Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sylvester's Catalogue Texts

David Sylvester wrote catalogue texts for at least twenty-five commercial galleries (in addition to many more for public galleries). A quick look at the galleries shows a couple of things:

- Sylvester probably wrote for most of the London galleries open in the 1950s and early 1960s.
- In most cases he only wrote one preface for each gallery.

There are three major exceptions to this: the Hanover Gallery, Marlborough Fine Art and the Anthony d'Offay Gallery. At this point I should note that extracts from Sylvester's many artist interviews were often printed in exhibition catalogues (most frequently those he did with Bacon and Giacometti). As these interviews weren't carried out specifically for the exhibition catalogues (or at least the Bacon and Giacometti interviews weren't- they were mostly done for the BBC or other broadcasters), I'm not counting those amongst Sylvester's 'catalogue texts'. And the Marlborough texts were mostly extracts from Bacon interviews, which leaves us with the Hanover Gallery and Anthony d'Offay Gallery as the most significant galleries for commissioning texts from Sylvester.

The Hanover Gallery texts date from 1949-62, while the d'Offay Gallery texts are from 1976 to 1997 (this is including a 1997 Lichtenstein interview which seemingly took place specifically to tie in with the exhibition of Lichtenstein's new paintings at the d'Offay Gallery that year). As such the two groups offer a way of identifying sets of artists who Sylvester wrote about towards the beginning and end of his career. These groups do not include the artists he wrote the most about (Bacon, Giacometti, Moore, Magritte), but they have the benefit of all exhibiting at the same gallery. Sylvester presumably had good relationships with Erica Brausen (of the Hanover Gallery) and Anthony d'Offay, which may suggest something of the underlying reasons for his interest in these artists.

The Hanover texts were on Reg Butler, William Turnbull, Eduardo Paolozzi, Germaine Richier and Henry Mundy. Butler, Turnbull and Paolozzi were part of the group of sculptors exhibited at Venice in 1952 and referred to as the 'geometry of fear' sculptors (deriving from a felicitous phrase in Herbert Read's catalogue text for the Venice exhibition). Richier was a French sculptor whose work featured prominently in the 1993 Tate exhibition 'Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55', situating it in the context of post-war disillusionment which Sylvester responded to in his introduction. Mundy was the anomaly. Sylvester took an interest in the painter's work at a time when he was regularly comparing British painting negatively with that being produced on the other side of the Atlantic, alluding to that general tendency when writing 'it is rare to find paintings by an English artist in which shape and colour co-operate as entirely as they do here in expressing sensations'.

The d'Offay Gallery texts cover a wide range of artists- starting with Sir William Coldstream, who Sylvester had a long friendship and working relationship with (the title of this blog is a reference to an article Sylvester wrote about Coldstream in the 1960s). Subsequent artists written about were John Cage (a visual artist as well as composer), Malcolm Morley, Richard Hamilton, Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. This group as a whole includes figures Sylvester had known since his early days as a critic and lecturer in London (he first met Hamilton when they were both teenagers, and worked at the Slade when it was run by Coldstream in the 1950s). It also registers the subsequent American focus of his writing (Johns and Lichtenstein were both interviewed as part of a famous series of broadcasts in the 1960s, subsequently published as Interviews with American Artists). Equally, Sylvester had interviewed Cage before, and Morley, while British, has spent much of his career working in New York.

Undoubtedly there was nothing deliberate about the way these groups of texts developed, but they serve as a reminder of the links Sylvester formed with certain gallerists. He had immense admiration for the great dealers, like Kahnweiler, and understood the need for commercial galleries to take the initiative and (particularly in the 1950s) to show innovative work before it gained institutional acceptance. Therefore it is unsurprising that he found himself repeatedly contributing to catalogues for Brausen and D'Offay.

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