Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism, 1913
I would like to nominate the art movement that had a significant impact on me when I was still in my early teens and, I am sure, influenced my subconscious understanding of why art exists: suprematism. From the first moment I saw Kazimir Malevich’s paintings, I have believed that our existence can be understood, depicted and explained by floating and speeding rectangles and squares. I love how geometric forms can represent such urgent matters as the abandonment of the establishment, and convey the idea of God with abstraction whilst simultaneously forming the most elegant compositions.
Lucien Freud, Portrait of a Man, 1954
So undeniably English, repressed but potent, this simple portrait is one I think of again and again. I have seen it only once, by chance, when I was passing a gallery exhibiting Lucien Freud’s early works. It beamed at me from the wall and keeps me wishing I could look at it again. It’s in a private collection, though, so I have a JPEG of it on my desktop that irks me, never satisfying the thrill, envy and desire I have to properly consume its content. Visceral, bright and succinct, the man’s papery pale skin is thin and vaporous, not over-worked. Wide, almond, red-rimmed eyes with spidery eyelashes, watering with anticipation, about to swallow, looking forward to something that the viewer isn’t aware of. Wisps of hair loosened from hair pomade. Thick powdery cotton shirt, like a fresco; it takes a gentle brutality from Otto Dix. Instantly unravelled before you is a complex but distilled art-historical mash-up, presented as an awkward exchange between painter and sitter, as if neither is totally engaged. One is devoid of greedy intent and the other not familiar with such scrutiny. This unintentional space somehow makes the picture surprisingly avid. I want to understand how all of this was even possible. It reminds me of something I have yet to paint.
Kazimir Malevich, Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions), 1915
Last year, I spent a long time looking at the suprematist works of Kazimir Malevich. He is one of a handful of artists whose work helps remind me why I got into art in the first place and why, over the years, and in spite of the various distractions and disappointments, I have stuck with it. A Malevich painting reminds me that a work made of just one form and two colours can be as rich and full as any other. It reminds me that its achievements are hard won and, perhaps, also easily lost. It reminds me that some of the decisions you make in the studio cannot be justified on any terms but their own. It reminds me that art is passionate, strange and irreducible. It reminds me that whole empires of the mind can be brought down by a single line on a simple sheet of paper. It reminds me that the enormous paraphernalia of the art world and the market and the institutions that seem entirely devoted these days to pumping up art like a balloon until it bursts in our faces — it reminds me that, in the end, this doesn’t really matter. It reminds me that art takes place elsewhere and that, when I am in the company of a great work of art, everything else fades into the background, at least for a moment. It reminds me that art is not a creature of the culture or a client of the state. It reminds me that art doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be clever. It reminds me that art doesn’t have to make a parade of itself or prostrate itself or dance to anyone’s tune but its own. It reminds me that the best abstract art is among the greatest art of the 20th century. And it reminds me, above all, that art is worth doing.
Helen Grace, Serious Undertakings, 1983
At the beginning of Helen Grace’s Serious Undertakings (1983) a female voice announces: ‘She just wanted to make a film about childcare.’ A petulant male voice responds: ‘I’d rather make a film about the Baader-Meinhof gang than about childcare.’ Both get their way. The next scene is a frenetic re-enactment of a 1977 incident in which a woman with a pushchair stepped in front of a car in Cologne, forcing the driver to brake. She then produced two machine guns and, with her accomplices, murdered the prominent industrialist in the car.Grace’s film, a meditation upon the construction of women — and, more specifically, on motherhood — in Australian culture, is divided into five chapters, taking the form of a classical tragedy. In one part, the camera meanders across the surface of Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer (1904), considered a masterpiece of Australian painting. The pioneer: singular, despite the fact that the triptych depicts moments in the lives of a husband, wife and child. The footage is accompanied by a child’s voice reciting passages from Dorothea MacKellar’s poem My Country (1908), as though to remind us that our national identity is the preserve of women and children too (a point worth remembering under Australia’s current sexist, masculinist Prime Minister, Tony Abbott).Later in the film, a man stands in a domestic kitchen, holding forth with a cultural analysis regarding landscape and its historical relation to Australian identity. At one point, a woman comes into frame with a vacuum cleaner, drowning him out completely. Absorbed in the task of cleaning the floor, she is seemingly oblivious to his authoritative voice, or the fact that she is obstructing the space between camera and subject. The man, for his part, carries on with his lecture as though she were invisible.Later, the roles are flipped and, as a man potters about, preparing food in the background, a woman critiques Australia’s idea of itself: ‘There remains an illusion of democratic anti-authoritarianism, which justifies an excessive individualism of a most conformist kind.’ Somebody observes that contempt for suburbia as a cultural middle-ground, neither nascently cosmopolitan nor romantically remote, equals contempt for women, who structure and maintain that space. A woman narrates the Sunday ritual of a colonial-era bush wife smartening up her children to head out on a walk, seeking the approval of an absent society. This is spoken over footage of a ‘modern-day’ woman awkwardly negotiating a pram up a long flight of steps. A father describes his embarrassment at attending a feminist meeting about childcare. Serious Undertakings is wry, witty and sharply intellectual, jamming together classic fodder of Australian myth-making with continental theory and everyday experience to evoke a vast, contested grey area concerning women’s experience. It lays out a complex range of views and leaves us space to think, to feel complicated and enmeshed, a co-dependent mixture of ambiguity and force.
Polio Patients in Iron Lung Respirators
Although, I can't remember exactly where I saw it, Walt Disney's ground-breaking film The Living Desert (1953) has had an impact on my work and, perhaps, even my personality, although I'm not sure how. In 1953, it's 69 minutes transfixed me. I also vividly remember the closing of schools and swimming pools because of the polio epidemic in New Zealand in 1948. The virus attacked children sometimes overnight, quietly and often with little more than a slight hint of unwellness. The photographs of the victims in primitive iron lungs, their heads protruding, paint brushes clenched in their teeth — these images terrified me. Now I want to photograph heart-lung machines. My very last wish immediately before a heart operation last year, before the anaesthetist stopped my heart and put me into a death-like state, was to photograph that beautiful, clever machine, sitting there at my bedside ready to do its work. I have talked to the hospital; there is a possibility that I will be given access to it, this time camera in hand.
Diego Velázquez, The Toilet of Venus, 1648–51
The Toilet of Venus or ‘The Rokeby Venus’ (1647–51) by Diego Velázquez is the inspiration for my piece From A to B via C (2014). During a stay in Rome, Velázquez ordered a bronze copy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Borghese Hermaphrodite (1620) — itself a copy of a lost Hellenic sculpture from the 2nd century BCE. The ambiguity of gender seems to have been at the origin of Velázquez’s painting, and I also worked along these lines, mixing and confusing gender roles in the performance: a woman holding an LED screen with my face on it; a man reclining on the sofa, looking away from the viewers, contemplating himself (or herself) in my image on the screen. I am fascinated by this procession of tilting and turning poses and gazes, which has been perpetuated in many artworks over the centuries. Venus at her mirror is the axis of this movement. In 1914, 100 years before I made my work, the suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velázquez’s painting with a chopper and was arrested. What interests me in this painting is the duration it contains: the passage of time between the model, the face in the mirror and your gaze.
Sigmar Polke, Reiherbild VI, 1969
At the recent Sigmar Polke show at Tate Modern, I saw a painting from afar that stopped me in my tracks. Titled Reiherbild vi (Heron VI, 1969), it depicts two tropical birds mingling with black and pink swirls, painted on patterned flannel. It recalls a setting from a Las Vegas casino, a night scene in Cuba or a faded 1980s tourist advertisement, with its shadow revealed. The material has sucked up the paint with a thirst matching the eagerness with which it appears to have been executed: a cat-and-mouse game between Polke and the surface. With each layer, the painting appears de-layered. The paradox makes for a perfect storm between subject, technique and intention. I sense his influences — the shaman Joseph Beuys, anarchic dada, American pop — yet Polke is crossing over into something beyond.I find this painting fundamentally mysterious. A great analogy could be drawn with the measurement problem in physics, in which atoms defy our attempt to calibrate and make sense of them. As with the atoms, this painting is in a state of perpetual probability. I can imagine it talking to Polke in a dream or through roaming sensations. ‘Get out of your own way,’ the painting says.‘There are more like this to come!’ And, with an unparalleled effortlessness, many more did come. Rannva Kunoy lives in London, UK. This year, she had a solo show at Centre PasquArt, Biel, Switzerland.
Unknown artist, Emperor Yongzheng in European Dress, 1723–36
I love this portrait of the Emperor Yongzheng in European Dress (1723–36). He wears a flamboyant wig of poodle-like curls, with a classically draped tie and a densely patterned shirt so flat that it looks stuck on. The Emperor is coiffed, groomed and picture-ready. The purpose of this portrait was to assert Yongzheng as the divine ruler of ‘all under heaven’ (specifically Europe, hence the fashion). But even with the same symbols of power and accessories as his contemporary, King Louis XV, the picture is drastically different in tone to European court painting of the same era: less pomp, more playful and strange.I prefer to see it as a portrait of a Chinese man fascinated with curly hair (Chinese hair is naturally straight) and other Western exoticisms. He gazes into the distance, contemplating the world beyond the walls of the Forbidden City, realizing it is much bigger than he had ever imagined.
Sidney Nolan, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1952
I first saw this painting whilst on a travel scholarship to Australia in 2005. I was there to retrace the film locations of the Mad Max trilogy as well as to visit the museums and galleries that house the Sidney Nolan collections. Nolan’s interpretation of St. Anthony is a warped hallucinogenic vision. The saint is depicted entering the Egyptian desert on a monastic pilgrimage of abstinence where, apparently, he struggled with boredom, lust and laziness and was tormented by the devil with phantoms of women. I find the disjointed rhythm of the painting very refreshing. As a subject, St. Anthony has been depicted endless times. In this ambiguous incarnation, we see the struggling pilgrim in the midst of a supernatural jig, attempting to do away with his demons, flanked by a giant lizard and a flying locust. The devil is depicted upside down, possibly because he’s so sure of his own powers to torment that he could do it inverted — or, perhaps, the hand of God, disjointed on the left-hand side of the painting, has sent the devil on a collision course to the desert floor?Upon seeing the painting, I asked myself: ‘What was happening in the world at the time of the work’s creation and what was happening in the art world?’ Then I wondered: ‘Which is a more apocalyptic landscape: Nolan’s vision of St. Anthony or the endless arid desert through which Max drives his super-charged Ford Falcon?’ Both characters seem to be tormented by their harsh surroundings. Temptation of St. Anthony is an amazing painting, equal in content and intelligence to Nolan’s famous ‘Ned Kelly’ series (1946–47). The painting feels as contemporary now as the day it left the studio more than 60 years ago. In many ways, Nolan’s work manages to not feel dated. In the UK he is under-presented, so his less familiar paintings have a greater freshness. Or perhaps it’s because there is something in his paintings that feels more in step with today’s generation of figurative painters than with Nolan’s contemporaries — the power painters of the 1950s.
Walter de Maria, The Lightening Field, 1977
The urge to arrest nature has preoccupied artists throughout history. We happen to be living through a relatively brief period in which other themes prevail, perhaps largely because we have succeeded in obscuring nature from our collective gaze. I read about The Lightning Field in a magazine as a child and was struck by the idea of an art that hijacked the elements and that seemed to command, rather than merely emulate, nature. The installation of 400 stainless steel poles in a perfect grid of emphatically unnatural proportions (1 mile by 1 kilometre) makes its remote and elevated New Mexico location a zone of transformation. De Maria bypasses the act of representation entirely, forcing nature to participate dramatically in its own portrayal. In a work mingling hubris and humility, the artist deploys storms, the movement of the heavens, staggering temperatures and voltages, the smell of ozone and our own innate fears and fascinations with such primal phenomena. There is no doubt The Lightning Field is an audacious work but, most importantly, it is an object lesson in understanding the limits of material and the power of context, in art as first-hand experience, barely mediated by the maker.The Japanese idea of shakkei or ‘borrowed scenery’ proposes a garden design that evokes the grandeur and chaos of nature by directing the visitor’s eye beyond the limits of the garden’s artifice to the surrounding natural environment, thus infusing the garden with authentic disorder and complexity. The Lightning Field can be seen as the ultimate expression of gyoushaku (upward borrowing) in which entire weather systems are drawn into play in the service of De Maria’s vision.
Paul Thek, ‘Technological Reiquaries’, 1966–88
The works in Paul Thek’s series ‘Technological Reliquaries’ continue to fascinate me every time I encounter one of them. Thek started creating the sculptures in 1966 and continued to make them until his death from AIDS in 1988. The work was born from his take on minimal art and his dismay with US involvement in Vietnam. What I find brilliant is how he channelled these two impulses into the making of a sculpture that ultimately addresses the body as a sacred relic. The work makes even more sense today, given that the prosthetic limb and the image of a fragmented body are so present in contemporary culture.
Max Ernst, Corps enseignant pour une école de tueurs, 1967
Max Ernst’s sculpture group Corps enseignant pour une école de tueurs (Teaching Staff for a School for Killers, 1967) is a wonderfully bluff creation. Each object is exceptionally ‘sculpturistic’: the stack of three-dimensional units in each case so basic, so legible, that the transition from plaster maquette to finished work appears effortless. Ernst had such a command of monumental scale in his work at this moment that he could have a bit of fun with it. The sculptures parody the figurative statuary of historical public art with their lolling heads and flat caps (and, in two cases, lolling tongues). Ernst challenges you to be suffused with the traditional emotions associated with looking at notables on plinths with characters as self-evidently reprobate and gormless as these. The title is a nod to Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963), a film populated by stereotypical gangsters with ridiculous names. Perhaps this accounts for the sense of Big Brother in Ernst’s group. Like the film’s caricatures, the sculptures seem to be watching the world go by, perhaps midway through a game of pétanque (a stray ball sits just inside the frame of the photograph). For Ernst, it’s all about enjoying the hubristic quality of working in stone, deftly walking the artistic tightrope between self-confidence and doubt.
Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin, c.1955 and Untitled, c.1958
In a recent exhibition I curated for Nottingham Contemporary and Tate Liverpool, entitled ‘Encounters and Collisions’, I juxtaposed two paintings by the artist Beauford Delaney. One work from the mid-1950s depicts his great friend and supporter, the writer James Baldwin, of whom Delaney made many tender portraits. The other was Untitled (c.1958), a lyrical abstraction in creamy yellow and ochre brush strokes. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1901, moving to Greenwich Village in 1929 and then to Paris in 1953, Delaney spent his artistic career pursuing the truths that lay behind the world of appearances. His portraits of friends and lovers, and his investigations into the spiritual aspects of light and colour, converged in the paintings he produced in France, a country which served as a refuge for many African-American artists and writers seeking to ease the bite of American racism after the end of World War II.
I count Delaney and Baldwin as two of my many queer predecessors. I love Delaney’s indifference to the division between various modes of painting and his unflagging optimism, and I love Baldwin’s fierce critiques of American culture and society and his belief in the world-altering power of the bonds of love. My coaldust paintings, which use passages from Baldwin’s seminal essay ‘Stranger in the Village’ (1953), reference both men and, as Delaney did, attempt to blur the line between the figurative and the abstract.
Baldwin wrote of Delaney: ‘The darkness of Beauford’s beginnings, in Tennessee, many years ago, was a black-blue midnight indeed, opaque and full of sorrow. And I do not know, nor will any of us ever really know, what kind of strength it was that enabled him to make so dogged and splendid a journey.’ I hope, when I am gone, someone will say that my journey was a dogged and splendid one too.’
Filippino Lippi, La Derelitta, c.1495
La Derelitta (The Derelict) is a 15th-century painting that has alternately been attributed to Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli, ‘L’Amico di Sandro’ (Sandro’s Friend), and, more recently, Filippino Lippi. I am intrigued by both its ambiguity as an object (we don’t know who painted it, the intention behind it or its original title) and by that of its subject. It is a representation of despair, but due to what? Is the figure trapped in an interior drama or locked outside of paradise? Have they committed a transgression or been victimized? For that matter, is it a man or a woman? Although the composition is calm and stable, it is an uncomfortable painting, eliciting feelings of sympathy and suspicion; it’s reminiscent of our contemporary tendency to hyperbolize and broadcast feelings of loneliness or despair via social media. I was similarly moved recently when I saw a homeless woman crying in a park. What can we do in such instances? And, in retrospect, are they banal or dramatic?
William Kent's landscape designs
I was in Bombay looking for city-planned green spaces in the working-class neighbourhood of Byculla for a film I was shooting for the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale, when I was informed by astonished locals that the Municipal Corporation had planted a set of dead trees in their local playground. It immediately brought to mind a figure deeply rooted in my imagination: the 18th-century landscape designer William Kent, who — according to rumour — was also not averse to planting dead trees in his gardens. What was a talented landscape designer and architect doing, prior to the gothic and romantic eras, introducing dead trees amongst the living in the landscapes and mental-scapes of his wealthy and aristocratic patrons? Dormant trees — winter-bare deciduous specimens — evoke the power of life cycles, the drive to understand our life through death, to aspire to life through a delight in death. But what is this delight in death itself? I think that contriving failure in a living landscape is underappreciated; it reminds us of our mortality.I once took a photograph at an animal shelter in Patan, Gujarat, of a dead rabbit surrounded by its rudely healthy companions. Their vulnerable presence and mine were reflected in our pathetic, collective eye. The figure of a dead tree surrounded by a thriving garden has a similar impact: it is a palliative shock. The jolt quickens the pulse and readies one for living. Even the deadest tree supports a host of life.
My artist’s artist is, arguably, a designer. For that, I am not going to apologize. I have an intelligent friend who says: ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s art or design; it only matters if it’s good or not.’ Leaving aside creative hierarchies, Bruno Munari was born in 1907 in Milan and died in 1998, also in Milan. He was startlingly prolific and able to leap between a massive variety of disciplines. Painter, industrial designer, poet, toy and game designer, creative consultant, children’s book illustrator, inventor, film maker, writer, publisher, sculptor, researcher, teacher, graphic designer … Often, many of these were roles he took on without a client. It’s because of his aptitude that, over the years, he has become a role model of mine.Through his chameleon-like presence, Munari had the power (that many artists with singular, stylistic-based practices could never obtain) to respond to every situation, problem, material or context uniquely, economically and ethically. For me, Munari was a flash-fire thinker, light-on-his feet, full of optimism and intrigued to unravel the world around him. The twists and turns of his career are awe-inspiring; he cared little for prestige or his position in art history and more for the end user of whatever it was he was presently engaged in making.Although, of course, individually Munari’s output is interesting, I’m not hugely interested in his work per se. You should never trust an artist who only makes great works, as they probably have a terrible practice. Yet, Munari’s preoccupation with education, learning and development fed into, and resonated with, his approach to life. He never assumed anything or responded to convention; he possessed an ability to start backwards, change perspective and question the necessity of things, treating every event as a creative act, seamlessly merging his life and work.There is a great story, probably folklore, that Alexander Calder and Munari were grave enemies. Apparently, Munari’s small cardboard mobiles (or ‘Useless Machines’, as he modestly called them) inspired Calder. However, whereas Munari gave his away to friends to hang above their children’s beds, Calder grew wealthy by selling his steel variations to museums around the world. When asked about the resemblance, Calder made a statement that Munari’s mobiles were only design and not art. Munari didn’t respond. He probably didn’t have time as he was already working on his next fantastic — and entirely different — thing.It’s because of his approach that I have so much respect for Munari. He understood that being an artist meant not having to make the same thing, or variations on a theme, every day for the rest of your life. He knew that this was the greatest job there will ever be — but he also understood it was quite a lot to live up to.
Chris Martin’s show at Anton Kern last year was as good a show as any I’d seen all season. I like the fact that his work isn’t hooked into one style; he has three different approaches going on at once. His painting technique is like a traditional abstract expressionist’s: it is consummate, and there are very few people who can paint nearly that well. The size and scale are great, and everything has a lot of substance. There was a painting like a Malevich that I thought was fabulous. I also thought, ‘Gee, that’s the best I’ve seen anyone use glitter.’ It takes the paintings and makes them contemporary. Usually, glitter is in a contained area. Chris Martin uses it like weights and it spreads: these were the most radical of his paintings. All in all, I thought it was a terrific exhibition in regard to how masterfully he handles size and scale. I look forward to seeing his next show.