Magazine article The Spectator

'The Last Wild Man of Modern Art'

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Last Wild Man of Modern Art'

Article excerpt

The Ashmolean Museum has taken the radical step of embracing contemporary art, and is currently hosting (until 30 March 2014) a mini-retrospective of Malcolm Morley's work, curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal and borrowed entirely from the prestigious American-based Hall Art Foundation. Morley (born London 1931) was the first winner of the ever-controversial Turner Prize (apparently David Sylvester threatened to resign as a judge if Morley was not awarded the prize), but has lived in America since 1958 and visits these shores rarely. The last time he was here was in 2001, for a fullscale retrospective of his work at the Hayward Gallery. We haven't seen enough of his art in this country over the past decade, so this show is a most welcome event.

Critics have described him as an abstract painter, a Pop artist, a photorealist, and an expressionist. Morley accepts all these designations, for really he's just an artist, a painter who modifies his style to fit the subject. (As he puts it: 'The imagery calls forth the surface.') The work he is doing now is closer to the pictures of ocean liners he painted in the 1960s, which first established his name, than to the expressionist paintings he made in the 1980s. 'There's a sort of synthesis which has taken place', says Morley, 'and the paintings now are much more visionary. I work from a number of different sources [such as magazine photos] but they all get squared up and cut up into little pieces and I just look at each piece separately.' In this way Morley distances himself from the content of the image and can concentrate on its formal abstract qualities. His philosophy might be adumbrated thus: if you look after each part with the right degree of truthfulness, the whole will look after itself.

'I like to think of it as fidelity, ' he says.

'Two words characterise my art: diversi- ty and fidelity. Fidelity somehow binds the diversity. And although the paintings might look very different from each other, you get the feeling the same artist painted them.'

There is certainly an overriding personality behind the varied handling, from brushless photorealism to brushy expressionism. The Ashmolean display is dominated by a magnificent oil-and-encaustic painting entitled 'French Foreign Legionnaires Being Eaten by a Lion in the Sahara Desert' (1986). On the left of the canvas the legionnaires raise their guns, while from the right comes a huge consuming lion like a bushfire, painted in a very different style of near-abstract spatter.

Nearby is one of the museum's Assyrian reliefs of a winged demon, a juxtaposition that Morley relishes. I am reminded of that favourite quotation of Bertie Wooster from Lord Byron's poem 'The Destruction of Sennacherib':

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Morley certainly bodies forth the wolf (lion) with dazzling virtuosity, against the blue waves of the foot soldiers. Around the other walls are paintings of warships and liners, airplanes and model kits, refugees and sportsmen. Violence is coolly treated, banality rendered passionate. The range of image and handling is impressive.

Robert Hughes referred to Morley as 'the last wild man of modern art', and there are numerous stories about him, from an early spell in prison to destroying a painting in front of a collector who'd just given him $40,000 for it. (Morley returned the cheque. ) Much is made of Morley's youthful detention, but that episode is chiefly important because it introduced him to the world of art. …

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