Of Critics and Curators
A Critic’s Choice selected by William Packer, Browse & Darby, 19 Cork Street, W1, 12 September - 5 October;
Jeffery Camp: 70 Years of Drawing, Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter’s Street, N1, 7 September - 12 October;
Richard Smith, Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, 38 Bury Street, St James’s, SW1, 1 November - 14 December 2018
A Critic’s Choice exhibition should ideally be a statement of intent, a declaration of personal taste and experience. It has rather gone out of fashion these days, when most of the individuals mistakenly graced with the title of critic seem to have no taste, few opinions of any durability and very little experience or knowledge gained from their pursuit. William Packer is however a true critic: a man of long experience in the act of looking and responding (he was art critic of The Financial Times for 30 years), he has written books, organised exhibitions in public galleries and been a practising artist himself, as well as a regular reviewer. For the Cork Street gallery of Browse & Darby he selected eleven British artists active between the 1940s and the 2000s. All are representational painters (though, as Packer is wide-ranging in his interests, he could equally have chosen a dozen abstractionists), and all are less well-known than they should be.
More than a decade ago, Packer and Jeremy Isaacs came up with the brilliant idea of selecting a museum show of postwar British painting that would demonstrate the richness and diversity of the medium, rather than simply showing once again the fashionable few artists who dominate most surveys of the period. Packer and Isaacs recruited me to the team, and with real enthusiasm I started drafting long lists of painters to include. All three of us gave time and energy to the project, and Isaacs brought his
considerable diplomatic and executive skills to the role of spokesman. We all knew it was a great idea in its simplicity and potential, but it was only borne in on us gradually (over years of waiting for answers to proposals) that it was also doomed to failure. Public gallery after public gallery turned it down – principally because it didn’t allow their own curators enough scope to exercise their personalities. After all, what we wanted to show was the true range of painting produced in this country, not some curator’s idea of what had been done. In effect our show reduced the overblown role of curator back to its original function as exhibition organiser. We wanted the art to speak for itself.
In the absence of our dream show, William Packer brought together in his Critic’s Choice a group of just the kind of artists we might have selected had a public gallery given us the green light. For almost a month, the three floors of Browse & Darby’s elegant Mayfair building were hung with paintings and drawings by Norman Blamey, William Brooker, Peter Coker, Jean Cooke, James Fitton, Peter Greenham, Jeremy Le Grice, Karn Holly, Dick Lee, Leonard Rosoman and John Ward. For me, the main discoveries were Fitton and Holly: Fitton for his landscapes (I had tended to think of him more as a social commentator), and Holly for her remarkable drawings made from script. There were also splendid things by Cooke, Coker, Ward, Blamey and Rosoman, but a selector is always restricted by the material available to borrow. Thus Greenham and Brooker were only represented by two pictures apiece, while others had as many as six or seven. I’d particularly like to have seen more work by Brooker, also Fitton. But the chance to view such different and largely forgotten talents hung together was so welcome that these are very minor cavils. Not surprisingly, Packer subtitled his show ‘Off the Radar’. Thankfully, his sweep is wider than official radio detection and ranging.
I’ve been asked to select a few Critic’s Choice exhibitions myself over the years, the first in 1990 at the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. That exhibition featured nine contemporary figurative painters, ranging from Craigie Aitchison and Adrian Berg to Robert Medley and Euan Uglow. One of the nine was Jeffery Camp (born 1923), an artist I’ve included in
two further Critic’s Choice shows since that Bristol beginning. Camp is one of the most remarkable of post-war British artists, a legend amongst fellow painters, yet scarcely known to the general public. He taught for years, predominantly at the Slade, and then wrote a couple of text books about art because he felt the old methods of teaching were in danger of dying out and being lost. His instruction manuals are respectively entitled Draw (1981) and Paint (1996), and were international bestsellers, despite (or because of) the quirky wisdom of their texts. Camp writes poetically and personally, addressing the reader in intimate manner, exhorting him or her to efforts beyond what they might think themselves capable of. His writing is enjoyed by amateur and professional alike and has done more to spread his name than any exhibition.
Here’s a typical example:
Happiness is rarely painted now. I become happy when my charcoal point shows the up-turning of a mouth or toes curling in happiness. The gargoyle views of Francis Bacon allow no trace of paradise. The people I have drawn have been inspiring, beautiful, vital, elegant, innocent, desirable, patient, sensuous and strong. I will always remember their generosity.
Jeffery is primarily a figure painter who has returned constantly to the nude model for reference and inspiration. He has drawn people drinking, resting, sleeping or making love. (There’s quite a body of erotic drawings.) His sympathetic and sensitive presence is even said to have repaired a marriage that was on the point of disintegrating: the couple in question found themselves newly reunited under Camp’s persuasive and enquiring gaze. In some respects, he is the ultimate voyeur, but then all figurative art is voyeuristic to a greater or lesser degree. ‘My paintings are pure’, insists Camp, and you know what he means, despite the wicked glint in his eye.
So how has he managed to remain one of the art world’s best-kept secrets? There has been no shortage of exhibitions of his work: retrospectives at the South London Art Gallery, the Serpentine and the Royal Academy (which
toured), and regular shows at commercial galleries such as Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts (where he started), Nigel Greenwood and most recently Art Space in Islington, run by Michael and Oya Richardson. Every time his work is exhibited, he finds new admirers (often among the young), besides delighting his long-standing supporters. When the influential American art critic Barry Schwabsky first saw Camp’s work (relatively recently, it has to be said) he immediately loved it and wanted to know who this new young artist was. He was slightly disconcerted to find that Camp was by then in his 80s, but still painting with all the freshness and ardour of youth. Schwabsky put Camp in an exhibition he curated in 2015 for White Cube called ‘Tight Rope Walk’, along with such fashionable figures as Baselitz, Cecily Brown, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Alex Katz. His work didn’t look at all out of place, and one of the many pleasures of the private view was seeing Jeffery surrounded by cool young things who loved his work and wanted to meet him. A new audience had found the master.
The latest opportunity to see a solo show of Camp’s work was at Art Space late this summer, when the whole gallery was given over to his drawings. Actually works on paper might be a better description, as so many of his pencil studies employ colour as well – either in the form of watercolour or (less frequently) coloured pencil or crayon. The exhibition was chosen from some 1700 largely unexhibited drawings that filled boxes, suitcases and plan chests in his studio, and was selected by Michael Richardson in collaboration with the art critic William Feaver and the sculptor Neil Jeffries, both old friends of Camp. The show celebrated 70 years of drawing, from rock ’n’ roll dancers on the pier at Lowestoft, to lovers in a London park or on the short turf of the cliffs above Beachy Head – a favourite Camp motif. (I remember when Adrian Berg moved to the south coast and started painting around Eastbourne. When Camp saw Berg’s pictures of the light- house at Beachy Head he was most put out. It was quite clear that he felt it was his subject, and his alone.)
The exhibition was a revelation – not just in terms of how an artist looks and composes his paintings (Camp makes drawings en plein air all the time, in sketchbooks or on scraps of paper or in the back of a diary if pressed; these
studies then form the basis for his longer contemplated studio works), but also for the truly lyrical quality of interpretation that this artist brings to the world. You might say he sees the best in people and things. There is an intensity of celebration here that is quietly worshipful. There’s humour too and visual wit and formal invention. The catalogue accompanying the show contains useful texts by Feaver and Richard Morphet, and a final tribute by the late A.A. Gill, who was taught by Camp when a student at the Slade. Gill writes: ‘Jeffery taught art in a counter Zeitgeist way. In the late 70s he was quiet and he was thoughtful and he was spiritual.’ And he defines Camp’s work as ‘a pilgrim’s look at bodies. At cliffs, and seas, and weather, at textures and light, lovers and somnambulance. But it is also a testament of love, the love of being an artist’. It’s that love that comes through all of Jeffery Camp’s work, illuminating it for us today and for generations to follow, who may wonder why we had such a great painter among us, but didn’t really seem to notice.
As I write this, a catalogue has arrived for a forthcoming exhibition of the early 1960s work of Richard Smith (1931-2016), an artist of exceptional originality and invention whose work has been rather overlooked in recent years. This eclipse was no doubt enhanced by his move to New York in 1978, and his relative invisibility in this country despite exhibitions at the Bernard Jacobson and Flowers galleries. His work has tended to be included in surveys of Pop Art, but he is not really a Pop artist. Although fascinated by popular culture, and in particular the advertising and packaging of consumer products, he was really an abstract painter, one of the first of his generation in Britain to recognise and absorb the impact of American Abstract Expressionism. The period that this new exhibition focuses on, 1959-63, witnessed the emergence of his remarkable talent, first in New York and then in London, and celebrates one of the most ambitious painters of his generation. It’s a very shrewd move on the part of Hazlitt HollandHibbert to be showing Smith now, accompanied by a substantial catalogue with tributes by fellow artists Clive Barker, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Stephen Buckley, Michael Craig-Martin, Frank Stella and Joe Tilson. The time is ripe for a Dick Smith reassessment, and this exhibition kick-starts it emphatically.
As the noted historian of Pop Marco Livingstone (who curated the show) writes in the catalogue:
Working on a much larger scale than most of his British Pop colleagues and retaining a free and expressionistic handling of paint, he brought together pictorial wit and ‘belle peinture’ and teamed the apparent purity of vast monochromatic expanses with references to billboards, Hollywood glamour, high fashion, glossy magazines and the sophistication of Madison Avenue advertising campaigns.
The paintings are beautiful and (perhaps) unexpectedly subtle, but I have not yet seen the show and make these comments after looking only at reproductions; I can’t wait to see the canvases in the flesh. Many have never been exhibited before in London. They can be seen at Hazlitt HollandHibbert until 14 December, in what must be one of the most exciting shows of the year. Hung in a commercial gallery, it is clearly of museum quality. Let me conclude with the quote from the great essayist William Hazlitt I used in my 1990 Critic’s Choice: ‘Pictures are scattered like stray gifts through the world; and while they remain, earth has yet a little gilding left, not quite rubbed off, dishonoured, and defaced.’