July 8, 2001
On closing day of the Tate Gallery's
Jackson Pollock retrospective in June 1999 attendance surged in the
final hour. It was not just the usual crowd who leave things to the
last minute, on this occasion, but people there to witness a particular
event. At the published suggestion of an art critic, all the lights
were turned off so that Pollock's raw duc canvases and swirls of enamel
paint could be viewed in nothing but God's own daylight (which the Almighty
is known to ration in London). The critic was David Sylvester. In the
pages of the elite, highbrow London Review of Books, he pleaded for
this aesthetic experiment in the course of an at times self-critical
examination of a changing sensibility towards a body of work studied
over a lifetime. That June afternoon Sylvester literally changed the
way people saw art. On June 19, 2001, after several years heroic struggle
with cancer, the "golden lion" of English artwriting died
Whether writing, curating, advising
or collecting, he was an arbiter of taste. The role this complex personality
created for himself within the British and international artworlds was
multifaceted, but what will come to be considered his lasting contribution,
in my opinion, is his criticism. Simply stated, he described art as
well as any writer in English since Ruskin.
Actually, let me qualify this, not
to backtrack but to get in sharper focus the particularity of his talent.
It is not so much objects per se that he described so well - though
his "ekphrasis" (the putting into words of what is seen) was
crystalline - as the impact of the said objects. He was a man with an
enormous ego, yet his artwriting, while intensely empirical - personally
experienced, sensed, measured - was not encumbered by the confessional.
Eschewing formalism as a reductive system, he nonetheless "cut
the crap" (as he himself might have put it) by going for the mechanics
of how art works. He could talk about quality without being prissy.
He dramatized the sense of his having intensely looked at and experienced
the art he was writing about.
He was in many senses an existentialist.
Firstly, like the best of his generation, he was profoundly influenced,
intellectually and temperamentally, by the Parisian philosophy and culture
of the postwar period. He tempered an early affection for voluptuously
high flown French thought with a rough and tumble English empiricism.
After a precocious start as a reviewer for George Orwell at the New
Statesman while still a teenager, writing about sport and jazz as well
as art, he spent a formative period in Paris in the 1940s. He befriended
Giacometti, a repeated subject in his writing and exhibition making.
Sylvester in turn was the subject of a painting by Giacometti. He found
his voice back in London as a critic championing artists for whom personal
authenticity and a struggle to come to terms with reality were of utmost
concern. Francis Bacon, obviously, was one of these, but so too others
who, later, would be classed under the rubric "School of London"
(a construct he had no truck with), including Frank Auerbach and Michael
Andrews. Later in life he would express doubts and reservations about
some of the School of London painters he has previously written about
so persuasively, although he also did belated justice to two he had
neglected, in print if not in personal encouragement or behind the scenes
maneuvering, namely Euan Uglow and Leon Kossoff.
His taste expanded greatly, especially
as he came to terms with abstract and pop art and became increasingly
interested in American art, but he brought similar existentialist values
to the appreciation of, say, an American minimal artist like Robert
Morris as he had once applied to English realists. And there is another
sense in which he was existentialist. He was far more concerned with
what great art tells us about occupying a body, facing death, being
sexual, engaging in relationships, feeling isolated, etc. than he was
with, say, epistemological concerns - what art is or isn't, its relations
with language, etc. - which might more readily seem to apply to an artist
like Morris. But the great thing with Sylvester was that he wrote about
these issues without sentimentalizing art. Existentialism was no excuse
for romanticism, in his case. The search for truth and presence were
values he managed to invest in his writing. Looking at Giacometti is
an extraordinarily crafted book. It is made up of texts from across
a career of heroic failures - failures, according to the author's standards,
to capture its subject convincingly - texts which by his own account
were obsessively revised. In its "exhilerated despair" (a
phrase of Bacon's from the legendary interviews with Sylvester) Sylvester's
prose and project shadow Giacometti's own working process and angst.
The book, which could have been called "Sylvester's Doubt",
also represents a critic's progress, from an elegiac, full-blown, French-influenced
literary approach in the opening text from 1955, "Perpetuating
the Transient", to increasingly unphilosophically encumbered writing
that gets to the heart of the Giacometti experience.
His 1968 Henry Moore exhibition and
catalogue built on twenty years thinking about that artist that began
with a period as Moore's private secretary. It exemplifies a phenomenological
approach to sculpture. Just as the Giacometti text has the kind of tentative
determined realism of its subject, so the Moore text at once generalizes
and particularizes, again like its subject.
As I said earlier, he was a man with
a big ego, and his personality filled a Sydney Greenstreet-like frame.
He often wore the fraught expression of someone ill at ease within his
own body. Physicality imbues his prose, for his analysis invariably
draws attention to the body, whether the maker's or the perceiver's.
His aesthetics were grounded firmly in the sensorium: prone to draw
analogies, his favorites were with sex and food. Even to hear him think
about something on the telephone was a visceral experience, with pregnant
pauses, heavy breathing, and Rabelaisian outbursts. He could swear prodigiously,
and in public too, at least in later years. (This didn't stop him from
being a connoisseur of etiquette, which he could discuss in minute,
analytic terms, as if a latter day Baldassare Castiglione.) There was
a marvelous panel at the Tate Gallery once, moderated by Joanna Drew,
in which Sylvester and another veteran British pundit Bryan Robertson,
reminisced. Sylvester peppered his sentences with the "f"
word so frequently that when at a certain point the dapper and gentle
Robertson himself felt moved to explete he used the word "bugger".
"If you're going to "f--k" I'll "bugger", he
said in parentheses, to the delight of an audience already high as a
kite on the bombast of this pair.
Despite such egotism, Sylvester was
a very good listener. His interview technique should be studied by anyone
concerned with the art of public dialogue. Besides the immortal exchanges
with Bacon, titled in its last collected version as The Brutality of
Fact, Sylvester conducted dialogues with countless giants of postwar
art, including De Kooning, Giacometti, Serra, Katz, and Johns.
You could say that he was a giant
who liked other giants. But readymade giants. Surprisingly absent from
his bibliography is any evidence of the role of discoverer. Look at
the names of the art stars he wrote about - and he seemed exclusively
to concern himself, in print, with the successful - and rarely, when
cross referenced to the artists' own résumés, does it
turn out that Sylvester was the first to write about them. Here was
a man with a voracious appetite for new art, a determination to shape
public taste through writings and exhibitions, an eagerness to advise
important collectors, public or private, a desire to be up to date,
and clearly an eye on immortality. He exemplified Constable's assertion
that a half taste is no taste at all. Criticality permeated everything
he thought about. And yet he didn't scout for new talent. Fearless in
the unexpected analogy, willing to risk friendships for an aesthetic
assertion, he was timid in the elective process. A Ruskin, a Greenberg,
a Peter Fuller can go horribly wrong with their Kate Greenaways, their
Larry Poonses, their Glyn Williamses, but whether viewed as a lapse
or a consistent cock-eye, their passionate and personal and original
avowals actually enhance their critical status rather than detracting
from it. Van Gogh said, "I wouldn't have wanted to miss that mistake",
and we can end up feeling this way about our favorite critics when they
startle us with questionable tastes.
The irony with Sylvester - and a biographer
one day will usefully deal with this - is that existentialism and a
fondness for artists willing to pursue a lonely path to authenticity
did not breed in him a corresponding individualism. For all that his
writing has the feel of belligerent independence, he was drawn
inextricably to the establishment, the canon, and prevailing powers.
That he was heavily involved with big institutions such as the BBC where
he was a prolific and innovative arts broadcaster, or the Government-sponsored
Arts Council, for whom he curated numerous landmark exhibitions and
served, for long terms, as chairman of the visual arts panel, is of
course only commendable, public spirited, worthy. But at the same time,
in a critic, slightly perturbing. Of course, it is a tremendous honor
to have been the only critic ever to receive a "golden lion"
of the Venice Bienalle, the artists' "oscars", but who awarded
it him if not the international artworld's Council of Ten (the politburo,
in other words, of official taste)? Later, his inseperableness from
big time collectors like the de Menils and Charles Saatchi, not to mention
his intimacy with dealers like Anthony d'Offay in London (who married
Sylvester's secretary) and Larry Gagosian in New York (who exhibits
his daughter, the young painter Cecily Brown) seemed to make him the
most plutocratic arbiter of taste since Bernard Berenson.
It probably attests to my besottedness
with the man, however, that I find something psychologically compelling
in Sylvester's moth-like attraction to the glow of money and power.
It is right that critics should be more concerned with the consumption
of art than its creation, even if, usually, the critic himself is the
end user. Sylvester was a passionate collector of Oriental rugs (of
which he curated groundbreaking Arts Council exhibitions), antiquities,
and so on, which he would install with exquisite taste in his museum-like
home. I would venture that it was a desire to experience art decision
making in its vested human fullness, and not in a rarefied aesthetic
vacuum, that attracted him to the apex of artworld power.
But this is to moralize beyond hard
evidence. We can await the Meryle Secrest bio with bated breath. In
the meantime, we must mourn a critic who persuaded the best minds of
his day to look harder at painting and sculpture, which is what criticism
Other obituaries of David Sylvester:
Green in The Independent
Liz Jobey in The Guardian
Cohen on the critics:
John Ruskin: A New York Ruskiniad
Roger Fry: Fry, Freud and Formalism
Herbert Read and Peter Fuller: Seeing Moore,
the Case of Two Critics
Clement Greenberg: Ornithology for Birds, Greenberg's