Sunday, July 8th, 2001

The Golden Lion of English Artwriting: David Sylvester, 1924-2001

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 aged 76.

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.

David Sylvester by Derry Moore, 1992  © Derry Moore
David Sylvester by Derry Moore, 1992 © Derry Moore

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 a Meryle Secrest-style 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 is about.

Alberto Giacometti, Portrait of David Sylvester, 1960. Oil on canvas, 45 11/16 x 35 1/16 inches. Private Collection
click to enlarge