Sometimes you’re taken away from painting by other work or chores…or simple fatigue or recreation…but we all need some interaction with family and friends. As for friendships they often tend to be longstanding, often forged way back. As one gets older they really do go way, way back. In this instance we all met – pause for reflection – forty seven years ago.
It started with a trip to Trent Bridge for the third day of the second Test against South Africa with my pal Allan. Cricket (along with Snooker I feel) is very much an artists game, something to do with space and time. And margins too, fine ones that can change the course of a match irrevocably. Despite England’s increasing forlorn chances of saving the game it was a good day’s outing. We followed this with an evening in the company of the fine singer songwriter Keith Christmas who played his latest album in its entirety explaining that he had conceived it with the live performance in mind. I cannot recommend it too highly.
On the way home we got to discussing what makes a great artist (in any form) and Allan repeated a conversation with his own son, Adam (himself a very talented musician) who suggested it was simply intensity. And I cannot agree more. Keith has it in spades and I like to think it may be something to do with age – Keith’s latest has some of his best work ever and quite rightly he wants it out there and admired by as many as can experience it.
On Monday last I was away to London to meet up with another pal from the graduating class of 1973 at Falmouth School of Art, Stuart. We were at Tate Modern to take in the Giacometti show that didn’t disappoint – full of well presented masterpieces. It was intensity personified – especially as regards the spacial awareness in what constitutes formal integrity. Over two days that took in a studio visit our conversations ranged widely though several of them were situated in his garden, a relatively small space but full of flower intensity that, to me at least, spills over into his paintings, ostensibly concerned with landscapes (mostly in Dorset & Spain) but just as much focussed on vibrant colour, light and form.
Our talks about painting were easy and relaxed – 47 years does that! – and some of it homed in on intention and ambition. What really matters to us is simply what our heart and head says to us in the moment – not all that extraneous matter that creeps in once you start situating the work in any kind of context. Is that what we mean by intensity?
praise famous men (and women)…back in the 1970’s when I worked at the major regional gallery our Director, the amazingly independent creative thinker Hugh Stoddart, hatched an ambitious plan. We would show, over a year or so, three seminal figures in the USA’s then nascent Conceptual/Performance Art scene – Dennis Oppenheim, Chris Burden & Vito Acconci. Hugh sadly departed the Gallery (to concentrate on his own creative career as a screenwriter) before we could carry out the full plan. We did manage to invite Chris Burden to make a piece – Diamonds Are Forever – and he arrived in Birmingham replete with a diamond (alledgedly purchased en route at Covent Garden) that formed the centrepiece of an installation that comprised the diamond twinkling in the velvet blackness of the entire basement gallery (quite a large space) [see here p.21 for an illuminating if partial account of the event. And sometime later, just after I departed Ikon for the East Midlands, Denis Oppenheim arrived to install his Vibrating Forest.
But sadly the trail then went cold…for what reason I don’t know…and Vito never made it to the gallery. He recently died and this touching tribute to him seemed to me to sum up what we missed all those years ago. With Dennis & Chris having shuffled off stage a while back a generation of amazingly inventive and revolutionary artists is slipping away.
It occurred to me a few days back that although I own a good many painter’s monographs I hadn’t acquired one on Hans Hoffman. It seemed an important omission; not least as the college copy of the big Sam Hunter Abrams book was a constant companion during my undergraduate days. As usual Abe books obliged, sadly not the Abrams but a rather good, almost new, copy of the Hudson Hills book that followed on from two shows in Germany in 1997.
This has also the virtue of containing a good few plates of those canvases completed in 1964/5 the paintings to his first wife Miz and the Renate pictures following his marriage to her following Miz’ death. We talk often of the ‘late’ paintings of artists and this can mean just about anything in most cases…after all Franz Marc reached only 36. But it is extraordinary in Hoffman’s case.
After all the ‘mature’ work (on which the significant part of his reputation rests begins in around 1956/7…when he was already 76 years old…so these final two years of canvases, of which there are many and amongst his largest, are the work of a man well into his eighties. Like Picasso and Matisse a truly ‘late’ explosion of further restless creativity – hope for us all then. Why does his work appeal to me so much…no artifice, no slickness I guess. A lot (and I do mean a lot) of contemporary painting (indeed most contemporary art of whatever stripe) looks to me to be trying a bit too hard to be ‘clever’ in some way. Either conceptually or in handling and facture and so on. The ‘Hoff’ had no time for this at all. He painted directly and spontaneously and wasn’t afraid to reveal himself through the work. I like that very much indeed!
A bunch of newish pictures are shortly off to the Ashbourne Festival. Although they are related to the series ‘Winter Cycle’ they take the idea of the geometric exploration as their starting point and have proceeded by way of fifties and sixties Jazz album design muddled and befuddled by some riffs drawn from that charming strain of modernist design of the the nineteen fifties. At the core of this has been a desire to complicate the frame further and extend the range and nature of the forms and especially the colour relationships.
Whether any of this is either of interest or assistance to the potential audience is debatable – indeed it is always rather nerve wracking putting paintings of this kind into a context of a show where most of the work is of a fairly traditional and conventional character. But of course like most artists I want to see my work out there. For many years I didn’t think it mattered a great deal but in the past few years (as old age creeps on apace perhaps!) it seems more important to me.
I’m taking a break from this series now…although in my ‘bitty’ way there are several others in process that I guess I’ll come back to at some point in the future. Not least because come the end of the week we are off to Italy for three or four weeks…and quite what I’ll make there I haven’t the faintest idea yet.
That said we are taking some lino cutting gear with us…now that’s something I haven’t worked with for many a long year now!
We were out and about again earlier this week on the ‘Playground of the Midlands’ project – I’m just ordering the canvases to get the paintings underway soon. But looking at the landscape as the first buds of spring got me thinking about the way in which creative activity is beginning to turn as more and more of us are, thankfully, living a good deal longer and the opportunity has been given to those of us of the post war generation through good pension provisions at a younger age to carry on making work into old age. It has come to the fore with the news that Phyllida Barlow will represent the UK at the Venice Biennale next summer – and how good it is to have the pavilion given over to an artist over 70 who is enjoying a substantial ‘late flowering’ in reputation.
She’s not the only one who, having had some initial success as a youngster, rather faded from view over the years when earning a living through other work, but has come storming back of late. I’m a great admirer of Sam Gilliam, who I knew from magazine illustrations as a student but who then seemed to disappear (at least here in the UK) until I was surprised a couple years back at Tate Liverpool to see an early work of his in the flesh for the first time. This was followed shortly after when he featured in a room of colourfield painters at the Met in NYC on a visit there. And just now here’s a feature in Hyperallergic…good to see Sam looking very sprightly in his ninth decade!
Of course there are many others…Carmen Herrera immediately comes to mind…so as I approach my ‘old age’ – I’m a pensioner in a few months – there’s plenty of good reason to be cheerful and to get in the studio as often as possible!