An­drew Lam­birth

Look­ing at Michael An­drews

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The School of Lon­don has at­tracted a huge amount of at­ten­tion since the term was first coined by R.B. Ki­taj in 1976. Ki­taj was in search of like­minded fig­u­ra­tive artists to sup­port his own the­sis that draw­ing and ob­ser­va­tion were fundamen­tal to the mak­ing of any paint­ing worth its salt, and he se­lected an ex­hi­bi­tion for the Arts Coun­cil, en­ti­tled The Hu­man Clay, to prove his point. He iden­ti­fied more than forty painters in this so­called School, of­fer­ing a richly var­ied in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his own cri­te­ria, and in­clud­ing such un­ex­pected contributors as Carel Weight, Stella Steyn and Wil­liam Turn­bull. No one has pur­sued this kind of breadth in sub­se­quent School of Lon­don shows (though such a wide-rang­ing mu­seum sur­vey would be both wel­come and fruit­fully con­tro­ver­sial), and grad­u­ally the mem­ber­ship has been fined down to a mere hand­ful of house­hold names. Fran­cis Ba­con leads the team, closely fol­lowed by Lu­cian Freud, Ki­taj him­self, Frank Auer­bach, David Hock­ney, Leon Kos­soff and Howard Hodgkin. Michael An­drews is one of its least-known stars, and although the Tate mounted a large ret­ro­spec­tive of his work in 2001, the re­cent show at Gagosian will have been for many an in­tro­duc­tion to an artist who has re­mained reclu­sive even in death.

An­drews (1928-95) is cel­e­brated among artists but is not fa­mil­iar to the gallery-go­ing public, which makes this ex­ten­sive show­ing of his work in a com­mer­cial gallery so valu­able. But why is Gagosian, an Amer­i­can-based in­ter­na­tion­ally suc­cess­ful dealer, putting on Michael An­drews, a rel­a­tively ob­scure (in his terms) art brand? Per­haps be­cause he wants to buy into the School of Lon­don ku­dos and tempt out of the wood­work mas­ter­pieces by An­drews’s more ex­pen­sive con­fr­eres. In the mean­time we were given a su­perb ex­hi­bi­tion of mu­seum qual­ity ac­com­pa­nied by a vast hard­back cat­a­logue (price £60), show­cas­ing some of An­drews’s best paint­ings. His

early work tended to fo­cus on fig­ures in in­te­ri­ors, en­gaged in so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, the later was more to do with an in­hab­ited land­scape. For my taste, An­drews’s Lights paint­ings of the early 1970s are among his finest, but he only reached his peak in his last years with his su­perb evo­ca­tions of the Thames, painted when he was dy­ing of can­cer. Of these, The Es­tu­ary is pre-eminent, and to see this mag­is­te­rial paint­ing (along with its sib­ling The Thames at Low Tide) made a visit to Gagosian es­pe­cially re­ward­ing.

The sec­ond time I viewed the show, I did so in the com­pany of the painter Jake At­tree, a long-time ad­mirer of An­drews. At­tree, born in York in 1950, is a painter of land­scape and city, fo­cus­ing on the north of Eng­land, and build­ing up the sur­faces of his pictures with lav­ish and oc­ca­sion­ally peb­bly im­pasto to in­voke an an­cient cathe­dral or a storm pass­ing over the moors. He lives in Sal­taire, near Brad­ford, but was down in Lon­don for the open­ing of his own ex­hi­bi­tion of re­cent paint­ings at Mes­sum’s in Cork Street (dur­ing Feb­ru­ary and March), fea­tur­ing a new set of oil pas­tel evo­ca­tions of the moors about Ha­worth, fa­mous for their Brontë as­so­ci­a­tions. Three of them - among the most beau­ti­ful in a very strong show - took as sub­ject snow on the Ha­worth land­scape, con­veyed through an in­trigu­ing mix­ture of oil pas­tel over water­colour and emul­sion. Clearly At­tree has reached a new level of mastery in de­pict­ing the weather of the moors, and as a con­se­quence has be­come some­thing of an ex­pert in how to de­pict high land through the sea­sons.

I asked him what he felt about An­drews’s deer-stalk­ing pictures of the 1980s - a sub­ject I have of­ten felt un­easy about, and which on oc­ca­sion I have likened to Amer­i­can cig­a­rette ad­ver­tise­ments: out­doors man in the Big Coun­try. At­tree was al­to­gether more pos­i­tive: ‘I re­mem­ber when they first ap­peared they re­ceived from some quar­ters a cer­tain dis­ap­pro­ba­tion be­cause of the sub­ject mat­ter. The sub­ject is no more than a pre­text to make a paint­ing; I al­ways found these paint­ings beau­ti­fully han­dled, as is the case in prac­ti­cally all of An­drews’s oeu­vre.’ At­tree makes a very im­por­tant point here - that in many re­spects the prime sub­ject of the paint­ing is the paint, and that nar­ra­tive or con­tent is of­ten noth­ing more than an ex­cuse to make marks and shapes with colour. How­ever, I feel that with An­drews’s best

paint­ings the sub­ject knits with the paint-han­dling to make an im­age that has greater unity than a pic­ture which adopts its sub­ject as some sort of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Thus I love pas­sages of paint in An­drews’s paint­ings of fish, but I am du­bi­ous about the sub­ject, which in its as­so­ci­a­tion of ‘school’ and so­cial con­form­ity seems to me too glib. (His young daugh­ter was go­ing through school at the time.) But, as a coun­ter­weight to that, I greatly ad­mire the late great Thames paint­ings, in which every­thing is locked to­gether into a sin­gle re­sound­ing state­ment of ma­jes­tic ma­tu­rity of ex­pe­ri­ence and per­cep­tion.

At­tree first saw An­drews’s paint­ings in the mid-1960s and they had a strong and im­me­di­ate im­pact on him ‘not least be­cause they were works that seemed some­how to deal with con­tem­po­rary is­sues in a sub­tle and nu­anced way, in that they were not nar­ra­tive or lin­ear in their im­pli­ca­tions but rather sug­ges­tive and ele­giac…. Then, as now, he was the an­tithe­sis of ubiq­ui­tous, an­other qual­ity I found at­trac­tive.’ At­tree quotes Leon Kos­soff’s en­thu­si­as­tic ob­ser­va­tion that An­drews was ‘paint­ing the poem of the 20th cen­tury’, per­haps a hard job de­scrip­tion to live up to, but surely not nearly so re­strict­ing as the critic Lawrence Gow­ing’s as­ser­tion that An­drews only ever painted mas­ter­pieces. Gow­ing was a per­cep­tive and in­formed com­men­ta­tor on An­drews’s work (see his ex­cel­lent essay in the cat­a­logue to the Hay­ward Gallery ex­hi­bi­tion of 1980), but his sup­port in this case must have been a heavy bur­den. Per­haps this was one rea­son why An­drews painted so lit­tle, and why there is al­most noth­ing of any sub­stance left in the Es­tate with which to pro­mote his post­hu­mous rep­u­ta­tion. The Gagosian ex­hi­bi­tion is mostly bor­rowed from pri­vate col­lec­tors.

The show fo­cused on the pe­riod 1970 to 1995, and although there was a group of ten small head stud­ies from the 1960s, and a hand­ful of 1950s works, An­drews’s early ca­reer had to be taken on trust. This was a pity as some of his most im­por­tant works - the paint­ings that es­tab­lished his name - date from be­fore 1970. (Amongst these I would place A Man Who Sud­denly Fell Over, The Deer Park, and the glo­ri­ous trip­ty­chs All Night Long and Good and Bad at Games.) How­ever, we are shown The Colony Room of 1962, a sem­i­nal in­te­rior fig­ure com­po­si­tion of haunt­ingly high qual­ity. For Jake At­tree it was and is an im­pres­sive paint­ing. ‘It made me think of

De­gas then in its deeply in­tel­li­gent crop­ping and plac­ing of fig­ures in a pic­to­rial space that hov­ers won­der­fully be­tween the mimetic and the ab­stract. It also con­jures up, if you know it even a lit­tle, a cer­tain time (1962) in a cer­tain place (Soho) in a way that it is not pos­si­ble to an­a­lyse ver­bally, be­cause it speaks to us so flu­ently, so ar­tic­u­lately, in a silent lan­guage.’

The sub­ject is of course the in­fa­mous af­ter­noon drink­ing club much fre­quented by Fran­cis Ba­con and his in­ti­mates (Lu­cian Freud can be seen, eyes like head­lamps on full beam, glar­ing out from the mid­dle of the pic­ture). The im­age is spon­ta­neous-look­ing and be­guil­ingly painterly - per­haps be­cause it has what An­drews him­self de­scribed as ‘a cer­tain punchedup def­i­nite­ness’. At­tree con­tin­ues: ‘The draw­ing within the paint­ing is in­tu­itive, rig­or­ous and ab­so­lutely con­vinc­ing.’ This reaches to the heart of An­drews’s achieve­ment, and elu­ci­dates his abil­ity to fuse the ob­ser­va­tional with the re­mem­bered and the imag­i­na­tively com­pre­hended. He may have at­tempted metaphors and myths, but at bot­tom he was an acute ob­server of modern man who found new ways of ren­der­ing his per­cep­tions in paint of star­tling and com­pelling lu­cid­ity. Ki­taj would have ap­proved.

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