Many years ago, back in the early 1980s, I used to write for a little British art magazine called Artscribe. We published in black and white, scraping by from issue to issue, but we were an earnest little group who felt that our opinions might actually shape the future of contemporary painting. Of course that meant that we had our disagreements. One of the biggest arguments that occurred, I remember, was over the award of a then-unheard-of trophy by the name of the Turner Prize to a guy named Malcolm Morley.
He had had a retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1983, which charted his development out of his own brand of superrealism into an early and particularly effusive kind of eighties neo-expressionism. The next year he was given the first Turner Prize for making the most important contribution to British Art in the previous twelve months, despite the fact that he had lived here in New York since the late 1950s. It certainly set the cat among the pigeons and I genuinely believe that the arguments about Mr Morley winning that first Turner Prize not only secured its future, but also established its reputation for controversy. The British art scene might have been a rather different place, in other words, had it not been for Malcolm Morley.
Mr Morley has never lost his taste for controversy, constantly twisting and turning his own painterly development – with occasional forays into sculpture – as though deliberately trying to keep his audience guessing. His current show at Sperone Westwater (through June 20) looks as much as anything like a group show of several different artists making their own Morley-esque mash-ups of the same subject matter. The stand-out work in the show is a life-size paper sculpture of a motocross rider leaping through a ring of fire.
To confuse matters further, Mr Morley repeatedly stakes a claim for the traditionalism of his art. He insists that his real subjects are not the sports stars that have dominated his recent paintings, for example, but the art of painting itself. He cites artists as various as Velasquez, Manet, Cézanne, and Picasso in talking about his work, and in an essay called “Spectacle” that he has written to accompany his present exhibit he offers himself as a contemporary version of Baudelaire’s painter of modern life. He also stresses the importance of psychoanalysis to his art, and suggests links between his painting and ancient mythology. So when I spoke to him last weekend I wanted to get to the bottom of some of these issues.
Malcolm, I’m interested in this essay that you’ve written. That’s not something that you usually do. Why did you feel it was appropriate this time around?
Well, the ideas behind it were surfacing a bit when I had my last show at Sperone Westwater, which was a show of all the big sports heroes. The idea derived from Mark Rothko’s book, “The Artist’s Reality” [published in 2006]. All of those guys, Rothko, Newman, and the rest of them, were all involved with mythology – it was a very big thing for them – and Rothko makes the point that in the ancient world mythology wasn’t something in the past. It was lived on a day-to day basis.
One day I was in the deli buying a cup of coffee and I heard these two regular guys talking about a baseball game that had been played years before, and they remembered every possible detail about it. And I decided that this was contemporary mythology, and the sports stars were the heroes. To be a hero you have to take a risk, so of course the best ones are those that risk their lives – NASCAR drivers and people like that.
Of course, it’s not that painting heroes is the only thing I do. It isn’t a permanent thing, necessarily. But it’s especially apropos in terms of the current state of affairs. I certainly don’t think that you can identify the contemporary soldier as a mythic hero: all he wants to do is get home in one piece, basically. Whereas the stars of sport live these mythic lives.
I’m interested to hear you mention Barnett Newman there. As I understand it, he was one of the more important influences on you when you first came to New York City in 1958.
Yes, very much so. I was working in a restaurant, waiting on tables, and he was one of my customers. He asked me what I was doing there and I said, “I’m a painter, I’m just working here to pay my bills,” so he gave me his phone number and asked me to call him. He came down to my studio and at that time I was doing my version of abstract expressionism – rather à la Cy Twombly – and he told me this great thing. He said, “You know, all the guys here in New York are involved in the bullfight, and sticking in the stiletto, whereas I’m interested in the myth of Excalibur, and removing the sword from the stone.” Then he’d talk about “emptying renaissance space.” I hadn’t come across that scale of thinking before. It was quite a revelation.
In fact, when I had my first show of the cruise ships, I felt very embarrassed that I’d betrayed Newman. So I didn’t show up for my own opening until it was almost over, only to be told that he’d been waiting for me, and he absolutely loved the paintings! You see, he didn’t like people who painted Newmans. He told me, “You know, the hardest thing in the world for me to do is to paint a Newman. But the easiest thing for anybody else to do is to paint a Newman.” So I had a wonderful metaphysical mentor there.
Of course the other guy, at the other extreme, was Salvador Dali. I was living in the Chelsea Hotel, and one Sunday morning there was this funny little voice on the phone. It said, “Malcolm Morley? This is Salvador Dali.” And I thought it was a friend playing a joke, so I said, “Well fuck off!” and hung up. Of course he loved that and called back. He became quite a champion of my work, and he liked to say that he painted photographs of the unconscious, whereas I painted photographs of the conscious. When you were in a one-to-one relationship with him he was really great, he only went into that gobbledygook when there were people around. So between Newman and Dali I had plenty of room to maneuver.
I’m fascinated by the sculpture in the current show. What is it that keeps you coming back to sculpture?
Well, one of the things is that it can be made. That whole piece is made of watercolor paper, very heavy watercolor paper with an armature of plastic plumbing piping. You can do a lot of things with paper. I always think of sculpture as something in two dimensions that’s folded.
Even the mud that’s splashed on it seems to be made of papier mâché.
The mud? Oh that was something else. The piece was finished. It was pristine. I live in a building on the corner of a road with traffic going past it. We took it outside, and I got hold of the toilet brush. You know those big brushes for cleaning the toilet? I mixed up a paint with papier mâché so that it looked like mud and started swishing it on from a distance. And the traffic stopped. People were saying, “What the hell? It’s a lunatic.” And that’s how it went on. It was literally splashed on to get the velocity.
You know, although I’ve followed your career for years, I’m never quite sure of who Malcolm Morley is. On the one hand there’s the audacious character who seems to delight in having people ask, “What the hell?”…
Well, upping the ante is what it is …
… but then on the other hand, there seems to be a deeply traditional streak to your art.
Oh yes. The way I see it is that the whole history of the arts is like a huge river that moves forward in one direction. And you want to be in the middle of that river, even if sometimes you have to fight against the current. Now that river also has little tributaries and pools of stagnant water. Lots of artists start out tremendously, right in the center, but then they get trapped in the stagnant water. To me it’s all a question of character, and having lots of nerve.
Where do you see yourself, in the mainstream or the backwaters?
Well what do you think? Of course I think I’m out there, being what you might call contentious or on the cutting edge of things.
But as you say, I also have this very strong connection to the whole history of painting. Sometimes people ask me, “How long did it take you to paint that?” And I’ll say, “Sixty thousand years!” Because I’m starting off with cave painting and I have incorporated all of that into what I do. I’m very proud of my facilities. I rehearse them I practice them. I feel as though I belong to an ancient guild.
You sometimes talk about “historical ambition”.
Oh, I’m glad you brought that up. The idea of historical ambition is that you want to sit in the pantheon of the greats. Whether or not that happens is something else. It’s for time and history and other people to decide. But I do have this deadly ambition, this deadly drive that never seems to stop.
Where does that ambition derive from? You’ve talked a lot in the past about the importance of psychoanalysis to your art.
Yes, I’m very interested in unconscious life. One way of putting it is, “to make friends with your unconscious life.” I’m a great believer in this. And that’s what I think the ancients did, in a sense, when they lived with mythology on a day-to-day basis. If you can come to terms with your own unconscious life, you can find a huge well that goes deep enough down to tap in to the collective unconscious. And that’s where it’s at. That’s what I feel happens in what I do. Three cheers for the unconscious!