Last year one of the largest donations of art in Britain was made by Anthony d’Offay. The collection of more than 700 works by leading artists, known as ARTIST ROOMS and assembled over the past 28 years, is now owned jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) and Tate on behalf of the nation. This year Tate sites, NGS and thirteen museums and galleries across the UK are showing more than 30 ARTIST ROOMS in the first tour of the collection. Tate Etc. talks to Anthony d’Offay about the impetus behind the project, and also to a selection of the artists on display.
Anthony dOffay on Anthony dOffay
Many years ago, in 1973, when we sold Jacob Epsteins marble sculpture Doves 1914 to Tate, I was looking at it with Richard Morphet, who was the deputy keeper of the modern collection. He said to me: Its so wonderful; now it belongs to all of us. I thought that was a beautiful thing to say. So I hope that when the Diane Arbus room is showing at the National Museum Wales, or Bruce Nauman in Glasgow, Gerhard Richter in Middlesbrough or Robert Mapplethorpe in Inverness that the rooms will have the feeling of belonging to everyone in these places. I very much hope that ARTIST ROOMS will revolutionise the way galleries can show contemporary artists work in this country. There is so little money that comes from central or local government for acquisitions, particularly to regional museums. ARTIST ROOMS is addressing that concern, and now if a gallery wants a room of Gilbert & George, Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys, then it can have one tailored to its needs. I think it is very important to get children to engage with art from an early age. My own defining experience was in the local museum in Leicester when I was eight. My mother would leave me there while she did the shopping. I remember that it had beautiful Egyptian antiquities, fantastic stuffed animals, birds eggs, eighteenth-century porcelain and paintings and some extraordinary modern German paintings. There was also a great Lowry painting and a Francis Bacon. I was very inspired by the idea that you could be a living artist and show your work in the museum. After these visits I would go home and make little sculptures that looked like Egyptian mummies. You can have an acquaintance with works of art which then turns into a friendship, which turns into a love affair. It becomes part of your life, and that changes people, doesnt it? It becomes truth, a reality, and something on which you can lean hard and believe in throughout your life.
Anthony dOffay on Joseph Beuys
In 1977 Anne Seymour and I got married. She had been for several years the curator of contemporary art at Tate. She had this laudable idea that I needed to be reformed (at that time I was involved in a lot of historical British shows) and said to me: If you like, there is another adventure with contemporary art. So we felt there was an opportunity in London for a big international gallery where we could exhibit the great artists of the world, many of whom had not been shown in the city before. Beuys was the first on our list. I got the chance to meet him after the publishers Thames & Hudson asked me to take the proof copy of his Guggenheim catalogue to his studio in Düsseldorf. The studio itself, which no longer exists, was just like one of his works – the floor was made of stitched leather. We asked him if he would like to do the opening exhibition in our space and he agreed. In 1980 he came to London and made an installation called Stripes from the House of the Shaman, which is now in the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra. Beuys came from a different place than other artists. It wasnt an art background. He was coming from the fields of science and politics as well as ecological concerns. There was a quality of his work that asked a lot of questions, and that made you think about it. It was endlessly fascinating to sit and talk with him. He had this incredibly attractive side to him of being powerful and modest at the same time. When he came to London, often there would be other people that would come to the gallery – David Sylvester, Nicholas Serota, Richard Hamilton and Rita Donagh, Gilbert & George – who would bring out the best in him. Over time we felt very close to him and he made everything feel like an intellectual conversation in the family.
Anthony dOffay on Andy Warhol
It sounds funny, but when I would visit Warhol in the early 1980s his reputation had fallen. People didnt like the late work, and there was a lot of feeling that he had become little more than a society portrait painter. I wanted very much to do a show with him, and asked him what he would like to do, but he would always say: Its up to you. What would you like to do? So I felt an obligation to think of something that worked from a critical point of view. Finally, I came up with the idea of an exhibition of self-portraits, which he loved, and the works in the show, which became known as the Fright-Wigs, were an enormous critical success.
He was very easy to work with, but the surprising thing was that he was extremely shy. He had this shield up much of the time. You expected that he would be expansive and relaxed, but that only emerged when he was, say, taking a Polaroid of someone for a portrait. I think this apparently passive kind of approach allowed him to feel the essence of the world in which he lived, and to capture the important aspects of it that would resonate with the people who were living through it and stand the test of time. And it is true. If you look at Warhols late pictures now, they look super-great. I cant think of many artists from the late 1970s and early 1980s whose work survives in that way. They still feel completely of now, completely present, as if they are outside time.
Gilda Williams on Warhols early drawings
We can not underestimate the intensive training Warhol received during ten solid, workaholic years as New Yorks best-known commercial illustrator. He spent more than a decade honing to perfection his natural genius for creating hugely communicative images which satisfied his elite consumers – a skill he later transferred with outrageous success to a fine art career. In these early drawings – with their pompadour hairstyles, dainty cherubs and rococo picture frames – we see a typical 1950s American still pursuing some European idea of sophistication. The news hadnt quite sunk in that America had won the culture wars too – with Warhol eventually emerging among the greatest victors. The drawings can be dismissed as not very interesting, as artist Mike Kelley recently has. Or we can read heavily into them for introducing the hallmarks of his mature practice: the impersonal blotting technique prefiguring the mechanised silkscreen; the lines of repeated butterflies and musical notes leading to the endless rows of Coke bottles and Marilyns. But the Warhol story is not just about art; its a spectacular tale of self-transformation. When Truman Capote met Warhol during the time of these drawings, the author pitied him as a born loser – a most ironic epitaph for a man who achieved every form of public success possible: intellectual, financial, institutional, social, creative. From colossal creep (as Warhol was described in the early 1960s by New York socialite Frederick Eberstadt) he became, by 1965, just about the coolest man on earth. The drawings signal the pre-cool Andy, the Euro-wannabe in a bow tie and suit – before he went Pop and switched to cowboy boots and dark glasses. The Warhol behind them still let his effeminacy and immigrant origins slip into the work. They are the Before to his After, but without them the After may never have happened.
Gilda Williams is an art critic and visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths College and Sothebys Institute of Art, London.
Gerhard Richter on Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo 1971
I really liked the wall paintings Blinky Palermo did. He had simply painted a room in the classic colour ochre yellow, with a neat frame left unpainted – about a hands width – top, bottom, left, right – colour fields. It was classical in the modern age back then – it had this wonderful slight whiff of tradition I liked very much, and then I said that what it needs are sculptures in a room like that. Yeah – do it! We made those ourselves. I made a plaster of Paris mask of his face, he helped me with mine, and I modelled the rest to fit: the head, the hair, the ears, the back of the head.
These two heads are permanently exhibited in Munich. Of course, the walls arent there, but the Munich people painted the walls yellow, as a tribute to Palermo. Its the typical Munich ochre colour. Its been done like the original. There isnt a sign saying: This is a work of art by Palermo. The only things on display were my two sculptures. They were only united with the Palermo walls for one exhibition. It wasnt a condition that the sculptures had to be shown with the Palermo walls. Back then, after the exhibition, I took the sculptures back home with me. And later still I had them cast in bronze. All in all, there are three pairs. One pair made of plaster of Paris, two made of bronze. I never learned how to do that. There are many specialists who make bronze casts. I did it in plaster of Paris back then. There is some fun to be had from making models. I never took lessons in sculpting.
This extract was taken from Gerhard Richter: Text – Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007 by Gerhard Richter, edited by Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist, recently published by Thames & Hudson.
Bill Viola on Catherines Room 2001
Catherines Room is based on the predella – an historical form of multi-panel painting that runs along the frame at the bottom of an altarpiece. Traditionally, it contained a chronological narrative depicting the lives of Jesus or the saints. To our eyes it looks like a movie storyboard. I was inspired by seeing a reproduction of Andrea di Bartolos predella St Catherine of Siena Praying c.1393. I created a piece with five video LCD screen panels that describe a chronological sequence, and then expanded it to include the idea of an eternal cycle. Catherines Room contains a series of images of a woman alone in a room engaged in various activities. There is a small window, outside of which the branches of a tree are visible. In the first panel she is starting her day, doing some yoga. In the second panel she is doing her daily chores. The third panel takes place late in the day when she is engaged in writing at her desk. By the fourth panel it is night, and she is solemnly lighting more than 100 candles, one by one. In the final panel we see her preparing for bed and then going to sleep. Throughout these events, outside the window we also see the tree passing through its cycle of the seasons, from blossoms to bare branches.
Catherines Room is a work that places the individual within the cycles of time and nature – the eternal patterns of a day, a year, a life. I think this is a piece that everybody can relate to. I remember when we first showed it in the Anthony dOffay Gallery in 2001, I overheard a little girl saying to her mum: This is like a doll house! She said she wanted to stay all day and keep watching it forever.
Bill Viola is an artist based in Long Beach, California.
Im an eastern European, so didnt see the desert until I moved to California in 1962. I would drive out into the desert. I liked it. It was a place that made you feel as if your body had no weight. At first I thought there was nothing there. Then I began to see things. I was always having to adjust my eyes back and forth – both far and close, which is how I think about my own work sometimes. It lies somewhere between distance and intimacy. That early discovery about that different kind of space – where you dont know really how far or near something is – had a subtle influence on my work, especially that of the late 1960s and 1970s.
After some five years of doing intense single images with no composition, but just subtle adjustments to the plane, I could stand it no longer, so I started putting one image next to another. Sort of just shoving them together… like a galaxy image that invites you in, next to a desert surface that projects out at you. It meant that when you were close to the work each eye would see a different image, or you would have to move your attention from one to the other, but when you pulled back a bit, the images seemed to be working together, and made for a more complex spatial experience. For a while I liked that, and I did a series of double and triple-image works using pictures, mostly torn from books and magazines, that I had collected over the years. Im creating a flat, invented world. Imagination comes in from building an image so that it has a physical reality with some real staying power. I try to make a work that is thoroughly considered and has a strong form. However, the manipulating of the surface is subtle and sensuous. It is in the nuances of the way the graphite feels and the marks that are left.
Vija Celmins is an artist based in New York.
The sketch of the branches of the plane trees in 3pm November 1997 was done on the spot in the La Guardia Square gardens in New York just as the light was fading. City Night 1998 was also painted in New York. I remember that I painted that one just after I had eaten supper. When people see my paintings of nature they usually think they were done in Maine, or some other rural place – not central New York. It is unusual these days to paint en plein air, but I find its the only way to get the information I need, and I dont want to rely on my memory. Painting in public is a bizarre experience as you can get mistaken for being an amateur painter. A few times I have had people come up to me and say something like: I have a friend who owns a bar. He could exhibit some of your paintings.
I studied antique drawing and modern art. That was okay, but I knew that I wanted something more immediate. So when I first saw Jackson Pollocks paintings – bingo! I like painting direct from nature and doing it quickly. Its like a performance. The painting is both controlled and casual. The idea is to make the paint fluid and make a fluid surface. I try to be specific with the form not being constrained. So I see it as post-abstract painting, which I think separates me from other figurative painters. I am an image maker, I have a very cool technique, but my subject matter is pretty dull – I dont do crucifixions; I dont do sex.
I remember as a child my father telling me – why dont you paint your own backyard. (Usually artists were painting what came before them art historically.) I knew my father was right. Yet twenty or 30 years ago, people didnt get my work – they thought it was bad Pop Art or bad photo-realist painting. Now it is seen as very American – both here and abroad. And since Bice Curigers group exhibition Birth of the Cool in Zurich and the Saatchi Gallerys exhibition of my paintings in London (both in 1997), I got noticed in Europe. Now Im treated like a dead person – because of the respect I get.
Alex Katz is an artist based in New York.
What is the origin of the texts in your works Soapy Smith, Pretty Eyes, Electric Bills and Smells Like Back of Old Hot Radio?
Soapy Smith was a con man who lived in Denver, Colorado, in the 1880s. He would incite crowds by saying: Buy my soap and inside the wrapper might be a $20 bill. Many people found $20 bills, but they were all part of the scam. This made him temporarily wealthy. Pretty Eyes, Electric Bills is my way of separating two subjects that are on the far end of the world from each other. This somehow gets to be the reason that I want to make a work of art of this discord. And Smells Like Back of Old Hot Radio is based on a childhood experience: the aroma of a wooden-cased radio that has been turned on for an hour or so. Its the declaration of a simple smell – the hot tubes within the radio mixing with the oils in the wood. Takes me back.
They are like poetic readymades. Does poetry come into your take on words?
I once thought poetic was a nerdy word, but finally I cannot think of another one to replace it. Poetry, as vague as it is, enters my work, as does geology, archeology, music, together with some of the most crass, mundane thoughts on the planet.
Your art seems positive and assured. Is there any anxiety at work underneath it?
I am an anxious person, so pressures play a part in what I would call blind faith choices in my art. Whenever I can be empathic or deliberate, then I think Ive gone down the right road.
You once said: Im dead serious about being nonsensical. Is the humour intended to add a layer of meaning or distance?
I am not a big fan of meaning. Logic is also another nebulous thought. I attempt to bring threads of subjects, however shaggy, to my work and inject little suggesters to the picture itself, and this often puts a smile on my face.
Ed Ruscha is an artist based in Venice, California. His exhibition at the Hayward Gallery runs from 14 October to 10 January.