Summary

That Beat It Quickly Smile 1987 is a square canvas with a schematic painted line drawing of a young man’s head and shoulders against a plain white background in its top half, and the painting’s title written in bold capitals in its lower half. The figure, wearing what appears to be a shirt and V-necked jumper or cardigan, is painted in green, red, brown, orange, black and yellow lines, while the title is written out in thicker brushstrokes – the first four words in blue and the last word in red. The title is split across two lines (‘THAT BEAT IT / QUICKLY SMILE’), underneath which the artist has painted his name in black capital letters with the date in green. This composition, with its combination of curtailed imagery and dominant text, is also found in The Yes No Quality of Dreams 1988 (Tate T13328). In both paintings the drawn figures provide a visual evocation of the poem that is each work’s title, to which the means of writing, in terms of colour and arrangement, adds further force.

Robilliard’s earliest works after moving to London in 1976 from Guernsey, where he was born, were poems. He shared a studio with the painter Andrew Heard (1958–1993) and this, alongside his discovery by artists Gilbert & George in 1979, encouraged him to bring word and image together. This led in 1984 to his first exhibition of drawings at the Stephen Bartley Gallery that also served as the launch for his first book of poems, Inevitable, published by Gilbert & George. On the invitation card for the exhibition, Gilbert & George wrote of Robilliard that he is ‘the new master of the modern person. Looking, thinking, feeling, seeing, bitching – he brilliantly encapsulates the “Existers” spirit of our time.’ His earliest paintings on canvas date from 1985 and range from playful urban reverie to harder expressions of gay life. Caroline Collier wrote in the introduction to the catalogue for the British Art Show 1990, in which Robilliard’s work was included: ‘The tone of David Robilliard’s paintings ... [which] use phrases that seem to have been snatched from the filofaxes of advertising copywriters or from the jingles of DJs and at other times refer to the language of enchantment, to fables and stories, is sometimes lyrical, occasionally abrasive, intentionally challenging and unsettlingly obscene: their content is invariably an expression of the position of being homosexual in Britain in the late 1980s.’ (Caroline Collier, ‘Climate’, The British Art Show 1990, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1990, p.28.)

Both That Beat It Quickly Smile and The Yes No Quality of Dreams exhibit an ambiguity of reading. The playful jingle-like phrase, ‘That Beat It Quickly Smile’, suggests at first an exuberant happiness, but also points towards the sexual gratification of masturbation, whether with a partner or alone. The painted male figure wears a suggestively alluring smile. Robilliard’s paintings manifest a youthful and vibrant optimism, yet one which is played out in the shadow of AIDS, colouring them with a certain melancholy. His lack of formal training and immersion in London’s gay club culture is reflected in his work. Critic Leo Burley has stated: ‘David’s influences were mostly contemporary, drawing on his friendship with Gilbert & George, and the passions and pain of London in the 1980s.’ (Leo Burley, ‘Memory of a Friend’, in Stedelijk Museum 1993, p.19.)

That Beat It Quickly Smile was included in Robilliard’s solo exhibition at Birch and Conran Fine Art, London in 1987. It was subsequently included in his retrospective exhibitions at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 1992 and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1993.

Further reading
David Robilliard, Inevitable, London 1984.
David Robilliard, Swallowing Helmets, Eindhoven 1987.
David Robilliard, A Roomful of Hungry Looks, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1993.

Andrew Wilson
May 2010