I arrived on the Goldsmiths Fine Art (BA) in 1982, amongst other reasons because a foundation tutor had described what he’d seen at Goldsmiths as ‘very experimental’ and encouraged me to apply. What I found was an almost structure-less course -students were left to get on with it on their own from the very first day. Although there were no departments as such, I perceived a tension between the sculpture staff and students and the painting side of things. Michael Craig Martin, Jon Thompson and Richard Wentworth gave a conceptual charge to the aspirations of the sculpture students, and opposite them were a phalanx of painters headed by Basil Beattie, Albert Irvin and for a brief time John Bellany.
Holistically, the dynamics of the course need no extolling. Whatever the synergy or dialectic, the resultant fruits were the most celebrated group of artists to emerge from a London college since the Pop generation left the Royal College in the 1960s. Whilst not wanting to write out of history the numerous other important artists teaching then, the work of the Goldsmith painting tutors was highly visible in the early 1980s and made a great impression on me.
I would describe Beattie‟s paintings at that time as „colour-field‟ painting: blooming washes of colour scourged by calligraphic whips of dark paint. The paintings seemed consciously held back, stopping short of the full-blown voluptuousness of Albert Irvin‟s paintings and the high colouration of John Hoyland‟s. Beattie‟s paintings appeared to fold back on themselves, erupting into skirmishes and boundary disputes between cramped little pads of paint. As the 1980s progressed, the high key palette was evicted and the meaning in the painting was wrestled with more and more from the calligraphy and the development of little, embryonic pictograms. Amongst us painting students there was an acknowledgement of and admiration for Beattie‟s seriousness
and his more intellectual approach to abstraction. In the context of an atmosphere of slight condescension towards outright „painterly‟, he garnered the hushed mantle of „a highly respected painter‟.
During the intervening years, I have been greatly interested and inspired by the development of Beattie‟s work. In the early 1990s I began to notice sparse, elemental structures sailing towards me across gallery spaces ¬ziggurats, wonky Babylonian towers, blocky staircases, made with a fierce
economy and great physicality: „Ur architecture‟ as Nick de Ville once christened it -weighty obelisks were described by brief and urgent lines and empty vistas of raw linen were balanced by swathes of oil and beeswax. They were singular statements. The argumentative friction of the earlier painting had been distilled into quieter more solemn conversations between fewer architectural characters, and the palette had changed, there were red earth colours, charred blacks and chalky clay whites, and the earthy warm grey of unprimed linen.
On the rounds, sometime in the mid to late 1990s, I saw that these elemental structures had underwent further subdivision into crude cell-like structures, recessive cubes gouged out of fatty whites to expose earthy red drawing. Some of these had doors, some ascending stairs or barred windows suggesting recession into the canvas, contradicted by the reality of the surface. The rich tallow like surfaces and sensuously etched marks pull back anything wholly diagrammatic and depictive allowing for an all consuming involvement with the visceral and the material -one would expect no less from a painter cutting their teeth on a first hand exposure of Rothko, de Kooning and the gang in the 1950s. Picasso famously declared that he wanted his paintings to always fall just short of abstraction, and adding to this more recently, John Walker advised that he always wanted his work to fall just short of figuration -if there is a narrow spine weaving between both definitions of
picturing then Beattie‟s paintings operate in and elucidate that domain.
I caught up with Basil after many years in his studio in Mitcham. We chatted in front of a group of paintings from his celebrated Janus series.
MH: Sometimes it annoys me when I‟ve seen your work on display that people try to qualify it with you having taught at Goldsmiths, i.e. having taught better known but in my opinion inferior painters. Does that bother you?
BB: Sometimes. Much of the publicity about Goldsmiths at that time rarely mentions more than one or two members of staff, although there were many distinguished members who were well known in the art world and who had made important contributions to the course. But that was very much a part of the scene at that time -the world was definitely focusing on Conceptual art. Conceptual art was very important and is very important, and it was certainly important to most students. My only regret about the dominance of Conceptual art at that time was that for some students it tended to edit out the aspect of finding out by doing. How the making can actually enrich and take you into terrains about ideas and so on, about feelings and emotional levels that are not available to you without the doing.
MH: Without thinking with your thumbs?
MH; You‟ve got an epithet of „a painter‟s painter,‟ which is the ultimate accolade. Do you agree with that?
BB: Yes, certainly, but for some it meant that you were brought up in a splash and dribble era.
MH: It means much more than that! Your work, however physical and energetic, seemed to have a pared down concern at its heart, it seems preoccupied with the boundaries of how paint communicates without actually describing literally „the thing‟, whilst always remaining „paint‟. Did the process of talking about making paintings during all those years of teaching inform that, as a subject?
BB: It certainly was heightened and enriched by teaching. I often say to myself, I also studied at Goldsmiths -it wasn‟t a one-way street. We really had the pick of some fantastic students and that went on for quite a few years, and of course Goldsmiths as well mutated and changed -various groupings and staff changes. And also the art world changed -art world events.
MH: You‟ve had some very clear periods of begetting, or gestation, periods where structures and surfaces have developed from a tapestry, a soup of washes and marks. Has that been a smooth process?
BB: No. There have been some troublesome periods. I have to go back to my student days really. I spent five years at the local art school in Hartlepool. I was surrounded by a world that offered mining, shipbuilding, steelworks, agriculture, fishing, and I was not interested in any of those things really. I lived near a town that had an art school. It was a very small place. I was in the bus station with my mother after we‟d been shopping and we just gazed across at the art school, usually weighed down with a couple of bags of shopping. I just didn‟t get on at school, the only thing I was interested in, or had some kind of feeling for, was some idea about „art‟. The guy who taught
art at my school also taught English and gardening and he knew nothing about gardening and nothing about art -he never talked about an artist and the library didn‟t have any books on art. It was only when I went to Saturday morning films at the local Odeon that I realised that there were art classes on Saturday mornings at the art school and I ended up studying there for five years. You had to do National Service then, or work in a Hospital like Hockney did. I deferred and deferred and deferred, trying avoid National Service, and finally they caught me. I had got into the Royal Academy Schools and they wouldn‟t let you enrol until you‟d done your National Service, so in a way the two years in the army was really important -I had spent five years at my local art school so I needed the interval somehow.
MH: Were you isolated from the art world during your National Service?
BB: No. In 1955 or 1956, while on National Service in Germany, I remember going to Cologne, and there was still a lot of destruction everywhere from the Second World War. I remember walking across bombsites, to the museum to go and see a Picasso show, and when I walked up the steps of the museum the first thing I saw was Guernica. I was stunned. When I was a kid, radio was the thing, and the radio used to broadcast to the world the Chelsea Arts Ball and the Royal Academy Annual Dinner. I think it was on the occasion of the Royal Academy Dinner in 1949 that Sir Alfred Munnings, the then President of the Royal Academy (RA), in his departing speech, part of which was a rant
against modern art, recalled his friend Winston Churchill saying to him “Alfred, if you saw Picasso walking down the street would you join with me in kicking
him up the …”. I felt that the nation applauded because Picasso was always being made a figure of fun and of ridicule, and at that time the RA was regarded as being the keepers of eternal values. It was something I never forgot. Despite that, I was pleased to accept a place at the RA Schools and relieved to find contemporaries such as John Hoyland, Paul Huxley, Mike Upton and one or two others who didn‟t reflect the ultra conservative views that the RA were then known for.
MH: Just to go back to Guernica and the bombsites -what affected you most? Did the bombsites and the landscapes fix themselves into your imagination enough to reappear in the recent paintings?
BB: I don‟t really work from „a remembered image‟ in that sense. Paintings tend to come from phrases – they kind of evolve through words.
BB: Words we all recognise as having simple references to architectural details, such as windows, doors, stairways, steps, corridors, tunnels. It is
when these words are used as metaphors „windows of opportunity‟, „corridors of power‟ – when the words cease to refer to their practical physicaiity and become triggers for ideas and states of an emotional and a psychological nature. I‟ve always liked Geoffrey Boycott‟s cricketing term for a difficult ball bowled to a batsman -a ball bowled down the „corridor of uncertainty‟. In relation to the recent Janus paintings, horizons have different characters really. There is an optimistic invitation with a horizon, but also there is the opposite, so they are very ambiguous in a way, but also the idea of the horizon, with a vanishing point that looks vaguely like a recessive road. What is interesting about the Janus myth is that he was the Roman god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings, usually depicted with two faces, and he had the capacity to see into the past and the future. I didn‟t do anything in terms of classical studies at school, but I always knew about Janus. My mother often seemed to refer to him. It‟s a bit like when you‟re reading about Alan Bennett and his parents -the kind of little snippets you find out. My mother would describe someone who was „two faced‟ or deceitful as being just like Janus. A misrepresentation perhaps, but this was how I first heard of Janus.
MH: I recall rocking forms sitting on each other, from earlier periods in your work, possibly from the 1980s. I imagine these developed literally out of an interest in the form.
BB: I wanted to make different views of a horizon simultaneously, moving in different directions. I wasn‟t thinking in terms of a car windscreen. But you can say the windscreen is the future and the rear view is the past, but I don‟t want to subject them to that kind of literal interpretation, although three of four separate zones, one on top of the other, doesn‟t add anything to the two-faced idea. The zones offer compartments for similarities and differences to register.
MH: Was it irksome when it became a recognisable thing, when people said you‟re painting windscreens?
BB: it is irresistible, once you see it -it fits. I think what I did was to make sure the risk falls short of referring to, say traumatic conditions, weather and so on -there is a strong hint you can‟t avoid it but then I don‟t want them to be like little frail landscapes. I‟ve tried to make them very generalised, and in a way they are as crude as I can make them, so it doesn‟t look as if I am trying to describe something literally -it comes from elemental sources, the sources that could be traced back to a very simple minded abstraction process. I think they are meditations on mortality really. If you‟re as old as I am, life becomes something you think about all the time. I‟m aware that they are just gaps in a false sense. If you put a horizon behind, and you have a vanishing point (creates a wedge shape joining his palms at the fingers as though praying) and then you do that (creates short parallel movements with a finger) you‟ve got a railway track. It‟s just two sets of lines, and If you are of a certain age they bring to mind one of the most horrific images of the Second World War ¬the Auschwitz death camp. These images are buried in our memories. I mean my father worked on the railway. He was a signalman and I used to go and sit in the signal hut and look down the line, and when I was bored enough he would ask me to pull the signal and you‟d see the signal go seconds later. But I never thought about that until someone was mentioning something in connection with extermination, and I remembered that, and I remember when I was first at art school we were given perspective tests and railway tracks was one of them. In the same way, in a metaphorical sense, stairways and steps always have an ascent, the idea of an ascent that one associates with. I remember back at Hartlepool we used to go out drawing and there used to be a footbridge that ran from the old town to the sea. It used to go through the steel works -you could feel the heat from the furnaces. I remember doing a drawing of one of the staircases and there was a guy who was walking up the staircase with a bike. The sea was just by and in those days people would collect sea coal and you would have bags of sea coal on your crossbars. And this guy was struggling up this staircase with this bag on his crossbars and when I came to make a little painting of it, I knew I didn‟t need to make it naturalistic. It was a much later realisation that made me aware that descriptive naturalism did nothing to heighten the symbolism of the figure struggling up the stairway.
MH: At college, you told me that you used to make watercolours when you went on holiday, seascapes etc. Peter Archer, an ex-student of yours and a teacher at Camberwell at the time said, “you‟ve heard about these watercolours that Basil does, I wouldn‟t mind having a look at those”, and you could see he felt there would be some revelation about where you had come from, or possibly be going to. There was quite a taboo about pure figuration at that time, and I think he thought that was why watercolour was an attraction for you.
BB: I did show watercolours once at Goldsmiths, but I got a lot of stick from other people about them.
MH: Have they ever been reproduced?
BB: No. I‟ve got some, but I think the best were sold to friends in Suffolk. I think it‟s difficult to create a bridge between them to what I do now -I was making abstract paintings then.
MH: Work I have seen in reproduction, made in the 1970s, seemed to be blocky patches of colour floating on a white ground, and then a blizzard of marks zipping around on that. They put me in mind of Joan Mitchell. These marks started to congeal into hieroglyphics as your worked developed. I know when people have written about you they create parallels with this notion of gestation in your work and the figuration that developed from Guston‟s middle period. I also recall that Guston was a very important figure for you when I was at college. There was the fantastic retrospective of the figurative work at the Whitechapel in 1982. The fall out from his first show of the works from the 1970s seemed to be unleashed again because this was the first time we‟d seen them on mass in Britain. Had you seen many of the late Guston‟s before that?
BB: I saw an earlier Whitechapel show. Guston was a very beautiful painter. It always looked as if somehow there was a kind of Impressionistic quality to the paintings; in fact somebody gave it that title -Abstract Impressionism. They looked as if Monet or Turner had made them. They tended to have a central energy focus, where towards the edges of the canvas it began to kind of fade, a sort of centred imagery. I remember going to that show at the Whitechapel where there were many of those paintings on view. And then on the end wall, if you looked from the doorway up to the end, there were three quite large paintings, grey black and white and there was almost another kind of focus, of darkness. I knew a South African painter who moved with her husband to Baltimore in the States and she rang me up one day and said she had just seen Philip Guston‟s recent paintings and I asked what are they like, and she said your not going to believe this -hobnail boots and hairy knees. I said what do you mean? She explained the imagery and then I saw Guston's paintings from that period in the New Spirit of Painting show at the Royal Academy ¬fantastic! They are unmistakably his, but when you see the early imagery -it‟s the middle period that‟s kind of odd, sandwiched between imagery which is quite declared and up front, but we were weaned on the middle period where there wasn‟t much knowledge about that early period. He was a great man. It was de Kooning who stayed friends with him.
MH: I remember in a group tutorial at college, you and Bert Irvin having a very heated argument about them. Bert shouted, “there‟s a beautiful form, and its an arm, we can see that Basil, but why does he have to go and put fucking hairs on it?”
BB: Guston represented something that I somehow sensed, I welcomed in a way -I was a bit scared of but I thought damn it, this is fantastic! He was trying to get something, if not exactly autobiographical certainly, an extension from what I‟d always recognised in someone like Rothko -there was something very personal and I knew when I first saw Rothko that I wasn‟t just looking at an arrangement of nice colours. MH: Looking at reproductions of older work, when was that, 1987? BB: Yes, that‟s called Threshold and that shot is from the Curwen Gallery. You go about four steps down into a kind of well. I wanted the paintings to be the size of the walls. I wanted the paintings to act like the inside of my head! I wanted them to be bombarded with imagery that was about to be recognised, or was recognised, or was partly recognised, and that‟s why Threshold is an important painting I think. There are kinds of images: there are towers and
ladders and things that look as if they are something, but then they‟re not, they are just a shape or a stick or something. I wanted to do large paintings, but have many different kinds of events going on, quite intimate, quite small ¬there were no horizons in them.
MH: They look like blocks of flats with people shouting downstairs and upstairs at their neighbours -banging on the walls!
BB: Well, that‟s a bit worrying. What I recalled when I was making them was travelling through Holland at night when I was in the army. I don‟t know if it was because the Dutch had larger windows or it was because they didn‟t close their curtains. I even thought it was because they had stronger electric light than we had. You know everyone experiences it, going through a town or city on a train, you get glimpses into houses and there‟s a family having a meal or watching television and you see them just in a second, and you wonder what they were doing before you saw them and what they would do after you pass by -I recalled that when I was making them. But it was also generated by a certain kind of dilemma, of choice, how to make choices. But when you think about it, the other choices you have to make can be even more devastating -knowing which direction to go in.
MH: In the more recent paintings, there are more „ethnographic‟ flavours, for
want of a better word. Unbleached canvases, earth colours and Babylonian architecture. Were you looking at objects in museums?
BB: No. This is linen and that is flax, which is rough linen really, and I hadn‟t
made any paintings on linen for about twenty years. I knew that I wanted to buy linen and I knew that the painting I was going to make was going to have unpainted linen, untouched and uncovered linen, and I remember meeting Gary Wragg, I think it was at a place in Monmouth Street, Russell and Chappell, and he said, “what are you buying?” I said “linen”, and he said, “linen”, and I said “yes linen, I want to make this painting”, and he said, “Well, I‟ll buy some linen as well!”
MH: Was it just a taste in your mouth?
BB: I can‟t tell you how strong the feeling to change the surface from duck to linen was. I knew that I wanted to use linen for its colour and I knew I didn‟t want the image to cover all the linen, so the rule was I could touch and repaint as much as I wanted within this kind of image. I called it a „Ziggurat‟, a kind of figure, but it‟s architectural and it also kind of looks like soft flesh. I felt as if I could behave in my normal way if you like, I could make a statement and change it, but the rule was I couldn‟t go beyond this image. I needed that, the emptiness. The painting was called Present Bound. I felt that this particular painting was an important painting, it was important to me in the sense that I was able to make it intense and purposeful -a painting that looked as if it was an abstract painting but in fact gave me a way of making it in my terms, making it a strong metaphor for an emotional state. This figure I refer to is very abstract, it‟s a kind of a figure against the colour of the linen and it has life -it‟s lively but it‟s completely isolated. It somehow struck me that I was prone to wanting to feel like this in a way. I wanted it to be full of life, but talking about a certain state that I felt I was in -that I was marooned, cut off from things.
MH: Do you mind me asking you what was happening in your personal life, because I can hear such a lot of noise coming from Threshold, a buzzing and jabbering, a matrix of sounds, it‟s almost self-cancelling.
BB: I was going through some kind of separation. I also felt isolation from the art world. It‟s an oblique business really. Anything oblique is usually my tactic. MH: In relation to your own reception in the art world, my interpretation of something that you once intimated was that you had been slightly left out in the cold at that time. I don‟t know if that was what you were saying or if that‟s my interpretation. I mean the art world has sort of seesawed so dramatically,
yet you‟ve maintained a very strong presence, you‟ve maintained a very personal groove. Do you feel that you‟ve got what you needed in order for you to do what you wanted to do?
BB: Yes. I just feel like I‟m a late developer.
MH: Nothing wrong with that!
BB: No, I‟m a late developer in the sense that a late developer must contemplate the fact that you don‟t have enough time. Teaching three days a week at Goldsmiths was a lot for me back then. I was struggling mentally with family and teaching and the studio, and I think that what I mean is that I fell short in some of those activities because I was moving from one to the other, I
mean I probably didn‟t spend enough time in the studio, but that was because I was somewhere else. But there was the possibility of breaks and when John Hoyland was a student at the Royal Academy he very soon had a show on at the New London Gallery which was part of the Marlborough, so he was doing very well. I didn‟t have quite those breaks.
MH: I read that you wanted to lighten the palette, shift some of the temperatures, because you didn‟t want the implication of the subject – tunnels, cells and corridors -being driven by the colouration, overloaded I suppose.
BB: I like working against things that seem to come naturally. I realised that there was a kind of predictability about that -you can get more mileage out of contradicting the predictable, and it‟s a bit like having too many strings in an orchestra. But there are all kinds of tightropes one has to balance on. You are aware of going over the boundary or staying within the boundary, with tangible things. I think my problem has always been that I can make successful paintings but I don‟t want to make successful paintings. I build a stage and then I spend the next period trying to knock it from under my feet, but I think in a way it‟s additive rather than subtractive, it appears to be subtractive at first glance but it‟s a way of building -it‟s the opposite of what it appears to be.
Marcus Harvey interviews Basil Beattie. Reproduced with the kind permission of Turps Banana magazine (Issue 8) www.turpsbanana.com