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Frieze London 2022

Sophie Barber and the Artists Who Love Artists

On adoration in art past and present: from the work of emerging painter Sophie Barber to a Frieze Week show of the late Sam Gilliam


BY Matthew McLean in Frieze London & Frieze Masters , Frieze Week Magazine | 11 OCT 22

During the pandemic, I started telling people I loved them. People I already loved, or was on the verge of loving, but wouldn’t necessarily enunciate it to, suddenly became loved: verbally, out loud. The narrowing of life at the time, its special, slender parameters, made not saying ‘love’ feel like a waste of time, a waste of words.

That Sophie Barber isn’t afraid of the word ‘love’ was evident in the title of her 2021 debut at Alison Jacques in London, ‘How Much Can a Love Bird Love’. The titular fowl appeared in different poses of cooing and courtship across five small paintings in the show, as sweet and plump as cupcakes. Barber’s works range in size from the handheld – canvas wrapped in lumpy layers over tiny frames – to sheets the height of a garden shed, suspended weightily from the wall. Wolfgang feeds Tukan Hovis and seeds mix from the shop on the corner (2021), a two-and-a-half-metre long cascade of three sheets of canvas pinned together, registers almost as a tapestry, as much a work of fibre or sculpture as pure painting. On its surface, Barber’s brushstrokes rendered a reproduction of Wolfgang Tillmans’s photograph Tukan (2010) above the words: ‘WOLFGANG LOVES TO LOVE BIRDS.’

Sophie Barber
Sophie Barber, Donald baechler loves his flowers, 2022. Courtesy: © Sophie Barber and Alison Jacques, London; photograph: Michael Brzezinski

‘I started that painting,’ Barber tells me of this work, ‘Just thinking about how much I love that image. And the closest I could get to it was painting it, from my iPhone screen.’ Like an art collector, love for Barber is a feeling tied to possession. ‘When you love something so much, you just want to have it, to own it,’ she continued, describing her favoured subjects as ones that are ‘there for the taking’. The things Barber loves – that is, the things she paints – are very often other artworks. Some of her paintings record a glimpse of shows she loved seeing, with the artist’s name and the venue dutifully recorded (Lee Lozano at Hauser & Wirth, 2022), others her perception of iconic artists’ own passions. Not only does Wolfgang love birds, but ‘Donald baechler loves his flowers’, as one work declares; ‘Alex Katz loves the rain’ states another, while Michael Dean, proclaims a third, simply loves ‘painting’ itself. Of these works, Barber explained: ‘I might want to paint flowers, but I don’t know how to translate that through me, so I’ll look at Donald and paint the flowers he did. It’s another way of getting to what I want,’ she states, ‘I can’t paint things that I don’t love.’

Sophie Barber, Alex Katz loves the rain , 2022
Sophie Barber, Alex Katz loves the rain, 2022. Courtesy: © Sophie Barber and Alison Jacques, London; photograph: Todd-White Art Photography

If the history of painting is a series of love stories, then Barber’s work reminds us that these romances are often between artists and other artists. It has long been the case that artists looked to their forebears for instruction: going to Rome to study directly from classical examples was a staple of painterly education from the Renaissance onwards. But even at the dawn of modernism, Cézanne, whom Picasso allegedly dubbed ‘the father of us all’, spent many hours in the Louvre drawing Delacroix and Rubens obsessively, as well as more obscure figures such as Félix Nicolas Frillié and Pierre Puget. You can see what Cézanne learned from these studies in Tate Modern’s major survey of his work, opening in London just ahead of Frieze Week.

Sophie Barber Michael Dean loves painting, 2022
Sophie Barber, Michael Dean loves painting, 2022.  Courtesy: © Sophie Barber and Alison Jacques, London; photograph: Michael Brzezinski

The work of perhaps the ultimate example of an ‘artist’s artist’ — that is, one whose gifts may pass the public by, but are deeply cherished by their creative peers — is on view across town. That ‘Sam Gilliam: Late Paintings’ at PACE is the late artist’s first solo show in this country testifies to the strange pattern of his career: though he won early  acclaim for his groundbreaking, richly coloured ‘draped’ canvases, and was included in the 1972 American pavilion at the Venice Biennale by Walter Hopps, by the 2010s he was an underrecognized figure, making shows but without the public attention, or the financial security that was his due. It was the love of another artist, Rashid Johnson, who changed that. While being wooed for representation by Los Angeles’s David Kordansky, Johnson and Kordansky discussed a mutual passion for Gilliam’s work. ‘Sam Gilliam: Hard Edge Paintings 1963–1966’, curated by Johnson and organized by Kordansky, resulted in 2013, reestablishing Gilliam on the art map. Works from the show were acquired by MoMA, and Gilliam became part of Kordansky’s programme, including given a stunning presentation at Frieze Masters in 2015. In 2017, Gilliam’s works was included in the seminal touring exhibition ‘Soul of a Nation’. This new exhibition will no doubt cement the late artist’s work’s ascendence to the highest echelons of art world esteem. But it took an artist’s love, first forged as a student, to restart him on that trajectory.

Sophie Barber, David loves his dachund to death , 2022
Sophie Barber, David loves his dachund to death, 2022. Courtesy: © Sophie Barber and Alison Jacques, London; photograph: Michael Brzezinski

So it goes: love preserves art, extends it life, and in turn, makes more. In his 1956 poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’, Philip Larkin considered the survival of an English medieval funerary carving of married couple. Reflecting on the monument’s stone gestures of romantic fidelity, he concludes: ‘What shall remain of us is love.’ Looked at another way, what really remained in front of Larkin, was an artwork; love, of different kinds, was what put and kept it there.

'Sam Gilliam: Late Paintings' is on view at Pace Gallery, London, from 11th October to 12th November 2022.

‘The EY Exhibition: Cézanne’ is on view at Tate Modern, London, until 12th March 2023.

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Main image: Sophie Barber, Mohamed Bourouissa love bird held really tight out of love, 2022. Courtesy: © Sophie Barber and Alison Jacques, London; photograph: Michael Brzezinski

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.