Frozen into myth by an early death in 1962, the artist and musician Stuart Sutcliffe is best known for his brief membership, between January and December 1960, of an early line-up of The Beatles. Sutcliffe was persuaded by John Lennon to buy a bass guitar with the money he received from the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, for the gallery’s purchase of his The Summer Painting (1959) in the John Moores Painting Exhibition that year. He then played with The Beatles (as the group were changing their name to successive variations of ‘Silver Beatles’) on their tour of Scotland, and during their first residency in Hamburg. In 1961, having met and fallen in love with the photographer Astrid Kirchherr, he enrolled at Hamburg State School of Art, as a master’s student in the class of visiting professor Eduardo Paolozzi. Showing exceptional promise as a painter, Sutcliffe died the following year of a brain haemorrhage, aged 21.
Since his death, and encouraged by the superior but romantically stylized biographical feature film Backbeat (1994), the assessment of Sutcliffe’s work as a visual artist has perhaps inevitably been contextualized almost solely by its position within the early career of the Beatles. The importance of this latest retrospective of his work, entitled ‘Stuart Sutcliffe: Retrospective’, curated by Colin Fallows and Matthew H. Clough, and of the substantial accompanying publication, lies in their scholarly review of his art on a strictly art-historical basis. A concise and revealingly chosen selection of work, from charmingly vivacious juvenilia made when Sutcliffe was still a pupil at Prescot Grammar School, through to the last big ‘black’ paintings that he was working on at the time of his death, makes a potent and persuasive case for a major reassessment of the artist’s legacy.
As detailed by Bryan Biggs in his catalogue essay ‘A Link in Something Larger’ (2008), the influences on the development of Sutcliffe’s art comprise a largely northern European nexus of ideas and examples – notably those of Nicholas de Staël and Pierre Soulages – as filtered first through the teaching culture at Liverpool Regional College of Art where Sutcliffe was enrolled. His interest, progressive for an art student of that period, lay in exploring the divide between abstraction and figuration. Biggs quotes artist and poet Adrian Henri’s summary of Sutcliffe’s painting style, from a review written in 1964: ‘a synthesis of Parisian abstraction [and] the dynamic colour field freedom of the New York School’.
The first room of this retrospective is devoted to establishing the artist’s earliest work, and his initial experience, from 1956, of art education at Liverpool Regional College of Art. These pieces include some lively early successes: a gothic graveyard scene made in a grammar-school exercise book; an ink and watercolour illustration to the children’s rhyme ‘Georgie Porgie’, in which a superbly indignant little girl scowls furiously at Georgie’s insolent embrace. Also included are irresistibly evocative ephemera of student life – such as membership cards to city jazz clubs – from the collection of Sutcliffe and Lennon’s flatmate, Rod Murray.
As recounted by the work exhibited in the second gallery, the shift in creative temperament from charming pastiche to emotional urgency is immediately apparent in Sutcliffe’s swiftly maturing and enquiring painting style. He moves rapidly through painting in the British ‘kitchen sink’ realist style of the mid-1950s, to engage instead with a temperament that Biggs astutely identifies as drawn towards the freedoms associated with artists connected to Art Informel – Wols, Henri Michaux and Jean Fautrier. Sutcliffe’s later paintings in oil on canvas are intently worked and thick with paint, in deft and fluid smears and dabs. There is a gathering intensity in the work that instantly declares itself – a searching through styles for a personal style, in which the process of investigation ultimately defines the emotional core of the work. One can also see the faint imprint of a more specifically British sensibility – of the work of Alan Davie, for example, William Turnbull or Patrick Heron. There is a complete absence, however, of Pop art influence; the temper of the work is entirely painterly, reaching for inner response as opposed to outer ‘cool’. Working with increasing assurance, finding his own style within intense, intuitive mark making, Sutcliffe’s media ranged from paintings in oil on canvas and monotype on collage, through to lithography and oil and collage on paper.
Three ‘black’ paintings, hung side by side, all Untitled and made during 1961 and 1962, create what feels like the aesthetic centrepiece and biographical destination of this retrospective. All oils on canvas, the surfaces of these paintings possess a near mineralogical density, as though charred matter in roughly tessellating patterns had become encrusted over the red underpainting, traces of which appear to burn through the compositions like glowing embers. In their presence, one felt that had Sutcliffe lived, his future as an artist of note –or perhaps of considerable importance – was already assured.