Some artists conduct their lives in ways that seem so divergent from their art that we have a hard time reconciling the two: Mondrian may have been a revolutionary painter, but he looked and lived like an accountant. In the case of Martin Naylor, who died on December 31 last year, that dissonance was never a problem. Indeed, he even managed to look like his works, and the question of whether he looked like them or they looked like him is one of those chicken and egg conundrums that are impossible and unnecessary to solve. Although one could argue that Whistler, in his person and comportment, roughly resembled his paintings, that seems somewhat unimpressive given that he was, after all, a portraitist. But that Naylor, who was very nearly an abstract painter and sculptor, should have achieved a comparable communion is, in its way, astonishing.
Naylor was born in 1944 in Morley, a small town in Yorkshire (now part of Greater Leeds), and to the end of his days he spoke with a pronounced Yorkshire accent, as though it were a point of pride and a principled retort to the posh, compromised diction of London. Just because he was born too late to be one of the Angry Young Men who stirred up British culture in the Fifties and Sixties didn’t mean that he couldn’t be angry. A towering, Wagnerian figure of a man, he always cultivated the air of going to or having just coming from a fistfight, even though, in my dealings with him, he always behaved with the greatest decency. His clothes, meanwhile, were apt to fit him as fortuitously as those fragments of apparel that he incorporated into his paintings and sculptures, and the tousled storm-cloud of his long, spindly hair had an obvious correlate in the squiggled lines, either abstract or nearly so, that made up his so many of his later paintings. The sweater-wearing stick figure in one of his best and earliest works, Discarded Sweater (1973), a cross between surrealism and arte povera, could almost stand as a self-portrait.
For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Naylor was a prominent figure on the London art scene. In addition to teaching at Leeds Art College and the Royal College of Art, he exhibited at the Rowan Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art and the 1977 Sao Paolo Biennial. In the early 1990s, however, Naylor declared himself fed up with the London art establishment and moved to Buenos Aires with his Argentine wife, the psychoanalyst Liliana Maler. There he quickly established himself in the local art scene and exhibited in such prestigious venues as the Centro Cultural Borges. He remained in Buenos Aires for roughly fifteen years before moving back to London in 2008. By this time, however, his health was beginning to deteriorate, and with it his will to produce art.
But his energetic productivity before that decline has left us with an abundant legacy of paintings and sculptures that sit in eminent collections throughout the world. And they are now becoming the subject of new and vigorous interest to a younger generation.
Of related interest: David Cohen’s profile of Martin Naylor in The Independent, August 1996, on the occasion of his fourth exhibition in Buenos Aires that year: