An Artist Writing
I think that there are some surprising common aspects of making art, and writing about it, in handling paint and in handling words. For me this is because both are as much about finding as about doing. The act of doing is always generative whether it is obvious or not, to the point where it is often the most interesting aspect of either. It can seem when this is happening that they produce themselves. Gerhard Richter said that he wanted his paintings to be smarter than he was, and I think he was referring to this process. I certainly don’t have an explanation for this, as much as I might try it always remains out of reach. To try though is philosophical endeavor. There are insights into process, as a painter, that come from the experience of doing, these are not exclusive insights of the artist, as I was once tempted to believe—the writer and poet Barry Schwabsky, for example, often proves this in his writing on abstract painting, the kind of painting I make. Even within any one category of painting, it is still too various for any one painter to know completely, from the inside. We are all viewers.
For me as a working class Jew from an industrial city in the north of England, and entering school at the lowest rung possible, I also have my own evolving perspective on culture. My first experience of upper-middle class life was aged 17 through an English Armenian girlfriend and her family. It was the entering of another world: a foreign and attractive land. One unavoidable lesson learnt was that no perspective is ever universal. Class, like race or gender, provides a thoroughly different nuance to life—think of an Auden poem and its simultaneous, multiple points of view. Class though, in the art world is not discussed, primarily because it is still not largely represented. Class does however; thoroughly shape our societies, culturally, socially, politically.
By 18 I had excelled academically at least to the stage where I was qualified for university—I could use words, and I could draw—I chose art school. This was rather perverse as there was zero family, and meager government support for this. But painting was inexplicable, its material and visual mystery and sensuality irresistible. At art school I read everything I could find in the library concerning painting, and made monthly journeys from the school in Bristol to London, and the Chelsea College of Art’s library for the excellent collection of art magazines and exhibition catalogs. And I would visit The National Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, and Whitechapel Gallery. I had to look and read voraciously because I didn’t receive any of it as a given, or as an entitlement. Beginning here, and then over the years, reading writing on art as different as, for example, Charles Baudelaire, Georges Bataille, Hubert Damisch, Clement Greenberg, and Donald Judd has been important to me. After moving to London I began giving museum talks after hearing a rote description of Blinky Palermo’s work by a docent. I decided there to counter this with my artist’s view in solidarity with other artists. This led to many more such talks and some lectures, and coediting and reviewing for a short-lived, London-based magazine called Fuse in 1988. By 2003 I was living in Berlin and was generously encouraged to write a regular Letter from Berlin by John Yau, then the Art Editor at the Rail. This is where my art writing really got going. Artist friends Sherman Sam in London and Sonita Singwi in New York also encouraged me to pursue writing. Barry Schwabsky made it possible for me to contribute to Artforum and later in 2019 to publish a book on the abstract painter Bernard Frize. David Cohen also invited me to contribute to his journal Artcritical.
Writing, like painting, offers up thoughts that one didn’t know one had from the process of doing, or at least the kind of writing and painting that I do. In painting I work in a way that allows me to be quickly in the position of a viewer, as I work blind, so to speak, and with speed—without seeing the painting before it’s complete, there is only adjusting, assessing, changing as I progress with no going back—I then I have to see what it is. My paintings are relatively simple and each one closely connected to the next, but I still find them each so much more complex than I can ever hold. Over time the paintings change, both in the perceptual sense of looking and also in returning to them over lived time, to look again. Like Jorge Luis Borges said, if one reads a new book each time and you will always read the same book, but read the same book again and again and you will always read a different book. I can really appreciate what he was getting at. I see writing as joining a dialog, like talking in studios and galleries and museums. And painting too, joins a dialog, wherever it is seen, or written about.