Earth, Air, and Water

The Gagosian's retrospective of Michael Andrews is a rare opportunity to enjoy a subtle and surprising artist

Jacob Willer

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.

What makes Andrews so inspiring now may be precisely what set him apart from his contemporaries: he managed to avoid all modernist dogma, and his painting was always motivated by, and dedicated to, the subject. His ultra-precision — you may catch glimpses of gridded-up underdrawing through the paint — must have developed under the influence of his professor, Sir William Coldstream; but Andrews, born with such “uncommon imaginative equipment”, could never have been satisfied painting only in the Coldstream fashion, just collecting and analysing and adjusting the most minute observations.

Andrews first made his name painting party scenes, exploring how social motives and patterns may be depicted. He liked that at parties, people perform. “They succeed or fail. They increase in stature or flop. They put themselves to the test.” Rather as they do when they paint. And his most famous party scene, The Colony Room I (1962), happens to feature painters: Lucian Freud stares out at us, hawk-like as ever — a different sort of spectator — while Francis Bacon holds forth (we recognise him just from the back of his head).

Here the paint is built up and buttery in places, sparse and scrubbed in others; black lines on top redraw parts of the figures, and the strokes of big flat brushes work vigorously across larger areas. The effect is lively, and it suits the subject; but Andrews would soon stop himself working this way: “I was aware that the habit, which encouraged me to think that all these revisions were permissible parts of the picture structure, amounted to a kind of special pleading. As if I were to say, ‘Look how hard I have worked, look at all the travail I have been through …” This is a critique not just of his own methods but of modern painting in general, and of ‘School of London’ painting in particular — I wonder what Freud and Auerbach made of it.

Later, Andrews would jot in a notebook: “For the regeneration of the realism of palpable presence we’re indebted to Francis Bacon.” It was Bacon who gave Andrews the confidence to move towards more personal subject-matter. But while it would be true to say that Freud and Auerbach were, in their different ways and to different extents, realist painters groping for ‘palpable presence’, Andrews always seems to have been after something else — I would say, something of greater importance.

“Lights VII: A Shadow” (1974) by Michael Andrews (© The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London)

And often, something quite opposite. In the Lights series of paintings (1970-74), nothing is palpable. In the haze of evening, through the dark of night, we follow a hot-air balloon over fields, cities, bridges and pier pavilions; sometimes we see the balloon, sometimes we seem to be viewing from its basket — in the most beautiful of the pictures, Lights VII, we see only the balloon’s shadow on the shore below, drifting towards the empty sea where it will melt away. Andrews was now using very liquid acrylic paint and spraying in onto the reverse hairy side of the canvas, building it up until it formed a thin even crust. Though he often went back into the paintings with a brush to add movement where necessary, the surface he achieved was, while unique to him, as impersonal as he meant it to be.

It is in this that we really see the influence of Bacon: obviously not in the impersonality of the surface, but in the attention paid to the quality, both physical and symbolic, of every painted mark. Andrews’s spraying of acrylic paint cancelled out the juicy brushstroke in oil, and would approximate the effortlessly neutral surface of a photographic print; and Bacon must also have been the prime influence in suggesting the expressive potential that photographic effects might have in paintings. Photography freezes subject-matter in its moment, while painting condenses and stills — captures — its subject slowly, quietly, as observations accrue in a moving light; so the characteristics of the media strongly effect how we involve ourselves in the picture. Degas excitedly used photography, and Sickert, who so admired Degas, began experimenting with how to translate the photographic sense of “moment” into paint; but no painter has taken the problem of photography — which must now be the essential problem for painting — more seriously than Andrews, before or since. Indeed, much of the acclaim now given to Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans — for their innovation, at least — is more deserved by Andrews. Like them, what Andrews wanted for his painting was not the drama of the moment but the essential inertia of the photograph — to make that inertia expressive.

By now Andrews was surer of who he was as a painter: he was reconciled to his role as a spectator in life, and ready to embrace that role fully in art. The balloon in the Lights paintings was meant as a symbol for the ego, and so its floating away symbolised ‘ego-loss’. The idea was that meditation — which in Andrews’s case meant painting — should lead to enlightenment, the liberation from ‘self’. In these paintings we see no people with whom we can identify, only the lights — electric lights — that guide them, or at least signify their activity, perhaps their hopes and dreams. The viewpoints in the paintings are so high, yet there is no sense of vertigo, no fear of the balloon’s — the ego’s — puncturing now; there is only calm as the land below — the society below, or civilisation — at such a distance, silent, going in and out of focus, appears but an abstraction.

Andrews conceived two further pictures which seem to extend the series (they are hung alongside the Lights paintings here, as they were at the Tate retrospective): Liner, showing a great ship leaving harbour at night, and Cabin, showing a jet plane flying over a port city. In Cabin the pilot might appear as a ghostly apparition through the cockpit window; but what makes both these painting unforgettable is our sense of the passengers and their shared destiny: gliding on water or hurtling through the air, together, having relinquished their individual responsibility, where will they end up?

Andrews has quite rightly been called an existentialist painter. But while his particular interests in Zen Buddhism, Freudianism and R.D. Laing are very much of his time, as Gowing observed: “. . . looking at these pictures one can believe that all good painting has really, one way or another, to do with such issues of identity and awareness.”

The behaviour of fish provided the subject-matter for the next series of paintings, called School. The method remained the same, still sprayed acrylic to produce that mysteriously impersonal surface; the distanced, floating viewpoint was employed again, now under water, to give that liberating sense of spatial dislocation — of entering another, significant, dimension, and Andrews carried on with his themes on the individual in society, and on tribalism in particular — the fish too perform their roles, take their risks, succeed or fail. In School II, Pike and Roach, the predatory pike lurks and hovers before us: with his cool, determined eye, square to ours, he is reminiscent of Lucian Freud in The Colony Room, I.

By the ’80s, Andrews was mostly painting the natural landscape. He made a series of pictures of Ayers Rock, after making a pilgrimage there. He had walked all around it, and climbed it; at one point he had lost his footing — the sense of his disorientation and danger inspired his painting. Concerned with the grandeur of nature, Andrews’s landscapes immediately appear in the tradition of the ‘sublime’. But he meant more by them: “Actually what I’m painting is historical landscape, that’s to say landscape relating to the chain of events. It’s time and landscape that interests me. The way it’s been affected by the people living in it.” Ayers Rock was ancient, and holy: he titled the most majestic paintings in this series, The Cathedral. The rock forms mutate, soften, seem human — there are bulges, wrinkles, orifices (for this they seem related to Degas’s late pastel landscapes). We can only speculate about what this natural monument, as worshipped by a most foreign religion, could have meant to a Methodist boy from Norwich — but maybe it was exactly its foreignness, its strangeness, the contemplation of which would allow another escape from self. His painting is worshipful; but rather than worshipping nature, it worships the tradition of spiritual contemplation — it is a tribute to the very idea of grand mysteries.

“Thames Painting: The Estuary” (1994-1995) by Michael Andrews (Collection of Pallant House Gallery. © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London. Photo: Mike Bruce/Gagosian)

After the Ayers Rock paintings, in which Andrews’s sprayed surface was becoming less neutral and more variously agitated — with calligraphic streaks and swirls sinking into the canvas like oriental inks, and newly intense colour contrasts of hot earth oranges and deep, dark blue skies — Andrews gradually returned to oil paint and brushes. And he returned to the familiar English countryside, to a landscape imbued with his own history. Like that other East Anglian painter, John Constable, Andrews saw a nobility in this mild land, so unrelentingly and so comfortingly green. Though he was using more traditional perspectives than before, he was still painting such expanse; and the breadth and depth of his views suggest the long passing of time, of ages. Over a career, what artist has ever painted bigger space?

By 1994, Andrews began a new series of paintings of the Thames. Now he thinned his oil down to a mere stain and tipped it onto the canvas, even pushing it around with a hairdryer. The river may have symbolised continuity; but it is impossible to see these as anything other than “late” paintings, made in awareness of the end’s approaching (Andrews was diagnosed with cancer). He mixed ashes into the paint. In The Thames at Low Tide, barges are left stranded in the mud as the river pulls away, yet rolls on. In Thames Painting: The Estuary, distant shaded figures stand by their boats. Do they belong to the past? Or are they eternal? The water is now wispy white — and the muddy old Thames becomes the Styx.

There is a melancholy in all Andrews’s paintings. That his colouring tended to be dull, contributed to this effect. He will not — he would not — bowl you over. His friends’ paintings may hang more proudly on the wall, but when you leave their exhibitions too often you have only a particular taste in the mouth. You leave Andrews’s exhibitions quietly convinced, remembering every picture. Andrews the “spectator”, whose individuality was defined only as it had to be — by his true creativity — was a most considerate painter, and he gave us a whole worldview.

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