Of Crit­ics and Cu­ra­tors

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­drew Lam­birth

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.’

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