Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

“A Bright Globe of Everything”: Extracts from “Becoming A Londoner”

artcritical offers an exclusive online sampling of the newly published first volume of David Plante’s diaries, Becoming A Londoner, out this month from Bloomsbury.  Dr. Plante, who is author of the critical study, Difficult Women (1983) and over a dozen novels including The Ghost of Henry James and The Francoeur Family, generously allowed artcritical free rein to select passages from his diary.  We chose to begin with his encounter with Michael Craig-Martin because his observations regarding the bearings of Catholicism on the Irish conceptual artist are indicative of the author’s own complex relationship with religion.  This Plante vividly described in American Ghosts, his 2005 memoir of a parochial Providence, Rhode Island Franco-American upbringing and its lifelong impact on him.  His very particular cultural heritage and his struggles with it in many ways shape Plante’s personal record of the London art world since the 1960s. Plante encountered an extraordinary cast of players in this scene in the company of his partner, the poet Nikos Stangos, legendary editor at Thames & Hudson.  The fusion of philosophical inquiry and gossipy wonder that permeates these historically invaluable pages, represents a world view that is at once cosmopolitan and slightly touched.  Our extracts also draw upon his friendships with fellow expatriate R.B. Kitaj and with the psychoanalytically-informed art writer Adrian Stokes, along with much fascinated speculation into the creative process of Francis Bacon.  DAVID COHEN

David Plante will give a reading from Becoming A Londoner at the New York Public Library this Tuesday, September 24 at 7pm.  

Adrian Stokes, Still Life, c.1959. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Tate Collection.  The work was formerly in the collection of David Sylvester.
Adrian Stokes, Still Life, c.1959. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Tate Collection.The work was formerly in the collection of David Sylvester who is mentioned in this article. 


Michael Craig-Martin has had an exhibition that consisted entirely of an ordinary glass of water on a high glass shelf, the glass itself the idea one would have of an ordinary glass. The glass of water on the glass shelf is high up on a blood-red wall, the whole length of Waddington Gallery. But, as an accompanying card informed, printed in red on white pasteboard, the glass of water is no longer a glass of water but an oak tree. Michael was brought up a Catholic, which he has, as I have, rejected, but what else but his religion informs the miracle of the transubstantiation of the glass of water into an oak tree?

But, more than our shared Catholic pasts, I have my own view of Michael’s work – which he seems to respect but not to be convinced by – in our both having been taught by Jesuits. I went to Jesuit Boston College and was taught Scholastic epistemology, which discipline has remained with me as my essential sense in my own apprehension of the world. I like to think that Michael was just long enough at the Jesuit university of Fordham to have been inspired by some idea of Scholastic epistemology, and to be intrigued by the mental process by which a specific object such as a glass of water is held in a state of momentary suspension before it is judged as this or that glass of water, so that in that state of suspension, of apprehension, the water glass becomes an oak tree.

– – –

We’ve become regular guests at the Queen Anne house of Adrian and Ann Stokes in Hampstead, with sherry first in the sitting room hung with a large nude by William Coldstream, and considered by Adrian a major work. Dinner downstairs in the basement, by the Aga, the table laid with Ann’s pottery, with large ceramic animals as centrepieces.
Adrian especially warm towards Nikos, whom he embraces whenever we arrive, Nikos appearing to revive in Adrian a youthful erotic attraction to someone as attractive as Nikos. As for worlds revolving around Adrian – think of Ezra Pound, think of Osbert Sitwell, think of all the Saint Ives artists including Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo and . . . And Adrian knew D. H. Lawrence, whom he visited when Lawrence lived in Italy, in the Villa Mirenda – not only knew Lawrence, but delivered Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Lawrence’s Italian publisher Orioli, no doubt reading that novel on the train! Nikos is very impressed that Adrian was analyzed by Melanie Klein, and thinks that the great disappointment in Adrian’s life is that analysis could not cure his daughter Ariadne of schizophrenia.

– – –

R.B. Kitaj, Smyrna Greek (Nikos), 1976-77. Oil on canvas. 244 x 76 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
R.B. Kitaj, Smyrna Greek (Nikos), 1976-77. Oil on canvas.
244 x 76 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

R. B. Kitaj is painting an almost life-size portrait of Nikos.
R.B. and his wife Sandra come to meals, or we go to them. At their large round dining table there are always interesting people to meet, as if R.B. (Nikos calls him Ron, but he prefers R.B. or, simply, Kitaj) sees his friends as references to the richness of culture as he sees the figures in his paintings as referring, too, to the richness of culture.
His library, with high shelves of books, forms part of his studio, there where a punching bag hangs, and I easily imagine Kitaj punching the bag when he gets frustrated at a painting not going well. He can have a mad look.
There are so many references in his paintings. In the branches of a tree hung what looked like red ribbon, and I asked him what it referred to. He said, off-handedly, ‘I just wanted a bit of red there,’ which impressed me, for I sometimes think that Kitaj will sacrifice composition to the references.

At the large round table in the basement kitchen, Nikos and I have met the very old American painter Raphael Soyer and his wife. R.B. is keen on artists of the 1940s Fourteenth Street School of painters that included Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Kenneth Hayes Miller, all figurative artists, as R.B. is trying to promote figures in paintings as opposed to abstraction.

Other people we’ve met at their dinners:

The painter Avigdor Arikha and his wife Anne.

The film maker Kenneth Anger, whose Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome I’d seen years before. As good looking as he was, I was frightened of him because I’d heard he was under a satanic bond to kill someone.

The poet Robert Duncan, whose portrait Kitaj has drawn and who clearly has exhausted both Kitaj and Sandra by his relentlessly inventive talk, as he exhausted Nikos and me when he came to supper, theorizing about, say, Gertrude Stein in terms of the inner tensions in her work, his mind, it seems, filled with inner tensions that flash out in different directions while one tries to make the connections among all the flashes. His lover Jess Collins sat back.

Robert gave us some of his books of poems, with photomontages by Jess. So we are building up a collection of signed books given to us.

Also at Kitaj and Sandra’s, we met a coroner, who said that there was nothing more beautiful than the naked chest of a dead young man.

When you meet someone at Kitaj and Sandra’s, you feel the person must be rather esoteric to be of interest to them, and, in meeting this esoteric person, you hope you are rather esoteric too. Kitaj, an American, wants to belong to what he calls the London School of Painters, wants, I think, to become as much a part of the art world of London as Whistler and Sargent were.

He is close to David Hockney, with whom he appeared on the front cover of the New Review, both of them naked, arms across shoulders.

Sandra asked to paint my portrait – in the nude, if I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind. Then she suggested I come again and pose with another male model, very sexy, both of us nude. ‘And you never know what will happen.’

She and R.B. go to Amsterdam to the live sex shows and afterwards clap.

Kitaj likes to go to the airport and take the next flight out to wherever, the last time to Athens, where he went to a whorehouse and waited until a large woman came out and, raising her arms high, shouted, ‘America!’ He tells this story before Sandra, who laughs, I think a strained laugh.

Their understanding is: never with friends.

Sandra is very beautiful, with a wide white smile.

– – –

While I’m making pottery with Ann, Adrian works in his study, but at tea time she asks me up to his desk and we have tea from Ann’s cups.

I always bring Adrian little gifts, mostly postcards. One was of a Mughul miniature, which he liked. Another was of a Surrealist  painting, and this he did not like, though his way of indicating he doesn’t like something isn’t to say so, but to laugh a little. Later, he told me he didn’t like the Surrealists, but as an aside. My little gifts – besides postcards, a volume of three Greek poets, fancy cakes from a pastry shop in Hampstead – are offered partly with the wonder of how he will react to them.

I have no idea what Adrian’s likes and dislikes are, and I realize that this both intimidates me and excites me. All I know for sure is that he has a vision, and vision excites me.

Once, having been first to Stephen Buckley’s studio, I went to Church Row with a little work of Stephen’s under my arm which I showed to Adrian: he looked at it for a long time on his desk, and I, standing by, wondered what he was thinking. When he said, ‘Yes, I like it,’ I was very pleased.

I’m always aware that his appreciation of something is, in a way, refl ective, that it has to do with deciding something about the object. His appreciation is, I feel, based on the object’s standing up or not to Adrian’s awareness of it. I don’t think: Adrian is coming to terms with the object. I think: the object is coming to terms with Adrian.

– – –

Sonia invited Nikos and me for a birthday party for Francis. I sat next to Francis, and across the table was David Sylvester. I asked Francis if he ever worried about the meaning of art. ‘No,’ he said, and laughed.

‘I just paint. I paint out of instinct. That’s all.’ ‘Then you’re very lucky others like your work,’ David said. ‘That’s it,’ Francis said. ‘I’m very lucky. People, for some reason, buy my work. If they didn’t, I suppose I’d have to make my living in another way.’ I said, ‘I’m sure people buy – or, if they can’t buy, are drawn to – your work because you do paint out of instinct.’ ‘Perhaps it’s just fashionable for people to be drawn now,’ Francis said, and I said, ‘No, that’s not true, and you know it’s not true.’ He said, ‘You’re right. I do know. Of course I know. When I stop to wonder why I paint, I paint out of instinct.’ David looked very thoughtful. He sat away from the table, his large body a little slumped forward, his hands on his knees. Slightly wall-eyed, he stared at the table as he thought, and he fi nally asked Francis, very slowly, ‘How does luck come into your work?’ Francis answered, ‘If anything works for me in my paintings, I feel it is nothing I’ve made myself but something luck has given to me.’ David asked, ‘Is there any way of preparing for the luck before you start working?’

‘It comes by chance,’ Francis said. ‘It wouldn’t come by will power. But it’s impossible to talk about this.’

This excited me, and I immediately asked, ‘Because it’s a mystery?’

Francis jerked round to me, his eyes wide. He said flatly, ‘I don’t think one can explain it.’

I knew that I was trying to push Francis into saying something that I wanted him to say but which I also knew he disdained, as he disdained all forms of the mysterious.   Nikos warned me. ‘Do you know what you’re asking of Francis?’ I took the risk and asked Francis, ‘Do you ever think that if one knew enough one might be able to explain the mystery of chance? And if one could explain would the mystery go and the work be destroyed?’

Francis pursed his lips. He could sometimes appear to be parodying the expression of deep thought. He asked me, ‘Are you asking me if I ever think I could destroy my work by knowing too much about what makes it?’

‘More than that. I wonder, have you ever wanted to explain what makes a painting work even though you knew the explanation would destroy it? I mean, do you ever worry that your work is too explicit in its meaning, not latent enough?’

Francis said, ‘I can’t wonder about that, because I know I would never be able to explain.’ He laughed.

– – –

Whenever I am in the West End, I stop to look in at the shows galleries are putting on. I stopped in the Kasmin Gallery in Bond Street and found the entire large clear white space filled with one work by Anthony Caro, Prairie, a vast bright yellow sheet of metal supported as if magically at one corner so the vast bright yellow sheet of metal appeared to fl oat. I was struck: this is a great work of art. This is sublime!

– – –

Francis Bacon at the Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, 1977.  (c) John Minihan.
Francis Bacon at the Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, 1977. (c) John Minihan.

I asked R. B. Kitaj what he thinks of Francis’ painting, and he wrote me, on many postcards, his favourite form of communicating:

For me, Bacon is not a great painter like Matisse or Picasso. He is a narrower talent, and he seems to have refused to draw, but from my perspective he is the best, most original and engaging painter . . . I cherish unusual paintings and, boy oh boy, are they rare and hard to achieve! Bacon keeps doing them . . . Of course it’s all a matter of taste, so I don’t wish to argue Bacon with those who are turned off by him, including brilliant friends of mine . . . But I do think he sings the song of himself. His pictures are every bit as elegant as the high American abstraction, but he engages his urbane nihilism to one’s one neurotic unease and achieved a psychological bloody pitch which almost always holds my attention.

– – –

A conversation with David Sylvester. He wondered if Yeats, great a poet as he was, failed to be the greatest because he lacked ‘helplessness.’ Nikos said that Yeats is limited because he is, however subtle, rhetorical – his poetry is constrained by its complicated intentions.

I said I wonder if this applied to Francis’ paintings, but with an essential difference: he himself is aware of the constraint of intention and tries, with more than will power, with passion, to go beyond intention and give his work ‘helplessness.’ I wondered if Francis in fact succeeds, if there is too much intention in his attempt to give himself up to the unintentional, even by throwing paint on the canvas then to work it into a figure. Nikos smiled and said nothing, but, as he always does, David looked at me for a very long time, and after a very long time he slowly, carefully said, ‘That is very interesting,’ as if he himself had not thought, among many, of such an obvious comment about the works of Francis Bacon.

When I think of ‘helplessness’ in writing, I think of Victor Shklovsky, who started out a novel with an intention but at the end he found he had written a novel completely different from what he had intended it to be, a novel that had occurred and expanded beyond his intention; so, when he started a new novel, he gave in helplessly to whatever novel would occur, that novel expanding as if on its own intentions beyond his, and he did this by writing whatever came to him, however seemingly disconnected, taking it on faith that everything in the end would connect, but not as he had thought. The unintended is truer than what is intended, because – and this I wonder at – what can’t be helped is truer than what can be helped, what is allowed to happen is truer than what one tries to make happen, what one gives in to is truer than what one imposes oneself upon.

But what is the unintended that expands on its own, to which the writer and the artist give themselves up helplessly? What expands beyond intention? What is it that we can only ever have a ‘sense’ of, can never give a rhetorical name to? What? We can’t say, but it is in us – it strains in us, it strains with a longing in us – to want to say what it is, to release it, to see it formed out there around us into – what? – a bright globe of everything, everything, everything all together held in that one great globe, is that all I can imagine of what it is?

Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree, 1973. Assorted objects and printed text under glass, glass on shelf. 5 7/8×18 x 5 1/2 inches. text panel: 12×12 inches. © Michael Craig-Martin. Collection: National Gallery of Australia.
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Anthony Caro, Prairie, 1967. Steel, painted matt yellow, 96.5 x 582 x 320 cm. Courtesy of the Artist
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David Plante at home in London
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