Monday, 21 March 2016

Moore and Minimalism

Giacometti and Moore were the sculptors Sylvester was most closely associated with. Both were primarily sculptors of the human body. The way Sylvester experienced their figurative work was inevitably affected by recognition of the human form- for example, they way that his posture stiffened involuntarily in the presence of a Giacometti sculpture.

His experience of abstract sculpture was often predicated on the way its physical form affected him in a similar way. For instance, in his 1967 interview with Robert Morris, Sylvester began:

'I have found with almost all the pieces that the kinds of feelings and muscular sensations that I have in front of them are the sorts that one has in looking at humanist sculpture and painting of the figure- that is to say, a very pronounced sense of one's own body and feelings about extensions of once's own body, the scale of it, all kinds of sensations of this sort referring back to one's body, such as one feels and is meant to feel in front of, say, a Michelangelo'.
(he later compares these sensations specifically to the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia)

Equally, in an essay on Richard Serra's Weight and Measure installation at the Tate Gallery in 1992, Sylvester compares encountering one of the two steel blocks with 'dancing with an unfamiliar partner who isn't ridiculously taller or shorter than yourself', before adding:

'I imagine that the short and the tall cannot respond to this work as others do: this applies to a lot of minimal art, the impact of which is so often bound up with its height in relation to ours'.

Or again in his 1999 interview with Rachel Whiteread:

DS: Do you have problems deciding the size of the works? Of course, if you are doing a bath, a mattress, or a house, it's given.
RW: Exactly. I don't think I have ever made anything that hasn't been related to my own physicality, my scale.
(Whiteread continues to talk about the 'human scale' in her Water Tower in New York).

I was just wondering how this related to Sylvester's writing on Moore, for instance, and it occurred to me that this sensitivity to scale was what he found lacking in many of Moore's larger works. This is from a 1996 text on de Kooning:

'When Henry Moore, reacting very positively to de Kooning's first sculptures- the thirteen hand-sized pieces that the artist made in 1969- suggested that some of the m could be enlarged to a monumental size, the advice was of course flattering. But it might have given de Kooning pause, because Moore's enlargements of his own work were notorious for the fallibility of his judgment as to how big they could afford to be. He often went too far, so that the result looks overblown; there is a certain tendency for his maquettes, made with his own hands as he worked alone in a small studio, to be more alive, more poetic, more compelling, than the big sculptures that came out of them.'

Sylvester was far from unusual in his belief that bigger wasn't always better in Moore's work, but whereas many objected to him relying upon big public commissions, particularly from the US, or selling his sculptures in various sizes, this wasn't Sylvester's objection. Indeed in his 1968 monograph on Moore, he gives Locking Piece as an example of 'one of the few images Moore has realized in both medium-size and large versions which works about equally well as both'. The issue was how far Moore had drifted from his 1937 statement that 'there is a right physical size for every idea'. In the 1960s, by which time Moore had completed some of his best-known public works, Minimalist artists such as Morris retained the sensitivity to scale which he thought Moore had lost. Not only did Sylvester interview Morris at the same time that he was organising Moore's 1968 Tate exhibition, he was already planning for the Morris exhibition which was to take place at the Tate in 1971 (although Sylvester ended feeling that his plans for an elegant retrospective of Morris' Minimalist works had been sabotaged by the participatory installation that Morris favoured.

What I like about Sylvester's writing on Moore, which can be followed from the early 1940s up to the 1990s, is how most of Sylvester's changing interests can be glimpsed in it somewhere. The 1968 catalogue is the best example of this- apart from the artists mentioned in the text, it seems clear to me that the text shows Sylvester thinking about Moore in relation to Minimalism, Oldenburg (in the 'Hard and Soft' section) and others.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

British Figurative Art

Around 1995, an editorial in Art Monthly criticized the British Council for promoting figurative art as the main achievement of British art in the 20th century. In 1993, one of the first Francis Bacon exhibitions since the artist's death took place at the Museo Correr in Venice, with Richard Hamilton in the British Pavilion. In the following Biennale, in 1995, Leon Kossoff was in the British Pavilion, and he also featured prominently in the curated exhibition Identita e Alterita, which focused on images of the human body. Other British Council touring shows focusing on post-war figurative painting were also cited as evidence of this disproportionate emphasis.

The Bacon exhibition at the Museo Correr, and the Kossoff exhibition in the British Pavilion in 1995, were both curated by David Sylvester. As a result, he was strongly connected to the promotion of a group of artists widely referred to, however erroneously, as the 'School of London'. To an extent this showed Sylvester continuing to favour one (although not the only) sort of art he had admired since the 1950s: figurative painting, predominantly of the human body, combining close observation and a relish for paint as substance. However, within amongst British artists falling into this category, Sylvester's own preferences had changed over the years.

Princess Diana and Andrea Rose at the 1995 Kossoff exhibition in Venice (photo by William Feaver)

Sylvester had been amongst the very first to write in support of both Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, but had long since ceased to write about either artist (criticizing the later work of both artists in a public discussion in Edinburgh in 1995). On the other hand, Kossoff and Euan Uglow, neither of whom he had written about before (except for passing mentions), were both the subject of eulogistic texts in the nineties. Some of the same qualities can also be found in younger painters he admired in the nineties, Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown, while it is also relevant in this context that Sylvester was a huge admirer of Gilbert & George, to the despair of some of his admirers. (The recent Robert Hughes volume The Spectacle of Skill contains, amongst its previously unpublished material, a passage in which Hughes states his admiration for Sylvester's work while completely failing to comprehend why he was so drawn to Gilbert & George.)

In his essay for the 1995 Kossoff catalogue, Sylvester makes (perhaps too) clear that he considered Kossoff to be directly descended from Constable, as he did another English artist who he sometimes claimed to be the greatest of his generation, Malcolm Morley. The excellent series of responses to the proposition 'There's No Such Thing as British Art' in volume one of the Paul Mellon Centre's British Art Studies reminded me of Sylvester, not least because Martin Hammer, in his statement, quotes him on Sickert: "The tragic flaw in English painting is compromise, unwillingness to be committed to a point of view, a desire to have the best of two or more worlds (especially, in our time, a present and a past world)." Sylvester's sense of British art, or at least the best British art, seems to have involved the attributes found in the artists mentioned above, and I think this is why he was so keen on making this connection between Constable and Kossoff.

This is all pretty well known and I'm always keen to draw attention to the less familiar aspects of Sylvester's work, but it's striking how neatly the group of essays about British artists he chose to reprint in his selected essays, About Modern Art, fit together. In the final edition 22 out of 77 essays are about British artists, of which only five are about abstract art, and only one on a British abstract painter (Bridget Riley). Given how wonderfully Sylvester wrote about artists such as (abstract) Pasmore, it's hard not to see this presentation as a streamlining of the British tradition. One of my favourite unpublished Sylvester statements, in fact, is a wonderful defence of Marcus Harvey's Myra at the time of the Sensation exhibition, which demonstrates his conviction in its power and importance not only as an image but as a painting.

What I mean to say, simply, is that in reflecting on Sylvester and British figurative art in the 1990s, it's important to remember there was a lot more going on than the succession of Bacon exhibitions he curated. He paid close attention to the work of younger artists, sometimes in texts which haven't been reprinted and sometimes in personal correspondence and other unpublished writings, but it all adds up to a strong sense of an ongoing tradition.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Art Criticism of an Aftermath

From very early on in his career Sylvester believed that the art of his time was, to quote the title of a 1957 essay, 'the Art of an Aftermath'. The most incisive writing of his early years as a critic, on artists such as Klee, Bacon and Giacometti, was animated by a conviction that they were practicing art criticism within their art. To see Sylvester's criticism as 'existentialist' is probably at least as wrong as seeing the art of Bacon and Giacometti in those terms. If anything, Sylvester underplayed the post-war context which now seems inseparable from much of Bacon and Giacometti's best-known work. Herbert Read took issue with Sylvester's first radio broadcast on Bacon because 'the language is such as might be used by a lecturer in a physics laboratory'. Sylvester's 'analytical method', for Read, brings to mind Wordsworth's phrase 'we murder to dissect'.

It is revealing that near the start of Looking at Giacometti, Sylvester lists the similarities between Giacometti and another of his heroes, Wittgenstein:

There is a similar consuming dedication to an activity, and a similar refusal to take for granted accepted assumptions about the purpose and possibilities of that activity. There is a similar feeling that this activity is not a means of producing works of philosophy or works of art, but a search that can never lead to a final solution. There is a similar passion for economy [..] a similar reluctance to make their work public [...]

(it goes on)

Undoubtedly Sylvester is in one sense a man of feeling in the lineage of Pater and Berenson. He referred to 'the way I can't help writing about art, which is not unlike St Teresa of Avila's reports on her intercourse with the deity', and certainly, reading Sylvester is often like reading a review of a live event. Tom Lubbock astutely described this sort of criticism as one where 'the critic performs, not by talking to us about work to which we're both assumed to have access, but rather by experiencing the work on our behalf, for our benefit'.

An interesting thing about Sylvester's writing, however, is that this 'phenomenological' approach coexists with the side which saw the condition of modern art as a form of criticism. Sylvester found he couldn't write about the Minimalist works he loved, because the experience alone was insufficient. The quality shared by Sylvester's writing not just about Giacometti and Bacon but also Moore and Magritte, was that he was able to by turns convey a visceral experience of their work, and see it as the outcome of a comprehensible process. This says something about both the jaded post-war art world in which Sylvester developed as a critic, and his pragmatic sense of criticism as a vocation.   

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Matching Up

'The figurative artist [my italics] is now competing with all the art of the past. In the Renaissance he was only competing with the Romans and copies of the Greek.
Giacometti was competing with the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Cycladic, the Byzantine, the Romanesque.
And there was also Cézanne to deal with [...]'

This comes from a notebook compiled by David Sylvester around 1992, possibly after having seen the major Giacometti exhibition at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (November 30, 1991-March 15, 1992). Compare this with an earlier (c.1960) comment that Abstract Expressionism, like Surrealism, was an attempt to 'see what could be salvaged from the wreck' of Duchamp and Dada. Neither note made it into the book they both relate to, Sylvester's Looking at Giacometti 1994, but they both reinforce the point that Sylvester was above all an advocate of figurative art. This allegiance is easily exaggerated or misinterpreted, because Sylvester's interests were much wider than this, and in 1960 he was at his most energetic in promoting Abstract Expressionism.
But reading the comments above I was reminded of Francis Bacon's well-known outburst against abstract art in his second (1966) interview with Sylvester. Sylvester would lament Bacon's closed-mindedness to abstract art and the arguments they had as a result, but what Sylvester and Bacon shared was a strong sense of tradition and dialogue with the art of the past. However you feel about the Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, it does approach this question of the grand tradition head-on. And Sylvester, like Bacon, was a quintessentially European in his regard for the integrity of a figurative tradition, as shown by his choice of artists- Moore, Giacometti, Bacon, de Kooning. And much of his advocacy of Bacon and Giacometti has to do with the fish-out-of -water character of their art. Bacon and Giacometti were for Sylvester the closest he got to finding his own Picasso and Braque. But where Picasso and Braque in their Cubist years were like mountaineers roped together, Sylvester saw Giacometti as more like a high-jumper. The mountaineer knows when he's reached the summit, but however much the high-jumper achieves, he fails in the end.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Henry Moore and Nature

A 1992 interview with Anthony Caro included in Richard Cork's recent book Face to Face: Interviews with Artists includes the following comment from Caro on his time as an assistant to Henry Moore:

'At Much Hadham, where I was living at this period when I was with him [Moore], we [Moore's assistants] would find things there and put them on the path where he walked, and he'd pick them up and he'd say: 'Look what I've found!' [laughs]'

The obvious way of reading this mischievous play is that of a critique of Moore's fondness of using stones, bones and shells as source material, examples of the 'principles of form and rhythm' he sought to incorporate into his sculpture as outlined in his essay in Unit 1 (1934). Caro and his colleagues, then, cracked the code, planting objects in Moore's path which, when selected by him, demonstrated that his apparent trust in serendipitous encounters with nature was in fact a predictable system. Caro was demonstrating the same sort of thinking that makes Ryan Gander prefer van Doesburg to Mondrian (Ampersand: Notes on a Collection, pp.129-31) as the less deceived.

David Sylvester, in a note on Moore from 1960 made clear what he felt were the limits of Moore's use of natural forms:

'There is something too passive about Moore's acceptance of nature's way of working stone and so on. What we ask of the artist is that he should have a kind of love-hate relationship with nature and that the very intensity of his love should be a motive for destruction [...]'

This was written at a time when Sylvester felt that Moore's adherence to natural processes betrayed a naivety, a lack of rigour. I suspect that he felt this way about Hepworth's work, although his complete indifference to it meant he never wrote enough about it to be sure of that.

By 1968, when Sylvester curated Moore's major 70th birthday exhibition at the Tate, his opinion had changed. Here, in the section 'Stones, Bones, Shells' in the monograph/catalogue for the exhibition, he suggests that Moore's fixation with these objects was to some extent an alibi, which fulfilled 'a need to tell himself that his abstract forms were obeying some authority beyond that of his own instincts'. Particularly in the climate of hostility to abstract art in which Moore developed, Sylvester claims Moore 'was painfully anxious to allay any suspicion that his abstract direction meant a retreat from reality [...] nevertheless, he protests like a man conducting an argument with himself'.

The change in Sylvester's thinking is clear: in 1960 Moore was too content in his ruralism to take entirely seriously; in 1968 he is seen as more complex and conflicted, a man who both wants to express his personal taste and fantasy, but lacks the absolute confidence to do so of a Picasso (hampered in part by a particularly English timidity). The question I couldn't help asking, then, was: if Moore had known that the stones were placed there by Caro rather than appearing by nature's good offices (or if, for argument's sake, if Caro had fashioned a similar-looking object and left it amongst the stones), would that have made them any less worthy of his attention? Maybe Caro (to his own surprise) would have been just as good an alibi as nature.

This need for a 'love-hate' relationship with nature can be found all over Sylvester's writings, and probably has something to do with growing up amongst the earnest neo-Romanticism of the 1940s. Mondrian was for Sylvester the classic case of an artist who approached nature with eyes wide open:

'One of the great landscape-painters of his generation, one of the great flower-painters of his generation, comes to find trees monstrous, green fields intolerable'.

More recently, I think this is the reason why Richard Long rejected the catalogue preface which Sylvester wrote for the 1994 Sao Paulo Biennial. Long, in a piece published several years later, said of Sylvester:

'he just didn't get my work. It was a classic case of an urban intellectual who didn't have a clue of what it was to walk in the Andes or getting wet in thunderous rain on a Scottish hillside'.

No doubt, and Sylvester's reading of Long's work is more indebted to Jasper Johns than anyone else. In their 1965 interview Sylvester and Johns memorably confronted Johns' claims of impersonality, and the same questions of acceptance and decision resurface in Sylvester's writing on Long.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A Certain Doubt

I've always loved the end of Sylvester's autobiographical essay 'Curriculum Vitae' (in About Modern Art, first published 1996), which confronts Sylvester's disappointment at seeing a Giacometti retrospective in 1978, when it occurred to him that:

'Seeking had become- what it never had with Cézanne, say, or with Mondrian- fetishistic.
One day (according to Maurice Jardot) Picasso told Michel Leiris that he felt that the work of their old friend Giacometti was becoming increasingly monotonous and repetitive. Trying to explain and excuse this, Leiris spoke of Giacometti's consuming and intense desire "to find a new solution to the problem of figuration". Picasso answered: "In the first place there isn't any solution, there never is a solution, and that's as it should be.'

This comes, of course, from someone who did perhaps more than anyone else to establish Giacometti's reputation in Britain and whose monograph on the artist (Looking at Giacometti, 1994) was thirty-five years in the making. It's nothing like a loss of faith but an acceptance that opinions change over time.

I quote this because it complements something John Ashbery wrote in 1971 which I recently read, reprinted in Jed Perl's anthology Art in America, 1945-1970. Ashbery notes similarities between Giacometti and Leland Bell, with the caveat that:

'where the latter artist [Giacometti] seems sometimes to have embarked on a hopeless mission, a sort of Penelope's web created only to be rubbed out and rebegun, Bell is not afraid to contemplate completeness [...]'

Ashbery, like Sylvester, knew something about doubt and uncertainty, and like Sylvester, realized that for that uncertainty to become permanent is a parody of itself, a strange kind of certainty.

Of course, there are many similarities between Giacometti and another of Sylvester's passions, Francis Bacon, not the least of which is the knowledge one has in looking at their works that they could so easily have been destroyed, or are perhaps inferior to works which didn't survive. I often think of their surviving works like the fortunate survivors from ancient civilizations, which managed to escape all the opportunities for their destruction (this of course applies in different degrees to all art), with this exchange from Giacometti's interview with Sylvester (in Looking at Giacometti) an indication as to why:

DS: So when we see, say, a standing woman, this sculpture cast in bronze has possibly been made in a couple of hours but had already been done perhaps fifty or a hundred times.
AG: Yes, certainly.
DS: Do you know whether you need this constant repetition for personal reasons or for artistic reasons? And when you've redone something fifty times, is it decidedly better the fiftieth time than it was the twentieth?
AG: Absolutely not. Maybe no better than the first time.

There's always the risk of romanticising the destructive element in Giacometti and Bacon, and no doubt many other artists have gone through the same process without it becoming part of their mystique in this way. But to go back to Giacometti's doubt, one of his differences from Bacon is that I can't imagine Bacon saying this (again from the Looking at Giacometti interview):

'It's a matter of complete indifference to me whether a work is a success or not [...] A failure interests me just as much as a success. And we ought to exhibit our less good works rather than choose the best [...] because if there are others hidden away that aren't so good and don't hold up, even if you don't show them they still exist. And if someone looks very carefully he can see weaknesses even in the best of them. So we should start with the poorest.'

Bacon, the gambler, took risks in his work because he was constantly hoping for the marvellous accident that would produce a masterpiece and define his career, make his time on earth mean something. He took an impersonal view of luck and was happy to accept it. Giacometti, in this statement at any rate, saw every piece as one more plus or minus in the overall tally. The question with Giacometti, which the Picasso anecdote above sums up wonderfully, is this: if Bacon was concerned with 'deepening the game' he thought art had become, was Giacometti refusing to play it? Marla Daniels has that great line from The Wire: "you cannot lose if you do not play".

Thursday, 1 January 2015


Irving Sandler suggested that John Cage was, apart from everything else he was, 'arguably the most influential critic/theoretician of the second half of the twentieth century'. Sylvester became interested in Cage's work and interviewed him twice (1966 and 1987), as well as writing about his work.
       That Sylvester took an interest in Cage is not surprising- Cage's links to artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg played a part, as did his visual arts background and the visual appeal of his scores (the subject of an essay by Sylvester). But what is more interesting is the challenge to Sylvester's own position that represented, because as he stated in a radio discussion in the early 1970s, Sylvester needed the filter of an artist's intelligence to stimulate him. The example he gave was that he couldn't find a fork as found, as interesting as one presented or represented in the terms of an artwork. I expect that a fairly high percentage of those interested in contemporary art would be sympathetic to this view, because of the sense of a discussion or exchange which comes with it.
       The irony of Cage's work is that it seeks to undo itself. It is a body of work created by an individual that is dedicated to breaking down the barriers between itself and everything outside itself. As Sylvester wrote of him,

'he is trying to create art that operates like nature- that leaves us to operate on it as we have to on nature. To look harder than art demands because art presents  us with a vision, with nature we have to use our own'.

Experiencing Cage's art might then implicitly critique its audience, like an advertisement for a gym on TV. But in the unpublished text from which the above is taken, Sylvester seems to find Cage's work as containing pathos rather than the direct challenge of some of his contemporaries. What I think Sylvester takes from Cage's work is a temporary absorption in nature. In experiencing Cage's work we might have that feeling of being more aware of our surroundings, and wonder why we aren't always (or at least more often) in that state. But soon after the performance ends we go back to normal.
         Sylvester was conscious of the way in which art focussed his attention, and wondered what would happen 'if we all went fishing and none of us made works of art'. This again chimes with the interview in which Cage reports that Johns had told him 'that he could imagine a world without any art in it and that he saw no reason for thinking that it would not be a better world than the one we're living in'. The paradox is that it's knowing what we get from art that makes us think that we should be able to get along fine without it.