Malcolm Morley by Richard Francis

BOMB 55 Spring 1996
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Malcolm Morley, Sailor from Guardian, 26½ × 8 inches (cut out), pastel on paper. Photo courtesy of Michael Klein.

Malcolm Morley has been here in America since leaving the Royal College of Art 40 years ago for “a girl on the 37 bus” and for those heroes of Abstract Expressionism he had seen at the Tate in the same year. He came to America to be an American Artist and has succeeded in becoming one of the most significant painters since World War II. His subjects, the size of the paintings, the sheer ambition, all seem to proclaim his American-ness. Yet the way he looks (inspects, examines—the word needs to be very active) is European with its roots in Cézanne, and in an English tradition that leads from W. R. Sickert to Lucien Freud. For Morley is also English (enough of an English painter to be awarded the first Turner Prize in 1984), whose peers at the College were David Hockney and Peter Blake, and whose training instilled tradition and working from the model. He was taught technique, observation, and the careful transfer of the subject by using a grid and constant measuring (it was dubbed “dot and carry,” a disparaging combination of precise handwriting and knitting). English art from the Euston Road School (upper-middle-class intellectuals roughing it in a not very good part of town) took some pride in not being ambitious with its subjects, relying on understatement and subtlety to quietly succeed in the noisy post-war period: it has been largely overlooked in the USA. Its main disadvantage is that its snobbishness presumes that ambition needs never to be stated, and, on many occasions, for certain people, should not even be presumed. It is clear in our conversation that the scars of class have persisted, and that we both show the confines, and in some strange way, the pleasures of our working-class childhood and the good and bad fortunes of self-imposed exile. The clues are there, in the names of places and people and in the way that we position ourselves; we like being “ornery” because we can do it without being “bolshy,” “uppity,” or “not knowing our places.”

Richard Francis I remember coming to your studio and seeing some sculptures of a soldier and a tank that were made out of paper and looked to be taken from toy models.

Malcolm Morley They were made from drawings of little metal figures, the Eighth Army soldiers that you get and paint yourself. And then there were these tanks—the intention was to make a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional object so that you get all these very odd proportions. I saw that I could really manipulate this paper tremendously. It had a flexibility, it was strong, and yet it would bend into waves, and finally there would be a point when you couldn’t move it anymore, when all the possible strains that you could get in it were in it, which is when I’d glued it together. And then that would get covered with wax encaustic. Subsequently they were cast in bronze. The pedestal became a tremendous issue. I stretched paper over cinder blocks, banged the paper down when it was wet … these became terrific facsimiles of cinder blocks.

RF And since then you’ve worked exclusively with—

MM Paper. In some cases, paper covered with watercolor paper, watercolors, and wax encaustic on top. And a lot were with watercolor only. And very recently, we’ve made a model in canvas. It’s the hot-air balloon, The Montgolfiere, and it’s oil-painted, a very, very different thing. There is a continuity to a painted flat surface. There’s the whole question of whether you paint it before or after—for example, brush strokes are very different when painted on a flat surface which is then put together, from when you put the model together unpainted, and then paint it. You tend to keep going with the form, it reinforces that aspect. All these models can relate to the idea of a flat plane behind them because they’re in relation to the surface of the canvas. There are things that could exist in deep space, and also things that you could put directly on the wall, like an airplane. You could create an illusion, for example, of the airplane flying in space. The space behind it could be painted in such a fashion as to create that illusion.

RF So it becomes a trophy.

MM In a way, but I think much more of the Magritte painting of the drawers, the blinds, and the tiles, where everything is made of the same material. Only mine are literally 3-D.

RF Yours are all made of the same substance with which you’re making the picture, paper or canvas. It has a romance about it, flying planes, balloons and ships. Racing to the New Worldhas an airplane from the Royal Air Force …

MM World War I, a Sopwith Camel.

RF Christopher Columbus’s boat drifting toward the New World, and a hot air balloon.

MM In Racing to the New World the balloon has varied stripes that narrow; I can widen and narrow the bands at will, and do different color combinations on them as well. It’s a great way to do everything I’ve always wanted to—which is to be a pure abstract painter. I’m not allowed to do that.

RF Or you don’t allow yourself to do that.

MM I can’t commit myself to pure abstract painting. On the other hand, there’s really nothing else but pure abstract painting.

RF Racing to the New World is pretty close to abstract painting when you look at it. And yet it’s very much about the boat and its models and how you play with watercolors.

MM It’s materiality, and the physical sensation of seeing, looking.

RF There seems to be a way in which you want to look at things, the physical act of seeing, which is very important to the way that you set up the pictures.

MM Yes. One is to have autonomy in setting up the imagery, complete autonomy.

RF In the studio?

MM In the studio, or somewhere else, but in a way in which you have total command. You only have to move your head a little to the right, a little to the left, to have a new motif—I was thinking that one could, for example, on the three-dimensional Margate, walk around it 360 degrees, and get a different picture each day. You could do an entire sphere of viewing. Because the particular aspects of looking and seeing, and seeing in relation to doing an activity like making marks, is very specific. It can’t be too far away and it can’t be too close.

RF Margate was made as a work in itself?

MM It wasn’t intended to be. The sailing vessel in Margate has been around as a model for two years … I couldn’t find a way to use it, couldn’t find a direct idea of painting it. It took quite a while to find that configuration in juxtaposition to these other models.

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Malcolm Morley, Margate, 1995, 24½ × 34 × 23¾ inches, watercolor on paper models (assemblage). All photos courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

RF How did this idea of using airplane and ship models in your paintings arrive?

MM I’m very involved with the idea of the vividness of childhood, of being in touch with an incredible vividness of experience as a young boy. To become an adult, culture teaches you to bury and repress all that. But if you can find access to it as a mature adult, it’s a tremendous source of material. It entails having a story. I was at a naval college when I was 12 or 13, in Burstow—Crawley. We wore uniforms and saluted, had a poop deck, the whole shebang. One holiday, one of the older boys invited me to his house at Christmas. I took over my latest plane model, a three-winger. And I thought it was a terrific thing. It shined, it was beautiful, made of balsa wood, painted. And when I went over there, he was getting into a tuxedo to go to the local dance in Richmond, with his beautiful girlfriend. They were very la-di-da. And I was suddenly this little boy, with this little airplane. And I felt very foolish. Very, very foolish. I made subsequent models with a great vengeance … In any case, a lot of the model-making came from this recovery of emotions.

RF But wasn’t there also the experience with HMS Nelson?

MM Oh, that’s a very good one. Going home every day from school, all I ever thought about was making this very realistic, detailed model of a battleship, the HMS Nelson, in balsa wood. I worked on it for about six months.

RF This was London during the war?

MM A place called Witten, near Middlesex and Twickenham. I had finished it, and that night, I was going to paint it. Around that time, my stepfather had caught me masturbating and scared the shit out of me. He was a tough Welsh coal miner type, and came bursting into the room and said, “I’ll kill you if you ever do that again.” That was the same night that this bomb fell, a Doodlebug.

RF Divine retribution.

MM Oh boy. About three in the morning, a pilotless bomb, which was called a Doodlebug V-1, landed in a house up the street. The entire facade of our house disappeared. I wasn’t hurt, I was covered, the whole room was completely covered with debris. The first thing I looked for, of course, was HMS Nelson, which had completely and totally evaporated. There was not the least sign of it at all—nothing. None of us in our family, my grandmother, mother, and stepfather got hurt except our dog, Sally, who got blown up the chimney. We had to have her put to sleep because she’d gone crazy, running around in circles. Then we became refugees. A family took us in…we were bombed-out people. This whole experience, I must have buried, for quite a long time, because it wasn’t until psychoanalysis in New York …

RF That you remembered—

MM Yes. I’d come to New York with the whole idea of the quest for the Holy Grail. To make art, you had to make things that looked like art, so the references were things you’d already experienced as art.

RF You’d been trained as a classical English Realist painter.

MM Yes, well, somewhat Expressionist. It was a bit kitchen-sinkish, my work. A bit of a Bratby, and Jack Smith, Edward Middleditch, people who I always thought were terrific painters.

RF A little bit of Sickert, for me.

MM And a little bit of Sickert, very much so. But later on … there was always this very strong tradition of structure, structure, structure. When I went to the Royal College, my tutor there was Carel Weight, who didn’t like me at all, ‘cause I was this ex-Borstal boy. I hadn’t gotten in in the right way, I was on probation.

RF What had you done Malcolm? Were you a thief?

MM Well, I wasn’t a very good thief—housebreaking and stuff like that. Although I did want to be a big-time guy. It was very much about wanting to be somebody.

RF And you were rescued by Robin Darwin, if I remember rightly.

MM Yes, you’re quite right. He was a friend of a guy called Julian Salmon, who owned Lyon’s Cornerhouse.

RF This was a chain of tea-rooms, restaurants …

MM And hotels. Strand Palace. Julian was a very philanthropic Jewish Englishman. And when I got into the college I was told that I got a scholarship from the London County Council. But what had happened was, Julian Salmon had financed it himself without telling me. I was at the college at the same time as Richard Smith, Peter Blake, Robyn Denny, and then Frank Auerbach. And to me, they were all tremendously mature artists.

RF Were they much older?

MM No, not really, in some cases, younger. But you know, the early paintings come straight from this environment.

RF You escaped to America pretty quickly.

MM Met an American girl on a 37 Bus.

RF Got the next boat out?

MM Not quite, but almost. Before I even got my degree at the Royal College, I’d been here. I did go back to finish off my degree.

RF And then you came back again and you’ve been here ever since. Which was what—‘57, ’58?

MM ‘57. You know, one of the basic rules of the Royal College is that it’s indecent actually, to teach anything. The whole point was to go to the pub and get drunk. That was the hip thing, go to the Mandrake Club, and somehow you could actually extract—there was no concept of an English artist giving you a problem to solve and making any demands whatsoever.

RF It was osmosis.

MM Osmosis. All the way through.

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Malcolm Morley, Racing to the New World, 1995, 56 × 72 inches, oil on linen, flag.

RF So when you got here, you suddenly found you had to make art … that was artistic?

MM There were crosscurrents going on. I had seen, before the end of my college days, a huge retrospective of Abstract Expressionist paintings at the Tate. It was a historic show. One guy went back to the college and threw his easel out the window, got a bicycle—Green, his name was, he’s still around. And he had his canvas on the ground and he got on his bicycle way over there, and would go for a tremendous skid. This incredible, beautiful, skid on the canvas. I knew that that wasn’t what Abstract Expressionism was. But it did stop me from continuing to do easel painting. I couldn’t come to do anything after seeing the show. It made me feel …

RF That you couldn’t be an Abstract Expressionist.

MM No, because it had to be experienced. It felt to me to be a uniquely American, specifically New York experience. Peculiarly immigrant-American, something people don’t bring up very much: Rothko and De Kooning, and the only guy who wasn’t was Pollock, more or less, but anyway, that’s another story. I had come to a dead end. I couldn’t get a beeline into my experience, it was like being an outsider.

RF One of the many pleasures of being here, Malcolm. Still?

MM I suppose so. A lot of Americans feel that too, so it’s one of the states of this place. Still, I felt far more receptivity to me as a human being in America. And little by little, I started doing my idea of abstract paintings. One of them is up at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. They’re all white-on-white. Pretty terrific actually. Like a cross between Cy Twombly and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

RF With no subject?

MM No subject, in that sense. They were painted, very often, with house paint. Mixtures of chalk and all kinds of stuff. I had my first show of abstract paintings at Jill Kornblee’s Gallery. I got a wonderful review, “auspicious occasion,” this, that, and the other. But even before the show had ended, I’d started painting super-realist paintings. I ran across the first cardinal rule, you can’t do those changes. They seemed to be a natural outgrowth of the abstract paintings, which had a very super-structured sort of look, like tiers of stripes. I would call them nautical names — Plimsoll Line — that’s a measurement on the side of the hull.

RF Relating back to the model …

MM Right … But I was completely discredited.

RF Discredited with the super-realist pictures—

MM It’s a very pretentious word, super-realist. But it was a reaction to a critic, who in a very nasty way, named it “Photo-Realism.” That was a heavy class-action action on her part, I knew it. Meaning: The lower classes really don’t know what art is, but if it looks like a photograph they think that’s terrific. And then I started to realize how goddamn fucking wrong the intellectual art world really was. Within a year, of course, there were about 40 guys doing super-realism.

RF But your subjects were still boats, weren’t they?

MM Yes, they were boats, ships, and ocean liners. Everything seemed to have been commandeered, in terms of objects in the world. I went down to Pier 57, took a canvas and tried to make a painting outside. But it was impossible to comprehend in one glance, one end is over there, the other end is over there, a 360-degree impossibility. I was in disgust—I took a postcard of this cruise ship, called the Queen of Bermuda. And then all that stuff I’d learned, with Victor Pasmore, Sickert, the grid, the search for serious modern art, was useless.

RF So you didn’t grid this postcard?

MM Oh yes, I did, but I’m getting to that.

RF It was useless because the subjects were not …

MM No, we’ll come back to the subject—because what happened was, I met Barnett Newman in a very significant way. You know the story?

RF No, I don’t know that story.

MM Oh it’s very, very big. I was working in a restaurant called Longshots, where everybody went after openings. And one day a man came in with another guy, and it was double vodka, double vodka, double vodka. He was wearing a little black suit with a monocle and a silver cane, very archaic-looking figure. And he said, “You’re English, what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m a painter.” He said, “Ah, I’m a painter. They gave me a great time at the Tate Gallery in London.” So, I said, “What is your name, then?” And he said, “Barnett Newman.” I was still holding his tray, and I said, “You’re one of the reasons I came to America, you and a girl.” He loved that. In fact, he got up from the table, he put his arms around me and said, “Welcome to New York.” It was incredible. The head waiter almost fired me for dancing with a customer. And Barnett Newman gave me his phone number. I was down at Henry Street. When he came to the studio the first thing he said was, “Oh, I like your sense of light.” And I thought to myself, What the fuck is he talking about, light? This is macho, serious abstract expressionist painting. What’s this light business? Well, he was referring to the idea of an artist having an inner light, not actually depicting light on an object. “Your sense of light,” as if you could have an image of a coal-miner with his own lamp. And it really got to me, that way of thinking. So he sat down and told me a story, “All the guys in New York now, they’re like matadors, they’re all into sticking the sword into the bull, killing the bull.” He drew himself up, points to himself with his little finger and said, “Whereas I, am much more interested in the myth of Excalibur, of removing the sword from the stone.” When I did the first super-realist paintings, I felt I had betrayed Barney Newman. I was very ashamed and very embarrassed.

RF Because you’d shown him the “light pictures”—

MM Yes, and now I was painting realist paintings, and that somehow I’d betrayed him…but he loved them. He thought they were really original. I learned a lot from him. Attitude. Stance. I’d got to a halfway point where I was still dangling in the big white painting, but secretly loving these little gems that looked like all the paintings that were despised. A collector, said, “I’m going to visit another artist, would you like to come and meet him?” So I went over, and met Richard Artschwager. He painted on grids, you know. That was the first time I had seen a New York avant-garde artist who had a relationship to the grid. That pushed me way back home, I thought, “This is the way to go.” This whole grid business was the idea of developing work by analog, which happens to be the way everything is.

RF It’s as if you take a little bit at a time and turn it into a complete picture, for the period of time that you’re making it.

MM That’s it, you’ve hit it right on the nail. So there’s no narrative time-thing in it because everything is in the now.

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Malcolm Morley, The Age of Catastrophe, 1976, 60 × 96 inches, oil on canvas.

RF You’re making these exquisite little gems, side by side, all over the canvas. You started that with the boats, and then went on to South Africa …

MM Well, that was the last, the South Africa picture.

RF Did that really have the political content in it that has been talked about afterwards?

MM In a fashion. I was painting from a poster of a race track in South Africa. To me, it was the perfect thing to make a painting out of, where there were a lot of bunched-up things together, which then, would make for a very rich brew. That weekend I went to see a political film, Z, by Costas-Gavras. Anyway, I came out of that so pissed. I wanted to kick a cop in the balls. Outraged. I went back to my studio and looked at this incredible, beautiful painting that I had finished, South Africa, and I thought, I’m gonna put an X on it. I must say to Lawrence Alloway’s discredit, that he claimed this discovery as his own: Malcolm’s X on a racetrack in South Africa.

RF He was the key figure, the connection between England and America.

MM And not only that, he’s was the first to put my work in a museum, at the Guggenheim, in an exhibition called The Photographic Image. It was everybody using the photograph: Warhol, Richard Artschwager, Rauschenberg, etc., put in a bigger context. Anyway, after Alloway’s article. I got very distrustful. I felt these were real gems, metaphysically, if you like. But that approach to art was very much pooh-poohed. After that, I started roughing it up. I started smoking a lot of pot. And then, I would look at these grids, at these little bits of paintings under a microscope, and they’d get very hallucinogenic. So I started increasing the brush-stroke sizes, little by little. Coming out of that closet.

RF Were you into analysis, Malcolm, or not?

MM Oh, I’ve never been out of it. I was very angry, and I was angry at the very cavalier way that this Photo-Realist thing—it seemed to attract the worst type of minds. People I admired as artists were not Photo-Realists. But then it was funny, because critics would say, “Ah, that Morley, he’s pretty clumsy. He’s not so realistic as you think.” You know, these guys who airbrush … that’s what I call Realism. So, I guess I was looking to dump it. These realist painters would get very worried, “Why did you do that?” And my response, “Well, to get you off my back.” I started to find different ways of putting material and objects directly onto the canvas. Another aspect of working on the grid, is the relationship of time per cell. The very action of time creates a kind of … I was painting very fast, the idea of how fast you need to paint to fly. And if you get less than that, you stall. I was testing always, what could this grid do—where, how far could it go. So as long as I was always true to that—even if I wasn’t true to it in a sense, if I was willing to be accountable—it was fair enough, because I’d made an agreement. It was always a correspondence. Age of Catastrophe, for example, where I’m actually moving on the grid, physically. I’ve got a three-dimensional grid, because this is now the beginning of an actual model, it’s a tin plane. It was always just things that turned up.

RF But you used model boats and model planes.

MM Yes, it was always things that had a boyish-like interest.

RF We’ve talked about the first World War…

MM Very big in my family; my grandmother’s husband was killed in World War I, on a destroyer. He was a stoker on the HMS Brooke. The first destroyer that rammed a U-Boat in the North Atlantic, a famous ship. So, my whole childhood I heard about my granddaddy who “went under.” My grandmother was a war widow all her life. The effect of wars, one way or another, is tremendous in families. And if you’re an artist, how could you avoid not facing that stuff? Whether you face it or not, it’s there.

RF So in a sense, that was the beginning of those [sets of interests] being put together.

MM It was coming back to this great knack I always had, for making things look very real. I had always painted still lifes, even when I was in jail. For example, the Out Dark Spot painting is a composite of one Indian model figure.

RF There’s this constant attention to surface and to the reproduction of parts. When you make oil paintings from water colors, you often try to reproduce that effect.

MM Well, I don’t think about it as “reproduce,” that gives me the willies for some reason. I’d rather think of it as an invention.

RF I understand what you’re saying—it’s a re-creation isn’t it, in another medium, of this particular effect.

MM Yes, yes. So here’s the back and front of an Indian. And in the middle is a swastika, with a knife stuck through it. And behind that, there’s a little detail of a tank, and a street lamp. This was actually a three-dimensional model I had, of a tank being attacked. This picture got painted in bits and pieces, and it got painted in order to find out what the image was, rather than knowing what the image was to start with and then painting it.

RF Were you always painting watercolors?

MM I really started painting watercolors when I was in jail, and I got very adept at it. And then the first time I went to art school, oil paint was introduced. Art was introduced. So, watercolors were shunted to the side. After all, that was just something I did, I couldn’t make that into art. Much later on, I broke away from the photo-realist connection. Once I’d worked that out, I saw the possibilities of, “By jove! I’m a very good watercolor painter. Why don’t I make my oil paintings from my own images? I don’t need anybody else’s images now.”

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Malcolm Morley, Perilous Voyage, 1993, 52 × 38 inches, oil on canvas.

RF This may sound crass—but you’re also able now, to travel and to make things where you want to. So in a sense, you’ve become a topographical painter of the exotic.

MM Very much so.

RF But this is also leading you back to England again. Or is it?

MM Well, it’s leading me back to a tremendous rich vein, that I had not…“mined,” if you like.

RF A personal vein.

MM Not only that, but the great English tradition.

RF Turner, Cozens, Cotman, de Wint …

MM An area of resource that I hadn’t had access to in my crazy search for the Holy Grail of modern art.

RF It seems to me that there are some qualities in the watercolors that are closer to Marin than to Turner. And it’s partly to do with the size of the brushstroke.

MM It also has to do with the spontaneity of the mark. That each mark in itself can be of value. The texture is the element of it, the touch business. Then I started picking up all the bits and pieces of the trails and trickles and attributes of watercolor painting. But when I started painting on a grid, with the oil paint, from my original watercolors, then I could go to town on that as well. So I’m not only painting the image of that watercolor and I’m also painting the surface of the watercolor combining the two into a third image.

RF A lot of the watercolors have marine subjects.

MM It’s always been second nature.

RF I’m interested in something … from your grandfather and the sea, to you and the Naval College and the sea.

MM It’s been the theme … and sexual. I was in denial of it when I was in this “New York idea of art” thing. I couldn’t get in touch with it, ‘cause it wouldn’t fit into that.

RF So that’s part of that recovery, of both subject and of technique.

MM But also remember the very strong Abstract Expressionist experience I’d gone through. Now it was fun for me to put on these splashes of watercolor. I now had this resource—many different ways of putting material on the surface. You know, you move away from the idea of a brush. At one point, I would hold the brush still and let the paper bounce on the brush according to the wind. I got into a lot of different ways of…

RF Of making a mark.

MM Once, with a friend, I painted from his description. He was above me in a trench looking through binoculars and we were playing World War I. I’m on a grid and he’d say, “A little lemon yellow to the right-hand side of the left-hand corner.” And I would just do that, without knowing … And it was beautiful, it was this incredible, rocky landscape. But it was something very original. It was something I’d always wanted—to paint something without seeing it. So all of those tests, every possible way to make a picture …

RF I’m interested in the recovery of the marine subject, in the recovery of the model. Both have become the most dominant characteristics of the newer work. There’s a psychological freedom, the ability to have moved beyond the confines, personally. It’s the whole metaphor of the ocean as the ocean of life.

MM And also, losing your identity.

RF With the sea?

MM Yeah, getting lost.

RF How do you get lost?

MM Being so engaged that you’re not self-conscious. The way, in which say, you go to a very interesting movie and you forget yourself, get totally lost in it until the movie ends. That’s the experience I want to live my life in. Most people do their damnedest to not get lost. (pause)

RF And yet at the same time, with something like Racing to the New World there’s a very considered political placement of the three elements that compose Racing to the New World. Somehow, you’re able to incorporate that into a picture as well. There’s a distinction in the subject matter between what you might call almost the “straight pictures.”

MM Yes, good point.

RF The pictures that come from your postcards of places are transcriptions, reconstructions, re-makings of something in a different way. And then there are pictures which are fantasy pictures.

MM If you like to call them that, yes. This is one, certainly. I feel Racing to the New World is a very important painting. It may not look as glamorous, but this is a very original picture. And yet, it denies nothing from the past. There are little apertures where a map fits, and I identified with myself being the observer, in safety in the balloon. Watching …

RF In a sense, it’s what you did … in order to escape what is there.

MM Yes. The artist I really keep coming back to is De Chirico, not all of De Chirico but there is a personal thing in those pictures that I wanted to find the equivalent of in myself.

RF His metaphysical landscapes early on, where you get combinations of statues, and squares, and trains?

MM Yes. The first thing I painted in Racing was Christopher Columbus’s boat only, on a canvas grid. Nothing else. I had no idea what was going to go on next.

RF I’m thinking of the Margate now, and why you would call it Margate.

MM It felt like a way of completely bypassing everything else, in terms of iconography. It was a way of making it personal. Nobody in New York, or anywhere else, has gone to Margate. What the hell is Margate? But I do remember, when I was a kid, they would have fireworks at night and guys in old-fashioned swimming suits would walk a greasy pole. They were on the pier going out over the ocean, on the pole, they’d have these lights on, it was very British.

RF Where was this?

MM It might have been Margate, I’m not sure.

RF That’s what I was wondering.

MM My grandmother would take me to these places. Brighton, Margate, Bournemonth. It was the spirit of that memory that led me to the Margate naming…to capture that. It was also frightening to me as a boy, because it looked pretty violent—going out on the pole at night, the sea couldn’t have been that warm, it never is. Guys with big mustaches, it was very 19th century looking. A very British part of the seaside, you know, naughty but nice. Nautical, but nice. Dreary. The whole flavor of it was not far from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. The painting’s a synthesis of everything.

RF Yes, it’s a personal version of England in the ’50s.

MM But at the same time, that does not satisfy me, in and of itself, I’m still after that Holy Grail.

RF It’s as if you were John Osborne writing like James Joyce, if you know what I mean.

MM But that’s the most satisfaction. The more you can get in touch with your inner resources, the more you can make that happen, that complication.

RF Yes. Without losing your nerve.

Richard Francis is an English art historian who worked for twelve years at the Tate Gallery in London and Liverpool where he made an exhibition of Malcolm Morley watercolors (1991). He is currently Chief Curator and James W. Alsdorf Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago where he is curating Negotiating Rapture, a major exhibition for the Museum’s new building which opens in July.

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Richard Serra by David Seidner
​Richard Serra 06

Photographer David Seidner talks to the master of sculpture, Richard Serra, whose work continues to be honored and comprehensively exhibited throughout the decades.

Tarik Kiswanson by Asiya Wadud
Young children in a performance holding hands, covering each other's eyes, and staring forward.

The artist and poet discusses his childhood as a first-generation Palestinian immigrant, the formation of selfhood in preadolescence, and the psychology of drifting.

Originally published in

BOMB 55, Spring 1996

Featuring interviews with Frances McDormand, A.M. Homes, Padgett Powell, Tina Girouard, William Pope. L, Butch Morris, Malcolm Morley, Jafar Panahi, and John Elderfield.

Read the issue
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996