THE HERETIC SAVES THE DAY – or, how I came to paint the James Street Mural…

General ViewAs an amateur student of history, one of the phenomena I’ve noticed is how human nonconformities sometimes transform into mass consensus. It is perhaps one of the great historical ironies that people and ideas which start out on the margins of society, once adopted by society, have a tendency to marginalise the people of the existing consensus who previously marginalised them. This is a pattern common to all fields of putative human coexistence, which more often than not results in the followers of the usurped consensus being persecuted by the holders of the new. These persecutions are usually most obvious and brutal in the areas of religion and politics but they happen with equal intellectual ferocity at a cultural level.

In the 1960’s and 70’s Saint Martin’s School of Art was one of the world’s high temples of the-then recently adopted art consensus of Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism developed out of the near-century old grand consensus of Modernism, in a similar way to how a reformed religion develops out of an existing ancient religion, with similar intellectual tensions and conflicts resulting – albeit without the physical violence.

Thus, when in 1978, a callow 18-year-old “classical” modernist, realist painter misguidedly found himself stuck for three years in the beating heart of western European Abstract Expressionism, his creative life was always going to be something of a struggle.

That young aspiring artist was me, and my time at Saint Martin’s School of Art was in fact, one long battle of wills between me and a group of teachers who almost* to a man and a woman regarded me as a hopeless heretic from the start. My overall experience of being “taught” comprised a mixture of verbal bullying – in an attempt to bend me to their will – and / or complete indifference to my work when these efforts eventually failed.

But one day in the Spring of 1981 during my final term at the school all that changed, when I was paid a rare visit to my studio by my 3rd-year head tutor John Edwards, who came bearing a surprising request.

The Greater London Council (now defunct) together with the construction company, Myton Taylor Woodrow were looking for a student artist to paint a temporary street mural to jolly up a large hoarding in James Street, Covent Garden during the area’s major refurbishment. They wanted a student because they only had £100 on offer for the commission, and they wanted that student to be from the local art college, which was Saint Martin’s. However, they also wanted the mural to be figurative, and that was where I came in.

Edwards was typically honest with me, and admitted that when first approached by the GLC he had suggested one or other of his star students in Abstract Expressionism, but when they insisted on a figurative artist, the only person he could think of was me. While there were a couple of other representational heretics in our year, Edwards told me that he thought I was the only one with sufficient mastery of grand scale painting to handle such a large mural.

With just a £100 to spend and two weeks to execute the project, I was tempted to refuse what was a virtually impossible commission. But the certain public exposure of painting a mural in a bustling London street adjacent to Covent Garden Opera House was an opportunity too good to turn down; so much to John Edward’s and the school’s relief I accepted.

With half the £100, I employed two of my fellow student “Modernist heretics”† to help me with the huge physical task of covering so much white hoarding in paint. This left me all of £50 with which to purchase the paint itself, the brushes and rollers and plastic paint-mixing buckets. The only paint I could afford in sufficient quantity to finish the job was the cheapest industrial emulsion, and because of the time constraint, it had to be quick-drying “matt”. In other words, this was hardly going to be a Michelangelo or a de Rivera so far as colour intensity was concerned.

In the end, the subject matter of the painting was as much determined by these extreme material and time limitations, as it was by the unusually wide configuration of the street “canvas”. And so I came up with the idea of all the highlights of the Book of Genesis, with each chosen episode “bleeding” into the next. With only a few days to make a scale sketch and then just five days (London weather permitting) to execute the actual mural I decided to go with a kind of Chagall-meets-comic strip approach, allowing for quick, strongly drawn cartoon outlines coloured in with simple large blocks of colour.

As things turned out, the weather was unusually kind for May in London, and the three of us completed the mural with hours to spare.

All things considered, including the lifeless paint, it looked pretty good, and graced James Street for about the following two years. It received favourable reviews from the London and Jewish press and was probably my first claim to 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps more importantly though, it earned me the appreciation of my school and its tutors for the first and only time, and I’ll never forget John Edward’s response upon viewing it; “You know Adam, I’ve often wondered why we accepted you at Saint Martin’s, but seeing this, all I can say is that I’m bloody glad we did!” Even heretics have their uses I guess?

*David Hepher and the late Henry Mundy were glorious exceptions to this general dereliction of tutorship, and for that they both have my undying gratitude.

Danny Gibson (now a brilliant printmaker) and Robert Lewenstein (the most gifted portraitist I ever knew).

 

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WANDERINGS AND WONDERING OF YOUTH

Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.

But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.

All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.

Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;

Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;

A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;

Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.

About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;

Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);

In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;

And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.

However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.

The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).

Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…

OILS ON PAPER… “FORM THROUGH COLOUR”

I fancied myself as something of a colourist around the the time I started at Saint Martins (1978/79), when this selection of oils on paper dates from. The idea of expressing things like bodily posture and even personality and human attitude through blocks of colour – with just a bit of assistance from drawn lines – was a concept which had interested me since I’d first started looking at pictures by anyone, from Matisse to Mathew Smith.

The paintings here are all of people (including one each of my maternal grandparents) done from life, which even then, was unusual for me – I was always more of a studio artist than a “field artist”. All of my early oil paintings were done on paper (like those presented below) or board. It was only once the generous student grant kicked in (those were the days!), when I’d actually begun at St. Martins, with access to subsidised stretchers and countless yards of cotton duck that I was able to enjoy the use of canvas.

Looking at these pictures now I’m struck by how fresh they look, and despite some pretty crude handling of paint, how closely they portray the subjects.

All in all, they’re not half bad, and the pictures of my much-missed booba and zaida  (the bottom two – Becky and Harry Pizan) are surprisingly evocative and poignant- for me at least…

 

MY ART CAREER 3 (d) – SAINT MARTINS 1979: NUDE SKETCHBOOK

In an earlier post (adamhalevi777.com/2014/10/20/my-art-career-part-3-b-st-martins-finding-my-vocabulary-ii/) I promised to reveal the fruits of my hours spent in the life room at St. Martins.

I always try to keep my promises, so here are the contents of my sketchbook dated 1979.

Looking at these drawings now after so many years hidden away in a drawer in my old plan-chest, what strikes me is their raw honesty. How good or bad they are I’m not the one to judge (although I’ve seen worse), but whatever else, they are truthful, even to the point of portraying how terribly bored the models were in most of the poses. I can also perceive the instinctive cartoonist in me trying to break out, especially in F&M 1.

I referenced several of these in my biblical themed paintings later that same year, especially the Adam and Eve series, and then in 1980, a couple of them were very useful for my “Wanderers” pictures.

 

 

MY ART CAREER PART 3 (c) – ST MARTINS – FINDING MY VOCABULARY ‘III’

About half-way through my second year at St Martins I made a drastic change of course – not so much in my expressive, heavy impasto style but regarding my subject matter. For about six months I became what can only be described as a religious painter.

At the time my reason for my doing this was a mystery to me as I had stopped believing in God or any other form of spiritual entity years before and Chagall – the artist to whom I looked for inspiration at the time – was one of my least favourite painters. All I knew was that I had become bored of churning out paintings of apples and bottles and weary of my constant fight with my tutors who so resented my failure to become a conceptual artist.

Looking back on it now, calmly and rationally I can see two clear reasons for this brief aberration in my painting career. To compensate for my feeling of alienation at St Martins I turned to Jewish/biblical subjects because it was a world which I knew and in which I still felt at home. Better still, it gave my tutors, almost all of whom were not Jewish, a new dilemma in their dealings with me and my art. In a sense it put them on the defensive and rendered them altogether less confident in their criticism of my representational style. Accusing my fruit and beer cans of being “superficial” and “lacking true artistic depth” was one thing. It was quite another to level similar criticisms at apparently emotional evocations of spirituality and religious angst.

It all seems pretty cynical on my part from this distance, but back then I was actually on the verge of leaving the school. The choice seemed stark – knuckle-under if I wanted to succeed as an artist or continue being a waste of space. In desperation I guess, I did something which was neither, but it was drastic and did at least succeed in shaking everything up.

At first the tutors were mostly dumbfounded. I think I was about three weeks into my new style and it was Henry Mundy (who still used to look in on me from time to time) who was the first to say anything. I think he merely exclaimed, “astonishing Adam, simply astonishing…” and then as he was walking out of the room he stopped in the doorway, turned around and looking at the canvas I was working on said “Don’t forget the emerald green…’ What he really thought, and if he liked or hated the work I have no idea but from then on he came up regularly, and stood in the doorway watching me work for five or ten minutes at a time, a slight smile on his face, but without ever uttering another word.

As for the majority of his colleagues they basically backed off and left me to my own devices.

The only other visitor to my space I remember having during this period was the then international superstar of British Abstract Expressionism, John Hoyland. He was paying us a visit, mainly to deliver a talk on his own latest work, but afterwards he took a stroll around the studios. At this point it’s impossible to overstate the sameness of nearly all the other studio spaces he was viewing that afternoon, nearly all filled with Hoyland wannabes and their mostly pale imitations of his admittedly fine examples of the abstract expressive oeuvre. So it was really very amusing that when he passed by my space and glanced in he did a double take worthy of Scooby Doo seeing a ghost. When he then walked in it was with an expression of one stepping out of a space ship onto a new planet and not quite certain if the air was breathable. When I stopped to greet him he gestured for me to keep on working and he just stood there stroking his chin. I think he stayed about ten minutes, then just before he turned to leave, he said “whatever else, you certainly can paint…” All I recall feeling at that moment was embarrassment that I hadn’t bothered to attend his talk. Later on though, especially when I discovered that Hoyland was to be one of our degree assessors, it gave me hope that at least I would come out of St Martins with a BA of some kind.

As for the pictures themselves, what can I say?

Ultimately I think they work quite well, and of all my work at St Martins, express the angst and frustration I was feeling as I muddled my way through the first two years there. To those looking at the paintings above and detecting deep religious or spiritual truths – Jewish, rock and roll or otherwise – I say good for you. Whatever turns you on. For me; at their best they show how I was beginning to develop my basic paint handling skills, with brush and especially my beloved palette knife…

MY ART CAREER PART 3 (b) – ST MARTINS – FINDING MY VOCABULARY ‘II’

One of the things which really got up the noses of most of the tutors at St Martins was conventional drawing. They hated it so much that during my second year they actually closed down the life drawing studio, meaning that St Martins was the only one of the six UK major art schools without one – even Chelsea and Royal College maintained life drawing classes.

But I was a drawer. I had been since I was five years old (when my primary school headmaster described me as “the complete draftsman and cartoonist”). And fortunately for me I was not alone. Of our year of thirty odd students around ten others felt as I did, and because in those days we all received generous grants we were able to raise the funds between us to pay a model and support a once-a-week life class – much to the irritation of our tutors.

As in my first year there were a couple of tutors who bucked the general trend and attempted at least to teach and encourage us poor representational fools. Anthony Whishaw was my personal tutor that year and was always polite and gentle, despite the fact he was obviously repressing his frustration with me the whole time he was in my space. Gary Wragg was also incredibly affable and hugely encouraging, even if a bit hard to comprehend. On occasion he would stand in front of the canvas I was currently working on, gesticulate wildly with his arms and say things like, ‘Now that’s what I mean man! That’s what I’m talking about! Man, this is where it’s at!’ and so on (I always had the feeling with Gary that he thought he was on the set of a Shaft movie)… Not exactly constructive, but well meant, and I think – sincere. I believed I was Gary’s token representational artist, and I took that as a huge compliment given the whole weird context of me being at St Martins.

Anyhow, the drawings displayed below are from that time. No nudes represented here, although they will appear in future posts (I promise!) but rather an example of my portrait sketching. During this period while I was still searching for a satisfactory method of painting, I began each morning with an hour or so of sketching. Mostly, my own face but often a friend or girlfriend would be happy to sit for me if I provided them with a cup of tea or coffee as payment. It was a useful exercise and loosened me up for the rest of the day.

Ever the expressionist, subtlety was never my thing, but despite a slight heaviness of hand I’m surprised now, some 35 years later how fresh and alive these drawings appear. I hope others will agree…

MY ART CAREER PART 3 (a) – ST MARTINS – FINDING MY VOCABULARY ‘I’

My time at St Martins, from 1978 to 81 can roughly be divided into three periods, one for each year spent there, more or less, or though there are of course some overlaps.

Going to St Martins was a major error on my part. I was so flattered at being accepted that I totally overlooked the fact that I was a firmly representational painter entering an establishment at the forefront of non-representational and conceptual art. Both Slade and the Royal Academy School had both showed strong interest in me and either would have been perfect fits but I thought that St martins was where the glory was and as an 18 year old wannabee William Turner, boy, did I crave glory.

I realised the gravity of my mistake within the first week there, when the irritation with me from nearly all the tutors  was palpable as I resolutely stuck to my representational guns. There were two notable exceptions though – Jennifer Durrant and Henry Mundy who both took pity on me. Jenny wasn’t any happier with my painting than her colleagues but at least her approach was gentle persuasion rather than bullying. Henry – despite his international stature –  was simply a mench who instead of trying to mould  me in his own image gave me practical and accessible tips as to how develop the skills I already had.

The images here illustrate that development and are in part at least a testament to Henry Mundy’s kindness and astute understanding of who, and what I actually was. In his opinion at least, I was a “gifted colourist”, and it was this ability in particular which he helped me to hone. Henry’s influence is graphically illustrated in two images posted here – the two views out of my studio window of the local Soho roof tops. The first is all monochrome and gloomy – before Henry had ever set foot in my space and it well reflects the same gloominess of my mood. The second one was more or less the same but in browns. However, the tiny daub of emerald green in the window was the result of the very first piece of advice he ever gave me and, from then onward I was liberated, as the rest of the “gallery” posted here clearly shows.

The heavy impasto though is all mine.