About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 
by David Sylvester.
Chatto, 448 pp., £25, June 1996, 0 7011 6268 6
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In a preliminary chapter called ‘Curriculum Vitae’ David Sylvester explains that he became interested in art when, at 17, he was fascinated by a black and white reproduction of a Matisse. He at once began to paint in oils, but soon discovered that he lacked talent and began to write about art instead, devoting himself thenceforth to the black and white of the page. A left-wing journal here called the Tribute accepted an article he wrote about a London exhibition. Now 18, he was launched on a career for which he was but insecurely qualified. It was wartime, and he had seen very few foreign pictures; the National Gallery exposed only one Old Master a month. But, then as now, he was almost as interested in artists as he was in art, and met many examples of the species in Soho clubs. Being at home with painters and intellectuals considerably his seniors seems to have come naturally to him, and soon we find him in Paris on familiar terms with Michel and Louise Leiris, Jacques Lacan, Sylvia Bataille, André Masson and Alberto Giacometti, the last of whom was to be enduringly important to his career.

For almost half a century he has practised not art, a strenuous and competitive business, but what he calls ‘the sham heroics of the game of criticism’. This carefully chosen collection is proof that he has a genius for the game. Rather like that Matisse reproduction, it is impressive without the aid of colour; not even Sylvester’s favourite painters are honoured with reproductions of their work, and I take this to have been an aesthetic rather than a financial decision, for such photographs would add nothing to the author’s prose.

Although he was unavoidably ignorant when he started out, the excellence of Sylvester’s writing has come to depend on easy access to files of learned information. There are gaps: he says he can’t handle the work of painters born since 1945, and regrets that he has written so little about Old Masters, seeming, a shade implausibly, to blame this omission on lack of nerve. Occasionally he worries that his writing about painting could be an intrusion on the painting, and for that reason he has refrained from writing anything in the catalogues of some of the innumerable shows he has curated. But he must be well aware that looking at pictures and then writing about them, representing them about as well as they can be in such reports, is his true business. One understands his regret at the long gap (visible in this book) between 1970 and 1986, when he was preoccupied with the huge catalogue raisonné of Magritte, and with a monograph on that artist. ‘I still love the work,’ he says, ‘but the fact remains that I spent years of my life, like Swann, on someone who was not my type.’

Which artists were his type? One of his favoured rhetorical modes is eulogy, and high claims are made for a good many artists, including of course Giacometti and Bacon, but he exalts several others, including Auerbach, Dubuffet and Newman. He tentatively withdraws his estimate of Bomberg as ‘the finest English painter of the century’, and repents some early limiting judgments on Picasso; ‘the young critic cuts his teeth on Picasso. He proves his manhood by putting down Picasso, which is quite easy because he is so flawed an artist, is such a colossal figure that he has several parts that are clay, probably including his feet, but not his balls.’ He treats the last works of Picasso, very old and thought to be impotent, with reverence: the painter can no longer affirm his manhood, but is still the one to beat. There are some other medal-winners, including de Kooning, who gets more space in the book than any other artist and is called ‘the supreme painterly painter of the second half of the century and the greatest painter of the human figure since Picasso’.

Among Sylvester’s preoccupations are a need to specify the differences between modern and pre-modern art, and a need to predict the future of painting. The latter concern is less interesting, for it is not his foresight but the intensity of his gaze and the rapture of his report on what is there at the present moment that give him his peculiar distinction; and anyway he might have known from his first surprised (and hostile) response to Jackson Pollock that the future of an art is predictable only by hindsight. His meditations on the characteristics of modernity are more considerable. Writing admiringly about a print by Barnett Newman, he remarks in a parenthesis, ‘I’m no Modernist by persuasion: Michelangelo and Poussin are my cup of tea.’ This may be a joke. He does cite with approval a remark of Adrian Stokes to the effect that ‘modern art, the art typical of our day, is the slang, so to speak, of art as a whole, standing in relation to the Old Masters as does slang to ordinary language,’ adding that Picasso’s last works are an apotheosis of that slang. But despite these qualifications he seems to sense that the gulf between the modern and the old is very deep, and he surveys it from the modern side and, unlike Ernst Gombrich, finds it, on the whole, to be a good thing.

Although pre-modern art is often a presence in his writing, it is usually not there for its own sake but because some modern painter seems to have been looking at or alluding to it. He dwells rather on the individualism of painting since Expressionism and Surrealism. From them the modern painter has learnt the value of his own gestures. ‘It is precisely his desire for freedom to find his way as he goes along, creating his own values as he goes, that impels the artist today to create works which are a complex of traces of his acts. The work itself renders visible his process of exploration.’ So Sylvester in 1955, near the beginning of his acquaintance with action painting. On occasion he will think of this development as the historical consequence of the earlier discoveries of Cézanne and Monet. But in 1957 he is still holding back from Abstract Impressionism, and there is nearly always a sense of discontinuity, of disparate epochs.

In the same year, writing of English abstract art, he reminds us that whatever a picture depicts it ‘is essentially a plane surface covered by paints arranged in a certain order’. And he continues:

The basic assumption of modern art – I speak of the major trends, those related to Matisse, Bonnard, Braque, Picasso, Soutine, Klee, Mondrian – is that the first concern of a work of art is to present a configuration of shape and colours and marks which in and of itself stimulates and satisfies, and that only after that condition has been fulfilled can the subtlety of observation, the depth of human feeling and insight, the moral grandeur, expressed in the work, have validity; before the work conveys reality it must achieve its own reality.

This is not, in itself, a satisfactory account of the differentia of the modern, since much the same may be said of the art of any period, and Sylvester here means more than he is actually saying. Elsewhere he tells the story of Mondrian asking to change his seat if given one from which he could see real trees, as Cézanne might not have thought to do; and it is this sort of rejection of or flight from one idea of the real that he wants to talk about. And so he does, when contemplating paintings rather than sketching theories. It is hard to imagine a better introduction to the self-involvement of Klee’s pictures than a very early essay collected here; and the same power of explanation, augmented but not radically altered by experience, animates his later studies of Giacometti and Jasper Johns. He is most at home with the art of the world he grew up in, with the painters as well as with their work.

Given his belief that modern art is gesture, gesture expressing individuality, it isn’t surprising that he has no inhibitions about providing biographical detail, often derived from acquaintance or from the many interviews he has conducted over the years. He will devote space to the extraordinary life of Soutine and interest himself in the amours of Picasso. And how could one celebrate Gilbert and George without specifying that they are rather unusual human beings? Even the establishment figure of Sir William Coldstream is treated with a certain wry intimacy, his career recorded, and all the business that kept him out of his studio. ‘Before he became Sir William, before he became Professor, he was unaccountably known as Captain Coldstream ... No doubt the surname encouraged the usage, but there must have been something about him which made it difficult for others to think of him as Mister.’

This was a tease, written when Coldstream was alive and thriving. The painter was undoubtedly a devoted though idiosyncratic committee man. When the idea of moving the opera company from Sadler’s Wells to the Coliseum came up it was seriously debated by the Arts Council, of which Coldstream was then vice-chairman. The chairman, Lord Goodman, was all for the move, and as usual he got his way. There were some doubts expressed about the financial prudence of such a change, but the keenest opposition came from Sir William. Afterwards he told me that he was unmoved by considerations of finance, and that the real reason he wanted the opera to stay in Islington was that he lived conveniently near Sadler’s Wells. On the other hand, he was willing to take on some of the most laborious jobs that came our way. Sylvester asks whether the work ‘done in odd hours between committee meetings’ suggests that there would have been more than a quantitative gain if he’d painted more. The nudes of 1953-4 suggest that there might have been: they were ‘the highest fulfilment yet’ of Coldstream’s ‘dream of a kind of painting in which the subject would be starkly itself’. And perhaps all the holding back was a necessary phase in his work. Anyway, Sylvester thinks about this possibility, accepts it and decides, with characteristic generosity, that Coldstream was ‘one of the two or three finest painters working in this country today’. This is merely awarding a bronze or a silver; but what is then said about the artist’s work is subtle and sympathetic. In fact this author rarely writes about anything or anybody he unequivocally dislikes; the only rough treatment meted out is reserved for a realist rival, John Berger.

Sylvester is a lover and always seeking to make his reader understand his passion, whether it is for the turds in Gilbert and George’s ‘Naked Shit Pictures’ or Cy Twombly’s ‘scribbling and scattering’: ‘Such a painting is surely the paradigm of an “arena in which to act”. The action over, the canvas is like a soiled sheet after a wild night.’ This may explain his admiration for Twombly, but it also explains the bewilderment of more sober citizens in the new Twombly permanent collection at Houston, where such souvenirs are exhibited in a context of chaste splendour.

Mostly the passion works, borne along by a prose that is always stretching itself, always impressive, sometimes tortuous though often witty. One’s reverence for the old Third Programme increases as one reads some of the talks he gave on it. And it is a real pleasure to follow him thinking on the page, for example about Claes Oldenburg:

But is a collapsed typewriter like the setting sun? [The artist more or less said it was.] Is it how nature is? A relaxed typewriter is not a typewriter by night, it is a useless typewriter. On the other hand, why should it, when soft, be called useless? It is a sculpture, not a typewriter, and unlike a typewriter is not rendered ineffectual by being soft. On the contrary, its pliability gives it ways in which it can be used which it could not have if it were rigid. It can be pressed, caressed, squeezed, like a woman’s body: it has the springy softness of a woman’s body to the touch. Or rather, it has the springy softness which is sought in a woman’s body. That is to say, it is not soft merely by default of being hard: its softness is positive, proposes an alternative norm. If tautness in sculpture corresponds to an ideal of male desirability, perhaps the softness of Oldenburg’s sculptures corresponds to an ideal of female desirability?

Here you can observe him in the process of falling in love with Oldenburg’s sculptures, and getting the reader to do the same by writing so delightfully and not supposing that he mustn’t be funny when being serious. It is not part of his intention to avoid this tone. He admires Richard Long, but allows himself to wonder about the size of that artist’s reputation. ‘His solitary walks through the deserts of the world have come to have a Scriptural resonance. To start singing his praises now is like taking a food parcel to someone who is in the middle of eating his dinner at the Ritz, or his manna in the desert.’ This was written two years ago as the Introduction to the catalogue of a Long exhibition. It went on to praise him, but Long ungratefully if understandably requested that it be left out, and it was published in this journal.

One values the jokes, but Sylvester’s real achievement – hindsight informs us – is much as his rather prodigious early work suggested it would be. It consists of an almost unrivalled power to gaze, and to find language to express the rewards of intensive contemplation. He says he was glad when John Berger turned away from the gazing business and wrote fiction instead. It is impossible to imagine Sylvester doing anything of the kind; his art of prose depends on Art, a state of affairs prefigured in his abrupt abandonment, at 17, of painting for writing. It seems that he knew at once what he must do, and, to the great benefit of the ignorant, he has gone on doing it into his seventies.

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