No Joy At The Tate

David Hockney's 1979 view of the gallery, as told to Miriam Gross

“Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy”, 1968, ©David Hockney

In 1979 David Hockney talked in the “Observer” to Miriam Gross, then the newspaper’s deputy literary editor, about his difficult relationship with Britain’s modern art flagship. We republish his words here to mark his record-breaking current exhibition at Tate Britain.  

Art is not just a luxury or a self-contained activity. It has a profound influence on other aspects of our lives, both directly — as in the case of architecture and design — and indirectly, in the way we respond to the world around us.

It can have practical consequences too. Here is one small example: if only our motorbike manufacturers had gone to a few exhibitions in the early 1960s they might have got the idea of putting more chrome on the petrol-tanks, or painting the wheels red or yellow or blue. They would then have produced more popular designs and not been left behind by the Japanese — who seem to take art more seriously.

To collect the art of our era is as important, therefore, as keeping a record of any other serious human activity. And the most important of contemporary collections in this country is undoubtedly the one in the Tate Gallery.

The Tate has two functions — it is the major state-supported museum both for British and for foreign art of the past 100 years (though its British holdings also go back a good deal further in time). In the case of foreign art they must try to get the very best, in the case of modern British art they have an additional responsibility: since it’s a narrower area, they must be more inclusive, act as a museum of record and try to cover the ground more fully. That is their duty and their job. And it seems to me that it is a job which in recent years they have been doing rather badly.

Of course, they did not always manage things all that well in the past. I was shocked to find out, for instance, that in 1947 they were offered, for about £700, The Red Studio by Matisse — a stunning and beautiful painting, that was already 40 years old then — and they turned it down. And although £700 may have seemed quite a lot of money at the time, it was no more that you would have had to pay for an Alfred Munnings.

But what I chiefly want to talk about is the Tate’s policy with regard to buying contemporary British art since 1964, when Sir Norman Reid became director. And it is mainly the gaps which concern me. It seems to me that what they have been doing is trying to find works to fit in with their theories instead of looking at what is being done and fitting in with that.

To give just a few examples. In the past 15 years they have not purchased a single work by L.S. Lowry, not one by Patrick Procktor, not one by Euan Uglow, not one by Allen Jones, not one by David Oxtoby. And if I can use my own work as an example they have only two of my paintings, which do not give a fair idea of the range of my work over this period. As far as I know they were offered a painting called A Bigger Splash (which I did in California) for £800 in 1968, and they turned it down; later they could have bought another picture, a portrait of Christopher Isherwood, for £1,200, and they turned that down too. They now say they would like some pictures of mine from California; but they will have to buy these not from me or the dealers who supported me at the time, but on the open market at higher prices. I’m sure they would have to pay at least £20,000 or £30,000, if not more.

“Hollywood Hills House”, 1980 ©David Hockney

On the other hand, some contemporary painters are quite generously represented. They have nine works by Dick Smith, for instance, and eight by Robin Denny, they were given 13 works by William Turnbull, and have since purchased three more. This is fine and perfectly all right — I want to make it clear that I am not criticising individual artists or anything the Tate have bought. But looking through their catalogue you see the results of a very unbalanced choice. What it suggests above all is a deliberate bias in favour of non-representational art.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? There has been a certain amount of criticism of the Tate’s policies in the art Press recently, which they have not answered at all well, but there was one interesting sentence in Norman Reid’s reply to an attack in Studio International: he said he was finally responsible for all the works of art bought, for what is put forward to the trustees to buy. And when I asked one of the staff why they did not have anything by Uglow (who won the John Moores prize in the late 1960s and who has had a large exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery), I was told: “Oh, Norman is not too keen on that kind of painting.” Not too keen? If the Tate Gallery is being run on the personal whim and personal taste of Norman Reid, he should be willing to debate his policy in public, willing to put forward his point of view, and as far as I know he has never done this in print.

I went to see Norman Reid myself, to tell him what I thought of the way he was running the gallery. I asked him why he turned things down on the cheap and bought them when they were expensive. But he did not give me a satisfactory answer. I pointed out, for instance, that Lowry’s pictures are more subtle than he seemed to think, that it was no good saying they were all alike. If you look carefully at his paintings, you’ll see that the early ones contain a lot of cripples and deformed people. I can remember Lowry saying: “Well, that’s what it was like. People were deformed and crippled from their diet, hard work and other things. In the later pictures, since he was an honest and truthful artist, he showed that people had got a little healthier, that things in the North of England had improved. To me this is a very interesting aspect of painting, but I feel sure that Norman Reid does not care about it — it doesn’t fit in with his theories.

For that matter, why wasn’t there a Lowry in the big exhibition of British art in Italy two or three years ago? The art bureaucracy make the arrogant assumption that a lot of British art simply isn’t exportable. On the other hand it is assumed that some kinds of highly theoretical foreign art ought to be imported: to take a famous instance, the Tate’s purchase of Carl Andre’s Bricks.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1970 ©David Hockney. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales/Jenni Carter

I have got nothing against the Bricks as such, but my point is that they are the product of a theory, that they are a piece of art only within the context of the Tate Gallery. If you put them outside in the street they would be stepped over. People would not notice them. I can see that it might be an interesting and fascinating idea to put a few bricks in the middle of a large marble hall. But they cannot speak as a work of art directly, only in the context of a gallery.

Now take Van Gogh’s painting of a chair, which is also in the Tate. If it was leaning up against the bus-stop outside, it would still give off its joyful vibrations, as it has for 100 years. The generosity of spirit in it just cannot be extinguished; its beauty would stop you in the street as you saw it. We know, in fact, that art can be full of joy, and my criticism of the Tate’s present attitude is that it is so narrow, so biased in favour of joyless and soulless and theoretical art.

In taking this narrow view, they are also being extremely arrogant. It is a view they are trying to impose on the public. They are saying this is what art has been like in this country for the past 15 years. This is what is significant and we are going to tell you about it.

But it is not Norman Reid’s job to decide what is “significant”. That is something which will be decided in the future. We know now who were the true avant-garde in the early 20th century because they have influenced the rest of the 20th century. We do not know who the true avant-garde are in 1979. That will be clear in the year 2000.

This means that when someone is running an institution like the Tate, we must have confidence in his vision, we must feel that his spirit is generous and open enough to include wide areas of art, that he must be a careful observer of what’s going on. Yet the gaps and the missed opportunities are amazing. I know, for example, that they turned down a wonderful picture of a swimming-pool by Leon Kossoff which they were offered for £3,000. Again, I pointed out to them that they did not have one painting by David Oxtoby. He is a painter who has touched on an area that not many other painters in this country have touched on, though it is of interest to a great many people — rock’n’roll. The collection is less representative than it ought to be without him.

Why is it that they have this idea of modern art as something basically puritanical, abstract, conceptual? I’ve got a little theory which may partly explain it. Bureaucrats, sensing that theoretical art involves the destruction or rejection of other kinds of art, welcome it because it appeals to the philistine in them.

Most people would agree that modernism has come to some kind of crisis; but at the Tate they seem to think it has to lead on to something even more theoretical — you put the bricks on the floor. It’s as though the depiction of the visible world and the depiction of a human being in the visible world is just old hat.

“Model with Unfinished Self Portrait”, 1977. ©David Hockney.

But this is just totally absurd. People have been painting faces, for example, for 5,000 years — and for good reason. Photography can’t do the same job. A photograph of a chair can never mean as much as a Van Gogh painting of a chair — it’s obvious, your heart tells you so. Yet when I pointed out to Norman Reid that painting of the physical world will have to return in a much more serious way he seemed shocked, as though it was news to him.

This attitude is also reflected in the Tate’s collection of American art, which gives you a very one-sided view of it. You would think that there was no realism in America. But the opposite is true: for the past 60 years there has been an extremely strong school of realism there, and there still is. The greatest American realist painter of the 20th century, and there is general agreement about this, was Edward Hopper. There is not one work by Hopper in the Tate Gallery.

There are works by a great number of minor abstract expressionists. When I asked them about this, the reason I was given was that these works were cheaper. But that is no excuse at all. It is cheating the nation if we are simply going to end up with a collection of cheap art. The cheap stuff will go into the cellar in the end and they will be forever trying to fill the gaps at greater and greater expense.

What is needed is more dynamism. I happen to know that an Edward Hopper painting — a beautiful painting, a nude woman on a bed in a hotel room — was offered to the Tate, and they turned it down. It would have cost a considerable sum, and no doubt the excuse once again is lack of money. My point is this. Norman Reid could have gone to some rich Americans or Anglo-Americans and asked them to make a little gesture, to help raise the money that was needed. With a little dynamic personality and interest and passion it could have been done. I could almost have done it myself for them, if I had known. Or somebody could have done it. Nobody asked.

Time and time again when I said to the people at the Tate why don’t you have a work by so-and-so, they would say it was money. And, of course, I think that the grant which the Tate gets ought to be at least five or six times as big as it is. But it cannot be simply money — not in the case of British art anyway, which is not that expensive. Only three or four artists in this country are expensive.

In fact, the whole question of the Tate’s buying policy, the method of buying, ought to be looked into. It is extremely difficult to find out what they spend on anything. They are not willing to disclose it. And it is equally hard to find out what they reject. You only find out because you know the works that you sent yourself, or when a dealer tells you, or a trustee happens to say, “Oh, we turned that down, or we turned the other down.” They say that they are not allowed to tell you — it’s as though the Official Secrets Act applied, as though they were running a missile base down there. But surely we have a right to know, particularly as they follow such a narrow line.

“Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006”, 2006 ©David Hockney. Photo credit: Richard Schmidt

All this becomes rather dangerous in a country where private patronage is dying out, where patronage comes more and more from the State. Because you begin to get a kind of vicious circle. Since the bureaucrats support a certain type of art, many young artists will follow their line, thinking this is what we should be doing, this is what the Tate Gallery thinks is significant.

And as a nation we are being sold short, because the Tate simply is not covering the real and genuine activity. After all, it is a great national institution. Schoolchildren are taken there and told that this is what serious people think is modern art, this is what serious people think is modern British art.

Here is another example of their bureaucratic mentality. My colleague R.B. Kitaj was invited to become a trustee of the Tate and he accepted — which, after all, many artists would not: they don’t like turning up at meetings (I am one of those myself). Then they found out that he was not a British subject, though he has lived and worked here for 20 years, being an American. There is an Act of Parliament according to which all trustees have to be British subjects, so they could not have him. To my amazement, they did not try to alter the rules in any way or to try to get round them. After all, if you have been painting in London for 20 years, you become part of British art, it does not matter what passport you have. Handel was a part of British music, though not a British subject.

When I pointed out to Norman Reid that he could try to get the law changed, he replied, “Why don’t you do it?” This seemed to me a cheek. I asked him who I was supposed to speak to. I don’t know about these things. I am an artist. I have to work. I have to get back to my studio. It’s not my job to shout out. It’s Norman Reid’s job. And we have a right to expect that kind of initiative from someone who holds such a powerful position.

Many people will defend Norman Reid. They will say, “Ah, he has opened all this new space, there are going to be new galleries. And he has bought a lot of worthwhile things.” Well, of course in 15 years he has had to do something. But there are very important questions about his term of office and about the Tate’s future which need to be asked.

Artists are rightly expected to face public criticism and I don’t see why the same shouldn’t go for directors of museums.

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