Friday, 27 March 2015

ARTIST ROOMS: The First Five Years. 
Since  Anthony d'Offay's ARTIST ROOMS  launched in 2009 with 700 works by 38 leading artists, there have been 143 Artist Rooms exhibitions seen by 35 million visitors at 77 venues from Orkney to Brighton, Belfast to Hull, including 20 in Scotland. An amazing story. Says an American supporter, "Arguably the most innovative & successful exhibition concept in history." These collections are managed by 2 of the world's most prestigious institutions (Tate & NGS) which share these treasures with regional museums & art spaces across the UK.
A brand new book recounts The First Five Years. D'offay's collection worth £125 million was acquired for the nation for a knock-down £26.5m, a lavish gift, putting d'Offay on a par with philanthropists like Henry Tate & Samuel Courtauld. Says Tate director Nick Serota, " A gift of this magnitude completely transform s the opportunity to experience contemporary art in the UK. Anthony d'Offay's imaginative generosity establishes a new dynamic for national collections and is without precedent anywhere in the world.'
 Richard Long
Well illustrated with images by all the artists so far involved in Artist Rooms, (Arbus to Weiner & Woodman with an emphasis on Beuys & Warhol) it contains some dry facts & lists levened by vital details. Right at the back of the book we learn that aged 7 to 10 d'Offay was left at Leicester's main art gallery while his mother went shopping. There was a Francis Bacon there that made a big impression. Bacon still does, "because of his colossal importance and influence a continuing relevance today." These Leicester gallery visits "Became the defining experience of my life." 
Later as a student in Edinburgh he haunted the NGS, met Ricky Demarco & Beuys, plus Ian Hamilton Finlay. Says Demarco, "In the early 1960s t his extraordinarily serious young man came into my gallery endeavouring to interest me in a print ! " Twenty years later, Demarco watched d'Offay create his reputation as an international dealer via  Beuys, whom Demarco had introduced to Britain - and to d"Offay
As his West End London Dering St gallery spaces grew, in 1980 d'Offay was able to do Beuys' huge felt pieces justice. In 1986 he exhibited Warhol's late self portraits portraits amid a media riot of TV & press. My review of 15th July '86 tells me there were "22 portraits, silk screen on canvas of Warhol with spiky silver grey wig teased into angular diagonals, printed in shocking pink, bilious green or jigsaw camouflage. The large 9ft canvases cost $65,000 in dollars."  I met Warhol again the day after his opening. He was at the Hayward Gallery to see L'Amour Fou, the blockbuster Surrealist photography show. "I wish I'd come here yesterday instead of those d'Offay receptions." he told me. "This is a wonderful, marvellous exhibition." Warhol wanted his photo taken in front of the placard blowup of Boiffard's 1930s female nude, & he raved over a small, precise & mysterious 1923 image of Aragon's Hands taken by Man Ray. Six months later he was dead. 
Still controversial & challenging to new audiences, Warhol & Beuys were key to d'Offay's gallery and, because there are several hundred works by each, remain the twin great poles of ARTIST ROOMS. Damien Hirst
D'offay was one of the most hugely successful art dealer ever & shocked everyone when he closed his gallery in 2001, a week before 9/11. 'There is never a good time to announce one's retirement, but I would rather step down when the gallery is at its height.' he said. Little then did we know his master plan! Its 3 main principles are to work with world-class art; to curate tailor-made in-depth solo shows which are shared by travelling to regional museums & art galleries far from metropolitan centres; to inspire young people.                             
Hamilton Finlay
Immersive is such a current over-used word. But for once it really applies here. Introducing difficult figures such as Vija Celmins to Dumfries or Bill Viola to Kilmarnock & Stromness, Jenny Holzer to Woking, is made easier by an all encompassing, immersive focus. Collaboration with smaller galleries has taught them about environmental & insurance conditions. Encouraging marketing/press partnerships between museums/ galleries + youth programming... it's all a veritable educational institution as well as a top class touring extraveganza. 
         robert therrien
It all comes down to branding & stamp of approval. Big names open doors. Big names get press attention. No surprise that frequently 50% of visitors were new to the venue & the young have often never heard of the artist before they step thro the door.  

Loyalty to Scotland shows, vide the current superb Lichtenstein exhibition at GMA. D'Offay believes fiercely that  "Art isn't fun. Art is about mortality. Art is about ideas. Art is a liberating & strengthening experience. In a time when, for many people in this country, religion no longer fulfils the role that it did 50-100 years ago, what you believe in becomes very important. Art and creativity become something you can believe in.'
Warhol once said, "I wanted to be an art business man or a business artist. Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art." With ARTIST ROOMS D'Offay, now 75, still very hands-on, has achieved something wonderful, something unique, at a stroke transforming the visual arts landscape of the UK. Thank you Thank you. And I hope you get your Francis Bacon soon! 

       Edinburgh GMA

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


Artists widows can have a tough time. My friend Magda Salvesen, herself the widow of American expressionist Jon Schueler, wrote a book about women left to deal with famous painters' archives. 
Some widows accept the job. Others hate it. In Scotland Carol (Steven) Campbell and Maggy (Tim) Stead have tackled the problem with determination and expertise. 

Dorothy Lichtenstein is also an example 
par excellence. She is present whenever, whatever. The first time I met her was in New York subway at 42nd St /Times Square when Lichtenstein's vibrant 53 ft mammoth mural was installed. It was 2002. She told me then, "Roy loved New York & rode the subway from the time he was a boy." Last week she was in Edinburgh, her first visit, for the unveiling of 16 large scale prints from the 1990s.
Still beautiful, unfailingly polite she endures posing for press photos & interviews with patience and tact. 

They met in 1964 when she was working in an art gallery in New York round the corner from his studio. "We had asked him and Andy Warhol if they would put an image on a shopping bag for us. Roy was just happy to be asked He was a shy person."  For her it was love at first sight. They married in 1968. He died in 1997 age 74. 

The Edinburgh show consists of 3 Artists Rooms, filling the GMA ground floor. The 16 prints from the 1990s are huge & impressive, most riffing off the idea of reflection, glass and mirrors. GMA is lucky in its possession of his famous comic book Car oil painting 1963 which used comic books as its source. The Tate has also loaned a dramatic steel relief from 1965, Wall Explosion.

 Car 1963

Lichtenstein, a pioneer of Pop Art, is best known for his use of the immediately
recognisable commercial Benday dots, which brought him fame when he was 40. But another signature is his love of  images as tho seen thro glass, with streaks crossing the surface.
In the 1990s he reprised this use of parallel lines but in a more elaborate, sophisticated way. He also took to a playful reworking of iconic images by Picasso & Monet. Here a series of 1992 Water Lilies on stainless steel are produced using a hand held tooled drill to make small whirls. Silk screen lines & lily pattern shapes over lap the reflective surface to suggest shimmering water - a highly complex printing process!
In the 1990s Lichtenstein also tackled the nude for the first time. Dorothy says, "Roy once joked that it was a good excuse to contrast undulating & volumetric form with rigid geometry."

There are also several compositions relating to music - he loved jazz - with notes breaking free of the stave to float beyond.
Lichtenstein's blurring of the boundaries between high & low culture which began in the 1960s, never left him. He has had a major influence on future generations of artists and designers worldwide.

This exhibition is courtesy of Anthony d'Offay's ARTIST ROOMS, the Lichtenstein Foundation in NY & the Tate. Since it was launched in 2008 with 1500 works by 38 leading artists, valued at £100 m, there have been more than 130 Artist Rooms exhibitions seen by 31 million visitors. An amazing success story.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

THE TWO ROBERTS Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.  

I am old enough to have been taken as a child to the 1951 FESTIVAL of BRITAIN in London. I remember it well - but whether we saw the exhibition Paintings for 51' where the 2 Roberts showed, I don't know. We did see lots of sculpture (my mother was a sculptor). I also saw Beryl Grey dance - that I remember. 
The 2 Roberts by their teacher Ian Fleming, 1937-8. 
Reading Patrick Elliott's superb catalogue for ROBERT COLQUHOUN & ROBERT MacBRYDE at Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art reminded me of this, while the sombre, often murky greeny grey, ochre & brown tones of many pictures here are so familiar that they bring that difficult post-war era flooding back.  

The second World War and 1950s post war years were anxious, dark & brooding times, even reflected in dress or curtain fabrics. It was as though the sun had disappeared & even oil paints & fabric dyes were mournful. I remember my mother eventually turning up to fetch me from primary school in a brightly coloured, full-skirted dress. I was astonished & remarked "You look funny" - which was not what she wanted to hear! It was the first time that rationing had allowed skirts to use anything but drab, skimpy material.
This major must-see show celebrates the 2 Roberts centenary. Yet it is a sad story. The pictures are not easy, for they present a tragic vision of humanity; a stark depiction of poverty and deprivation. Colquhoun's grieving, angular, hollow eyed figures are resigned yet noble. 
 MacBryde, known for his still life paintings, does use more colour but together with ominous shadows & black outlines. Cubist in influence, both painters absorbed much from their early European trips, with Colquhoun's broken up figures reminiscent of Jankel Adler and Picasso. 
1947 MacBryde Still Life 
Nevertheless they are pictures which chimed with the times. Soon the 2 Roberts were enjoying a huge London success, holding sell-out shows. Close friends included Freud, Bacon, Minton; Sir Kenneth Clark, (director National Gallery) Sir John Rothenstein (Tate Director) & Sir Colin Anderson were avid supporters. 
Colquhoun specialised in figure painting, MacBryde in still-life, and was often in Colquhoun's shadow. Hard drinking, volatile and uncompromising, their lives were as passionate and compelling as their art.
In 1948 New York's Museum of Modern Art & the Tate acquired paintings.  By 1950 they were among the most famous artists working in Britain. 
While the 1940s took them from obscurity to stardom, in the 1950s they descended into penury and alcoholism, with no permanent home, living on charity from friends. As a gay couple when this was illegal (till 1967 in England; 1980 in Scotland) they had been lucky to fall on their feet in 1941 in London among the bohemian Soho crowd, but that also involved a great deal of drinking too, which became their downfall. 
Elliott's off repeated phrase, "Nothing came of it" is telling. Commissions, exhibitions, requests for illustrations, pictures, theatre designs, nothing came of them. What a waste of huge talent- but then drink is a very Scottish problem. 

Moreover as abstraction and New York expressionist exuberance (for the US had not endured a war) became the dominant force, these tough, gritty, subdued "ultra-modern" images were no longer wanted. 

Both artists hailed from Ayrshire and met at Glasgow School of Art in 1933 where their superb draughtsmanship soon brought them travelling scholarships to Paris where in 1939, they inevitably saw Picasso's work before going on to Rome reporting "it was full of soldiers." 
Colquhoun Self Portrait 1940
During the war Colquhoun, handsome, charismatic, but melancholy by nature, drove an ambulance which may have influenced his vision of tense, emaciated, suffering mankind. Having experienced the Depression too, his whole approach to life was less upbeat than MacBryde's. Texture was important to both, animals often appear in Colquhoun's work, which frequently has an autobiographical slant. His pairs of figures, even when female, often resemble the 2 of them. 
MacBryde 1948 Still Life
Two women sewing 1953 by MacBryde for Coronation Year exh at the Tate. 
The catalogue ends with a wonderful essay by Davy Brown on Colquhoun's monotypes. Any printmaker will be enthralled by this informed, fascinating look at these powerful graphic works. 
The Gardener, 1948, monotype by Colquhoun

The TWO ROBERTS runs till May 24th.