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Interview with Malcolm Morley: Paintings about the act of painting

After 50 years, Morley is still fascinated by the potential of the medium and is not too proud to learn from a “watercolour holiday” on an English barge with amateur artists

Amidst all the current brouhaha about painting, its supposed triumph or otherwise, the long career of Malcolm Morley stands as tough testimony to exactly what that medium is capable of doing, the full fireworks, grand parade, somersault and double-twist, deception and redemption. If Morley were not so successful, he would doubtless be dubbed a “painter’s painter” because he probably knows more about that profession than anyone else, whether of his generation (he is 73) or aspirant teen. Chunky, whip-smart and faintly threatening despite the proverbial twinkle, Morley lives up to his famous portrait by Peter Hujar, a scowling genius on the Long Island shore where he now lives. The exceptional range and import of his painting stretches from “kitchen sink” realism through abstraction to the invention of what he called “Superrealism” and his latest series of gorgeously painted sporting images. Morley consistently takes the risks, whether attaching three-dimensional objects to his canvases or actively flirting with the “ugly” and should be seen as a major artist perfectly positioned—conceptually and aesthetically—between Jasper Johns, born the year before him, or Gerhard Richter, born the year after.

The Art Newspaper: Your current exhibition is of sporting imagery. Does the subject matter?

Malcolm Morley: The subject of all these paintings is the painting of them. But I do have a connection to people looking at them, paintings are made to be looked at. I am their first viewer and one who is hard to satisfy, and if the paintings pass my inspection then it is okay for them to go out into the world. This latest group is of an ice hockey player, a skier, a swimmer: they are all champions. I came across this newly discovered memoir by Rothko. In it he talks about mythology and how in ancient times myths lived alongside you on a daily basis, not in the past. A key ingredient in myths are heroes. I wanted to make a common sort of heroic myth, which today would involve sports figures. The subject must be pictorial, there are lots of images I do not deal with. As in popular songwriting you have to have a “hook”, so the image is a hook. But you never know about people’s interpretations. When I was doing those early Photorealist paintings in South America, they thought I was parodying capitalist luxury cruise culture. They saw it from a political perspective which was of no interest to me whatsoever.

TAN: Your 1970 Race track painting of South Africa was political?

MM: I painted it after seeing the Costa-Gavras’s film Z [about a government cover-up] and came out of the film really pissed, ready to attack a policeman or something. So I went back to my studio and I had the idea of putting an X on the painting. I was with Tony Shafrazi, he was a really good artist at one point, together we positioned the red X over the image.

TAN: Just three years before he sprayed red paint on Picasso’s Guernica!

MM: I had not thought of that link, but that feeling was in the air. We put a piece of plastic over the canvas and tried out various types of X, I reversed the plastic and printed it onto the image, with that wonderful texture. Not only was it putting an X through apartheid in South Africa it was X-ing out the Photorealist movement. Because of that whole movement, the reviewers started saying, “You know this Morley is not so realistic at all, when you look at those brushstrokes they are quite ugly. When you look at Ralph Goings you cannot see a brushstroke at all”. By naming this type of painting “Superrealism” I was referring to Suprematism and Malevich, to establish the fact that I had a historical ambition. My criticism of all this fashionable painting currently going on is that I do not know if there is any real historical ambition, like a relay race, passing the baton from one great artist to the next.

TAN: In the stock car crash painting, The art of painting, there is a tiny square of abstract sections.

MM: Oh, you noticed that. That came from admiring the glitches on TV; sometimes on a couple of channels it glitches and they are beautiful little things, like jewels. I am fascinated by them. They are only on screen for a second but they are beautiful. They come right out of TV and I was very pleased there was something there that could be painterly, because what I am doing all the time is looking for what is painterly, in relation to my temperament. Cézanne said: “the painter paints in relation to his temperament”.

TAN: You worked in acrylic, even when painting your version of Vermeer.

MM: It is funny, the acrylic works I made all look as if they are oil paintings. I could not use it now. It feels like Brylcreem, it is homogenised to be the same, whereas these tubes of oil paint all have different qualities, some are thick, some opaque, some stringy, they are more like bottles of wine while acrylic is like Coca-Cola, the same all the way through.

TAN: So you are actively concerned with basic skills, with techniques?

MM: Every now and then I take these weird little trips, watercolour trips with amateur groups, you see them advertised in the paper. I enrolled and we went to England on a barge. They did not know I was a professional artist, there was one other person who wanted to be anonymous, he was a plumber. Anyway I learned so much from what we were taught about watercolour on this trip, I discovered I had been using the wrong brushes and the wrong technique all these years. So that was quite humbling. At the end of the trip two of the ladies said how much they had enjoyed my big show at the Brooklyn Museum, so they had known I was an artist all along!

Biography

Born: London, 1931

Education: Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and Royal College of Art, London Currently showing: “The art of oil painting”, Sperone Westwater, New York, 5 May-25 June Solo shows include: 2001: Hayward Gallery in London 1995: Fundacion La Caixa in Madrid 1993: Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris 1991: Kunsthalle Basel and Tate Liverpool 1983: Whitechapel Gallery in London, Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago 1964: Kornblee Gallery in New York Selected awards: Turner Prize, Tate Britain, 1984