In the mid-1950s David Sylvester spent much of his time trying to make a living from gambling. There exists among Sylvester’s personal papers in the Tate Archive a drafted fragment for a book he considered calling Memoirs of a Mug. As this suggests, he was not a successful gambler. Betting slips from I. Lyons for three days in April of, I think, 1957, bear the bookmaker’s summary: ‘You win: £3.00; You lose: £41.17.6.’1 Sylvester kept a file containing wry mementoes of his time betting on racehorses and greyhounds, such as these betting slips and an annotated betting diary, together with items that caught his attention, for instance, a letter responding to an article on gambling by Angus Maude in the magazine Encounter. What compels the gambler, according to the writer of the letter, Victor S. Frank, ‘is the awareness of a personal relationship between himself and the “thing” behind, beyond, or within the physical conveyor of fortune, say, the roulette wheel. He senses that the sequence of numbers unfolds a unique story of a personal “affair” with a being which lies beyond.’2

Sylvester’s gambling episode occurred within the period when he was writing current art criticism, and making a precarious living through that and art dealing. There are analogies between Sylvester the gambler and Sylvester the critic, and this to the degree that he embraced two entailments of the work of criticism: subjectivity and uncertainty. His collection of press cuttings and personal reflections concerning gambling – the reflections often brief and scribbled on scraps of paper – shed an implicit light on the critic’s fascination with art. Like Victor Frank’s gambler at the roulette wheel, the critic, standing as interpreter before the work of art, is convinced of a personal relationship: the painting has its secrets, its governing principle, which it will disclose to you.

Sylvester was perfectly aware of the risks inherent in this posture. You are, potentially, prey to a delusion. You may, as Sylvester certainly did, draw on the corroborative evidence of other writers’ observations, statements by artists and so forth, but why write at all if not to determine, by direct inspection, what it is that the work does that is inalienable from, found only within, that act of attention? Yet therein lies a further and well-known problem. In an article of 1941 on Paul Klee, by the American critic Clement Greenberg, which Sylvester extracted from the relevant copy of Partisan Review and inserted in the file that contained his own drafts and publications on the artist, Greenberg remarks, ‘We can never be sure what takes place when a picture is looked at’.3

Greenberg places no weight on the remark, using it simply to make the strategic concession that ‘there may be unconscious recognitions of “literary” meanings and associations which affect the observer’s experience, no matter how much he concentrates upon the picture’s abstract qualities.’ He, of course, wants to vindicate an emphasis on the latter, the abstract qualities, and proceeds to argue accordingly. In any case, Sylvester’s criticism is no more than Greenberg’s a mere report on experience, and it is in its own way just as analytical. The reason that the issue arises with Sylvester, and does so particularly in his case, is owing to the emphasis he himself placed on the personal and emotive origins of his critical work, in the moment of response. Asked in 2001 by John Tusa, then managing director of the Barbican Centre in London, how he went about looking at a work of art, he replied, ‘I just look’, insisting that he had no special skills: ‘the experience is instinctive, It’s somewhere between prayer and sex … Both prayer and sex … When I say sex, what I mean is responses that one feels in one’s body.’ And by prayer, he adds, he means concentration. Asked if it was a real physical reaction, he insisted that it was, adding that ‘sometimes, when I was young … when I got the acutest responses, I would sometimes go into a gallery and look at paintings and I was so sensitive to them that I sometimes felt that I had two or three skins less than normal. The thing was going through my body so forcefully.’4 His best writing on art, certainly in the decades of his work as a current art critic, grew out of, and in turn elucidated, this intense experience.

In having so personal a basis and motivation, his criticism was correspondingly naked and exposed (‘two or three skins less than normal’). That is to say he lacked – unlike, say, Greenberg or the influential Cambridge literary critic F.R. Leavis (to whom, aged twenty, he sent an article on the dramatist Webster) or the critic John Berger, with whom he has often been contrasted – a broader basis for his judgements. That is not to say that his judgement was at fault with respect to his choice of artists to champion, for he had the distinction of having been an early supporter of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti – in contrast to Berger, as he more than once pointed out. Such judgements, however, were tacit, like those of the connoisseur or the enthusiast – and Sylvester was both of these, though with a speculative inclination typical of neither. It must have been evidence of a certain theoretical, systematizing tendency (so un-English) that prompted Leavis to warn in a letter of 1944, ‘you need to watch the danger of letting analysis escape from the control of value judgement.’5 If Sylvester had ideas, Leavis evidently felt, the consequence was that he projected them onto the work, at the expense of his judgement:

If you don’t mind my saying so, I suspect you of having created your Webster. At the best he seems to me to have some idiosyncratic details; but (as I see him) he has no centre. He doesn’t stand anywhere in particular. He doesn’t measure for any serious position. So much of him is so fatally voulu. ‘I wants for to make your flesh creep.’ So I can’t see where the comparison with Dante begins. He seems to me to belong to a disintegrated and chaotic world – to be of it…’6

(This last observation is suggestive in relation to Sylvester’s artistic preferences, and I will come back to it.)

Rapidly scrawled though Leavis’s letter is, it records clearly enough a highly distinctive approach to criticism, where judgement is compatible with a conversational, discursive style; yet if the tone is informal, the line taken is nonetheless clear. Admittedly these judgements are already established, rather than searched-for, yet even so, and summary as they are, they reflect a certain consistency of approach, grounded in principle. Even if we disagree with such a critic, we feel that we have been helped to define our own, different criteria. It was by virtue of the lucid framing of their judgements that Leavis, Greenberg and Berger became influential, in their respective fields. All three have provoked strongly partisan responses, for and against, through the challenge their judgements often present and by virtue of cogency in argument. Here is Berger, concluding an assessment of Jackson Pollock: ‘If a talented artist cannot see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs, if the situation is as extreme as ours, his talent will only reveal negatively but unusually vividly the nature and extent of that decadence. His talent will reveal, in other words, how it itself has been wasted.’7 Berger is provocative, but in a productive way, since he gives the grounds for his judgement and thereby a means of engaging with it – we know where he stands. Sylvester, by contrast, is often at his weakest when making explicit judgements, rather than following his intuition. For example, there is really nothing one can say to this series of assertions in an article concerning British artists Gilbert and George: ‘They are outstanding artists in every context in which they might be assessed. Among their contemporaries – Nauman, Kiefer, Boltanski, Long, Cragg – they are probably supreme. Among exponents of photo-based art, going back to Hartfield (sic), they come second only to Warhol. Among English artists, they are the successors to the line of visionary painters that runs from Fuseli to Blake and Palmer to Watts to Spencer and Bacon and Morley.’8 In place of reasoned argument, we find rhythmic diction, following the rule of three, and slippery rhetoric (‘probably supreme’); nothing, in any case, hinges on this ungrounded assertion of pre-eminence.

In such passages – fortunately rare, yet in this case included by the author in his collection About Modern Art (1996) – Sylvester adopts a mandarin tone, in the smooth delivery of an assured opinion. Yet the Sylvester who was the despair of editors, passing deadlines as he anxiously reworked articles and books, was anything but assured. The judgements made in this questing, searching and self-critical spirit are correspondingly shaded and thought-through, and they arise from questions Sylvester asks himself, as opposed to pronouncements he feels called upon to make. Questions such as: where is Chaim Soutine on his home ground?; how might Alberto Giacometti’s integrity be to the detriment of his art? In this mood, he worried over his evaluations, particularly where his deepest loyalties and attachments were in question, for example respecting his loss of faith in Bacon in the later 1950s. What we find in Sylvester at his best is a close identification with the artist’s endeavour, efforts and failures, an exceptional ability to get inside a particular creative practice, and a corresponding commitment to it and concern for it.

Nothing authentically mattered to Sylvester save what he was drawn to. He neither followed consistent evaluative principles nor did he voice any. He judged, really, by attraction and aversion, even though of course informed by knowledge and experience, and stimulated by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. This meant that, for the want of any wider motivation or commitment, or elaborated criteria, he expanded the scope of his judgement by defining its extremes; he was a critic very disposed to the use of antithesis and polarity, as Leavis noted already in 1945, in a letter that ended their correspondence: ‘I find it so hard to get anything out of that kind of generalizing approach … And more and more of late I’ve been becoming dissatisfied with methods of bifurcation (if that shorthand term explains itself). In fact, I’ve a philosophic incapacity.’9 Sylvester, by contrast, was drawn to philosophy, and it would be quite wrong to gain the impression that, as a writer on art, he simply followed his nose – important though that certainly was; for he reflected on his judgements and tastes, the pattern of his preferences.

By the time of his correspondence with Leavis, he had read Nietzsche, and I assume that the ‘bifurcations’ of which Leavis complains, in the essays on tragedy Sylvester sent to him and to Una Ellis-Fermor, a noted academic expert on Shakespeare and on tragic drama,10 might have involved reference to the Nietzchean dialectic between Apollo and Dionysus. This polarity, which Sylvester put to recurrent use in his art criticism, derived from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872). One of these early pieces of writing on tragedy seems to have been instrumental in getting him a place to study Moral Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge – a place he did not take up. He read the philosopher Wittgenstein at this early age, and Bertrand Russell, and, later on, A.J. Ayer. On the whole, however, the philosophical content or orientation of his criticism remained unstated, although he did contemplate writing a book to be called ‘The Eye and the I’,11  and gave something amounting to a statement of theoretical principle in a lecture first given at the Royal College of Art in 1951, entitled ‘Towards a New Realism.’ He gave it that title both in deliberate contrast to social realism and to indicate an association with perception: as he wrote in the introduction to About Modern Art, ‘I argued the desirability of a new art concerned with appearance, and insisted that if there was to be such an art, it would have to reflect the fact that modern man “conceives of reality as the series of sensations and ideas that occur in the consciousness of each individual”’. The passage he quotes from his lecture continues, ‘The private and subjective character of modern art clearly accords with this conception of reality. Thus Cubism does not represent objects but a series of perceptions of an object, a system of aspects. Thus Paul Klee does not represent a scene but an adventure, a succession of appearances: his pictures are maps of man’s subjective world. And for the artists wanting to create not merely a map but an image of the world, it must still, to be valid now, be about that subjective world.’ This meant that he or she ‘must show that experiences are fleeting, that every experience dissolves into the next … must produce images which are not scenes, set up apart from the observer and seeming capable of existing when there is no observer present … but must be images in which the observer participates, images whose space makes sense only in relation to the position in it occupied by an observer.’12

Evidently Sylvester, unlike Leavis, felt the need to generalise. It might at first seem, then, that his critical judgements did after all rest on more than his personal impressions, in so far as there was a theoretical basis to them. Yet the theory itself, in asserting the primacy of individual sensibility, vindicates the personal impression. In working from the subjectivity of immediate response, Sylvester was, he claimed, doing exactly as the ‘new art of appearance’ demanded. His philosophical points of reference here were Bertrand Russell’s notion of perceptual aspects, and, rather more vaguely, Einstein’s theory of relativity. He made no reference to phenomenology, and yet, in so far as the themes in play here concern intersubjectivity, painting, perception and the interdependence of perceiver and perceived, he is surely on phenomenological ground, Merleau-Ponty’s in particular – although Sylvester’s reduction of reality to sensation is not compatible with phenomenology, being instead perhaps empiricism with a Berkeleyan tinge.13

It was, in fact, at the beginning of the same year as the Royal College lecture, 1951, that his article ‘Paul Klee. La Période de Berne’ was published in Les Temps Modernes, then edited by Merleau-Ponty.14 Sylvester, who had been staying in Paris periodically since 1947, would certainly have known of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ (Phénoménologie de la perception and ‘La doute de Cézanne’ were both originally published in 1945), but I can find no very specific echo of the philosopher’s ideas in his writing, with one possible exception, which I will come to later. Sylvester, I should add, told the art historian James Hyman that he read neither Merleau-Ponty’s book nor his essay until ‘much later’ – date unspecified –  than the period of his Temps Modernes essay, but it is easy to imagine that so keen and intellectually alert a conversationalist as Sylvester was affected by prevailing currents of thought; Hyman seems to have made a similar assumption. 15(Merleau-Ponty’s two letters to Sylvester concerning his publication raise no philosophical questions, but express strong appreciation of Sylvester’s writing on Klee, and it is easy to see why, so well does Sylvester’s approach accord with the ideas and concerns of a philosopher who, in fact, was to write on Klee himself, in his late essay ‘Eye and Mind’ (‘L’Oeil et l’esprit’), 1961).16 Certainly, the dual refrain of Parisian thought at the time of his visits may be seen to run through his criticism and to find expression in the dialectical movement between limits or extremes that I referred to earlier. The two parts of this refrain – interwoven in Merleau-Ponty’s essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ – are of course the phenomenological and the existential.

Cézanne’s ‘doubt’ is perceptual and so to speak structural, but also ontological – he lives it. In the early part of the essay Merleau-Ponty dwells on perceptual instability and uncertainty in the painter’s work: ‘To say that a circle seen obliquely is seen as an ellipse is to substitute for our actual perception what we would see if we were cameras; in reality we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being the ellipse.’17 But why should Cézanne, in particular, be the painter to show us what was thus always before our eyes? Merleau-Ponty’s existential contention is that, if Cézanne the painter was able to portray perceived reality as a field of shifting and disjunctive relationships, in defiance of the photography-like assumptions of common sense, it was because, as a man, he found in painting the means not to express schizoid experience, but rather to convert or translate it into images of universal validity. Like a phenomenologist bracketing or suspending some aspect of common experience in order to examine its constitution in consciousness, Cézanne made the world strange, to effect its rediscovery. The essay ends with a long reflection on existential uncertainty, on freedom and contingency, with reference to psychoanalysis and Freud’s essay on Leonardo. If personal disposition, as laid down in childhood, is a constraint, its role is not simply a determining one: ‘in every life, one’s birth and one’s past define categories or basic dimensions which do not impose any particular act but which can be found in all.’18 Just as we do not see things in geometrical perspective, like a camera, so our freedom does not appear to us as a clear path before us. Our future is bound up with our past in a circular movement and, he concludes, ‘We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.’19 Sylvester, in a broadcast on Cézanne of 1961–2, made a different, but not unrelated, existential observation: ‘In our lives nothing troubles us more than our inability to deal with those contradictions which we recognize in ourselves, in our feelings, our desires, our consciences … Perhaps it is because Cézanne’s art accepts contradictions to the full … that we always feel instinctively that it means so infinitely more than its ostensible subject.’20

Sylvester, in his early essays, construes painting as a field of uncertainty in which the viewer is enmeshed as the painter had been. Contrasting Klee’s late paintings, in their part-by-part structure, ‘without a focal point’, with a Renaissance picture, ‘a scene set before your eyes’, he uses a very bodily metaphor to describe the perceptual activity of the viewer. ‘A Renaissance painting is a room with one wall eliminated … To “feel-into” it is to explore those perspectives already visible from outside. A late Klee is the face of a cliff. To “feel-into” it is to clamber over it. In the former case, you move about untouched … With a Klee, the relationship between the picture and yourself is reciprocal; you touch a loose rock with your foot, it falls from under you and you are left dangling in space. You are part of it as you are part of the sea when you go swimming’.21 This metaphor, which rather takes on a life of its own as climbing mutates into swimming, comes from the first Klee essay, published in Tiger’s Eye in 1948 (where it was followed immediately by Barnett Newman’s ‘The Sublime is Now’). A glance at Harmonised Combat 1937, which Sylvester saw in the Klee exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in spring 1948, will reveal how the climbing metaphor suggested itself, for in that painting black diagonal ‘handholds’ articulate a surface variegated in angular segments of warm and cool colours. Sylvester drew a little pencil diagram of them in the margin of his copy of the exhibition catalogue (fig.1).22The swimming-immersion image recurs in the Temps Modernes essay of January 1951, in which he cites Harmonized Combat, as well as, later, in essays on Giacometti, Bonnard, Pollock, Soutine, Bomberg and others.

David Sylvester's sketch of Paul Klee's Harmonised Combat 1937

David Sylvester's sketch of Paul Klee's Harmonised Combat 1937 from exhibition catalogue at the Palais de Tokyo, 1948
Tate Archive

Like Greenberg, Sylvester was pre-eminently a critic attuned to modernism, though typically preferring to write on artists whose work lay outside of, or even defied, any technical or formal line of advance. His ventures outside the broad modernist ambit show less personal investment, carry less conviction. Like Greenberg, he dwelt on the modernist pictorial medium, giving, in his 1963 essay on Soutine, a definition less formulaic and more explanatory than ‘flatness’. Contrasting Courbet with Monet – his love of antithesis, again – as painters, respectively, of things and of sensations, Sylvester wrote that, with the painting of sensations, the canvas ‘ceases to be a sort of window; it becomes a sort of grid. It interposes between the painter and his motif an autonomous structure which, instead of effacing itself, asserts itself.’23 In such a painting, ‘the tree and the sky behind it are meant to look more like each other than unlike each other.’ It is in this grid or array of elements, a field of signs, as Sylvester proposes in the second of the Klee essays, that the painter moves and the viewer too, thereafter. In a 1958 essay on Pollock, Sylvester not only virtually re-uses, as he himself pointed out, a passage from his first Klee essay on the absence of focus, he also imports the swimming metaphor, attached to an idea of participation: ‘we are not spectators but participants, participants in its creation … we are as much part of it as we are of the sea when we go swimming.’24 In the second Klee essay, for Les Temps Modernes, he proposes that the painting sees itself, at least figuratively, in the case of Intention, a divided painting in which a large eye is part of the sign array: ‘it is surely meant to be the eye which sees the multifarious objects around it.’25 I think of Giacometti’s oil portrait (Portrait of David Sylvester 1960, Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which the artist converts Sylvester’s sidelong glance into a dominant left eye set back within the web of fine brushstrokes it appears to command or survey. (Sylvester had an eye defect which required him to look slightly sideways at things in order to avoid double vision; like Giacometti’s other subjects, he is returning the artist’s gaze, but by necessity obliquely).

Sylvester is at his best when he is able to move around within his subject, to write from within a particular practice, even a particular painting, as with an article of 1961–2 on Bonnard’s 1925 painting The Table in Tate’s collection (fig.2). He loses himself lucidly in the work, in its field of uncertainty: ‘the paint itself is like a living substance, and its vibrations always prevent the eye from focusing on any one point once and for all. The eye wanders, and, as the focus changes, things suddenly swim into my view as if I hadn’t known they were there, so unaware was I a moment before of their presence.’26 ‘Things don’t stay still, conveniently in place. They float around, and I can’t bring them into focus. I’m not certain that I’m standing where I thought I was.’27 This kind of self-monitoring is practical phenomenology, addressing a question in the form what is it like to perceive, feel, think, experience, remember etc. Sylvester’s broad proposition in these early essays is that, in important respects, what it is like to look at a painting by Klee, or by Bonnard, is significantly related to what it is like to perceive ordinarily, in the midst of things, in reality: hence a new kind of realism. He makes this connection at another point in the same essay: ‘As I stand looking at a table in reality, I don’t fix my eye straight ahead and keep it there. I let it wander, concentrating first on one thing, then on another, recognizing different things in turn and ignoring others or vaguely noticing them without bothering to identify them.’28 Compare a passage in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (an English translation was published in 1962): ‘To see an object is either to have it on the fringe of the visual field and [have the ability] to concentrate on it, or else respond to this summons by actually concentrating upon it. When I do concentrate my eyes on it, I become anchored in it, but this coming to rest of the gaze is merely a modality of its movement: I continue inside one object the movement which earlier hovered over them all’.29

Pierre Bonnard, ‘The Table’ 1925
Pierre Bonnard
The Table 1925

It might come as a surprise, in view of all that has been said so far, to find Sylvester, in a New Statesman review of 1957, disparaging the very artist in whose work he had found the prototype of this uncertain, immersive field. Writing on an exhibition of work by Wols, he finds Klee by comparison bloodless. Klee indeed provided the form, invented the language of unstable, immersive painting, but Wols invested it ‘with a more intense and resonant imagination.’ Whereas motifs of leaf-like veining in Klee are ‘bloodless, sapless, schematic, Wols’s forms seem almost horrifyingly full of sap, or blood.’30 It is here that we find Sylvester making that veering movement between opposite poles that I referred to earlier: from the percipient and lucid to the intuitive and felt, from the phenomenological to the existential, but still in terms of an identificatory immersion in the medium. The essay on Soutine, one of his best, fully manifests this anti-rational turn, Soutine being, as he shows, an artist who proceeds wholly though feeling, as if blindly following imperatives of which he himself has no understanding – to the extent that he comes to destroy some of his best work. It is at this pole, this extreme, that we may find an analogy with the gambler, as understood – from the inside – by Sylvester. On one of his scraps of paper in the gambling file he comments on the fallaciousness of the idea of being ‘in form’, when betting on horses, as if it were the punter running the race. He adds, though, ‘At Roulette, of course, it is possible for the gambler to be “in form”, since he is working through pure intuition and luck.’31 Francis Bacon used exactly the same wording in some comments on Matthew Smith: ‘I think that painting today is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the stuff down.’32

Bacon is one of the two artists with whose work Sylvester has been most closely identified, the other being of course Giacometti. In themselves, they somewhat embody the opposite poles of Sylvester’s critical sensibility, and it strikes me that, in his writing, he gravitated far more to one of these poles than to the other. His unpublished attempt at a general theoretical statement, the Royal College lecture ‘Towards a New Realism’, would have been wholly apt for Giacometti, in its quasi-phenomenological and perceptualistic orientation, but only slightly relevant for Bacon. As a critic intent on making sense of what he saw, converting an array of signs in space into an ordered sequence of words, Sylvester responded particularly well to those artists who were, as he put it, ‘seekers’, working as if with an end in view, and deliberative in their practice. His remarks on Wols and the essay on Soutine are exceptions to this general rule, and the strange dismissal of Klee in the Wols article perhaps reflects a concern that he had not been able to do sufficient justice to the Dionysian in painting. It is in this connection that I am struck by the aptness of Leavis’s remarks on Webster: ‘He seems to me to belong to a disintegrated and chaotic world – to be of it’. What Leavis thought a limitation may well have been precisely the quality that attracted Sylvester, not only to Webster, but to Bacon, whom he defined, in an essay of 1954, as ‘a tragic painter’.33 Yet Sylvester did not write on this tragic-chaotic dimension of art in any concerted way, and his writing on Giacometti seems to me to show closer engagement than does his writing on Bacon. I think that this is because, while he aligned the two artists, in an essay of 1955, as reconciling an ‘entirely free and autonomous treatment of the surface … with a profound concern with problems of representation’,34 the synthesis was impeded in Bacon’s case, the images being too definite and assertive to be absorbed into a painterly matrix. Sylvester recognised this in a review of 1962, comparing Bacon unfavourably in this respect with de Kooning.35 Bacon did not, after all, offer the enmeshment of surface and image that he theoretically promised, and that Sylvester, as a writer on art, essentially needed.

Yet Sylvester was Bacon’s incomparable interlocutor, as he had been his companion in gambling expeditions, ventures in which the outcome was unknown, and where the unknown was itself the lure. Criticism, as he pursued it, and whatever its subject, was such a venture, in so far as, at its best, it rested on nothing but perceptual resourcefulness and a capacity for insight: as a swimmer trusts her body to the water and plunges in, or as a climber, by bodily instinct, reaches for a hold. What Sylvester gives us, at his best, is the inside story of this chancy and uncertain pursuit; the story, as Victor S. Frank suggested for the roulette player, of ‘a personal “affair” with a being which lies beyond.’ The work, in response to mute and intense attention, will intimate its meaning, disclose its secret. In 1948, the young Sylvester wrote in pencil on his copy of the Klee exhibition catalogue: ‘Klee communion not exaltation’, and ‘Picasso is a social painter. He talks and you can talk in looking at him (not his drawing) – Klee is the silent watcher and cannot be seen but in silence.’