The elusive Michael Andrews
Michael Andrews never sought fame but his approach to painting always drew critical acclaim,
In 1976, the American painter R B Kitaj coined the phrase ‘School of London’ to describe the host of good figurative artists whose work he admired who were then working in and around London. Kitaj identified more than forty painters in this category and presented their work in an exhibition entitled The Human Clay, which included a number of pictures purchased by him for the Arts Council Collection. The ‘School’ has subsequently been fined down to signify a very specific group of artists who paint the figure. Led by Francis Bacon, they are Kitaj himself, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin and Leon Kossoff.
Michael Andrews (1928–95) may have alphabetical priority but his name does not spring readily to the lips of even those familiar with Modern British art. Although ambitious, Andrews was shy and retiring, and he died relatively young so painted too little to be highly visible in the market place. He was only 66 when cancer claimed him, and he left behind relatively few paintings – fewer than 250, including watercolours. (By way of comparison, Van Gogh, in a much shorter working life, produced some 900 oil paintings.) In a career of more than forty years Andrews had only seven solo shows, mostly at commercial galleries, and therefore not seen by a wide public, though readers may remember Tate Britain’s 2001 retrospective. Some artists seem built for fame and publicity, while others instinctively shun it.
If Andrews the man was elusive, his art was praised by the cognoscenti right from the start. Such arbiters of taste as David Sylvester in the Listener and John Russell in the Sunday Times both identified a talent to watch when reviewing Andrews’s first one-man exhibition in 1958, at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London’s Mayfair. (The Beaux Arts nurtured many emerging artists – Bacon and Auerbach among them.) Andrews had studied at the Slade under the great realist Sir William Coldstream, and, along with Euan Uglow, was one of his outstanding pupils. But early on, Andrews proved himself to be not just a painter of fact but also a painter of feeling. Principally he painted narrative subjects, a few portraits and no still-lifes. He was not so much a landscape painter as a chronicler of the inhabited landscape, everywhere redolent (even in the wilds of Scotland or Australia) of man’s presence. And the thrust of his images is nearly always symbolic of the human condition. ‘I am interested in external appearances for what they reveal of what is internal,’ he said.
He tended to work through themes, constructing unexpected metaphors for the human condition – nightclubs, schools of fish, seaside holidays, stag shooting. The latest in the short list of solo exhibitions devoted to Andrews’s work concentrates on the second half of his career, from 1970 to 1995, beginning with the enigmatic and beautiful Lights paintings and ending with the late, great Thames pictures.
His early work is painted in oils with a brush, but with the Lights series (images of or from balloons) he began to use acrylic paint applied with a spray gun. The effects are precisely calculated and very beautiful, with an apparent inevitability that belies the long years of thought and research that went into them. He made consistent use of photographs as source material, but always managed to transcend his
sources. ‘Painting from a drawing of the object, you can just copy your prejudices,’ he said. ‘Painting from a photograph of the object, you need to reappraise them as you are reminded of them.’
Andrews took his own photos and Polaroids, and made collage-like ‘storyboards’ of images and information on a pinboard in the studio. He looked at and incorporated various views to make an image, marshalling intense visual research along with wide reading. As he said in 1980: ‘Once one is launched on a subject, everything you pick up seems to apply, and not at all remotely so.’ He was assiduous in collecting the imagery to be found in such journals as New
Scientist, and he mined to great effect his copy of the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Astronomy.
He also found images in brochures and film stills as well as picture postcards, magazines and newspapers. Very specific things caught his attention. For instance, he found space travel especially intriguing, and high-rise buildings at night.
This raw material was transformed into painted images of great subtlety, generally large, so that the viewer feels that they can walk into them. The Lights were succeeded by paintings of fish, which gave place to two landscape series: the Scottish Highlands and the Australian interior. If the deer-stalking paintings are on occasion reminiscent of cigarette adverts – the Big Country beset by Scotch mist – and the Ayers Rock pictures too closely reminiscent of big bulbous human bodies, the Thames paintings are the crowning achievement of Andrews’s career. In them he has returned to oil paint and brings in the full panoply of formal strategies to achieve his complex aims. He creates equally resonant areas of emptiness and detail through washes of paint or turps, paint thinned to a bare minimum, and even to passages of dry canvas, built up elsewhere into textures (sometimes with cinders and other matter in the paint), with slicks of varnish or dribbles of pigment. This is the river of Our Mutual
Friend (Dickens was a favourite writer), of Turner and Whistler, but it is now also and pre-eminently the river of Michael Andrews. These late paintings are his greatest masterpieces.
The current Andrews exhibition is one of those rare and fabulous beasts – a museum show mounted by a commercial dealer in his own premises. Gagosian is an international gallery brand, with seven branches in America, three in London, two in Paris and individual outlets in Rome, Athens, Geneva and Hong Kong. Most of Andrews’s work is in public or private collections, and therefore has to be borrowed for a retrospective exhibition of this sort.
There is very little work for sale in the Andrews estate, so this show cannot be a huge commercial success. Presumably it is hoped to be a succès d’estime – the kind of flag-waving that will raise Gagosian’s international profile as a power in the art world. No doubt it is also designed to stimulate business in a very particular area – the School of London.
Does this mean that we will see shows at Gagosian of such unfairly neglected figures as Jeffery Camp and Patrick George (both extremely good but little-known painters of figure and landscape)? Or is Gagosian after bigger fish? Be that as it may, the Michael Andrews exhibition offers a hugely welcome opportunity to reassess one of the major British painters of the 20th century.
‘Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water’ is at Gagosian, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until 25th March.
Andrews’s ‘Lights VII: A Shadow’, 1974