The elu­sive Michael An­drews

Michael An­drews never sought fame but his ap­proach to paint­ing al­ways drew crit­i­cal ac­claim,

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - says An­drew Lam­birth

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

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