Wednesday, 27 October 2010

BBC Bitesize

Back in February I made a series of six short drawing tutorials for BBC Bitesize. I’ve embedded a couple here in this blog, and the others can be viewed on the Bitesize site here.

It came about more by luck than judgement. Producers were looking for ‘experts’ in some art and design specialisms (photography, painting etc) and came across my work in the Guardian Guide to Drawing. They called to see if I’d be up for demonstrating some really simple sketching techniques on camera.

There were originally nine short scripts, most suggested by the producers after seeking advice from GCSE teachers, together with a couple of extra scripts (and lots of edits/suggestions etc) thrown in by me. The idea was not to make films about me or my techniques as such, but merely to introduce some of the very basics in drawing.

On the evening before, a filming unit consisting of two producers, a lighting man, sound man, and cameraman all came down to Brighton. We went out to Wagamama in town to break the ice and discuss the filming.

On the day, we made a 7am start. For each film I merely had to talk through the scripted bullet points in my own words. Obviously this should have been easy, but it’s crazy what can happen to the human mind when a TV camera is switched on. The pressure not to mess up made me mess up. My brain literally turned to soup.

There were several things the cameraman continually briefed me to remember... Firstly, make eye contact with the camera. Sounds easy but my only natural human inclination was to look at the man behind the camera, or at the producer occasionally prompting me to the left. After a couple of takes they stuck day-glo tape round the camera lens and wrote ‘LOOK AT ME!’ on it.

In between each bullet point, I’d take a breath and try to remember what came next. When I did so, my eyes involuntarily darted up to the left. A previously un-noticed tic in my face suddenly became rather embarrassing, and vitally important. “Cut! No, sorry we can’t use that Peter, you looked away again.”

Another, related thing was language tics. I managed to keep ‘ummm’ and ‘errrr’ to an absolute minumum. Instead, for me the problem was ‘so’. “So, pencils come in a range of grades...” “So, here’s a sketch done only in 9H...”

Then there were the props. I had to bring across, say, an HB or a 4H pencil at the right moment without breaking my eye contact, pausing my spiel or fumbling around. Easier said than done. After a failed take I then had to be careful to place the objects back exactly where I’d taken them from, for fear I make continuity blunders.

One producer sat at the side of the room with a monitor, observing the action and furiously jotting notes. At first I wondered what she was doing, but she soon piped up. “Peter, you had the 4H pencil on your left at the start of that last take. Now it’s on the right. We’ll have to go again.”

A few takes in, the cameraman topped it all off by pointing out that I looked a bit miserable. They added the word ‘SMILE’ to the edge of the camera in day-glo tape.

At other points in the shoot, I smiled too much – when repeating a short script over and over, unusual things became funny. I’m a bit of a giggler by nature (more so when nervous), though I have to say the crew were the worst offenders here. My laughter was usually prompted by a stifled guffaw from the sound or lighting guys – then it became a battle to keep a straight face. The ‘Rubbers’ film presented quite a few such challenges, especially the bit where I use a plastic rubber to smudge a woman’s face. Whichever way I described it seemed faintly smutty – and with every failed take the challenge in not laughing seemed greater, and somehow more desparate. Equally, the last line of the ‘Shading’ video (“I’d recommend sharpening your pencil every few minutes!”) ought not, in normal circumstances, to have been remotely funny. However, the lighting guy was actually banished into the corridor like a recalcitrant child for disrupting us with his laughter over this gem.

For each script they filmed me between five and ten times – first as long shots, then a few more goes using tight close ups on my face, before finally a few more run throughs with the camera over my shoulder. Each clip is very short but took a long time to produce. We were in there for about twelve hours and the result is six or seven minutes of footage.

Friday, 22 October 2010

CD Swap 2010

I’m happy to announce the return of my CD swap game for a fifth year. If you haven’t joined in before, here’s how it works; you make a compilation CD of your favourite songs, and design a cover for it if you’re artistically inclined (no worries if not). Make 10 copies and send them to me... soon afterwards you’ll receive a random selection of 10 compilation CDs from the other players. Anyone can take part – the more the merrier! Plus you’ll have bags of time to work on your CD, as the deadline is not til mid December this year. Please e-mail me ASAP at if you’re interested and I’ll send you a proper mail about this with the full instructions.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why have there been no Great Women Artists?

Here is a subject that has always rather fascinated me. I was recently reminded of the gulf between men and women in the art world when writing my ‘Numbers’ book, and researching a number list that placed famous artists according to their top auction room prices. Jackson Pollock held the record with 140 million dollars, whilst the highest price paid for a female artist was 11 million dollars, for Les Fleurs by Natalia Goncharova. That’s one hell of a gap.

Obviously I couldn’t possibly hope to pull apart all the strands of feminist art history here on my blog, and nor would I attempt to – but it is an intriguing question to muse on for a paragraph or two...

‘Why Have There been no Great Women Artists?’ was the title of a 1971 article by Linda Nochlin which introduced this debate. She suggests that a lack of access to art education, combined with a male dominated critical establishment, has made it difficult for women to forge artistic careers. It’s undeniable, of course, that female artists have at certain times gained recognition over the past few centuries– here are a couple of oft cited examples...

Vasari, the famous contemporary biographer of great Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo, in fact mentions four female artists (Properzia de’Rossi, Sister Plautilla Nelli, Sofonisba Anguissola and Madonna Lucrezia) in his 1568 book ‘Lives’. Of these, Anguissola is probably the most celebrated. It has been pointed out that she could not possibly have competed directly with her male peers, since it was forbidden for female artists to study anatomy from the nude model. This fact alone makes the fame she achieved in her lifetime all the more impressive - and explains why she undertook no ambitious religious paintings, finding herself instead stuck in portraiture.

I came across one of her portraits recently in ‘A Face to the World’ by Laura Cumming – it’s great, and unusually witty for the Renaissance. This lady must have had a sense of humour, surely. She portrays her master Bernardino Campi painting her portrait. This man who taught her everything she knew is drably attired and squeezed out to the shadows on the left of the frame – while Anguissola herself, richly attired, outsizes and outclasses her mentor. The portrait within a portrait compares their literal and metaphorical stature, leaving Campi dwarfed and sidelined.

Post Renaissance, another milestone was reached by Artemisia Gentileschi, the Baroque painter who became the first woman accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. She was the first female of the seventeenth century to gain success with the religious art that had been beyond the reach of even Anguissola. The violence in her ‘Judith and Holofernes’ garnered disbelief from critics that a woman had painted it. However, Gentileschi had had firsthand experience of violence herself. Her private tutor Agostino Tassi raped her and, during his subsequent trial, her testimony was examined under torture.

In eighteenth century England, female artists were also present – if sidelined – at the founding of the Royal Academy. Johann Zoffany’s famous group portrait of the first academicians appears at first glance to contain no women – but look at the right hand wall. The two cameos depict academicians Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, whose status is theoretically equal to their male colleagues – but whose physical presence cannot be permitted in a portrait that features an unclothed model.

Kauffmann in particular was an incredibly celebrated painter in her day – she helped decorate the new St. Pauls in London, and was honoured with a lavish funeral in Rome. In ensuing centuries, however, her critical reputation has faltered completely. (It would be over a hundred years before another woman would be elected to the RA.)

The male domination of critical reputations has been a major obstacle to the existence of ‘great’ female artists. A popular case in point concerns the 19th century painter Constance Marie Charpentier. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired an unsigned portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Initially attributed to Jacques Louis David, it was declared a masterpiece, one of the finest examples of his work. In 1951, however, when it was discovered to have been painted by his pupil Madame Charpentier its value plummeted and many critics conveniently changed their mind about its quality.

Later that same century, Berthe Morisot was the sole female exhibitor in the first Impressionist exhibition For decades she was dismissed as a mere follower of her friend Manet. Only recently has critical opinion put forward the suggestion that her influence on Impressionism was considerable – and that she encouraged Manet in the outdoor paintings that would become the signature of the Impressionist approach.

Less than a generation later, Suzanne Valadon became the first female artist accepted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. Her work, too, is largely unrecognized but I can’t see why. I think she knocks the spots off Renoir.

The debates about why there have been no great female artists have inflamed controversy. There are some who suggest that painting, as a reflection of individual personality, will inevitably reflect differences in the sexes – such that it can be seen as a pointless exercise to compare the art of women and men. Women, so this somewhat chauvinistic argument goes, will always excel at fine genre scenes, flower paintings, pastel portraits etc. An example can perhaps be seen in the work of Mary Cassat, whose pictures (e.g.‘The Bath’) depict scenes of motherhood and domesticity that are very different to the more public scenes depicted by the male Impressionists.

Yet for me this argument lacks clout – for it describes an unanswerable, chicken and egg scenario. Did Cassatt paint motherhood because she wanted to, or because she would not have been permitted access to the brothels and bars that made more eyecatching subject matter for the likes of Degas and Lautrec?

And why, if women excel at pastel shades and floral art, have some male painters like Fantin-Latour, Van Gogh and Monet, gained greater recognition for their flower paintings? It doesn’t hold water as an argument.

Linda Nochlin has herself been criticized for the title of her 1971 essay. By asking “Why Have there been no Great Women Artists”, she implies that it’s a given. She discusses the reasons, but still cannot permit herself to believe that a woman has ever achieved great things in art.

This argument is taken up by Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker in their book‘Old Mistresses’. It’s years since I read it, but I do recall they disagreed with the implication of Nochlin’s question. Some of the greatest and most influential visual art has been made by females, they argue – but it has mostly been produced anonymously. The male critical establishment, by drawing a line between ‘high art’ (gallery art made by the named artist/author/genius) and craft (objects made anonymously, often for practical or ornamental usage) has effectively shut out an army of creative women from the very debate about greatness. In the twentieth century, as our interpretations of what can be considered art broaden, though, so we can more fairly consider that the gorgeous and breathtaking collections of textiles and intricate lace which fill half of the V&A, for example, do deserve to be called ‘great art.’

This was emphasized to me recently when I was watching (of all things) David Dimbleby’s TV show on the Seven Ages of Britain. Chatting to camera about the Bayeux Tapestry, he commented in blasé fashion that it had once been assumed to have been the work of French monks – but that now it was widely believed to have been designed and executed by English Nuns. Did I hear that correctly? Yes I did – scholars agree that this exceptional artwork of the period was indeed most likely the work of women.

And what of the contemporary art scene? You might assume that the gulf between male and female artists has closed in the modern age – but this would be jumping the gun rather. My ‘Numbers’ book research told me that the highest price paid for a living artist (Lucien Freud) was 33.6 million dollars – whereas the highest price for a living female artist (Marlene Dumas) came in more than five times less at 6.4 million. Still one hell of a gap.

Tracey Emin examined this issue in a 2006 Channel 4 documentary, ‘What Price Art?’ Emin herself had been outraged to learn that, on a recent list of the thirty most influential figures in contemporary art, only one was a woman. She interviewed a senior figure at Sothebys who suggested that, in an art market dominated and driven by collectors, white men from the City set the agenda. They preferred, he said, buying ‘macho’ art (or rather, work by other men) that offered them self-validation. Now, I don’t really like the implication of this suggestion, but it strikes me as probably quite true – an art market, and attendant critical infrastructure top heavy with wealthy men chasing the best investments.

The disturbing thing is that art critics like Brian Sewell continue to infer that the reasons for differing saleroom results must be biological. Quoting the lovely man himself in 2005, “Women are no good at squeezing cars through spaces. If you have someone who is unable to relate space to volume, they won't make a good artist.” With critics like him setting the agenda in books and newspaper columns, what do any of us expect?

Friday, 15 October 2010


I had a wonderful evening earlier in the week, watching a special collaborative gig at the Underbelly in Hoxton. My old school friend (and Suede guitarist) Richard Oakes has recently been involved in a songwriting partnership with pop producer Sean McGhee, who’s worked with the likes of Sugababes, Imogen Heap, Robyn, Alanis Morrisette and Britney Spears. Richard and Sean have been writing together for about two years, and recently started performing some of these co-authored songs live under the band name Artmagic. Sean felt that much of his collaborative efforts with Richard were too personal to be farmed out to other singers – eventually resolving to front the project himself.

I’ve seen them live a few times now – Sean has a beautiful voice and is blossoming as a front man. It’s also been really delightful to see Richard, after such a lengthy spell away from the live stage, rediscovering the joy of performance both with Artmagic and Suede (who headline the O2 in December).

The Underbelly gig was organized by Sean, with the intention of uniting several of his current collaborators. Artmagic were, of course, in attendance. Also featured were Kate Havnevik, Andrew Montgomery and The Gadsens. Kate is an acclaimed Norwegian singer who writes haunting but incredibly catchy songs... and also plays a mean electric guitar. Andrew Montgomery is a tall, genial Scotsman with a beautiful operatic voice. He was the lead singer of criminally underrated 90s band Geneva, now working on a series of truly haunting solo tracks. The Gadsdens are a young indie band, whose ‘Sailor Song’, championed of late by Radio 2’s Radcliffe and Maconie, is a firm favourite of mine.

The small Hoxton stage was packed with a cast of eight talented musicians - nine if you count an impromptu ukelele solo by Sean’s friend Woody in the closing song. Rather than each offering a defined set, the players performed one another’s songs (more than half co-written by the prolific Sean) continually swapping between mikes with joky cheerfulness. Stand-out moments included the live debut of two new Artmagic songs (‘Blue on Blue’ and ‘Heaven is Here’), The Gadsdens’ stirring performance of their signature ‘Sailor Song’, Kate’s recent release ‘Disobey’ and Andrew’s show-closing up-tempo number ‘La Graciosa.’ In short, I loved it.

Hear some Artmagic tracks and sign up to their friends list here...

Photographs from top - Sean McGhee / Andrew Montgomery and Richard Oakes / Kate Havnevik. Reproduced by kind permission

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Modern Painters

My work features in the current Modern Painters magazine.

Don't get too excited though - there isn't a 10 page article in which the cream of the New York art establishment rave about my drawing of Loose Women's Carol McGiffin. I merely contributed some thumbnail portraits of critics to a special commentary piece on the Chinese contemporary art scene.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Glug Skulls

On Friday night I had an exciting evening, doing live painting at the Brighton Glug event in The Basement on Kensington Street. Although in the past that I admit I’ve said that live painting doesn’t greatly appeal to me, in the spirit of healthy self-contradiction I decided this was reason enough to give it a bash. The project brief was challenging and interesting - painting on ceramic skulls that will later be glazed, fired and auctioned for charity.

My scheme for the skull was just a bit of fun really – imagining, strictly tongue-in-cheek, what sort of person might have inhabited the skull I was adorning. I thought maybe he was a young man called Rhodri (the name just popped into my head) – a bit of a white van man in training, a typical bloke – drinking and pulling – but not a nasty individual. Elements of frustration, suppressed emotion and disappointment remained hidden behind his blokey carapace.

We got the skulls earlier in the week, so I had the chance to plan my design and pencil it out beforehand. On the night I had my work cut out to execute all the detailed text and line work with a brush in some fairly challenging circumstances (loud music, lots of people coming up to chat and bumping into me). Painting on bisque was a new and pretty difficult experience – it’s very absorbent and sucks the moisture out of the brush almost on contact, plus it’s very rough and quickly causes the brush to splay out. All things considered, though, I’m really pleased with the results – I'll post more pictures after it's been glazed.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Carl Andre and Me

I’ve already described my meeting with Gilbert and George –but that wasn’t my first artistic encounter by any means. I spent a good chunk of my teen years, strange chap that I was, bothering various gallery owners and artists with what was, essentially, fan mail.

In 1991, aged 14, I sat down to compose a long and probably very pretentious letter to one of my absolute artistic heroes, Carl Andre. Carl is best known in this country for a story that made the front page of all the red tops in 1976. The Tate purchased a piece entitled ‘Equivalent VIII’, an arrangement of 120 firebricks. The sensational tabloid stories gave the impression that the purchase had been made from thousands of pounds of taxpayers money (it hadn’t), inspiring a wave of antagonism toward Carl, which made him in many people’s eyes a symbol of all that was cynical and money-grabbing in modern art.

Carl was another of the artists whose work I’d first encountered at Rosc ’84 – I really liked his contribution. ‘Dublin Line’ was an arrangement of peat blocks that, in the warmth of the gallery, expelled their distinctive fragrance. To a child, I guess the sense of smell is a very evocative thing. We burned peat on our open fires at home in Leixlip, and so the sculpture carried very place-specific associations with warmth and safety.

Even more memorable to me was the afterword Carl composed for the small children’s souvenir catalogue, which still sits on my studio bookshelf. As a child, I was fascinated by it, but disturbed by the sentiment.

“Art is what children have to stop doing in order to become grown-ups”, he wrote, “It is a good thing that most children stop making art because we need many grown-ups to grow food and weave clothes and drive buses.” It struck me as a cruel thing to say at the time - although as years passed I came to realize (especially after corresponding with Carl and learning more about his dry wit) that he was playing on what it means to be a ‘child’, whilst perhaps also being a trifle sarcastic about the notion that art and real life are mutually exclusive worlds.

He was clearly a Minimalist in many senses - a man of only a few words – words which, carefully chosen, ought never to be taken at face value. A few years later, I came across an even more drily ambiguous statement in a catalogue for Andy Warhol’s memorial retrospective. Amidst a swathe of fawning, long winded eulogies, Carl’s one line (non-)tribute sat uneasily on the page. “He was the perfect glass and mirror of our age, and certainly the artist we all deserved,” he wrote. Ouch.

My interest in Carl’s work truly began in earnest when Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on him. In marked contrast to Gilbert and George, Carl has a strict policy of suppressing his own image, in photos or films – so the explanations of his sculpture were given in considered, hesitant voiceover, thus lending the film an old school art-house feel. I videotaped it and watched it over and over.

I loved his clarity of thought, at the heart of which was a disarming resistance both to ‘dumbing down’ and also pretentious gallery speak. He was not, he emphasized, a conceptual artist, because his sculptures didn’t stand for ideas. They were objects to be appreciated for their own sake – it really was no more complicated than that.

The documentary helped to demystify art, for me. Modern art looked fascinating, cool and exciting, but I didn’t like the idea it was a closed shop or that you’d need a degree (or some huge backstory) to get it. I understood Carl’s work thoroughly – no bullshitting, I really did. I wanted to tell somebody. I wanted to let him know.

It seemed all the more important because, post-‘bricks’ scandal, he could be forgiven for thinking the man on the street thought he was a waste of space. I thought it would be a kindness to let him know he had a fan. I got myself down to Poole reference library, and in a huge volume entitled ‘Contemporary Art Directory’ I discovered a dealing address for him. Several garbled pages of breathless prose later, I had a letter to send him.

I nearly didn’t receive Carl’s reply, when it arrived a fortnight later. The postie fumbled the small postcard amid a mass of bills for my parents, and dropped it on the driveway. Luckily, it wasn’t a windy day – and my Dad discovered it when he came home from work.

I was delighted by the postcard – an artwork in itself. A handful of carefully chosen sentences were written in black pen, capital letters only, in sharply regimented lines. “Thank you for your kind and thoughtful letter” he said, before going on to say “Your grasp of what I am about is so sure, I almost want to ask you to understand me more slowly...”


In the fifteen years which followed I exchanged many letters with Carl, yet I can hold the entire archive of his 45 minimal replies in the palm of my hand. I haven’t heard from him since 2006 – but don’t consider this to be the end. Over the years there have been several pauses in our chat, often for years on end.

The correspondence has mainly consisted of Carl being a sounding board, listening to my troubles and responding like a far-flung Zen master with a series of occasionally impenetrable, often very witty aphorisms designed to encourage, challenge or inspire.

Once, for example, in response to a very lengthy letter detailing my ideas for some pictures, Carl responded that “Degas once said to Mallarme that he had some great ideas for poems, and asked Mallarme for his help in writing them. Mallarme refused, saying that poems are made of words, not ideas.”

In the early days I wanted to talk to him about his sculpture, and his responses ranged from his thoughts on truth to materials (“the vulgar mind strives always to appear superior to the material it contemplates. Hence, the vulgar mind must always strive to degrade the material it contemplates to the level of deficient comprehension.”) to thoughts on figurative art (“the oscillation between abstraction and representation is the cycle of paleolithic and neolithic”) to the, frankly, downright incomprehensible (“A collector from Australia recalled that I had once described sculpture as either point or field. Curious.”)

The postcards had plenty of dry wit, too. Dismissing one of my comments about a love for Picasso’s Rose Period, he responded that “before he met Braque, Picasso’s cubes were undescended.” The pun on Picasso’s balls dropping was great – and of course totally lost on the sixteen year old me.

Other times the humour came across in funny non-sequiturs, giving me flippant nuggets of advice. “Don’t bother going to the USA,” he counselled, “Brain death is everywhere!” On another occasion he closed a postcard with the instruction “Go to Amsterdam!”

A strange chapter in our correspondence took place when Carl experimented by ‘exchanging’ the correspondence of his two youngest fans. He began to pass my letters on to an American teen called Chuck McBride. Carl confided that he hoped we’d become friends and that he could thus “join two distant poles of my correspondence.” This chap had written to Carl as part of a high school art project. Intriguingly, Chuck later told me that writing to artists was part of their assessment each semester – and that, until his attempt, Carl had been notorious for never having replied to a student. Chuck was a big music fan, and commissioned Carl to name his band. (A quick search online has revealed that ‘Brainwave’ made no big impact on the music scene) Chuck and I didn’t correspond for long and the experiment petered out.

A slightly more embarrassing incident took place when, unexpectedly, two poles of my correspondence met. Carl wrote to me one day that Gilbert and George had entertained him for dinner in Fournier Street. They’d got chatting about fan mail, and realized they shared an admirer. Oh no! Carl was very gracious, telling me that G&G had been “impressed” with me, and that he’d at last been able to see what I looked like thanks to the photo in their archive.

Carl was clearly a kind, indulgent man – I sent him a painting as a gift and he responded - “I hope that you do not mind that I have forwarded your watercolor to a prisoner incarcerated for life with whom I share a correspondence of hope.” More impressively, when my brother was writing his dissertation on the poet Ezra Pound, Carl put him in touch via a personal recommendation with someone who had known Pound in the 50s.

This kindness is what strikes me when I leaf back through the archive. In fifteen years of strange ideas and silly hare-brained schemes, I always got the sense that anything I did with my life would be a delight to Carl. I tried to write a novel, he encouraged me in writing. I went to Japan to teach, he encouraged me in that. I became an illustrator, he encouraged me once again. That’s the definition of a good friend.


There is coda to the story because, in the year 2000 I did finally get to spend some time with Carl in New York. Like all the best things it was completely unplanned. I took a holiday from Japan on a shoestring to spend a fortnight with friends in LA, and another fortnight alone in NY (ignoring Carl’s earlier advice about avoiding the US). This was in pre-mobile phone days, I had no number for Carl, and even his address was an anonymous PO Box number. On the off chance, I wrote him a postcard to say I was staying at the Pioneer hotel on the Bowery – did he fancy saying hello?

The next day I came back from my travels to discover a new Carl Andre missive pushed under my bedroom door. Very exciting... It had a number and a time to phone him. Delighted but terrified, I called him up and we agreed to meet at his apartment for coffee the following day.

His apartment was located in an extremely swanky central Manhattan block, with a concierge at the door. I was directed up to the thirty-third floor and rang his bell. I didn’t know what to expect, never having even seen a photo of the man.

The door opened, and a white haired bearded chap in overalls peered out. “Peter?” he said. “Can I meet you out on the street in an hour, perhaps? I’m busy.” The door slammed shut in my face. It was an inauspicious start, certainly.

An hour later we tried again. This time he warmly greeted me on the street, and suggested we walk and talk. After so long of wondering what it would be like to meet Carl, the pressure on this conversation was incredible. I don’t mean that I wanted to say something that would make me sound cool. I just felt incredibly grateful to this man, who’d brought a little hope and excitement into a teenager’s life – now I dearly wanted him to like me.

Carl walked at a tremendous pace and made little eye contact. We evidently didn’t have an intended destination – this was a frogmarch around Manhattan. I struggled to keep up, while he asked me many, many questions about my life – highly reluctant to chat about his own.

Every so often he stopped to point out a public lavatory – appraising the relative merits of each one. (I think his favourite was located inside the American Indian Museum.) I suggested a trip to the top of the World Trade Center, but Carl politely declined and announced he was taking his leave.

“Would you like to meet me later for dinner though?” he asked.

Looking back, I think that first meeting was a bit of a test to make sure I wasn’t a nutter. He wanted to check I was on the level before introducing me to his friends...

Later that evening we met again, at a very swanky restaurant in Little Italy. He introduced his girlfriend Melissa – a younger, tall, blonde bombshell. She was gentle and extremely friendly, if a little shy.

Our other dinner guest was introduced as Carl’s friend Rosemarie. She was, I would guess, much the same age as Carl – and possessed a magnificent blend of confidence and powerful beauty. I fell in love with her a bit.

At one point during dinner, she and Carl began to bicker over something (probably sculpture). As the debate grew more heated, I felt a rising sense of embarrassment. I shared a shy smile with Melissa and she cast her eyes toward the heavens. Rosemarie broke off from the argument and turned to me with a smile.

“Don’t worry... We were married once. We did the sensible thing and divorced.” Wow. The realization hit me – I was sitting here with Carl’s girlfriend, and his ex-wife.

I had a great evening (and probably too much red wine). After dinner Carl and Melissa headed off, and Rosemarie, also a sculptor, offered to show me her studio. We arrived at a 19th century ex tenement building with faded grandeur and climbed into an ancient lift that didn’t have a door. We entered her lovely, artistically dishevelled loft apartment cum studio – and I feasted my eyes on a forest of beautiful metal sculptures, shining welded abstract arabesques. There was heavy duty metal cutting and welding equipment everywhere. This was one hell of a sixty something lady. We sat and talked, and she gifted me a drawing. I was amazed by the day I’d had.

Carl and I kept in touch for the remainder of my stay. He confessed at dinner that he’d been “absolutely horrified” by the state of my hotel, and called it “the last flophouse in NY.” (More on this later...) He was also disturbed to learn I was in New York all by myself, and insisted that I check in with him on the telephone, at least once a day. “If something happened to you, how could I face telling your parents that I’d let you roam the streets with no-one keeping an eye out for you?” Some days, he would use this daily phone chat to make another dinner date – we met another three times for amazing food. One evening, I recall, we went to a restaurant that was so exclusive that we were served, for one particular course - I kid you not - a grape. One single, very expensive grape. Carl entertained us with many long descriptive anecdotes – the most memorable being a humorous, probably very apocryphal account of how Andy Warhol first started screenprinting soup cans.

My last meeting with Carl took place under some rather un-nerving circumstances. I’d been living the high life with him, but my hotel (the cheapest in Lonely Planet) was rather a slum - the sort of place where, as you flicked on the lights, you glimpsed dozens of cockroaches running for shelter. One evening I distinctly remember lying on my bed, looking up at a mass of hairline cracks covering the ceiling. “Imagine if the ceiling caved in!” I thought, “but that would be ridiculous and impossible, right?...”

On my final day I came back in the early evening to discover my room door wedged shut. I pushed harder, and realized I was pushing against a huge pile of fallen plaster chunks. Too shocked to believe my eyes, I stepped into a dust filled chamber. My belongings were coated several inches thick in silt. The ceiling had come in. My drawing from Rosemarie was ruined.

In a panic, I dashed down to reception – breathless with horror, scarcely able to make myself understood. I expected them to be as shocked as me, and incredibly apologetic. A gum-chewing New Yorker shrugged behind a perspex screen.

“Whadya want me to do about it?” she said when I explained the collapse.

“You could start by coming and looking!” I ventured.

“No!” she blurted, “It’s only me here and I’m on reception.”

Reluctantly, she offered me an alternative room, making it clear that this would be her one and only concession (I’d paid the full balance upfront). I decided to take this offer, as it was my last night and already getting dark. She handed me, with no trace of irony, the key to room 101.

I needed to share the experience with someone. Moments later I was at the payphone, breathlessly attempting to explain what had happened to Carl.

“Let me get this clear” he said incredulously, “you came back and your ceiling had collapsed?”

“Yes” I said.

“You’d better come round straight away!”

This final short meeting with Carl turned out to be the only time I was admitted into his apartment. Melissa met me at the door with a concerned expression. Carl handed me a glass of champagne.

“You look like you need this” he smiled. I sat down and we shared a hearty laugh about the whole thing.

Carl’s apartment was decorated (unsurprisingly) in minimal style, with immaculate white furniture. A vast window looked out over New York, an utterly breathtaking vista.

“Wow, it’s so high up” I said, “you wouldn’t want to lean out the window, imagine if you fell!”

It was supposed to be a funny remark, but Carl looked distinctly unamused. Melissa also glowered back. I subsequently discovered that Carl’s second wife Ana Mendiata had died after doing precisely that – falling from the window of a New York skyscraper. I can’t be sure, but I think I made this tactless remark at the very same window from which she fell. (Carl, I also discovered much later, was tried and acquitted for her murder… but that’s another story).

Back in the room itself, I popped across the floor to set down my drink on a coaster – only to experience further embarrassment when I realized I’d inadvertently utilized what I now assume to have been a sculpture test piece. I blushed but the mistake was already made – here I was, resting my champagne glass on a section of a Carl Andre floor piece.

Carl was incensed enough about my hotel experience to insist I made some sort of complaint to the civic authorities. He and Melissa made a short list of helplines for me to phone. Not being a happy user of the telephone made this rather an embarrassing experience; sitting in front of a hero of mine, trying to explain my shit-hotel predicament to the NY Asbestos Helpline. It was late on a Friday, and most places were unmanned or uninterested. After half an hour we reached the last resort on Carl’s list – the New York Fire Department. I was unsure, but Carl had already dialled the number and thrust the receiver into my hand.

“You need to notify them of serious structural collapse at a building in Manhattan!” he insisted, “other people’s safety could depend on it!”

I falteringly told an angry sounding New York fire official about my hotel. He seemed distinctly unimpressed that I had wasted his time, but Carl was adamant.

“When we drop you off at the hotel, they’ll have shut the place down. They must have done. The fire department won’t stand for that.” I didn’t, to be frank, want any of this hassle - it made me nervous. If my hotel been closed down, what would happen to my stuff? And also, since the hotel owners knew I was the only one who’d witnessed the collapse - wouldn’t I be in trouble with them when I got back to the hotel?

A couple of hours later Carl accompanied me to reception – the hotel still looked very much open. Two angry looking men were waiting behind the perspex screen. I was nervous, so Carl marched forward.

“Room 101” he said. The receptionist gestured towards me.

“Are you the asshole who called the fire brigade on us?” He looked very pissed off indeed. My heart sank.

Carl bared his teeth.

“No he isn’t. But let me just say this. We’ve got photographic evidence of what happened to the room and you can just be thankful he wasn’t in there at the time. So you’d better be nice, a lot nicer. The room key, NOW”, he demanded. They looked genuinely nervous and hurriedly acquiesced without further comment.

This hearty, rather heroic defence was my last memory of Carl. I can’t even remember saying goodbye...

Friday, 1 October 2010

Portsmouth Sinfonia

Here’s a little Friday something which, if you haven’t seen it, is pretty much guaranteed to make you smile. This recording from the 1970s forms part of a project by artist Gavin Bryars – entitled the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The ‘orchestra’ was formed by a group of Portsmouth College of Art students, who couldn’t play their respective musical instruments (and features Brian Eno, and a young Michael Nyman). By choosing popular classics that all the players knew, the result was a hesitant, vague, group approximation of the original tune. This one, a version of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss is the funniest...