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Earth, Air, and Water
Monday 27th February 2017


"The Colony Room, I" (1962) by Michael Andrews (Collection of Pallant House Gallery. © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London. Photo: Mike Bruce/Gagosian)


The Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair has mounted the largest selection of paintings by Michael Andrews (1928-1995) since the Tate retrospective in 2001. Almost all of the works belong to private collectors, so such opportunities to see them together are rare and not to be missed.

Clearly Andrews has not been ignored by the art world — just last year one of his canvases made £1.265 million at Sotheby's. Yet he has never enjoyed quite the same fame as his "School of London" friends: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. Andrews was slower to produce than they were; he may also have been less willing or able to push his work to market, because of his diffident personality: "I am more of a spectator than I am at most times prepared to admit to myself." Certainly, a shyness was reflected in his gentler stylings and in his restrained way with material: though he often painted on an epic scale, with evidently grand ambitions, he was incapable of pictorial exclamation or proclamation.

That subtlety has, however, always gained him the admiration of critics and, especially, other painters. Sir Lawrence Gowing, who was an examiner for the Diploma at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, remembered that of all the pictures submitted that year, "two were exceptional and remain so. One was called August for the People, a subject based on a poem by Auden set for a summer composition the year before — the other, now in the Tate Gallery, was A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over. Both were by Michael Andrews who was then 24." To Gowing it was immediately obvious that these paintings were "remarkable and wholly individual achievements", so he took a personal interest in the promising student and, in 1980, he was writing the Introduction to the catalogue for Andrews's exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Those two exceptional student works — sadly absent from the Gagosian show — have by now become legendary among the more ambitious and sensitive young painters in London.

It must partly be due to Andrews's surprising and sympathetic depiction of the outsider, not as the bohemian poseur but as an ordinary man in a grey suit, falling over, or stranded on a beach with bathing youths — a man who would only play by the rules, but whose very being is exposed, and found out, by circumstance; a man whose aspirations make him ridiculous. The appeal of these figures is similar to that of Watteau's Pierrot: the man — the artist — appears clownish not because he wants to distinguish himself, but because his work, and his whole position in life, is inherently comical, and potentially tragic.

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