The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock), 1987
Earlier in the year, I visited the Michael Andrews show at the Gagosian Gallery in London with Richard Guest. We spent the next couple of months exchanging thoughts about the show. Definitely one of our toughest assignments: here are the results!
David: I first came across Michael Andrews’ through his Ayers Rock paintings in the mid 1980s, some of which are in this show. I didn’t know quite what to make of them, but I was intrigued and have always tried to see his work when I get the chance – not that often. This is a really great show covering his entire career – an amazing show for a private gallery to mount. It’s clearly a sign that, twenty years after his death, his reputation is at last reaching the level it deserves. For too long he has been eclipsed by his better known friends (Bacon, Auerbach et al). Is this the first time you have seen a retrospective of his work?
Richard: The first time I saw a lot of his work was at a 2001 retrospective at Tate Britain. I was working there, which meant I got to see the exhibition several times. It was a shock to discover a British artist who was so interesting and prolific, and who I’d somehow overlooked. The only work I’d seen up to that point was the Ayers Rock paintings (and that was on TV).
This show is the right size, I think, it needs to be big so the viewer can get an idea of who he was and what he painted – his subject matter and approaches are quite diverse. Shall we talk about one of the early paintings?
David: I’m not sure that he was all that prolific. Apparently the sixty four paintings in this show represent about a quarter of his entire output. Which might go some way to explaining why he isn’t better known. The art market is driven by volume, not quality.
The Colony Room I, 1962
This painting shows us inside the Colony Room – a drinking club on Dean Street in Soho that was famously the haunt of Francis Bacon and others keen to drink the afternoon away. I always wanted to be a member, partly I think because this painting made the prospect appear more glamorous than it really was. The way Lucian Freud is staring out at us makes him look like Hugh Grant – but I think in reality it was a bunch of lost souls trying to draw strength from each other’s loneliness. Perhaps only Bacon could really do this – I am not entirely sure that Andrews perceives the Baudelairean depths of desperation in the scene before him. It seems urbane, and the hideous institutional green gloss of the walls is softened into a kind of Soho pastoral. It’s a fascinating painting though with a lot of movement and life. Some people are sharply in focus and recognisable, others are painted out – faceless nonentities. It has a slightly drunken quality – unsteady but riding a wave. It certainly contains the tension between representational and non-representational painting that is such a key feature of Andrews’ work.
Richard: Yes, I think we can see Francis Bacon with his back to us on the right-hand side of the painting. For me it doesn’t look urbane and glamorous so much as claustrophobic, oppressive and suggestive of German Expressionist painting. There’s quite a lot of black in the mix and the figures tend to melt into the dark background. There are a few anxious faces. And an overwhelming sensation of things slipping away – expressions, detail, light. And time, and although he apparently spent a lot of it there I’m not sure from this that he really enjoyed it. It’s an interesting painting in this show, because there’s nothing else like it. I think the composition and colour hint at the landscapes to come. Do you think of Andrews as primarily a landscape painter?
David: He certainly has a very strong connection with landscape, but his approach is too varied and oblique to call him a landscape painter which sounds, (to me anyway), slightly pejorative. Some paintings appear to be pure landscape:
SAX A.D. 832 – First Painting, 1982
On the face of it this seems to be almost the opposite of the urban Expressionist tinged Colony Room painting: quiet, bucolic, quintessentially English. The muted palette of grey and green… it is as though we are moving through a large landscape almost like light itself, still but effortlessly distant. Perhaps all this is deceptive though – the angle is clearly from a low flying perspective, possibly that of a bird or a balloon. (Have subsequently found out he was up a telegraph pole). The road cleaves the landscape in two, but the only thing that might be on it – the horse – turns away from it. It’s the sort of thing that could be significant or merely happenstance when Andrews took the photo – it presumably was a photo – for reference. He has an ambivalent relationship with photography – he uses it but feels its limitations. He did paint portraits from life but I am not sure about his landscapes. There seem to be some watercolours and sketches but I am sure these use photography too as pretty direct reference and some of the paintings have a distinctly photographic look – although still feel painterly, which is a hard trick to pull off. Should we be aware of paintings’ sources, and if we are should we care?
Richard: Not necessarily – I think it depends on the artist’s intention. Is he drawing our attention to his source material? In the case of SAX A.D. 832 – First Painting, the composition doesn’t look like it would be possible without some kind of photographic source. The landscape suggests that a hill where the viewer is standing would be unlikely – the road looks flat, there’s no suggestion of a rise, which leaves the possibility of a bridge being the vantage point. But the height above the track or road looks wrong for someone standing on a bridge (painting at an easel). It could just about be right for a photograph taken from a car seat passing over a bridge. It makes sense that it was taken from a telegraph pole. It’s a really odd vantage point. Andrews has presented a painting with an “obvious” photographic source – no one could paint up a telegraph pole. So, why has he done so? Perhaps he is trying to ask us how we perceive our landscape post-photography, and what this shift in perception means.