Evelyn Williams, and another case of the public denied

In the last issue I considered the case of a single-minded good artist,  David Mulholland from Middlesbrough, whose memory, in the absence of any official recognition or support, has to be kindled for posterity’s sake by friends and family. By The Jackdaw’s usual standard of eliciting no comment whatsoever, this caused a considerable mailbag from many mentioning other artists who deserved better than the obscurity and indifference they receive. Owing to the recent death of a special artist, there is cause for reiterating this line of criticism of an art establishment hopelessly out of touch with anything but ‘The Contemporary’, such as they choose to see it.

Grief felt at the death of a memorable artist is mitigated always by the fact that their work – if it is properly accomplished and not merely the species that is famous for fifteen minutes – will live forever. Giotto didn’t need an ‘artist’s statement’ or incomprehensible catalogue introductions for his work to last, because his paintings speak for themselves in a universal language understood across the centuries. His work will continue to communicate clearly its observations of character and stories just as long as human beings are prepared to see,  feel and respond. This is the case also with the art of Evelyn Williams who died aged 83 on November 14th. Her work will endure in spite of the neglect she received from officialdom during a long and productive career. In the same Tate Collection which stores 274 works by Andy Warhol no space can be found for a single piece by Evelyn Williams, who is a far more interesting artist if not so much of a business-minded celebrity phenomenon whose market is carefully rigged. Even in the last two years alone, when 516 works were acquired by the Tate, there was no room for a single one by this important woman artist. There are even ten works in our national collection by American minimalist Robert Ryman, all of them white and doubtless extremely challenging to those of a devoutly all-whiteist fanaticism; but nothing by Evelyn Williams. Here is further evidence that at the nucleus of State Art breeds a deeply entrenched prejudice against anything but pseudo-intellectual nonsense.

It is an appalling truth that the Tate has ceased to be a collection of British art preserving the very best of what is being done. Instead, it has been stealthily subverted under Serota to become a private collecting fief promoting a narrow orthodoxy related to a handful of dealers and auctioneers. Why is it that so much about today’s Tate stinks? Evelyn Williams is in a long line of single-minded British artists who refuse to run along the pre-ordained tramlines of conceptualism and modernism. She was a thoughtful, modest, intelligent and vulnerable person alive in a world – as she perceived and experienced it – of imminent dangers. Her paintings, sculptures and reliefs are about the fear and anxiety, the affections and frictions, of what it is to have lived the life of an anxious woman and mother. Hers is first and last a woman’s art, an uncompromising take on post-war relationships, intimacy, cares, depression, failure and even alienation. Her subjects take you inside the realm of senses and feelings, probing the unspoken secrecies behind the masks of propriety we all wear. In the way that art has of redeeming the awful, these are beautiful explorations of states of mind most try to avoid. Her work can be relentlessly intense, no question about that, but it is pure in spirit and purpose.

Three of the more serious newspapers, the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, were eventually persuaded to publish obituaries of Williams. As with so many significant but neglected artists who are nevertheless considered worthy of an obituary, her exhibitions were scarcely even acknowledged let alone reviewed in the arts pages of these same papers. Critically, it was as if her work didn’t exist. She is, of course, among the many accomplished artists whose work is ignored for being conventional in appearance and technique and declamatory about emotions. To today’s State Art tyrants such characteristics are considered embarrassing drawbacks.

Williams was, however, appreciated in the past. As a youngish artist in 1961 she won the sculpture prize (for Two Heads) at the John Moores in Liverpool, when other winners were Peter Blake, David Hockney and Ron Kitaj. These were the days when the Moores was worth winning, well before it was subverted to the cause of State Art where daubs of no merit are greeted by fools with preposterous superlatives. A retrospective exhibition was held in 1972 at Whitechapel Art Gallery; once again well before that gallery’s prostration before the winds of Biennale bluster. Williams continued her brave exploration of inner places that made her work then so widely admired. She worked every day of her life and although her commercial exhibitions continued, sometimes

at long intervals owing to the complexity of ideas and their necessarily prolix gestation, a retrospective was never offered in her lifetime. Approached by friends in the last decade of her life, the Walker Art Gallery turned her down for such an honour. She couldn’t exert the pulling power of a Rolf Harris or Paul McCartney.

Will Williams now receive the lifetime retrospective her work deserves, and which a wide 301 Moved Permanently audience should see? It isn’t likely.

But why should this be, when there are more galleries nationwide which are more spacious than ever before?

301 Moved Permanently

The answer is that as the public gallery network expands the same orthodoxy is spread across even more outlets. More galleries does not mean a wider selection of work on display; it means the same work by the same few artists spread across even more galleries even more frequently.

What are called ‘Artists’ Rooms’ are a symbolic example of what is wrong with this rotten system. These ‘Rooms’ are organised by the Tate, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Art Fund (how long will it be before the Art Fund can only be contacted via the Tate switchboard?), and they resulted from a bulk purchase, jointly by the Tate and the SNGMA in 2008. We bought for £42 million (£27 million in cash – the figure varies in different reports; we’ve never been told the exact sum – and £15 million in waived tax) retiring art dealer Anthony d’Offay’s gallery stock, which he called his private collection.  A cynic might say that Artists’ Rooms is the process by which the personal collection of one commercially motivated individual now dictates what a large proportion of the art-seeking population is allowed to see in the name of recent art. The same cynic might further add that Artists’ Rooms is the opportunity by which established reputations – such as Warhol’s – are constantly hammered home, and for the smaller ‘Room’ names, it is the instrument by which a more significant brand name can be nurtured.

Under the auspices of the Art Fund, an organisation which luckily is headed by a former director of Tate Britain, 30 rooms featuring 760 works by 26 artists have been touring the country for four years, mostly as small one-man retrospectives. Some of these are marvellous, not least the extensive collection of photographs by August Sander. There are 232 works by Warhol alone, who gets two rooms to himself travelling at the same time. At the moment they are in Sheffield and Hull, and then Birmingham for four months. That is apart from relatively recent major exhibitions for the same artist at the Tate, the Hayward and other Arts Council galleries.  Warhol is showing somewhere all the time. We will not be allowed to ignore him.

One of the Artists’ Rooms deals, inevitably, with Damien Hirst. This is currently on show in Walsall Art Gallery. It has been there for two months already and will remain in place for another year. What is happening when a fifty-year-old artist, already over-exhibited at a time when so many unexposed artists can’t get their work shown, is having a thirteen-month long exhibition? What is the reason for such indoctrination? Too often the Artists’ Rooms represent those who are already widely exhibited and who are bastions of the art market.

Artists Rooms are a blunt instrument whereby approved taste is circulated (inflicted) from the centre. They constitute cheap exhibitions for Arts Council venues up and down the country, whose curators don’t have to originate their own programme. The laziness and ready compliance of these jobsworths is a godsend to State Art.  They can merely exhibit the same few approved brand names for ever. And make no mistake their career will depend upon them favouring these “right” kinds of artists for no individual prospers in State Art by demonstrating initiative or investigating the unorthodox.

Visit the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and you will discover the other reason, besides the dreaded Artists’ Rooms, why thought and broad knowledge among curators is unnecessary. There is a new species of art collectors who caught the disease of wholesale, apparently random acquisition from Saatchi. These people fuel the market for State Art which they buy in quite staggering quantities. Their houses, full of wince-inducing tat bought for eye-watering sums, feature frequently in glossy magazines. Usually they are rewarded for their commitment to the State Art cause with the accolade of a position on a Tate committee, of which there are now dozens. At Serota’s Tate money not knowledge is the essential qualification for co-option.

One such überbuyer – who has not yet been brought on to any Tate committee – is one David Roberts, a property developer, who has accumulated so much clutter he’s opened his own ‘space’ and has begun feeding pieces to regional galleries, Wakefield being the first venue. Works selected are linked as follows: “This exhibition examines ways in which modern and contemporary artists represent the human

body in various media to explore psychological and emotional life.” What a perfect criterion that is for the inclusion of a major work by Evelyn Williams. Unfortunately, the trouble is that among Roberts’s 3,000 plus works there is nothing by Williams. But have a guess whose work he does own and whose efforts are on show in Wakefield: enter Warhol and Hirst.

David Lee

The Jackdaw January-February 2013