Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

L’ANGLETERRE, I LOVE YOU

February 2, 2017

Tags: Gina Medcalf, Charles Hewlings, John McLean, Damien Hirst, John Hoyland, Jules Olitski, Bruce McLean, Virginia Jaramillo, Frank Bowling, Kevin Sinnott

Thanks to a deeply-discounted plane ticket that I was fortunate enough to obtain, I recently spent a blissful week in what (at this moment) may be my favorite country, England. As I had only three days in London, one in Oxford and one in Worcestershire, I planned my stay in advance detail comparable to limning angels on a pin’s head. To my delight, nearly everything went off like clockwork.

THE OVERALL SCENE

To begin with, the weather in the UK was lovely – in the mid-to-upper 40s (Fahrenheit—though of course the Brits go by Celsius) and sunny most of the time. NO rain, though at this time of the year, the sun sets around 4:30 pm – not that different from New York.

And the streets of London – at least in the neighborhoods where I was – were cleaner than New York, no little bits of litter even though wastebaskets were practically unknown on the streets (we have wastebaskets on literally every corner in New York’s chic Upper East Side, but there are still lots of ground-out cigarette stubs and other detritus that I just didn’t see in my foreign peregrinations).

Coffee shops all over the place in London, too, not only Starbucks and Pret a Manger (an English chain that is making inroads in New York), but also Caffé Nero (a newer English chain with particularly good coffee, plus snacks & yogurt & so on).

The cars of the Underground are cleaner & more comfortable than New York subways (with upholstered seats, though not cutely decorated like the new Second Avenue cars, and people don’t offer their seats to old ladies nearly as often as they do in New York).

That said, it’s also worth saying that the Brits still speak a slightly different language from ours. When the subway/tube pauses overlong at a station, both cities’ transport authorities apologize over loudspeakers, but the New York explanation is that there is “train traffic up ahead;” while in London, the tracks ahead are being “regulated.”

Where an American street sign says “detour,” one in London points to a “diversion.” This word makes me think of a song-and-dance routine to take one’s minds off one’s troubles, as opposed to a traffic hazard. Plus, of course, the Brits say “lift” where we say “elevator,” “flat” where we say “apartment” & so on.

What the two cities seem to have in common is lots & lots of building, especially in the center of town. Although some of this is office space (which may or may not be affected by Brexit), the annoying part is all the high-rise, high price & ultra-modern flats/apartments.

These apartments/flats are doing little or nothing to alleviate housing shortages for middle-class and working class natives. Instead (according to my admittedly only anecdotal evidence) most are designed to appeal to foreign moneybags (Chinese, Arab, Russian Mafia) who buy them to have some place stable to park their millions, and not because they plan to live in them. Does this sound familiar to New Yorkers?

The construction and the kind of people for whom it is destined, and who have also found almost equally pricey places to roost in London, have driven rents up to the ceiling in these areas, and forced the English middle classes (to say nothing of the working classes) out to the periphery of the greater city – and even to towns within an hour or two commute (what we in the States would call the suburbs or the exurbs, though Londoners use the term “suburb” to refer to outlying areas of the city itself).

When I was most familiar with London, back in the 60s and 70s, the middle-class (or rather, upper middle-class) younger people whom I knew could still afford to live in Belsize Park (near Hampstead), South Kensington or Notting Hill (not-bad to nice neighborhoods, while my own pad was in a somewhat mixed area of West Kensington).

All these places (except West Ken) could be described (with more or less accuracy) as “swinging” in the nomenclature of the 60s. All were north of the Thames, and to the west or north of Trafalgar Square and the financial center of town known (in caps) as the City of London.

WHERE, OH WHERE IS TODAY’S EQUIVALENT TO “SWINGING LONDON”?

The last time I checked out the situation (albeit long distance, and four or five years ago), I was told that the “hip” or “cool” areas of town were now east of the City of London --- in the “East End” which historically was where poor people had lived in substandard conditions, areas like Shoreditch and Spitalfields (north of the Thames).

On this visit, however, I was advised that even the East End has become a high-rent district, and that many (though certainly not all) of the art galleries which had sought it out when it was still cheap had closed.

Not knowing this in advance, I’d emailed one gallery whose website showed an interesting space in Hoxton to ask if I could visit it – only to be told that the owner had been forced to close it when his landlord tripled his rent.

Rather wistfully, this guy asked if New York was any better. I in my turn was forced to tell him that London has no monopoly on rapacious landlords – we have just as many of them here in Manhattan -- and even in Brooklyn (the Big Apple equivalent to Shoreditch or Spitalfields).

Some of the newest galleries in London are opening south of the Thames -- such as the £38 million gallery/museum built and opened in Lambeth in 2015 by Damien Hirst, better known as the pickler of sharks.

To everybody’s astonishment, his inaugural exhibition (aside from his own work) featured John Hoyland (1934-2011), the abstract painter who was not that far from color-field (I met him around 1970 at a dinner party given by Tony & Sheila Caro). Apparently Hirst owns dozens of Hoyland’s paintings, and the two became great buddies a few years before Hoyland’s death—possibly because both came from south Yorkshire.

In the course of my three days in London, I found that only one of the people I spent any amount of time with lived north of the Thames, and in a home that she had only relatively recently moved into. Two more lived north of the Thames, but had lived there for decades, and the remaining six (counting their respective spouses) were either living in the southernmost reaches of greater London or even in the exurbs.

And yet the old continues to co-exist with the new. I was able to find a modestly-priced but ultra-modern little hotel named the Mayflower, complete with huge, free breakfasts, plus a lift-- though created out of an old South Kensington town house & with spectacularly tiny rooms.

It was right off the Earl’s Court Road, a delightfully honky-tonk avenue with a tube station and an amazing selection of foreign restaurants in or near it. In the three days I spent in London, I ate Greek and Italian lunches in central London and Chinese and Indian dinners near my hotel –the Indian chick pea dish with onion and coriander that I had at the New Asia L.T.D. in Hogarth Place was out of this world! And only steps from ultra-ultra, private Kensington residences….

In Southwark (south of the Thames) you have co-existing within a number of blocks of each other a) the 21st century, 95-story multi-purpose skyscraper nicknamed “The Shard,” (perhaps because the top comes to jagged points) and b) The George, London’s oldest pub, dating back to the 17th century and on the site of an earlier inn where Shakespeare is said to have drunk.

I must confess that I felt no urge to zoom to the observation deck near the top of the Shard. I was having too much fun drinking cider at The George with Jerry White, a teacher and scholar specializing in the history of London. He had been kind enough to mention me and Time magazine’s cover story on “Swinging London” in one of his many books, and even gifted me with a copy.

UP CLOSE & PERSONAL WITH LONDON ART & CULTURE

Among the other highlights of my visit was coffee at the Whitechapel Gallery (which I had never seen before) with Sam Cornish, the critic and curator who contributed an essay to the book on Peter Hide that I also contributed to. Since then, he has organized the big show of work from Stockton Depot staged in Greenwich (his handsome catalog for this show was all I could review, not being able to see the show for myself).

At present, Sam is compiling a catalog raisonné for Hoyland. As Hoyland painted thousands of pictures, this should take a while. Sam also earned my undying gratitude for piloting me up from Whitechapel High Street through Brick Lane to Shoreditch High Street so I could catch a bus to Sir John Soane’s Museum (which proved to be highly interesting as opposed to truly pleasurable). The location of this bus was the one spot in my itinerary where my advance planning via google let me down….

Another highlight of my visit was high tea at the Royal Academy of Art with Gina Medcalf & Charles Hewlings. Here with my English version of a Ruben sandwich I was able to have ginger beer, like the alcoholic variety of cider a beverage only to be found in England (it’s a lot spicier than the ginger ale we have in the States—and before my visit to Blighty was over I was also introduced to ginger wine and a nonalcoholic beverage called “Dorset ginger”).

Following my high tea, I took in “Much Ado about Nothing,” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the antique but exquisitely maintained Theatre Royal Haymarket. This is my favorite Shakespeare play (though I know you’re supposed to like “Macbeth” or “Lear” or “Hamlet” better).

Its Beatrice of Lisa Dillon didn’t quite equal that of Emma Thompson in the movie version, but the Benedick of Edward Bennett was a broadly-played comic joy (I get a crush on every actor who plays that role—so many of the male romantic leads in Shakespeare’s comedies just let themselves be targets for their female opposite numbers, but Benedick gives as good as he gets).

The production was one of those grandly old-fashioned, elaborate ones -- though set in 1918, with all the soldiers coming home from the war (it is playing in repertory with “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” which is set in 1914, with all the soldiers going to war at the end).

This “Much Ado” was also distinguished by more than the ordinary amount of singing and dancing. There were several reprises of what sounded like a modern melody to which “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” (by Christopher Marlowe) had been set; this provided an additional festivity to the proceedings.

Gina and Charles have recently moved from Brixton to Crystal Palace, which is further away from the Thames to the south but a lot closer to their studios (and to the studios of their friends).

They were in the process of bringing work to a show in which both are represented. It is at the A.P.T. Gallery in Deptford (near Greenwich, and like it also south of the Thames). The show is called “APT Shots 2017: Passionate Process,” and was curated by Sheila Vollmer (through February 19).

I would like to have been able to see the newest work of John McLean, as I understand he has been making some magnificent paintings. However, I only learned about them after almost all of my other plans had been made and I just couldn’t squeeze a visit to his studio (south of the Thames) into my already overcrowded itinerary.

I did get to Tate Britain, which has a small show on the Kasmin Gallery, as it thrived in London in the 60s and 70s under the direction of John Kasmin (father of Paul) and with the backing of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.

The Tate show is built around recordings that Kasmin and his associates made as part of an oral history project conducted by the British Library in conjunction with the Tate. The title of the show is “BP Spotlight—Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery,” it was curated by Cathy Courtney & Elena Crippa, and will be on through autumn.

I have very fond memories of “Kas” and his gallery, which was located in New Bond Street. When I went to London in 1969, Clement Greenberg gave me an introduction to him, and he promptly put me on his mailing list. This meant that every month I could emerge like a butterfly from my drab West Kensington chrysalis to enjoy the delights of Mayfair at Kasmin’s latest private view. He also invited me to a party at his town house on Regent’s Park. That was entertaining, too.

Under the circumstances, I suppose I should have listened to the generous swatches of oral history available on a set of machines in the middle of the Tate’s gallery, but silly me! I go to museums to look at art, and do my reading in libraries and archives (especially when my time is very limited). So I looked at the art—and I’m afraid that with the exception of one extraordinary piece of it, I was disappointed.

There was a fine but not outstanding medium-sized bright yellow steel Caro, “Yellow Swing” (1965), and “Another Line,” a Noland from 1970 that I didn’t relate to. There was a negligible David Hockney (doubtless intended to complement and not to compete with the full-dress Hockney retrospective opening at the same museum in February), a mechanically bright Frank Stella, sizeable but unmoving paintings by Richard Smith & Robyn Denny, and an all-black collage/assemblage by John Latham which did nothing to alter my deeply-felt distaste for his sarcastic brand of dada.

But then, wonder of wonders, we also had “Instant Loveland” (1968) by Jules Olitski, a majestic spray painting that measured approximately 10 x 20 feet and justified every square inch of its presence.

Most of it was a soft, grayish mauve so typical of Olitski’s uniquely sophisticated color sense, but with borders at the bottom and lower right and left of much more plebian colors: yellow, apple green and red.

The contrast between the sophisticated and plebian palettes was especially powerful, as was the small area of thickened & shiny grayish mauve a foot or so in on the upper left-hand side of the canvas. The whole made my visit to this show entirely worthwhile.

I was particularly charmed to see, when I arrived, a class of about a dozen boys maybe twelve or thirteen years old, sitting in front of “Instant Loveland” and listening intently while their teacher held forth on it.

They were wearing uniforms with maroon jackets, so I asked one what school they came from. It was York House, a co-ed preparatory school for children 3 to 13 years of age, outside of Watford in Hertfordshire….so the beat goes on….
,
.In terms of museum exhibitions, all of the big autumn ones that I would have like to see had gone down and none of the big spring shows had yet opened. I did glance through “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans” (closed January 29) at the Royal Academy of Art while waiting for Gina and Charles.

This Belgian painter (1860-1946), who hovered uncertainly between expressionism, symbolism and avant-la-lettre surrealism wasn’t really all that great, but this exhibition showed him more variegated than I’d realized, and made me laugh at some of his paintings—a reaction that I like to think he intended to provoke. .

FOUR SOLO SHOWS & A MEMORABLE STUDIO VISIT

I got to four solo and/or gallery shows, including one at Bernard Jacobson in Duke Street, close to the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. This show (which closed the end of January) impressed me more by the size and modernity of its gallery space than for the art on view (by Bruce McLean; the work looked like large, slightly awkward mid-60s floral variations on color-field painting with indebtedness to Léger & Matisse cutouts).

In Dover Street, not far away, I took in a small but very fine exhibition of “Frank Bowling” at the Arts Club, organized by Amelie von Wedel & Pernilla Holmes, and consisting of nine medium-sized abstract paintings made between 1974 and 2013, many made with pouring.

Officially, it will be up through April 23 but one really needs to make an appointment to see it, as recommended by Vanity Fair UK. This is one of London’s famed private clubs and the rooms where the paintings are displayed are public lounges and eating spaces. I attended at teatime and was of the very few looking at the art. But the rooms were crowded with many people eating, drinking and chatting on the comfortable upholstery.

I also had the privilege of seeing newer work by Frank Bowling in his studio in Peacock Yard. This is an entrancingly historic compound of studios for many artists and crafts people surrounding a courtyard and located in Kennington, a residential neighborhood south of the Thames.

It was great to see Bowling, who appears to be painting away almost as busily as ever, despite the assorted infirmities that age brings. I was especially impressed by the “white paintings” that he (and his studio assistant) showed me, and that had formed the nucleus of “Frank Bowling: New White Paintings” a show held at the Hampstead School of Art gallery this past fall.

After this viewing, Bowling and Rachel Scott, his mate, drove me to an opening at Hales in Bethnal Green Road, close to Shoreditch High Street. The location of this exceedingly stylish gallery tells me that the East End is not yet altogether over the hill as an art center.

Moreover, the sight of various hip-looking young adults cruising from one pub to another as Rachel sent our car careening through nearby streets suggested that, to the extent that “Swinging London” still exists, it may be as well be found in the East End as on the south side of the Thames.

The opening we attended was for “Virginia Jaramillo: Where the Heavens Touch the Earth” (through March 4). This Texas-born, New York-based artist has been a friend of Rachel and Frank for decades.

The paintings in her show, all made in the 1970s, were good-looking, and strikingly evocative of midnight skies—with their geometric overtones, more like minimalism than modernism but well-done nonetheless.

Both she and Bowling will be represented in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at Tate Modern this summer. In addition, she will be appearing in “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85,” at the Brooklyn Museum, and he will have a solo exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

One show I saw on my own and very much liked was “Kevin Sinnott: History Paintings,” at the East End space of Flowers, in Hoxton (through March 11). I’d been to several shows at the Flowers outpost in Manhattan that I’d liked, so I investigated what they were showing in London – didn’t like the look of the show of their outlet in the West End, but thought I might like Sinnott – and did.

This representational artist is not unknown, but I don’t think he’s that famous, either. Born in southern Wales in 1947, he studied at the Cardiff College of Art & Design, then at the Royal College of Art in London. After working his way through various styles and subjects in London, he moved back to Wales in 1993 and developed an interest in local history.

At this stage, he uses a freely-brushed, vaguely Cézannian style and rich dark colors to portray detailed panoramas of local historical phenomena with many figures – a coal industry lock-out, stranded vaudeville performers, an old-time bare-knuckled boxing match, and so forth.

Sometimes, he will throw in a fantasy figure: for example, his portrait of Richard Price, the 18th century moral philosopher, is shown with “Liberty leading the people,” from the 19th century painting by Delacroix, over his shoulder. But on the whole, it’s truth-telling he’s after, and in this comparatively modest ambition, he succeeds.

MORE PERSONAL THAN PROFESSIONAL

The rest of my visit was more personal than professional, but I had a hell of a good time nevertheless. One visit I made in London – for tea --- was to Irma Kurtz, who (though cited by Frank Bowling in one of his picture titles) is better known to me as a Barnard classmate who has not only four grandchildren but also achieved a distinguished career.

At present she is working on her fifth, sixth or is it the seventh book? I loved her memoir of London, and her book about crossing the USA in a Greyhound bus. She has sure done a lot more with autobiography than I have.

To make ends meet, she did a stint writing the agony column for Cosmopolitan, but she is also knowledgeable enough about literature to be able to tell when some idiot at the RSC cut the role of the Fool in “Lear” at the Barbican last fall to the point when his interaction with the mad monarch no longer made sense.

And she is sufficiently up on the doings of the young and hip to be able to tell me that Deptford, south of the Thames, is now the newest “happening” neighborhood (my phrase, but her news, and great for me to hear, considering how many artist-friends of mine have connections there).

After that, it was on to Oxford, which I have long wanted to visit, and never been able to manage it before. This time, I was lucky enough to be able to stay with Miriam Dressler Griffin & Jasper Griffin, two retired Oxford dons.

Miriam is another over-achieving member of my Barnard class. She was already brilliant as an undergraduate (summa cum laude) and a Fulbright sent her to Oxford—from which she never looked back. She too has a massive bibliography, and is still writing—besides having taught, learned how to cook lamb cutlets (not at all the same thing as lamb chops), mastered the fine art of Christmas cake & raised three daughters. How do they do it, I ask myself.

But the day I spent in Oxford was also memorable for going around to the different colleges of the university and trying to see their private grounds. Only two were willing to let me come in and look but they were the two that I most wanted to see—as a fanatic admirer of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers.

One of the two was Somerville, where Sayers studied, and that she used as the model for a fictional women’s college in one of her Wimsey stories. The other was Balliol, where Wimsey himself supposedly studied (curiously enough, Miriam was a don at Somerville, and Jasper at Balliol). And yes, I was able to get into St. Mary the Virgin, the university’s head church, and the Ashmolean Museum, where I saw a number though not a lot of gorgeous Old Masters.

I also got as far as the exterior grounds of Christ Church, the big college on the outskirts of town sponsored by Henry VIII, and saw the picturesque exteriors of two noble old libraries, the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera.

All in the company of so many other tourists (even in January) that I wonder how any Oxford students ever get their schoolwork done.

Finally, I came to rest at the lovely little town of Pershore, in Worcestershire. This was a private visit, too, to see Carolyn Mullens Harford, a woman I roomed with back in the 1960s in New York. She was working at Grolier Encyclopedia in those days but went home to marry Timothy Harford, who had been the boy next door.

They settled in a big house in another tiny town in Worcestershire and raised three children while Timothy pursued a financial career in nearby Birmingham, and Carolyn engaged in local Democratic Liberal Party politics and other nonprofits, all the while raising three children (who together have provided her with seven more descendants).

Since Timothy died, Carolyn has relocated to this smaller but still very luxurious residence in Pershore, where she lives with a sweet-natured black-and-white cat, Bella. When Carolyn isn’t engaged in yet more community-based causes (plus the occasional bridge game), she has mastered the fine art of cuisine (almost everything I ate in England tasted great, but her cooking enabled me to achieve new heights in delicacies)

In addition to all that gourmet eating, I was also able to see “the Abbey,” sitting in its ancient patch of green. This is Carolyn's parish church but also a fragment of a far, far larger edifice that served as the abbey church for a Benedictine monastery in the Middle Ages.

After Henry VIII decided to despoil the monasteries, the nave of this huge church was taken down, so all that remains is what was formerly the choir and transepts. It’s still big enough to house hundreds of churchgoers, and looms over the quiet village almost like a skyscraper or even a mountain…quite a sight.

Comments

  1. February 4, 2017 11:13 AM EST
    I was wondering what you been up to...good to see and read....glad to hear about Virginia Jaramillo and Frank Bowling Shows and visits
    - Peter Reginato