Basil Beattie in conversation with John McEwen
In one of his notebook Balla had noted down his desire to attain: ... mastery in the painting of states of mind through the use of new abstract forms equivalent to these states' Alexandra Noble, 'Balla and Futurist Italy', Estorik Foundation 1998
Basil Beattie had always been a respected painter of large canvases indebted to the ambition and liberation of post-war American painting; and he taught painting at Goldsmiths College throughout its most influential period in the I980s and 1990s. But it was only in the mid 1980s chat he broke away from the artistic pack into individual contention: since when he has gone from strength to strength. In 1986 he was an Athena Awards winner, and in 1989 he won 2nd prize at the John Moores; in 1998 he was runner-up for the Jerwood Painting Prize. But it was the shows at the Maak Gallery and Todd Gallery of paintings done between 1990 and 1993 which drove home the message - that here was a painter of disturbing power and appealing sensuality to challenge any International comparison. It was a moment marked by the alacrity with which the Tate Gallery, not before time, bought his work for the collection. Now that he has taken early retirement from teaching, an Indian summer looks set to commence.
Beattie comes from Hartlepool in the North East - a cold, grey, gritty corner of England. Hartlepool is on the North Sea, famous in his youth for ship-building, coal-mining, heavy industry, fishing. For his teachers at Hartlepool School of Art the artistic clock had stopped at 1910. The heroes were Sickert, Cézanne and the French Impressionists. Sickert was Beattie's preference. 'What interested me about him was that he could take pictures of low life - of ordinary people, the music-hall, whatever -and they weren't photographic' When he first lived in London in 1957 to study as a post-graduate at the Royal Academy Schools, it was the space which astonished him. 'Corning from the coast, I had been used to things being very open - the sea, the country, a fairly small town. London was so massive, something you couldn't get your head around. It always excited me arriving on the railway, seeing the different levels of the various tracks, one crossing over another - almost feeling as if you were part of an organism.'
Beattie first painted scenes of ordinary people at work and play. Then, like many artists of his generation, he was bowled over by the 1958 show of New American Painting at the Tate. This was the first time the British saw a substantial body of work by the New York School. 'What I remember is that I'd been trying to do a painterly form of realism, via Sickert perhaps, and I remember thinking at the late: "this is a new land of realism" It was the experience of the painting that was real that was heightened. It wasn't to do with trying to copy what one saw. It was making an experience an experience of painting itself. So I expect it was a philosophical realisation. I guess I had made moves then towards a change and one thing led to another. Meeting different people: John Hoyland, Paul Huxley, Jon Thompson, Michael Upton, Michael Vaughan were students with me at the Academy. You felt like a fifth columnist in the conservative climate of the Academy.'
It was a gradual evolution. His initial ambition when he carne South was to paint 'the uncontrollable mass of London. Different viewpoints: the way you're high up and underground. Different kinds of spaces: and for a long time I made paintings which in some way referred to the world you could see.' He took due note of the wit of Picasso but, in the main. He increasingly 'turned West rather than East. De Kooning was a very linear artist. I liked the invention, the manipulation, but I was looking at him while I really liked Rothko. Newman and Rothko were not just making formal statements but, particularly in Rothko's case, something that had no visibility - it lay in the depths of his own experience of being Jewish, an exile. Setting a mood -I hate that word - an atmosphere, the way he felt about the world, which is much more difficult to pin down.'
'When Life Magazine did that first big article on the New York painters they created a misleading impression by placing a photograph of a sunset next to a Rothko and a close-up of the girders of a bridge next to a Kline. It suggested that if you knew where to look you could see where they got their ideas from. It's the same with the imagery in my work. It's not me being fascinated by Windows, doors and gates and then thinking that's a great idea for a painting. It's a state of mind to begin with, that has no form, no visibility and I resort to using things that look as if I’ve looked outside the painting when in fact I haven't. I remember a Korean artist visiting me in the 70s. He couldn't speak English but through the interpreter he said "Like sun on clouds?" I said "Yes but no". That was the end of the conversation; there was no point in going on. It would have been too complicated. The only way I wanted the painting to be like a natural phenomenon was as equivalence, not a description. I want the Viewer to feel that the link with experience is authenticated by the language of the painting itself, which is informed by experience not primarily driver) by the world of appearances. The painting is an inscape not a landscape.'
Later it was Philip Guston who was important He saw Guston's Whitechapel show in 1962. Guston was still classified as an abstract expressionist. Although there were some drawings of Tuscan hill villages which suggested a figurative connection. Four big grey and black paintings on the end wall impressed Beattie most 'They were ominous, somehow; not a word you'd have applied to the rest of his work.' He next heard of him in the late 1960s. A friend from New York alerted him to a shift in Guston's latest paintings. He asked her to describe them. 'Would you believe hob-nailed boots and hairy knees!' *l don't believe you!' 'Maybe so, but they are unmistakably his. You gotta see them.' He did. They were unmistakably his.'
There is a Guston story he particularly likes. Guston gave one of his paintings to his friend Morton Feldman, the composer. One day he visited Feldman in his office and saw the painting hanging on the Wall. 'You've still got the painting?' he said. 'Yeah.' replied Feldman, 'it's great.' They both stared at it for a while. 'The shape on the left is listening to the problems of the shape on the right,* Guston said.
Beattie was driven by a similar need to find representative forms to suit 'an emotional, psychological space or climate. If one is to trace it to events in one's life it might be said to be to do with personal relations, an awareness of getting older, past and present Again I don't want to fit the imagery to a cliché in terms of our fears.'
Inspired by the example of Guston and the late work of Picasso, where process and gesture are inseparable from the making of the image. Beattie had found a way of re-introducing 'a sort of symbolism' into his painting. TMs concern for process and symbolic content makes his art an interesting bridge between the work of the post-abstract expressionist generation, which he represents, and the younger Goldsmiths' artists he taught. The sensual, visceral appeal of his method, to touch as much as sight, should not be underestimated. He has developed into a painter of singular haptic power. The erotic, in the modem way is enacted, whereas traditionally It is depicted; but there is grit in the oyster; luxe, volupte but more angst than calme. The imagery perhaps reflects darker rather than lighter states of mind', he explains; 'that's why I’ve started literally to lighten some of the recent works so that the emotional darkness is not simply associated with brownness or blackness. It's too easy to go that way. I think the clichés of halls and corridors lend a very short life to the idea of intrigue. I want the intrigue to come through the sensuous making of them and for the viewer to feel that they are irresistibly drawn into the process.'
The cellular compartmentalising carne about by accident. During his exhibition at the Gray's Art Gallery. Hartlepool in 1986, he gave a lecture. A painting had to be moved and, in its place, he substituted a wall of drawings. Having so many drawings together was a collective experience which opened his eyes to new journeys, new connections. “They were all individual but connected, and one could read them in different ways. This was suddenly a visual representation of certain things I had previously only apprehended - like making choices; and that the attention span was fought for by different stimuli. It was as if I'd seen a concrete visualisation of this dilemma. The experience was later developed in a drawing installation of more than 350 drawings entitled Drawing on the Interior at the Eagle Gallery. At the time the symbolism was more open. There were ladders or one object perched on another to incongruous and humorous effect. The corridors and doorways carne later.'
Beattie's studio is part of an abandoned warehouse dose by the railway in West Hampstead. The trains rumble. It is Spartan, industrial. There is no cosy, domestic nest; no favourite picture postcards pinned to the wall. In one corner are a cluster of stick/ pots of paint: black, rust red, oil yellow, white. I'm interested in blueness, yellowness and redness but not in high key. Ali the paintings come from a linear standpoint. I'm not primarily interested in a colour dynamic, putting a green to buzz with a red. I use it to identify zones.'
Nor does he make a big distinction between abstraction and representation. 'My paintings are abstract to me, but I feel I can put almost anything in. I put things that nave references to psychological and emotional concerns that are important to me; but I’m trying to paint them in a way that is not illustrative, I’m fascinated by the representational element - it gives me large and small, a sense of distance. There's intrigue, as well; the curiosity of corridors, colonnades, archways, cloisters. But I withdraw from describing it to myself in a precise way because I want it to remain ambiguous. Perhaps an image - a door or whatever - may invite thoughts of escape; but the sheer physicality of the means prevents there being an escape from the language of the painting. I deliberate!/ construct this contradiction.'
He carries pocket-books to draw impromptu designs, sketches of finished paintings and for the fun of jotting titles, especially when travelling by train. 'I have a bank of titles and when it comes to naming a painting I see if there is one that makes a poetic connection.' Often three or more titles commend themselves. Loose Ends might have been Severing Links or furthermore; he dallied with Displaced and Either Or before deciding on Over and Above.
Beattie succeeds in making his drawings as sensually/ charged as his paintings. He uses Chinese ink, flooded with water and worked with a screw-driver. His small paintings have an equally independent position in his art. They concentrate, rather than diminish, the physical properties of the large paintings, so scale remains limitless. They are entities, not miniatures. The large paintings require more expansive techniques. He scores through the wet paint with a card board roll; or blends one colour with another by dragging a length of hardboard or brushing a broom across the surface. The degree of definition depends on the extent to which the underlying paint has dried. Sometimes a painting is resolved quickly. This was the case with the black paintings. Betwixt and Between relates back to an earlier preoccupation with a post and lintel effect, raw canvas - what he often refers to as a 'lung' or breathing space - in the middle. 'It’s got a sense of a doorway but I wanted it to be ambiguous. So it is filled with a shape that's oppressive, that looks as if it's beyond but invading the structure.' Four-Way Split is the speediest. It makes the other paintings look style. Indian red was painted over with white, then exposed to various extents and in a variety of ways. Mark This Place represents the opposite extreme, a painting which he scrapped and started again. There is very little change in the process of building the image. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.' The lumpiness in the top right-hand corner shows how hard-worked it has been. As a painting 'it’s got cragginess, a lived-in feeling.'
In the pub I asked about other influences. 'Writers?' - 'Kafka', he said, as if betraying a secret - and his childhood in Hartlepool. As a boy he used to suffer from bronchitis. He remembers the long nights fighting for breath, looking at the lapping reflection from the fire on the ceiling. There were two Windows in his bedroom. One looked east to the sea, the other inland to the West.
John McEwen London, 1998
Extracted from Basil Beattie Tod Gallery London
Published 1998 to coincide with the exhibition of New Paintings 5 November 12 December 1998