Orion Gallery in Penzance took the initiative and staged a successful exhibition of his new gouaches. The enthusiasm of visitors and friends raised his morale and the sale of two-thirds of the paintings helped him financially; moreover, the new gouaches were seen to represent a significant stage in his development.

In March 1974 a major retrospective of Hilton’s work was mounted at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens – a happy event – the gallery being ideally suited to the work. After much planning and fussing, Hilton made the journey from Cornwall to London for the private view; it was a triumphant occasion. The artist, frail and emaciated, sat clasping his whisky bottle beneath “Oi-Oi-Oi”, one of his most exhilarating paintings, whilst a constant stream of friends and well-wishers came forward to congratulate him. But his condition gave cause for great concern. Steps had already been taken to persuade him to enter Maudsley Hospital for urgent treatment, and it seemed that he might actually agree. Detailed plans were drawn up, but in June he suddenly withdrew his agreement at the last minute and dispatched a lengthy “round-robin” to friends and relatives who had been trying to help him. He was determined to end his life in his own way, and in his own bed.

This defiant mood continued throughout the summer of 1974. In August of that year he decided that the time had come to pay a last visit to France. With an advance of a thousand pounds from his dealer, he made all the necessary arrangements in a matter of hours for a small private plane to fly him, Rosemary, Bo and Fergus, south to Antibes. A few miles from his cottage was the local airport at St. Just, a small field that normally serves the tourist trade as a base for short flights around the Cornish coast. It was from here that a small Piper Apache set off on a seven hour flight to Cannes with the Hilton family on board. The artist was initially in high spirits, and to the pilot’s concern endeavoured to take over the controls, but by the time that they reached Cannes he was fractious, cold, and exhausted.

Once established in Antibes Hilton soon recovered and started work immediately on a new series of gouaches filled with sailing boats, strange seabirds and sun-worshippers. He was aware that there was little time left to him, and his work routine was therefore as regular as if he had still been at home in Cornwall. For relaxation he was taken to a small cafe nearby; it was full of mariners and much to his liking. There he could be left in safety, watching the constant procession of holidaymakers, drinking and chatting with the habitués, finally to be trundled home in his wheelchair by one of his new acquaintances. An additional pleasure in Antibes was a small circus where he would remain for hours, delighted by its cheerful ambiance and by the performing animals. Some of his earliest drawings had been of circus animals, camels for which he had a particular penchant, Palomino ponies, and elephants too, a recurring subject even in some of his near abstractions.

The visit to Antibes was therefore a success, but it was to be the last time that he would be able to leave his bed. Six months later he suffered a brief stroke and died. He was buried in a bleak cemetery on Carn Bosavern high above St. Just and overlooking the Atlantic; the headstone to his grave was a granite boulder from his own garden. After his death and underneath the bed was found a final and apparently solemn “Night Letter” – it reads: “Yea though I pass through the valley of death, I fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff shall comfort me”; but with a typically abrupt change of mood he introduces a gaily spotted snake, zig-zagging across the middle of the page. Some have seen in it a self-portrait, others a reference to the Garden of Eden; perhaps it is the latter, for below is a buxom nude with upturned nipple, and a childhood riddle that he leaves incomplete: “Adam and Eve and Pinch-me went down to the river to bathe. . . ”


















“Since 1972 I have produced three to five gouaches a day. I have principles connected with this new medium:

  1. Never rub out or attempt to erase. Work round it if you have made a mistake. Make of your mistakes a strength rather than a weakness.
  2. Wait for it. That is, if you don’t get a clear message, do nothing.
  3. If you have a full brush and you have made a mark, do not think that you have to use the paint on your brush – wash it out.
  4. As in life, it is not so much what you put in but what you leave out that counts.
  5. Paint as if you were painting a wall (Bissiere).
  6. No colour stands alone. They are all influenced by each other. This is when the dicey part comes in. I mean the balancing act.
  7. Most pictures can be pulled round. If you run into head winds, tear it up.
  8. Don’t drink and smoke so much & lay off the nudes. Nice, but too easy a gambit.”

Roger Hilton, from The Figured Language of Thought by Andrew Lambirth

Roger Hilton (1)


The following is from a letter from Michael Canney to Adrian Lewis. Lewis was author of the introduction to the catalogue to accompany this exhibition “Roger Hilton: The Early Years 1911-55”, organised by Leicester Polytechnic Gallery, 9-30 November 1984, at the start of a short tour.


p.32. The observation that Roger was always searching for the perfect studio is very true, and he said as much to me, at Newlyn in 1958. Indeed, this led to me finding a studio for him (when he was living with us at the Newlyn Art Gallery). This was the studio at Tom Barnes’ house, above the old harbour. The room was rather dark and bare, but it had a splendid view across the harbour, northwards. Subsequently, a large Hilton painting was discovered, keeping the rain out (I think) in the roof of the building, but this was after Roger was dead.


Contrary to general opinion, Roger was a perfect guest when he was with us. He was interesting, entertaining, and when not outrageously drunk, very humorous. He gave me good advice with my own work, advice founded on the dicts of Bissière whom he still quoted with approval.


Tom Barnes was not the ideal companion for Roger, being a noted drunk, and although Roger enjoyed his company initially, I think he later found him a bit of a bore, as conversation was limited. Barnes used to look after my small fishing boat for me, so I knew him well, and I know that Roger made quite an impression on him.


Both Karl Weschke and Sydney Graham used to come to our flat under the gallery, to converse with Roger, but these meetings usually disintegrated before the evening was out. On one occasion, Hilton accused Weschke of having “hands stained by the blood of a thousand Jews” – but both then fell about laughing, and Roger exclaimed in his characteristic way – “But that’s ridiculous!”. However, this was the only occasion on which I recall Roger hinting at his Jewish ancestry.


Sydney and Roger were much given to drawing on the table on odd scraps of paper, embellishing each other’s work – valuable now I suppose, but they were just thrown away. Sydney was also prone to compose on the spur of the moment, and I still have a short poem he wrote about us and our young son which was quite haunting.


It must have been in 1958 that Roger told me he was writing a statement, for a catalogue, I think, or a letter to [American art critic Clement] Greenberg, and was having terrible trouble with it – “But I’m not going to show you,” he said, “because there is nobody who would understand what it is about. It is way ahead of their thinking.” About this time, he took me to see the new paintings. These were on large sheets of hardboard as I recall, and probably the pictures that he subsequently regretted showing anyone; “You won’t understand them anyway,” he said, but seemed interested in my reaction to them. They were, as far as I can remember, the first Hiltons that I ever saw with figurative references in them. After this he expressed interest in some small wooden panels that I had been given by the Marquise de Verdières Bodilly, the daughter of T. C. Gotch (panels that I subsequently discovered in 1989 were still being sold in Zecchi’s artists’ colourman’s shop in Firenze). I gave him a number, and he painted a series of small works, with figurative references again, and I am under the impression that they were shown at the ICA [note 1], when it was in Dover Street – in fact, I seem to recall seeing them there. I think that one, very similar, is reproduced in colour on p.7 (No. 11) in a Belgrave Gallery catalogue of March 1990 (“Some of the Moderns”), but dated 1966, possibly erroneously. Could this possibly be a picture I saw at the old Arnolfini Gallery on the Triangle in Bristol, in a Hilton show around 1967, and much coveted?


When visiting Roger at The Abbey on one occasion (where he lived in the incredible company of aged gentlefolk such as Mrs Horsefall, and ex-clergyman’s wife), he told me to go and have a look at the drawings he’d been doing, and if I liked them, to help myself. These suggestive nudes, in conté on small sheets of paper from a (Woolworth’s, I think) pad of paper, were scattered across his bed, where he had obviously been drawing. I still have four, although the white paper, being of poor quality, is now brown.


I cannot date another drawing that I kept, a somewhat bizarre one but still very Hiltonish, showing the route of his car (possibly Land-Rover), in an accident in Penzance. He did this for me in the sleeping compartment of the night train to Paddington from Penzance, when we were journeying together. I have a feeling that he lost his licence as a result of this accident.



You perhaps have not seen a Hilton Christmas card that I received, having unwisely sent him one first. This work in gouache and charcoal, dated 1974, is very gay, and says – “Christianity Stinks. No ass, no dove. There is no God. No Virgin birth. Nothing. Alls foolish.” (I should have known better.)


I can’t now recall what I wrote to you in a previous Hilton letter, but am sure I told you how he protested, when I was driving him to Zennor on one occasion, “Stop pointing out views to me, Canney! I hate views!!! You’re just like Heron – he’s always wanting to show me views.”


Hilton tales are of course endless, so I won’t go on, but I have to admit that I can’t recall any specific remarks by him about children’s art, and only one about figuration, in which he said that he had nothing against it, but it had to be arrived at, via a previous apprenticeship in abstraction. One couldn’t hope to arrive at any worthwhile figuration if one proceeded from traditional figuration as a starting point. I can’t remember the exact words, but this was the gist of the argument. I think he suggested this in 1958 when he was trying to arrive at some satisfactory solution to the problem himself.


The Watkiss tape in which he says that “children are realists and artists are not” is interesting, and he admits there that one can learn a lot from children’s art. However, the early sketchbooks, and the horse and cart on p.25 of your catalogue (Cat 115D) show that the subject matter of the last gouaches, which were certainly child-like, had been with him for a long time. When I went up into the studio, just after he died, there was a beautiful small Matisse cut-out book with horses, I think, and he treasured that, Rose said. I also think that his passing remark about [Henri] Laurens in the Watkiss tape is a vital key to his late drawings. Some Laurens drawings are so like Roger’s, or Roger’s are so like them, that one can hardly believe it. He was obviously a major influence. (See Laurens’ illustration p.125 in “Libri Cubisti” by Stein, publ. La Casa Usher. 1988).


Thinking back to my early years when I was “serving time” as principal art master in a London secondary modern, the direct and spontaneous way in which the children used to paint reminds me of the spontaneity of Roger’s work. I used to watch with amazement, as the children would proceed on paper with absolute certainty and with no attempts to change or erase the image. Roger says, “Never erase, make something of your mistakes,” and this is what they used to do.


The directness in his relationship with others, which took most people aback, was obviously how he painted and drew – although he told me he spent a lot of time looking and thinking, before acting spontaneously. There was also that technique of his, of having the picture around until he knew intuitively and exactly what he had to do with it – and that was possibly merely making a single mark to complete the work. The children were, of course, in more of a hurry to get on with the picture, but the directness was the same. The pictorial idea seemed to appear immediately at the end of the brush or pencil – no hesitation, and certainly the late Hiltons look like this as well.


A few weeks before he died, I was in his room, looking through the stacks of gouaches that were beside his bed, and at the miniature gallery of works that Rose had pinned around the walls, so that he could see what he’d been doing. The sheer energy, the outpouring, the colour, and the carefree nature of the images, greatly impressed me – whilst Roger conversed remarkably cheerfully considering his truly parlous condition. I found it impossible to relate this human wreck with these optimistic paintings, and I asked him, how he could possibly produce such cheerful work under these circumstances. I can’t remember the exact words, but with a dismissive gesture he said – “There’s nothing else left – what else have I got?” Rose said he was singing childhood nursery rhymes and songs before he died, including, “Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow”. The last gouaches have something of this innocence about them.


Note 1: Was this possibly the ICA show of paintings 1953-7 shown in Feb. and March 1958?


Note 2: The date in your catalogue footnotes for the renting of the Newlyn studio as 12/8/58 seems right to me, although my diary of that date was left in the UK I think, so I can’t check it. However, Roger was in Newlyn well before that – Christmas 1956 perhaps, as I recall him in the Tolcarne Inn in a (black?) raincoat and cap, winter-wear, and with a peaked cap, looking sharp, aggressive, and rather London-ish. Lanyon was there and said to me – “He will liven things up a bit here – really good painter”. Denis Mitchell, Frost, and possibly Heron were also there.


PS: Roger and I shared a certain common ground, in that Ruth’s father was a clergyman, as was mine; we both made a disaster of our OCTU officer training courses, being mutually unsuited to command; and I entered the army at about the same time as Roger was captured at Dieppe. The coincidence of those dates seemed to give him some kind of satisfaction – “You’re just a young fellah Canney”, and that sort of thing. The blimpish speech is well noted by Ruth in your catalogue. He was really quite upper class and formidable when he wished, rather senior-commonroom intellectual in manner, with that dry and pedantic voice that warned one never to make a casual or careless statement. “What d’you mean?” he would say, and one can hear it in the Watkiss tape. Trouble lay ahead!


Have you ever approached Bernard Cohen, as Nathan, his son, said his father was teaching at the Central with Roger, and said he always got on well with him, but after eleven  in the morning, there was no possibility of rational conversation? Karl Weschke knew him well and spent a lot of time in argument and discussion with Roger, but I imagine you have checked that source long ago.


I was interested to see in your catalogue that Ruth ascribes Roger’s drinking to painting problems, and dates it as beginning around the time of Matthew’s birth in August 1948, much earlier than Heron maintains. He seemed to think it started in Cornwall. I was never convinced by this. Nor have I ever been convinced by Patrick’s story, that Roger was originally timid and quiet, saying nothing when he first met him in London. If provoked he would never have been the shrinking violet.


Regarding Roger’s reaction to American Art, I met him at the 1956 “Modern Art in the United States” show at the Tate when I was there with Peter Lanyon. Roger was rather dismissive of the art – “They’re doing nothing different,” he said. “It’s just bigger”, but I got the impression that he was actually taking it seriously. I met him again at the “New American Painting” show at the Tate in March 1959, and went around the exhibition with him. I think he felt there was too much “staining”. At a subsequent Tate show – (was it the Dunn International?), which I visited with Lanyon, Roger was transfixed by an Ellsworth Kelly, a giant ballooning form – a two coloured painting as I recall.  “I think,” he said, with his characteristic cackle, “that there’s not enough there for me!”


After Roger’s disastrous intervention at the John Moore’s banquet in Liverpool, at which Councillor Braddock collapsed and died, he went into hiding. He was being pursued by the press for some time. Meeting at the Tate once more, we agreed to go to the opening of the new Grosvenor Gallery (I think it was), later in the evening. I endeavoured to dodge the issue, but was unfortunately intercepted by Roger in a nearby pub and so, as his “cover”, had to attend the opening – he being the “persona non grata” at any public occasion. After he had insulted Mark Glazebrook’s fiancée and shouted at David Hockney across the crowded gallery, I finally escaped, only to see Roger being ejected into the street. Life was never dull when Roger was around.


A mutual respect existed between Hilton and Scott and both spoke frequently about contemporary French art. In his humorous way, Hilton would praise Mary Scott “ “Damned good wife – does all his business for him – looks after things. I need a wife like that.”


Both artists had, of course, worked in France, but Scott had been to the USA as well, and met the leading American painters early on, which Roger hadn’t (I think).


A concern with the “painterly” in art was common to both artists, and the use of white on white, and black on black occurs in the paintings of both. When Scott used to ask me, “Do your students know how many whites there are, and the difference between them?” this question had a Hiltonian ring about it; but there is also an indication of the order that exists in Scott’s painting, whereas Hilton’s was essentially disordered, anarchic, and spontaneous, although we know he accepted “the rule that disciplines the emotion” – in this case the rule of Bissière and the School of Paris.


ROGER HILTON (2): Introduction to “The Night Letters” >

On Thinking in Pictures & other articles by Michael Craig-Martin


On Thinking in Pictures

by Michael Craig-Martin

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” In other words, thinking visually is at the foundation of thinking itself. This statement stands in contrast to the belief held by most philosophers – in fact by most educated people – that to think is to use words. Most forms of education from the time we are four or five years old are based on this assumption. The development of verbal competence is considered the essence of education itself, and this constant reinforcement means the most verbally adept become the best regarded and most successful in our society. Since the development of visual intelligence is generally dismissed and ignored, even the best educated in society are usually visually illiterate, while those whose instinct and abilities favour visual intelligence are likely to find themselves patronised and marginalized.

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographer, believes that the Austrian’s philosophy is one essentially concerned with perception. For Wittgenstein, to think, is to understand, was first and foremost to picture. It was fundamental to his thinking that not everything we can see, and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp, can be put into words. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,”  he said. But he also believed that those things about which we have to be silent are the most important. To grasp these important things, it is not enough to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!” And by this, he means to look both metaphorically and literally.

At the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he called ‘the understanding which consists in “seeing connections.”’ He was fascinated by the phenomenon of ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit. What changes when we alternately see a rabbit or a duck is not the picture but rather the way we look at it. He sought to show us that our capacity to see things differently is critical in perception and therefore in understanding. Wittgenstein believed that our understanding of complex ideas depended on our mental ability to assemble multiple, possibly very different, perceptions.


On directness

by Michael Craig-Martin

 To me, the most obvious characteristic of Americans is directness, and I believe the same is true of American art. I remember as a student having a tutor who used to say, “Simple and direct – follow your traditions, simple and direct.” The British, on the other hand, are determinedly indirect: social behaviour is coded with meaning that is never explained or overtly referred to. British art is often similarly indirect. The distinction is seen clearly in the difference between Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton. The latter once told me how impressed he was the first time he saw American Pop art in the early 1960s because it had a directness that his own work lacked. The British equivalent to directness is a highly developed idea of common sense: no nonsense; the obvious; straightforward; simply the way things are.

I try to draw my objects in a way that is both as direct and as commonsensical as possible. If you take the most ordinary light bulb, one of its characteristics is that you do not notice its design – you forget it. It is the other light bulbs that look designed. The one that embodies one’s idea of ‘light bulb’ gives no sense of being designed at all. I was trying to find a way of drawing that was equivalent to that notion of ‘not designed,’ of how things look before anyone gets round to drawing them.


On the autonomy of art

by Michael Craig-Martin

In 1960, a very earnest young woman asked the seventy-two-year-old T. S. Eliot, “In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” when you said “I am Lazarus, come from the dead/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all,” what exactly did you mean?” Eliot smiled and replied, “That poem was written forty years ago. I have to tell you that I can’t even recall writing it. When I read it today it is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. The poem has to stand for itself – that is what it is.”


On art as metaphor

by Michael Craig-Martin

It might seem self-evident that the more intelligent art is the better it is, but it depends on one’s definition of ‘intelligence.’ Great art is always emotionally intelligent, but rarely rationally so. That is why it eludes so many educated and intelligent people. Intellect can open doors, but it can also lock them, shutting out vision, leaps of the imagination, instinct, insight, daring.

Art as metaphor – poetry not prose. It presents truths through artifice. The greatest crisis of the present time is the resort everywhere to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the result of the failure to understand and appreciate poetry. Fundamentalists always reject the arts because, unable to grasp them, they instinctively fear them.

The Bible and the Koran are poems, not documentaries. If you lose the ability to understand, as their authors did, that poetic truth – the truth of metaphor and the imagination – is the highest expression of the truth, you turn instead to the impoverished language of literalism. The stories in the Bible are poetic metaphors. The narrative that God made the world in seven days describes the unimaginable creation of the universe in terms we can all understand. Scientific discoveries have not undermined religious belief, they have simply rewritten the poem. The same people who cannot see the Bible as poetry cannot accept the scientific explanation as fact.

Similarly, the art critics who have been most apoplectically upset about An Oak Tree always treat it as literal rather than poetic. Is that how they look at all art? Perhaps that is why they find that they despise so much.


Advice for an aspiring artist

by Michael Craig-Martin

“By far the most important characteristic for anyone wanting to be an artist is desire: the passionate, inexplicable desire to make art. This desire is more important than talent. To have enviable talent but qualified desire is not enough; to have little obvious talent but overwhelming desire may lead to success. Desire can be encouraged but not taught. In my experience, a driven person lacking any recognizable talent may, out of necessity, invent a way to work at which they excel. This is what we call originality.

Pleasure in doing is the essential basis for making art. When you love what you do, no effort is too great, no time too long. We are all capable of doing a lot of things for a while, but not for long. Art can only come from what we are able to sustain.

I would never advise anyone to become an artist. If you have another option, take it. Most people who end up as artists rarely feel they had an option. Art is the only endeavour I know that models itself around the abilities, experiences and needs of each individual who engages in it. It is entirely accepting, respects everyone for who they are, offers no strict rules of right and wrong. It enables one to turn everything about oneself, one’s limitations as well as one’s strengths, into advantages.

Much of the best art has been made by those who failed to succeed in other more conventional activities. For art to work for you, you must work at it in the ways that give you the greatest satisfaction, that reflect your interests and your passions, that occupy your time without effort, that change with you as you change over time.

Don’t try to be too inventive. The more your art reflects you, the more it will speak to other people. If you are not sure what you should do, just do whatever comes into your head or catches your imagination. Gradually, it will lead you to where you should be. Making art is a path not a destination.”


On passion

by Michael Craig-Martin

Anyone can have a passion in their life: a lover, art, music, food, nature, family, one’s job, helping others, learning. In my years of experience, someone with talent but lacking passion will not get far.

Passion arises from pleasure – it arises from what comes naturally to each individual, from whatever comes easily. Often people take for granted what they find easy, even denigrate it. This is a great mistake. What comes easily is at the heart of who one is, and should be treasured and nurtured. The potential for passion exists in everyone, but to be developed productively it needs to be recognised, valued and worked at. Passion produces energy. A person with passion is more likely to succeed. My own view is that if you are enjoying your art, be yourself. If you follow someone’s else’s talent, you may deprive us all of your own.


On being vulnerable to the world

by Michael Craig-Martin

There is nothing that happens in an artist’s life – whether good or bad, no matter how dramatically important or apparently trivial – that cannot be turned to effective use in their art. Any crummy part-time job, any minor incident, any childhood memory. Other people can read a book for pleasure or enlightenment. An artist may read a book and it can alter the whole course of their life’s work. Artists are unusually vulnerable to the world in this way. And they, in turn, use their work to seduce others into valuing what they value.


On one’s relationship to the work

by Michael Craig-Martin

After many years of teaching, I came to believe that the key to a student’s success lay not in the work itself but in the relationship between the student and the work. My own work has the character it does, looks as it does, deals with the issues it does not just because of decisions I have made but because it comes naturally to me, and although I am not its subject, it is a manifestation of me. If someone seeks to make work like mine, my work will always be better, because it cannot come from them as it does from me. Steal from me yes; copy me no.

It is not only necessary to recognise and use one’s strengths, whatever they may be, but also one’s weaknesses and limitations. I have watched many students turn what in other circumstances would be considered a disadvantage into an advantage in their art. Art gives us permission to turn the tables.

Students often feel under pressure to work in a certain way. Sometimes this pressure comes from outside – from a teacher, a parent or a peer. More often it comes from within, in a form of self-censorship, anxiety about self-image. Students worry that what they really want to do is too banal, too obvious, too weird, too unexplainable, too uncool. I have had floundering students admit that they had done secret work at home that they would never bring to school or show anybody because it embarrassed them. Invariably, this work is better than the ‘serious’ work done at school because it is born from a passionate engagement the other work lacks. The nature of the relationship between the artist and the work is always expressed in the work. The expressive power of art should never be underestimated.


On my work

by Michael Craig-Martin

Manufactured common objects were what interested me. I began to draw every object the same size, regardless of scale, using A4 paper. Whether it was a safety pin or a table, I made it fit the page, trying to find a way to be nonjudgmental. I used a fine line, and then I found a way of drawing with tape—to make everything look as neutral as the objects themselves. When you buy a chair, you know there are thousands of them, all identical, though your own chair is individual.

The irony is that, over the years, my neutral kind of drawing, which was meant to have no style, has become recognizable as my style. I draw exactly the same way now, and what I’ve realized is that it is not only a visual language, but incredibly flexible, and can be used in many different ways.

A philosophical text by Robert Sokolowski pointed out that the image of a hammer doesn’t look anything like a hammer. If I’m making a drawing, I’m not making a hammer; but if I show you my drawing, the first thing you’ll say is, “That’s a hammer,” because you and I both have this unbelievable capacity to read an image and experience the presence of an object, which is actually not there. This is not very different from the glass of water and the oak tree.

The capacity to be able to see an image of a thing as the thing is one of the most profound of human abilities, and it predates language in human development. Think of the use of pictures in teaching a child to read.

Michael Craig-Martin quotes:

‘Understanding’ art is like having a sense of humour – if you don’t have one, no amount of explanation is going to make you laugh.

I thought the objects we value least because they were ubiquitous were actually the most extraordinary.

I try to make images that have the immediate presence we take for granted in objects – a chair, a shoe, a book, a Judd – and compose them like sentences.

The art world, of all worlds, has room for everyone.

Whatever happens to the art world, art will go on regardless. As for obscurity, it looms just over the horizon beckoning us all. Why worry.

In the late 70’s I started to make drawings of the ordinary objects I had been using in my work. Initially I wanted them to be ready-made drawings of the kind of common objects I had always used in my work. I was surprised to discover I couldn’t find the simple, neutral drawings I had assumed existed, so I started to make them myself.

I have been using the computer as a work aid since the mid-90’s. It is extraordinarily well suited to how I think and work and has transformed my practice. Nearly everything I have done in the past 15 years would have been impossible without it. I use the computer for drawing, composing and colour planning everything, from postage stamps to paintings to architectural-scale installations.

I have never understood, for instance, why some people see contemporary art as divided between ‘painting’ and ‘conceptual art’, as though this represented a genuine division.

I came to painting through sculpture, to images through objects. I think that images sit in the middle, somewhere between objects and words.

I was poorer than anyone I’d ever met. But it was a great time to be a young artist – I remember it as a period of exceptional creative freedom and adventure, when one was regularly presented with works of art unlike anything one had ever seen before.

There is a complete difference between art and the art market. Prices are high now for the simple reason that there are people are willing to pay them. The market dominates the art world today because at the moment collectors call the shots. Like everything else that won’t last forever.

I do think I paid a price as an artist, and I am trying to make up for it now – I work six days a week in the studio, and I’ve never been happier.

The internet has extended the possibility of making art to more people, and particularly of enabling it to be seen by others. I am sure the internet is having a profound impact on art, particularly those who have grown up with it, but making good art will remain as difficult (and as easy) as it ever was. Having a lasting impact may become more not less difficult.

The complexity of the language of images is disguised by the ease and rapidity with which we read them. I’ve tried to make work that is as transparent and simple as possible. No matter how much I strip away the result is always more complex to me than I expect.

I am personally happy for artists to make as much money as they can while they can to carry them through the times when they can’t.

Where [some] see disjunctions, I see connections. I believe totally in the democracy of art. Years of teaching have taught me that the only essential requirement for someone wanting to be an artist is the passionate desire to make art. Art education cannot turn someone into an artist, cannot make someone more or other than they are, but it can help them find their own voice.



Beginning Again by Marcia Hafif



Beginning Again by Marcia Hafif

The options open to painting in the recent past appeared to be extremely limited. It was not that everything had been done, but rather that the impulses to create which had functioned in the past were no longer urgent or even meaningful. Tracing magic images, storytelling, reporting, representing in a one-to-one relationship a scene or figure in paint – none of these acts was credible in the way it once had been. Abstraction appeared to be used up; expression through shape and color was very familiar and had become meaningless. The process of flattening out the canvas had reached an end; formalist painting had soaked color into the canvas and moved shape to the edge, presenting an almost but not quite, unbroken field. We no longer believed in the transcendency of paint and saw little reason to use the medium of painting for making art.

In the middle sixties some expressed surprise that I was still using a brush. By 1975 Max Kozloff could say, “for at least five years. . .painting has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing, without so much as a sigh of regret.” (1) (An odd situation was implied as he went to admit that there were still plenty of artists painting.)

The enterprise of painting was in question, was “under erasure.” I use this term of Derrida’s (2) to denote a state in which painting appeared to be no longer relevant, not quite right, and yet the only possible activity for one who has been or is a painter – an artist deriving satisfaction from painting, drawings, the ordering of space, with a sensibility directed to paint, to pencil, to materials in general. But there was no dialogue, no discourse.

It was necessary to turn inward to the means of art, the materials and techniques with which art is made. Artists still interested in painting began an analysis – or deconstruction – of painting, turning to the basic question of what painting is, not so much for the purpose of defining it as to be able to vivify it by beginning all over again. That question led to an examination of the discipline of painting, the taking apart of it as an activity; it led to a restatement of what we already knew along with an investigation of it in depth. We pretended in a certain way that we did not know anything about painting. We studied and rediscovered it for ourselves.

This pretending resulted in a kind of extra-consciousness, a looking in from the outside. We were no longer “involved” in painting in the sense of engagement, but now saw clearly what we were doing from an exterior position – an attitude appropriate for the interim period of work which some saw this to be.

The notion that this was the last painting was not difficult to hold. And this greater consciousness could allow parody and the easy summation of painting, including the idea that it was actually possible for its relevance to have expired. Art could merge with other disciplines – science or religion – and cease existing as an independent activity. The idea of the end of painting had been around for a long time, long before Ad Reinhardt talked about the one size, the one color.

With the invention of photography in the nineteenth century the need for painting as representation had been brought into question. In Russia in 1921 Rodchenko had shown three “pure color” monochromatic paintings and then had stopped painting. Tarabukin declared that this step meant the “death of painting” and the “suicide of the painter.” Fifty years later one still asked if an analysis of painting might not lead to mere footnotes and ultimately to the end of painting.

An opposing idea, however, gave the new work strength: a belief in abstraction, and knowledge that in its short history this had been the mode of much significant work. Non-objective painting had existed for us only since about 1910. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism had led toward abstraction, searching for ways to be expressive in paint through its own materials and devices, breaking up color and separating color and form from function. In 1910 Kandinsky painted his first abstract improvisation attempting to use painting means as ends in themselves, much as time and sound are used in music. Picabia, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Kupka, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Leger, Mondrian, Klee, Macdonald-Wright and others were working with color abstraction. In 1913 Malevich showed a painting consisting of a black square on a white ground “in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity. . .” (3) A great deal of non-objective painting has been made since then: De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction and more. The abundance of work of quality, which has been produced in so short a time, constitutes evidence of the validity of non-representational work. To my mind the significant art of this century has been abstract.

Painters today confronting the question “What is painting?” work, in large part, in an abstract or non-objective mode. Essentially uninterested in using the medium to convey messages, they have looked for what was inherent in the medium itself. An examination of the essences of paint materials and methods was expected to release new subject matter. The work was frequently monochromatic or of an undivided surface. Placing colors side by side would produce shapes and relationships, but all these shapes had been exhausted. The figure had moved off the ground; not the painting itself was a figure on the ground of the world around it. An early example would be the paintings of Ralph Humphrey, who, from 19?? to 1960, was involved in an analysis of what painting is and who, though he modulated the paint of his one-color paintings to varying aspects of a given color, did not use interior division of the surface because he found the manifest shape of the canvas itself to override any interior shape.

The insistence on no internal division was not new. I have mentioned Malevich’s black square and Rodchenko’s single color. A little-known Russian, Wladyslaw Strzeminsky, who was prominent in the Polish Constructivism, may have been the next after Rodchenko to use a field of one color. Writing in Unism in painting (1928), he said:

Two colors, hitting one beside the other, break the unity of the picture by their contrast. . . Rather than contrast, it is the unity and the means aiming at producing it that ought to be the standard of a picture’s form now. (4)

A monochrome is a painting or drawing in a single hue (Webster’s). Many of the paintings I am talking about, however, although they may have an undivided surface, are not merely of one color in one undifferentiated plane, each panting exactly like another. We can examine monochromatic thinking and some of its manifestations, seeing just how dissimilar two monochromes can be and how much in the way of imagery they can encompass.

Strzeminsky, with his concept of “Unism,” painted seemingly one-color surfaces that were usually divided up into very small units, so that they are closer to what we think of as “all-over” works. Yves Klein in France, in an art-related gesture, produced thick, pocked surfaces in what he called his “International Klein Blue.” Klein related to Surrealism: Manzoni, in the nineteen-fifties in Italy, made “Achromes,” often using white materials, but actually concerned with non-color. He was not interested in surface and did not use paint but was making a statement (as part of the Azimuth group (including Castellani, who did make white paintings) toward the un-individual: we can all make art, everything is art.

Robert Ryman paints his surfaces using white because that color does not interfere with paint as paint. His concern has been with the paint surface and the application of paint – with the support for the canvas, the ground, and the means of attaching the painting to the wall.

Stephen Rosenthal does not stretch his canvas, but etches, then subtly dyes it; or he varnishes it and scratches into it along the lines of the threads of the canvas. The final appearance of the work grows out of the characteristics of the canvas itself.

Dale Henry has made canvas paintings covered with transparent materials. One of his primary concerns here is the interaction between the work and light. Often incident in one of his work is discernable only through the action of light.

Doug Sanderson has painted layers of color over each other, finally producing an apparently monochrome surface affected by the underlying coats. Jerry Zeniuk prepares stretched linen and paint it with layer after layer of alternating complementary colors, arriving at a luminous, neutral surface that remains undivided except for brushing incident and the intimation of the many underlying colors.

Rodchenko called his monochromes Pure Red, Pure Blue and Pure Yellow Color, which I would contrast with my own use of Cadmium Red Medium, Cadmium Yellow Medium and Ultramarine Blue, among others. The specific color replaces the theoretical color and is seen in its pure physical state.

From examining these many distinctions it becomes apparent that the goal of recent artists has not been the depersonalization of the painting and that in fact, one work can be very different from another – both between artists and in the works of any one artist.

The choice of ground will have been made with the coloring materials in mind, and it too affects the appearance of a color.

Although the work may have been determined to be monochrome, certain drawing decisions concerning the edge immediately arise with the idea of applying paint to the canvas. Where is the paint going to stop? The paint may run up to the edge of the support, around onto the sides, or it may stop within the canvas edges. If the paint does end within the front surface, it will probably form a rectangle slightly smaller than the supporting canvas – otherwise it would make a discrete shape on the ground. A neutral solution has been to stop the paint at, but not beyond, the edge of the front surface.

The tool used in drawing or painting may be a pencil, a brush, a pen, and so on; it becomes the mediator between the artist and the ground. The tool chosen leaves its very specific marks influenced by the way it is used. It is chosen for it appropriateness to the medium and for its capabilities in regard to that.

Construction, by which I mean the way elements are brought together, extends from the decisions necessary in preparing a support and ground through the distribution of paint or marks on the prepared surface, including any other interventions by the artist on the materials. The act of working in conjunction with the chosen materials produces an aesthetic or an internal ethic. An inherent logic manifests itself through the use of the materials, and here a set of values arises.

Such values arise from the necessities associated with the material in question. The work is determined through the observation of the materials and techniques chosen for a given project or body of work. Rather than altering material to fit one’s needs, material is left to a large degree integral and the art is drawn from it. The qualities of the materials and tools, and also the nature of the discipline, determine the choices made. Rules emerge derived from the material and methods in question, and results become the desired end product. The image searched for, more than simply what happened. With this integrity even the smallest decisions take on great importance, as an interrelated consistency is produced among all the elements off the work creating a meaning. The artist determines how, where, how much, and so on, while the nature of the materials is respected, playing its part in determining the final result. The artist works within the (chosen) givens of the materials.

Choices in these areas are made without reference to a known aesthetic, each decision being weighed on its own, taking into consideration the material and the desired end in a specific process. Often these are traditional time-honed paint procedures being used, the artist restating, investigating, as though for the first time, the use of materials that have been long known to art. The difference is in the kind of consciousness focused on the details of these decisions. This is not necessarily a new focus, but one that had not been used for a while, that of seeing the material and its use more for itself than for what it can do.

The hanging of a monochromatic painting is of prime importance. Since the painting is an object to be related to directly, its position with respect to the viewer indicates something of what that relation is about. The painting may be placed low on the wall. And thus be brought into our own space, or places higher, in which case it becomes to a degree removed from us. It is most often hung alone on a wall. A monochromatic painting does not hold a tight focus in that its own energy spreads out to areas surrounding it, which is one of the reasons why walls today are white or neutral avoiding the color harmony automatically set up between the painting and a wall color.

A reduced rectangle on a wall sets up a composition with any other paintings that may be on the wall, with the rectangle of the wall itself, and with any other physical elements present. Rather than being a surface that holds figures on a ground, the painting itself becomes a figure and is put on the ground of the wall. In placing one or more of these objects on a wall one confronts the inevitability of their composing that wall. It has become necessary in hanging as well as in making the work to acknowledge the concrete and delimited space of the wall and its relation to the concrete object placed upon it. This may be done by using the entire wall either as a ground or as a given area determining the size and location of work, by accepting the relation set up between painting and wall by hanging paintings in groups, perhaps even by ignoring the wall and locating the painting in the room. Ryman placed his Varese Panel on blocks in the gallery. I have made certain stretched canvases whose size as determined by the wall, or have even painted the entire wall, in order to eliminate composition by making the painting congruent with the wall. A small monochrome painting, however, which many tend to be, frankly accepts the relation to the wall.

Most often a painting is seen alone or in a group of similar, though discrete, paintings, although Brice Marden has combined panels of color, as has Kelly. Merrill Wagner lets the work pass through stages, and we are presented with three or four phases of the process it goes through. No doubt one reason realist representation is generally rejected is that we are not content with one single image, we are used to seeing multiple images in movies and on television, and one still image in a painting seems insufficient. Photographs are often shown in groups or pairs for this very reason. Monochrome, on the other hand, is open and receptive and “empty;” it is non-specific and changing according to time, location and the viewer. A monochromatic painting does not need to be supported by the presence of other paintings and, in fact, is generally best seen alone.

When we are seeing one painting, however, we need a clue to that painting; knowledge of other paintings by the same artist and of painting of a similar kind by others. And we are also aided by awareness of the artist’s intention, although ultimately of course it is the work that speaks.

Paintings were once seen as surfaces on which were created illusions representing real life; or they were seen as the “flat-bed plane” on which to place objects. Now they exist (perhaps since Suprematism) to be related to to other objects in the world. The experience of seeing such works is very different from the earlier way of looking. The eye stops on the surface, where once it expected to go within. Where we used to read a surface, ignoring the material it was made of, we now look at that surface’s very materiality. This work accepts the objectness of the painting. No illusion is created in terms of three dimensions, and associations outside the object are almost nonexistent. Although it is an object, the painting is painted like the particular kind of object it is – a painting. The paint is applied by an artist and the brushstrokes are visible. The surface is painted, but not the edges.

A frame is not needed to separate this thing from space around it as we accept its material limits. In fact, the edges are left unframed in order to allow verification of the kind of object it is.

The close-up focus implied by one-color painting is consistent with the enlargement of scale within a format that has taken place throughout this century to the point that finally one brushstroke, one color, can make up the entire painting. Artists concentrating on limited aspects of painting or exploring its various attributes one at a time, have, inadvertently or consciously, put together an informal catalogue or inventory of art materials and techniques. An early example from sculpture would be Carl Andre’s table of elements, with which he catalogued metals that could be used in sculpture, rather than actually making sculpture of them yet at the same time making them into a sculpture. Dale Henry showed an 80-piece work in which he catalogued methods of drawings and painting in relatively colorless materials, outlining areas of work he planned to investigate. Lucio Pozzi’s drawings have made subject matter out of the various processes of drawing – addition, removal, etc. In my own work I have examined the pigments used in making paint, as well as formats, media and mixes, and have used those separately in making paintings in order to make visible the qualities and attributes of a specific pigment color in a specific medium and format.

Much of what I am taking about has had to do with the emptying of the field of work. A surface apparently without incident reveals to the artist the impossibility of eliminating it altogether and gives to the viewer the experience of seeming emptiness and the option of dealing with her/himself in that emptiness. What is there when we have taken everything away? What happens when there is very little to see? Painting has long flirted with emptiness. Think of Malevich, Humphrey, Reinhardt, Marden, Ryman. We could not say of any of these painters’ work that everything else by one color has been removed. It is not a difficult task to distinguish between these “empty” paintings. The removal of known subject matter opened the way for other content to enter in. A painting without interior relationships of color and shape is not empty.

Although in these new explorations decisions are limited, one painting being very much like another – perhaps otherwise the same, but with minor changes – a differentiation should be made here between repetition and series.

In order to treat one concern in depth the artist may indeed repeat work, knowing that repetition leads to a similarity and not to the same. This is very different from extending permutations, working in series. Every painting is complete in itself and, rather than being a variation on earlier work, is more like the earlier work that it is different. The desire is not to work out all the possibilities so much as to refine central decisions, not to search for the new and different so much as to move toward the one.

With the elimination of drawing on the surface, painting is freed from the structural necessity, so strongly felt in the sixties, of relating shapes to the outside edge. The painting is the shape, and the horizontals and verticals of the canvas shape relate to the space it is expected to occupy; but the surface is, in a sense, free. The use of the grid in the sixties also represented that kind of rigid structure, although it could be used with a certain purity and a retaining of the personal – at least by Agnes Martin. In relations to the new work, however, the grid – as well as its atomized expression, the all-over – represents a control far too structural for acceptance of integral imagery that is now searched for. The grid provides a way to divide things into manageable chunks that is too easy. It is now too known.

The new, often monochromatic work, insisting on a restatement of the essentials of painting, was begun with the idea that quality might be in some way definable, that at least painting must have meaning, must have credibility in our present way of seeing. The issue of “quality” has been discussed at length in recent years and I do not want to go into the entire question now. The quality which is felt to be definable here is felt in a wholeness existing in the work, through an integrity of the factors involved in its making, and it is measurable by the criteria set up in the work itself. Although the work is not pushing a message, the meaning inherent in it is crucial to its viability, and, on some levels at least, is very direct.

Painting can be understood on at least four different levels. First, the painting exists physically, as an object in the world that can be responded to directly – it is tactile, visual, retinal. Secondly, technical factors exist in the making of the painting, inherent qualities of material determine method, formal aspects of the work can be examined and understood, and therefore must stand up to certain criteria. Thirdly, a painting exists as an historical statement; it is made at a particular time and represents the artist’s view of the state of painting at that time, whether consciously or not. Finally, the painting represents a form of thought, indirectly reflecting the world-view of the artist, and the time, and transmitting philosophical and spiritual experiences.

While it may be possible to speak of universal meanings, it is doubtful that content is communicated solely by eye contact. Primitives do now understand our photographs, as we have learned to do. Meaning can be communicated nonverbally, but this is at the same time a relative phenomenon, learned by experience, as one learns to read, by looking and by familiarizing oneself with the problems attacked. The body of work of one artist provides clues to the meaning of given work, as the works together of a group of artists have meaning in relation to each other. Masaccio’s painting was significant in relation to the work that preceded it and to that contemporary with it. At any period in history various works have enhanced the meaning of each other, and this continues to be true now.

There is a certain passivity evident in much of the new work. Size is often small – there is no attempt to overwhelm or to change the world. Decisions go with, rather than against the givens of a location or a chosen material. Considerations of construction take precedence over taste. Necessities in the making of a painting direct how it will be made, the final appearance, consequently, being a result rather than a predetermined effect. The work is built from the inside out. In this way form results from necessities inherent in the bringing together of elements, creating an open space in which unknown and unexpected images become active. Interior logic allows a distancing of the esthetic judgment of the painter.

Unlike previous aleatory work, decisions here derive from materials themselves, in that no foreign content is brought in. With this defining of inherent rules, the content of the work that originates in its physical aspect is transferred from the material worked on to the artist. The real subject becomes the experience of making the work, the information derived from the work, the set of values interconnected with and refined through the work.

As the making experience becomes a prime activity, the time in the studio is given greater attention. The preparation of materials is as important as the use of them. Grinding paint or preparing canvases is an equal activity with the application of the paint. Time must be arranged in order not to be interrupted; the extension of time required for work is as much to be desired for itself as for the purpose of accomplishing something.

Related to that is a certain focus of attention to one detail, one form, counteracting the fragmentation of the world around us. Eating a banana is different from eating a banana and reading a book. As a society we use our minds in McLuhan’s “mosaic” manner – we deal with several subjects at once, trying to read the news while having full-page clothing ads compete for our attention. We keep our minds on any one subject for a very limited period of time, interposing another subject, then returning to the first, but the time span is always broken. We infrequently read an entire article from start to finish. Life demands pull us from one subject to another. If meditation helps some re-experience a focus, certain work carried out by artists performs a similar function. Both in life and in art these artists attempt to give attention to one thing at a time and to avoid interruption. When attention is divided nothing is experienced completely, and the artist can communicate that intimation to the viewer.

The work I am talking about is involved with the experience of being. It begins with givens. The material exists; decisions are made as to format, combinations of materials, tools, arena. Given one choice others are made on the basis of that. A certain integrity pervades the whole. The artist is involved in being as a way of doing and in letting be, developing materials worked with. The experience is one that few other activities allow us to know: the possibility of direct action in work with final materials, of seeing what was visualized materialize itself in our own hands.

In that search for the present, for perception of being, the artist discovers a wholeness, a means of deriving beauty from within the area set out, from the nature of the materials together with the techniques and human attributes chosen to be dealt with.

I use the work “beauty” cautiously. One wonders if the term is valid, if it any longer has meaning, but we do need some way of indicating the psychotropic action of visual stimuli. It is undeniable that an effect is felt in the presence of certain phenomena – an awe, an excitement. That can be as simple as a reaction to a landscape undergoing the change of autumn colors, or the sense of grandeur felt in the face of dramatic mountain scenery. The courtyard of an Islamic mosque can provoke that feeling as can a simple bowl of calligraphic inscription. We respond to the ingenious economies of shaker furniture and to present-day work in similar ways.

This work is quiet, contemplative, and, as I have suggested, even meditative. This is a most difficult quality to discuss. We are used to talking in terms of materials and formal elements but not of subjective content. Perhaps we feel that too much discussion dissipates the fact of it. We are trying to talk about an experience that is essentially personal. All monochromatic painting has something of this in it. (Other artists one might think of here are James Bishop and Susanna Tanger.)

Recent monochrome has been called Minimal or Reductivist. Because of the apparently reduced surface, it has been easy to relate this work to Minimalism. However, the recent work is not involved in modules, fabrication or industrial finish. This differentiates it, too from Suprematism and Constructivism, where the marks of the hand were largely eliminated. The new painting accepts the marks of human touch and idiosyncrasies of the artist in conjunctions with the varying results obtainable from given materials.

From process art such work took its tendency to set up a procedure and to accept the results of carrying that out. Conceptual drawing also works this way: rules are given, and the work carried out. The product is the result of that action, although here personal content is allowed to enter. Arte Povera contributed another concept, that of using simple methods and materials rather than difficult and costly ones. A term to consider is “aesthetic primitivism” (borrowed from Robert Goldwater’s Primitivism in Modern Art), which Carter Ratcliff says “appears whenever an artist of any period intends to work with formal ‘essential,’ either to establish the fundamentals of his medium or to engage perception at the deepest levels. (5) Both of these intentions are basic to recent work.

There have been in Europe such shows as “Fundamental Painting,” “La Peinture en Question,” “Analytische Malerei,” “Bilder ohne Bilder,” “Pittura.” The Supports/Surfaces group and related artists, analyzing the materials of painting and influenced by color-field painting, have written and theorized about their work. Claude Viallat has made work out of the elements of canvas, the stretcher, color, location. Dezeuze elaborates on the components of the stretcher. Louis Cane showed paintings in which even elements of figurative art were abstracted and incorporated in his generally flat color surfaces. Work shown in Italy, Holland and Germany, as well as the American work discussed here, grew largely out of a rejection of color-field painting and its atmospheric quality. More than the French, it tends to put elements together into a whole, rather than opposing them; it is less involved in binary opposition and Structuralism.

The artist I am talking about keeps work whole and within the vision of one author, rarely using an assistant, ordering work form a factory or working in a group. Painting has been able to gather new energy by throwing things out and starting afresh. Although much of it has seemed to continue reduction, it has been, more precisely, involved in a deconstruction, an analysis of painting itself. With belief remaining in the potentialities of abstraction, and in reaction to the apparent exhaustion of painting, the artists cited above, and others, began the inventory – the cataloguing, the examination – of the parts I have spoken of. Painting became demonstrative, conceptual, a thing to be examined, more passive that it had been. The artist was making personal work. Thus certain changes came about. The format became generally smaller. Color became opaque, seen for itself rather than being used to create an illusion or to express. Line was used for itself rather than to delineate shape or form. Personal touch was readmitted as the sign of the brush and the artist’s hand was again visible. These are elements of painting.

A certain span of this analytic period appears to be concluded now, although much about painting remains to be investigated. The whole area of relational color and shape has barely been touched upon. Devices for creating illusion, and the history of painting itself, could provide further subject for study. Individual artists will decide whether or not this is necessary, but there has been through this analysis a reaffirmation of the strength of non-objective means of artistic expression. If one phase of this period of analysis is coming to an end, we may be ready to enter still another phase of abstraction, a synthetic period.

1) Max Kozloff, “Painting and Anti-Painting: A Family Quarrel,” Artforum, September 1975, p.37

2) Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology, Baltimore 1974

3) Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, Chicago 1959

4) Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Unism in Painting (Praesens Library, No. 3), Warsaw 1928, quoted in the catalogue by Ryszard Stanislawski and others for the exhibition “Constructivism in Poland 1923-1936; BLOK, Praesens, a.r., ” Essen and Otterlo 1973, p.92

5) Carter Ratcliff, “On Contemporary Primitivism,” Artforum, November 1975, p. 58

Marcia Hafif

Michaël Borremans is a Belgian painter



Michaël Borremans is a Belgian painter

It’s now many years since I discovered the work of Michaël Borremans, and his paintings continue to inspire me. The short quote, below, seems to sum up his work:

“The films, paintings, and drawings by Belgian artist Michaël Borremans (1963) overwhelm the viewer through the use of deceleration, precision and vortex. His seductive works contain timeless images of inner drive and external force, of the latent pressure involved in being human. Behind a veil of stylistic perfection, the artist simulates common rituals of interpretation and meaning. His intensely atmospheric images are puzzles involving political and psychological patterns of perceiving the world, which oscillate in a camouflaging, fragile way between inexorable realism and nebulous distance.”

a mf

Where is Ned, 2002, Oil on wood, 8 3/4 x 8 inches (22.2 x 20.2 cm)


Re: Christopher Wool – Apocalypse and Wallpaper by Glen O’Brien


Re: Christopher Wool

Apocalypse and Wallpaper by Glen O’Brien


All modern art begins to appear comprehensible and in a way great when it is interpreted as an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world.
– Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art

Glenn O’Brien: Was Pollock the end or was he just getting warmed up?

Christopher Wool: He’d barely started. His late black paintings are actually my favorites….completely underappreciated. It’s idiotic that they are seen as “figurative” thus retrograde. Critics….who needs them but you can’t kill them…

From a conversation published in Purple, vol. 3, number 6

Charlie Parker recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1949 and it’s still now. New is what works now. We may question modernism, but we still can’t help looking for that thing that snaps us out of autopilot and makes us look up on the chance we might see something in the present, right in front of us. Epiphanies happen. Oh snap!

Christopher Wool’s paintings do that kind of job now-conjuring new visions, flipping out fresh takes, constructing unheard of pictures that shock and thrill the curious and the jaded the way New York abstractionists did back in the boho fifties. But this is no rehash. It’s not Abstract Expressionism for Dummies. Wool has absorbed the whole esthetic enchilada of the 20th Century and he refries it afresh each time. He beautifully circumvents the big bad art-historical rules the way the Pop Art rebels did in the sixties. It’s a brand new bag (synthesis)-a big, hungry eye with a great rhythmic ear. For me it’s a visual analog to that jazz that’s stuck in my head, something that moves me like Epistrophy or On the Corner. A door to the gray area where the future comes from.

Christopher Wool is not an art movement. But his art is always moving, transitively and to the extent that it seems to change from viewing to viewing. Wool isn’t a movement guy nor is he a clubman or a joiner, but he has his fellow travelers, collaborators, aficionados and co-conspirators. If there is a movement related to him it will come from the youngsters, improving new chops from his central, influential grooves. And those with a good eye will see here a mode of departure that is strong and true. As Lord Buckley once said: “Yeah, there’s the hard lick that makes this endless drag flip city.”

From now on when I say Pop Art, I mean what people think about Pop Art today and when I say Abstract Expressionism, I mean what people think about Abstract Expressionism today. As Dick Higgins wrote in 1967 “Whatever the debt that others who are generally considered Pop Artists owe to Oldenburg…in my opinion Oldenburg belongs more properly to whatever movement Goya was a member of.” We’re in this for the long haul.

You can’t look at the work of Christopher Wool, or you can’t begin to look at it, without thinking of Jackson Pollock. Wool began his career with drip paintings, and he has progressed into ever more complex strategies of abstraction and the articulation of ephemeral concepts. And he’s done all this after the nominal end of abstract expressionism, the perceived end of abstract art and the declared end of painting. Quite a coup and he’s getting away with it.

Pollock and Wool are very different creatures. Pollock is dead, for example. He was loud, unsubtle, drunk and by all accounts obnoxious. Wool is alive. Also cool, dry, subtle and quite pleasant. But it’s about the work. There’s something important and umbilical there, and the more one looks at Wool’s masterful accomplishment the more one realizes that we are beholding an extraordinary and important achievement. We’re at ground zero.

So, what has Pollock, the anointed and martyred artist of introspection and high seriousness, to do with Wool, the quietly controversial, unobtrusively cool artist whose abstractions are made with the tools of a graffiti artist and whose titles come from James Brown and Funkadelic?

Frank O’Hara wrote that Pollock’s work was a quest for spiritual clarity. “The effort to achieve such a state is monumental and agonizing, and once achieved it is a harrowing state to maintain. In this state all becomes clear, and Pollock declared the meanings he had found with astonishing fluency, generosity and expansiveness.”

When Pollock’s Caddy went airborne it seemed to put the exclamation point on the sentence of Abstract Expressionism. It was an act that couldn’t be followed. Andy Warhol used to say: “He was too introspective. He thought too much. That’s why he killed himself.” So even though non-objective painting continued after Pollock, even though the best of them got better, art history moved on. It took Pop to bring back shock and the new. But the monumental clarity has come only in dribs and drabs.

But then slowly and surely Christopher Wool has reinvented abstraction and created a radical new way of working that partakes of that clarity and that heroism, but in a way that is shockingly novel and perhaps heretically casual. The work achieves spiritual clarity, but in a way that might horrify the hipster of a past generation, he makes it look easy. This is the cool clarity of a later time.

Wool has made these free wheeling pictures with a full understanding and appreciation of abstraction and of Pop too. So then what is his relation to the half-century old practice of the transcendental Jack the Dripper aside from their mutual thoroughgoing abstraction and a groundbreaking invisibility to the philistines of their time?

One could superficially interpret Wool’s paintings as parodies of Pollock’s seriousness, as a cynical re-enactment of action painting utilizing an impoverished bag of tricks hijacked from vandalism. But then one would be missing the point. (If anything Pollock parody describes Mike Bidlo, but even Bidlo does it with love.) No, Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source material and he then manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a pop artist or dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low. But despite the many apparent contradictions the work is singular, strong, organic and as deep as it might appear shallow.

One of the subtitles in Harold Rosenberg’s essay “The American Action Painters” (1959) is “Apocalypse and Wallpaper.” That makes a nice tag for what Wool is up to. There is a painting titled Apocalypse -SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS-and a series of paintings made with the rubber rollers used to mimic wallpaper. In a way that title sums up the ways in which Wool is a perfect bridge between the action painters championed by Rosenberg and the generation that followed and, in a way, opposed them. He is the Pop/Action painter, an action/reaction painter.

Harold Rosenberg created the term Action Painting, in doing so promulgating an idea that changed the course of art. He wrote: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

Suddenly the artist was not the great craftsman as much as the great actor or athlete, working in the moment. It was the inspired act, in the moment-not the grand plan, executed over time. Wool works the way the action painters work, but that is only the first step in a process that involves considerable calculated manipulation, calculated action in reaction to the original strokes. Here the tools of the pop artist, like silkscreen, and the graphic designer, Photoshop, meet the neo-primitive tools of the action painter.

William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility.” So maybe Wool’s is a poetic approach to action painting where the action becomes the subject of contemplation and then further acts, less actiony acts. It’s almost a true fusion of Abstract Expressionism and Pop-a noble bastard if ever there was one.

Warhol mocked abstract expressionism, admiring their achievements but smarting from their macho attitudes. Yet he himself only eliminated the token action drips on his first pop paintings when Emile de Antonio told him they were “shit.” According to Dave Hickey the Warhol soup can was the artists way of putting Abstract Expressionism (i.e. “soup”) back into the can.

Wool makes the soup too, (lots of noodles,) yest, he makes gestural paintings in a more or less traditionalist manner, then makes the can, manipulating the gestures later with reproductive and collage techniques from the primitive– cutting and pasting by hand–to the state-of-the-art using computers and graphic design programs. But the same sort of instinct and transcendent judgment that created the initial impulsive marks is also expressed in the deliberate use of the higher tech tools. And, in the process, and it’s all about the process, he manages to redeem painting from academic argument and décor, bringing it back to life by inventing a sort of action/reaction painting that resolves more contradictions than you can shake a brush at.

Wool uses clip art and decorative rollers in the same way he uses verbal clichés. He recycles base materials, signs of commercial kitsch and decorative banality and the husks of devalued emotional triggers, transforming them through a sort of alchemical overkill into strangely beautiful compositions. He’s mining the same ores at Koons, but the results are radically different, from the precisely absurd to the funkily sublime. Wool’s abstractions employing flower clips are not about kitsch. As Rosenberg noted: In America kitsch is nature.” Wool’s compositions spring from the spirit of the urban landscape. With Christopher Wool as with Richard Prince or Paul McCarthy, Playboy is mother nature.

Wool’s work is funky. It is high funk. It is consciously funky, from its appropriation of graffiti tactics to it’s urban povera aesthetic to its references to funk music. “Why must I chase the cat…” “I can’t stand myself when you touch me…”

Christopher Wool takes it to the bridge, spanning abstract expressionism and pop, drama and comedy, funk and the sublime. The emblem of his advanced funkiness is his spray squiggle-with all the innocence of an amateur doodle, yet all the stealth of a master brush stroke. That funk is the P-Funk. Fifty years on Pollock’s paint splash looks very artistic, whereas in its day it was a shocker. But no naked emperor connotations survive. The equivalent shocker today is Wool’s joyous squiggle, a gesture usually associated with impromptu juvenile defacement, obliteration, error. It has a motor-bootiness to it that is guaranteed to produce discomfort in the academically squeamish. That’s street knowledge.

A few years ago a patronizing adult looked at a colorful abstract drawing my five year old son was working on and said, “Oh, that’s really good! Is it a house.” My son looked the questioner over skeptically and said, “It’s a scribble!”

a mf

But look at how free it is, a scribble. Look at how that sprayed line seems to have a mind of its own, or is it a mindlessness of its own? It’s the arm aspiring to freedom in randomness, dowsing a psychic magnetic field, making tracks to a secret place where the artist is as natural as a preying mantis or a local god.

Okay, lets have a show of hands.

Graffiti is the human signature of the city. Tags are the only non-corporate individual markings in the city landscape. The spray can and marker make the only show of hands. If it were art, graffiti would be revolutionary art.

Graffiti is never abstract, but sometimes the lettering is very abstracted, pushing legibility to the limit. At the height of New York’s “wild style” movement, with its heavily decorated letters (or armed letters, as Rammellzee would put it) readability was trumped by graphic spectacle. But I recall taking an Amtrak train to Philadephia where the tracks into the city, particularly near the North Philadelphia station passed through desolate post-industrial slum with weird fields of graffiti that seemed almost like an alien alphabet. It was genuinely ill. It looked like Chinese on crack and angel dust. I don’t know what physical cues Wool provides himself when composing a sprayed line, but the results can be as strange and unsettling as those Philly tags. Sometimes his line is easy and loopy and partakes of the innocence of childlike doodling, but other times it is uneasy, tense and ill.

The word paintings are hard edge on the edge. It’s not reductio ad absurdum or a send up. It’s painting with attitude. It’s not exactly Robert Ryman with found lyrics, or Ad Reinhardt meets concrete poetry but it’s up that alley. It is minimal in its self-defined context, painted words stripped down to the bondo. It is abstraction of language itself, but it’s also about the tension running along the thin line between mass production and the personal hand. It’s about the aura of the stencil, about energy radiating and splashing from the confines of the character. It’s sign-painting with feedback.

The chosen words and phrases are All-American mantras, knucklehead koans, idiot ideograms. They are about conventional wisdom, common knowledge and default settings. They are compressed and concentrated like Alka Seltzer or Pez. They are bricks. Clunky, dangerous, mass-produced, but no two exactly alike and their composition on the canvas or page or slab puts them under a philological, microscope..

Sometimes, if you look at a word long enough, it’s stops making sense. And then you can start over again with it. We deconstruct the word and the letter and the phrase by contemplating it in skewed order, instinctively going for acrostic . Wool deconstructs words and decontextualizes phrases by stacking letters at faux random. The process generates calligraphic effects, acrostic reverb and a kind of Rubik’s cubism of meaning.

For the great impenetrable fakakta theorist of graffiti Ramellzee, graffiti was a scientific restoration of the alphabet’s power, with limitless metaphysical connotations, from the Van Allen belt to blood types. Undoubtedly the graffiti writers remanipulation of the letter had a deep iconography. Even graffiti has its cabalists. But this work is more casual. It’s about the meeting point between the machine and hand work, between formula and expression There are no answers here, only good questions about how characters and words work. Or not.

Unlike the swaggering abstractionists of the fifties, the purist painters, Wool doesn’t disassociate his paintings from at least a metaphoric relationship to the world. There’s a street-smart quality to his esthetic. He’s a connoisseur of chaos and a cartographer of disorder. His photographs, as in his book East Broadway Breakdown (2002) lays out a vision of apocalyptic entropy: graffiti on graffiti, vagrant dogs, wrecked chassis, scary spills and the abstract expressionism of blood, urine and motor oil, the gleam of pvc bagged trash, toxic stains, and demented detritus. Here’s the flotsam of Office Depot farce and the jetsam of the studio apartment tragedy, a world of dreams put out on the curb and waiting to be hauled off and given a decent or at least ecologically correct burial. But even absent of image there’s true grit in the sub-stratum, in the sub-iconography of the work.

Jean-Michel Basquiat loved the do-it-yourself bilingual bricolage aesthetic of Alphabet City, the of bootstrap enterprise. Wool, another far Eastsider, has a similar romance with fringe New York, the no man’s land, the interzone, the DMZ and the ruins of concrete jungle. Where Basquiat gleaned pop cues from that world Wool finds an alphabet of symbolic abstractions. Here is the action painting of the unconscious-accidental splashes and streaks that mark fields of blighted architecture. The over-painting of his large canvases resembles nothing more than the amateur abstract paintings that are the whitewashed windows of empty storefronts.

Wool’s swirling squiggles ride the canvas with fraught exhilaration. Sometimes Wool’s knotted lines seem loopy and comic other times they are furious or tense. When they accrete they look like cross outs, negations, but what they are crossing out is often blankness itself. They are crossing out nothing. Usually they avoid the edge, marking territory with animal energy, like a dog on a pissing marathon, extending proprietary redolence over the full scope of available space. I fuck this space up therefore I own it.

Compare Wool’s line to Brice Marden’s. Marden’s line swings as it inscribes the plane. It has rhythm and elegance. It’s almost pastoral; the kind of line one might find on a topographic map or as an element in some Islamic décor. It is almost calligraphic measure. Wool’s line is drastic, edgy and anarchic. Sometimes it has a sort of nuclear center, orbiting a ground zero in mid-canvas while other times it’s like tracks of weird subatomic particles skidding through a cloud chamber. Sometimes the lines ignores the confines of the canvas which becomes a sort of arbitrary grid or section, superimposed over the real ground of action. Then there is more to the painting than meets the eye and that part is real gone. Then it begins with the line, never a straight line, or the shortest distance between two points, but a careening, tortuous, insane line, a unmeasured distance between here and whatever.

Sometimes Wool’s line, doubling back on and crossing itself creates islands of bio-morphic shape reminiscent of Baziotes or Miro, particularly when the tonality is manipulated to give the delineated space clarity. (Untitle 2006 silkscreen ink on paper 72 x 55 1/4) Sometimes Wool’s line, like Basquiat’s line, achieves a frenetic graphic equivalent of syncopation by setting up a rhythm and then playing with the stresses, riffing against our expectations.

Wool begins with action painting, then he edits it. He doesn’t just overpaint the plane, he rearranges it. He creates a sort of Photoshop cubism in which the plane is both real and illusionary, whole and composite.

Wool creates an archeological dig on canvas. Under-painting is often an important part of abstract painting, but here it is a matter of interactive layering. We are so used to the simple plane of the canvas that Wool’s assemblages of the plane, often only slightly off or out of register and his sometimes hard to see or invisible cuts and edits make the pictorial arena a mystery.

Every painting is a history and Wool’s over-painting, his blotting and scumbling is a multi-purpose strategy that gives the work areas of discourse, areas of revelation, areas of concealment or metaphorical occultism. Over-painting can reflect a change of course or it can be a strategy from the get go. Every painting has a time signature, and sometimes Wool plays with this. What came first here? What was added? What’s the frequency, Kenneth? (Noland?)

Sometimes the bottom leaps to top, as if reclaiming turf from the neurotic scribble that cuts across the surface, undecided between randomness and skewed logic. (Untitled 2002 104 x 78) Sometimes broad over-strokes partially conceal an armature of line. (Untitled 2006 96 x 72) Sometimes the over-painting leaves traces of the line’s path, or the thick-brushed gray covering mimics or reacts to the thin black spray line beneath. But however he layers a composition there’s always the ironic dichotomy: depth in 2D. Wool creates depth where there is none, showing that depth is an illusion as much as anything.

The stencil and the roller are primitive forms of mass production, the bridge between hand and technology. But all tools are equal here-spray paint, roller, stencil or a terabyte of memory.

The perfect splash of Wool’s “Minor Mishap” resembles completely a successful abstract expressionist gesture, maybe a Clyfford Still painting. But is also a sort of acheiropoieta-an icon not made by hand. If you can see Mother Theresa’s face in a raisin bun then you could see an agonized Christ in this blood red drip of silkscreen ink. You could see a lot of things. It is certainly an evocative abstraction and this sort of accidental abstract reminds us of the spectral image evoking power of abstract art at its best. The acheiropoieta of the 9th century, miraculously produced images, were seen as proof that iconoclasm was against the will of God. Undoubtedly the capacity for the miraculous is indelibly ingrained in humanity, and the best random productions of Wool’s process have that kind of evocative power. The drip of Minor Mishap is, in fact, re-used again and again as a silk screen component in other works, an icon of accident. And by repeating these painting moments via silkscreen Wool creates a sort of emotional hieroglyphs or ideograms that stand, like musical tones, for inscrutable yet real states.

This is a large part of Wool’s modus operandi-capturing the action and re-using it. It was also a part of the Warhol repertoire, and he developed it to the threshold of where Wool now operates with the “Shadows” series, where abstraction met pop mass production. Wool takes that combination of abstract action and mechanized manipulation much further. Maybe his work has more in common with some Warhol fakes.

There is a peculiar beauty to some Warhol fakes because, as Rene Ricard pointed out to me, the lazy forgers, using Warhol’s original screens, neglected to clean them and so the images became more abstract the more paintings they made. When Wool overpaints with silkscreens he deliberately allows them to accumulate ink and dirt with the effect of creating distortion. Think fuzztone on a guitar line.

Warhol found magic in the imperfections of the printing process, in the colorful auras created by out of register silk-screens, the accidents of overlap. Wool is also interested in the copy of the copy of the copy, but he takes it farther. Like Roy Lichtenstein he loves the dot array of printing, but in his hands the image is gone. The process is all that’s left. This is the devil in the details-think Lichtenstein on angel dust. We usually consider the consequences of the chain of transmission in the negative, as “transmission loss.” But for Wool the process is not about loss but gain, about the inverse accrual of distortion gain. As the copy is copied it becomes more original. The process itself enters the picture, presenting a portrait of the void in the machine.

Wool runs the human soul as expressed through pure, almost animal expression through the reproductive technology, copying it until something else emerges, the soul of the machine. Warhol declared he wanted to be a machine. But Wool figured out how to make the machine human.

Mass production was an inspiration of the Pop Art sensibility. Democratically Pop perceived value in whatever was popular. A purchase equals a vote. And so Pop Art was a dehumanized art, using commercial art for its own sake, reveling in the romance of the impersonal and the corporate. But it’s not as as corrupt as it sounds. Pop, said Warhol, was about liking things. So it was more about like the soup label or the Supremes than about dissing seriousness.

Wool’s more recognizable pop sources are played the way a musician would play them. Maybe not a pop musician but a jazz musician. The word paintings are like standards beloved by the beboppers-they take power from playing against the familiar and finding inversions and secondary meanings and ironies in the context of the expected and the banal. Wherever there are snatches of cartoon and kitsch clip art there is also pure bebop. Like the boppers he transforms kitsch into something powerful and primal. The cartoon flowers have a sort of skull and bones mojo to them, projecting the doom of happiness, the sinister bend of the cute. They are late breaking flowers of evil.

In the pattern paintings, made with wallpaper rollers and lacy grids, he take prettiness and jacks it up until Marshall amp level distortion sets in. This amp goes to eleven. You’re in Sonic Youth territory where the composition seems to swarm, gathered within the borders of the canvas as if by magnetic force or biological imperative. He achieves a kind of graphic atonality, hitting those sour keys like Thelonious Monk or laying down swirling tonal clouds of like late Coltrane. To quote a Monk title, it’s “Ugly Beauty.” It’s reinventing beauty for an age that has outlived it.

Apocalypse? Now? What happens when the world ends? Bangs? Whimpers? Whoop-de-doos? Life goes on, I suppose. Apocalypse is a moving target. The end is always at hand for somebody. It has to be, to fill the seats of the churches, and maybe the gallery openings too.

Something is always ending and something is always beginning. At the beginning of abstraction, it was seen as the end of the picture and the end of humanistic art. The public was alienated and scandalized by the antics of what they perceived as extremist artists, from Picasso to Pollack, while astute commentators from Ortega y Gasset to Wyndham Lewis to Malraux saw abstraction as a new sort of extremism. There were now two art audiences, the traditional public and the initiated public. The artist was seen as turning his back on the mass audience, creating a clandestine sect dedicated to illuminating private worlds closed to the public. Ortega called it “artistic art.” Lewis called it “extremist art,” and defined it as art alienated from the craft of the medium and dependent on theoreticians. Ortega saw the new art as young and an inevitable consequence of democracy and mass-communcation. But Lewis saw the new artist, the abstract artist, as serving the program of the pundit-prophet (think Clement Greenberg), an “agent of the Zeitgeist,” and therefore fashion.

But maybe we’ve underestimated the public. Maybe this is where it all comes together. A pop apocalypse. Apocalypse means “lifting of the veil,” and it refers to the disclosure of mysteries hidden from the many. Maybe there is a new young public, tuned in not to the networks, but the networks of networks, to a quantum field of signs and data, a public to whom abstraction is just another avenue of perception. Not that they made an effort. They just couldn’t help it. They get it. Abstraction is nature now. Ultimately that’s what Christopher Wool’s work is about-about the abstraction of consciousness, perception and expression, about second nature becoming nature, about the wallpaper starting to swing hard.

Like they say on Avenue D: “It is what it is.”


A painting by Christopher Wool in the Tate Modern, London

Eckhart Tolle on art



Eckhart Tolle on art

I was recently watching a video of Eckhart Tolle’s Findhorn retreat and found his comments on art very interesting, as they reflect some of my own concerns. Here is an approximate quote:

True art reflects the state of consciousness from which it comes. Art should be a portal or access point to the formless or the sacred so that when we see it or experience it we experience ourselves through it. We see ourselves reflected in it – the formless shining through the form. There’s always more than what we see or hear. However, clever minds are creating pseudo art which lacks something and is totally trapped in form, it’s just manipulating old forms and nothing new has come in and nothing which can lead you back to the formless which is the original reason for all art – the sacred.

Talking about the current state of the arts and culture in general, Tolle  goes on to say in his book, The Power of Now,

“Because we live in such a mind-dominated culture, most modern art, architecture, music, and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions. The reason is that the people who create those things cannot — even for a moment – free themselves from their mind. So they are never in touch with that place within where true creativity and beauty arise. The mind left to itself creates monstrosities, and not only in art galleries. Look at our urban landscapes and industrial wastelands. No civilization has ever produced so much ugliness.”

What Tolle says is reflected in Douglas Murray’s recent book ‘The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam’ where he says,If that is so and art does indeed make nothing happen, then in the final analysis culture is of absolutely no importance. This is one explanation at least for why the art world currently plays the same games of facile deconstruction that the academy has engaged in. And why the partly New York imported art of tongue-in-cheek, naïve, ironic or jokey insincerity, fills so many galleries and sells for such huge sums of money. The three movements in contemporary art – the parasitic, the haunted full-stop and the studiedly insincere – are not aberrations in the culture.”