The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with David Sylvester
In general in this series of interviews I've been talking to people who create
- a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a historian. Most people don't regard the job of criticism as either creative or constructive - indeed they'd probably see it as the
reverse of creative. But in the field of the visual arts there is one critic who is widely
regarded as standing head and shoulders above his colleagues. He is David Sylvester. Not just a critic, but a writer, an interpreter, by no means uncritical, of the works of artists and sculptors of the last century. A curator too of major exhibitions, and a consultant to collectors of modern art. Francis Bacon was his friend, Giacometti used him as a model, Howard Hodgkin has called him "the only sacred monster who has ever existed in the English art world - he has that kind of grandure."
David Sylvester, it's been said that the interesting times in people's lives aren't those
where things go right, but the times when they seem to go wrong. Now, you left school at
15 without a school certificate. You could have gone up to Trinity Cambridge to read
moral sciences; you didn't. You spent a year trying to be a painter then you discovered that you were no good at it. Do you regret any of those dead ends?
The dead end that I mostly regret in my life was that I spent about five
years or more in the 1950's, when I was in my early thirties, backing horses and dogs.
Spent those years on the race course and the greyhound track. I had an obsession with
beating the bookmakers and apart from losing a lot of money, I spent a lot of time in
ridiculous remorse and... I don't mean remorse of the fact that I was doing it, but remorse
that I backed the wrong horse. And I think that that was a pretty fruitless time. I
don't think I learnt much from it, certainly in proportion to the amount of time I
expended on it. But I got an obsession with it.
Whose money were you losing?
And where did that money come from?
Partly it came from money I'd earned and partly it came from having bought
works of art well and then that they've gone up in price, gone up in value and I was able
to sell them to fuel my betting.
Do you look back at any particular work that you sold then to fuel
this obsession and bitterly regret that you sold it?
I regret that less than I regret the waste of time.
So it's the waste of time rather than the lost money.
Because after all, that period of one's life is a very fruitful period and
I wasn't writing. I was writing very little.
What interests me is, as I say, you left school at 15 without a school
certificate and by the age of 18, though, you were starting to write about art. Now,
where did your knowledge come from? And was there a teacher, was there some person, some
influence that said "Look, if you're really interested in art," as you clearly were "this
is where you should start looking and this is what you should start reading."?
I think that I was destined to practise criticism. I'll tell you why I
think so. There were various things I wanted to do when I was a boy. Above all, I wanted
to be a professional cricketer, but I wasn't good enough at that. I wanted to be a jazz
musician, primarily composer and arranger, rather than an executant; wasn't good enough at
that. When I was 15, just before I left school, I wanted to do something very modest and
quiet and scientific; I wanted to be an analytical chemist, which would have been a quiet
and obscure life. But I think that I was doomed to be a critic for this reason: The first
time I went to a professional football match... and of course, the interesting thing about
this is, a boy of 11 going to a football match today would have seen hundreds of games on
television. All I'd seen of professional football was the odd 30 seconds, when a bit of
an international appeared on a news reel.
Which was the most exciting moment that one could possibly think of, wasn't it?
Yes. But I went to this match and I could only completely experience by going
home and writing about it, writing a report of the match. I must say that I showed myself
to be a journalist, rather than a writer, a real writer, because I think if I'd been a
real writer, I would have written a report on one's first experience of a professional
football match. But I didn't do that. I did an imitation of a newspaper report of a
match, in which I wrote that Arsenal were playing West Bromwich Albion and I wrote about
Arsenal as if I'd already seen them play a hundred times. And then it seemed to me that
there was somehow a need to complete the aesthetic experience by reporting on it,
analysing it, putting it into words. And then, too, I was very obsessed with making lists
in order of merit. I did this with jazz musicians, I did it with cricketers and
footballers. I'd worked out by the time I was 13 or 14, I'd produced my world all-time
11, both first eleven, second eleven, third eleven, fourth eleven, fifth eleven... all based
on reading and the study of statistics. And I think that, after all, two of the
characteristics that the critic, are the need to analyse and describe what one has seen
and the other, the need to make evaluations. And these were both strong in me at that
Can you remember who your list, top ten list of the world's greatest painters was?
No, that didn't come 'til much later. By the time I was about 25 years old
and had seen a good deal of art around Europe , a good deal of the old masters, because of
course you know, growing up, I didn't see any old masters. In the first place, I became
interested in art, in looking at painting, through a modern painting. A black and white
reproduction of a Mattise, of Mattise's 'La Dance'.
Now, what book were you looking at?
I was looking at Robert Goldwater's 'Primitivism In Modern Painting'.
And why did you have that? Was it in the house? Was it in the library?
No. I knew a young man, slightly older than myself - he was a student.
He converted me to Communism, though I didn't join the party, and we talked about a lot of
things, besides politics. He had this book by Robert Goldwater - who later became a
friend of mine in later years - I looked at this book, I saw this Mattise, it gave me a
visceral experience, the linear tension of the forms of this circle of dancers and
suddenly I was turned on to painting and a week later I started to paint.
That was the Mattise 'La Dance' wasn't it?
Yes. I was only interested in modern art at first. You see, you were cut
off from the old masters during the war. I had this experience in 1941...
The old masters were all in store, in those Welsh slate quarries, weren't
they, because of the bombing.
Exactly. By the time I had seen some painting, say, by 1950, I would say
that my top ten... I know that Tischen came top of the list. Others among the first three
or four were Michaelangelo and Rembrandt and Velasquez. I think Reubens, Peirro de
Where did the poor old moderns come in?
Should I tell you how I didn't become art critic of The Times?
The critic of The Times was a wonderful man, but he sometimes enjoyed
himself too much at lunch. And one afternoon after lunch, he insulted the president of
the Royal Academy and became persona non grata at the Royal Academy . Well, at that days
in the mid-fifties, it was impossible for the art critic of The Times not to be persona
grata at the Royal Academy . There was an establishment in those days. And for a time,
The Times had a marvellous entertainments editor, Sir John Lawrence was proud to call
himself - he was very insistent he was the entertainments editor, not the arts editor -
and employed three or four of us writing, trying out to see who would be a likely
successor. I think I was his favourite choice and I was asked one day to a lunch, which
would confirm more than anything the existence of the establishment. They were all senior
civil servants, or ex-senior civil servants, like Lord Bridges , or generals or bishops. At
the centre was old Walter, old Mr Walter, the owner. On his right was the guest of
honour, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. On his right was William Hayley. On his right was me and
on my right was a man called Lawrence Irving, whose only real claim to fame was that he
was a nephew of Henry Irving. And he was supposed to be The Times' art expert. And
Hayley talked to me, we were both shy, but we got on alright. Then, Lawrence started on
me. Now, the thing is, this is the important thing, that in The Times, I had been writing
the most avant-garde criticism ever to appear in The Times. That morning, an article of
mine had appeared in The Listener about Cézanne, about a Cézanne exhibition at the Tate,
which I'd raved about. Cézanne is my favourite painter, to this day. And he said "Do you
really think Cézanne is as great as you say?" "Oh yes" I said "And he's the last really
great painter." I didn't get the job of art critic at The Times, which I desperately
wanted, because I wanted respectability, and I was confidentially told the reason was that
I was thought to be too 'retard a terre' in my views. But I would still say that I don't
think that any 20th century artists, even Picasso, Mattise and Mondrian is the equal of
the great old masters. I think Cézanne was the last of the pantheon.
I dare say we'll come back to lists and other great meetings a bit later, but
I want to get you to talk about looking, because that's what we all do more or less
imperfectly when we go to galleries. Now, can you tell me how you look at a painting, or
is it so instinctive that you can't? Actually, that's allowing you not to answer the
question, which you're not allowed to do. So, how do you look at a painting?
But how? In a systematic way?
Oh no. Not at all. I just look.
At the whole, or at parts, or at bits? And how do you start to put it together?
Well, by what my eye's attracted to. I mean, in certain art it might be
to the brush strokes. In certain art it might be the total thing. In the case of
Poussin, one of my favourite painters, it would be the architectural structure. In
another case, it might be in response to a mood.
If you're puzzled by a work, if you're coming to something completely new,
though, do you have some sort of professional short-hand, where you say "I simply know
nothing about this. I don't know how I'm going to react. I will now fall back on my
professional skill at looking and the ingredients in my professional skill of looking are
such and such". And if so, what are they, apart from the things you already mentioned?
I don't have any sense that I have professional skills that I can resort to.
The experience is instinctive. It's somewhere between prayer and sex.
Between prayer and sex, or both prayer and sex?
Both prayer and sex. When I say sex, what I mean is responses that one feels
in one's body.
And if you don't feel that sort of response in your body, does that begin to
say to you that there's something in the work which is less good than it might be?
Not necessarily, because... The response is no different from one's response
to poetry or drama or music. It can occur in various parts of the body, in can occur in
one's spine, it can occur in the back of one's neck, it can occur in one's hands, it can
occur in one's solar plexus.
But it is a physical reaction.
At best there's real physical reaction?
Yes. Oh yes. And sometimes, when I was young, when I was really at my
best in... when I got the acutest responses, I would sometimes go into a gallery and look at
paintings and I was so sensitive to them, that I sometimes felt that I had two or three
skins less than normal. The thing was going through my body so forcefully. But I don't
necessarily reject what doesn't happen to turn me on and sometimes being turned on is a
long thing. For example, with Mattise, I've been very moved by Mattise, but certain
things... I used to go regularly to the Barnes Foundation, near Philadelphia where there's
some great Mattises. And there was a series of mural paintings there and I could go and
look at them for an hour and nothing would happen. I'd go out to the delicatessen across
the road and I'd come back and I'd look again and after a time - this sounds terribly
pretentious, but it is true - I would have a feeling like that of elevation.
That's where the prayer bit comes into it?
No. I think the prayer is more the concentration.
And the elevation is the fulfilment of the prayer, if you're lucky?
Yes. Yes, exactly. Exactly. But it took time and I learnt to be
patient with Mattise. Now, Picasso is the exact opposite. Picasso hits you immediately
in the solar plexus and then often fades. But Mattise comes gradually. And so often, one
has to patient and wait. The artist who turns me on most regularly, it's almost as good as
a drug, it can be counted on, is Barnet Newman. When I was installing the exhibition of
Les Picasso at The Tate, and earlier at the Pompidou there were some Newman's in other
rooms. And I would go and look at the Newman's and I'd have a physical response much
stronger than I had to the Picassos and the same happened when I was installing DeCooning
in Washington at the MGA and there were the Newman's 'Stations Of The Cross' in another
room... and then I went to the Newman's again. They turned me on more. But that does not
necessarily mean that I think that Newman is a greater artist than Picasso. It's just
that there's some ingredient in it that turns me on.
For the benefit of those who may not have seen The Stations, which I
saw in Washington , they are a series of 12 paintings...?
Fourteen or fifteen.
...in black and white. And the arrangements of the black and white couldn't
be a more simple or more complex...
A couple of vertical lines.
On a white ground.
Most people, when they're going through a gallery, most of us spend a minute
looking at each picture. Now clearly we should spend longer, but what do you feel about
that statistic? Either that's life, that's people or that's sad? Or none of those?
I would say that the average is probably less than a minute. Michael Compton,
when he was working at the Tate, computed that the average time that people spend in front
of a picture was about three seconds. But I want to say this: very often, the thing grabs
you at once, instantaneously. There are cases where one has to wait, but there are other
cases where the thing grabs you immediately and shatters you immediately. It varies. The
final intensity of the experience can come quickly, can come slowly.
So three seconds is not necessarily wrong? I mean, somebody might go to it
and see in three seconds that that's a shattering picture.
I think that often happens with artists. Artists respond very fast and
don't necessarily stay long.
How do you stay fresh in looking at works of art, not just canvasses and do
you find that the sheer weight of what you know and what you've seen and what your visual
memory is, is so intense that the moment you start looking you're already saying "There's
a bit of X and a bit of Y and a bit of Z there", rather than reacting as you did when you
were younger, to the thing itself?
No. I think I still react to the thing itself, though not so intensely. But
I have to own up to, with some shame, to something. And that is I find it very difficult
to suppress the critic in me and often, when I'm deeply moved by a piece of Beethoven or
Bach, I'll say to myself "Now, this is not Elliott's, music hurt so deeply that you are
the music while the music lasts, because one suddenly detaches oneself and thinks "Well,
of course Bach is the greatest composer" or "Of course Beethoven is the greatest composer"
and that means you're not actually listening if you think that. And I'm afraid that I do
have a habit of losing contact with the work itself and getting involved in evaluation.
There is one thing I'd say, though, about standing back and analysing. I think that one
of the things that enables me to perform as a critic is this: I'm not talking about this
silly business of evaluation, but I do have a capacity while being deeply, physically
moved by the experience of at the same time being able to analyse the experience and
analyse the work. I can be incredible involved; I can be tingling all over, but at the
same time be able to detach myself and observe what's happening. And I think that that is
a useful characteristic if one is a critic.
Where do you stand - the answer, of course is in the middle - but where do
you stand between your role as somebody who serves the public, because after all, you're
writing for the likes of me, and your role vis-à-vis that the artists, many of whom you
know very well and clearly your relationship with them, has enabled you to write about
them for the benefit of the public. So, looking as you are both ways, is there one way
which is the more important or the more essential?
It doesn't help things, to be writing about living artists. It doesn't help.
But that's what you've done most of your life.
No, but it doesn't help. I prefer writing about dead artists. It's easier.
You don't get that feeling that the chap who made it is going to read what you've written.
It's very, very difficult to eliminate from one's thought the fact that the artist is
going to read it.
But do you believe, do you hope that what you write, even or perhaps especially
when it is critical, i.e. adverse, is going to help that artist?
No, I don't believe that. At best, I believe that I'm writing a love letter
to an artist. If you've been moved by the work, sometimes one does feel that one is
writing him a love letter.
Is it significant that when you thought for a period, I think in the '50's
that Bacon had really gone off the boil, worse than that, that you really didn't like what
he was painting, that you wrote nothing about him for four years.
Yes. I must be specific about the date. It was from 1955 or 6 on, until the
And your response to what you saw as the shortcomings of his work, then, was
to say "I won't write about him at all"?
I also avoided him personally. I also avoided him personally. But
there was another thing in that alienation from Bacon and that was, I was angry with him
about his ridiculing Jackson Pollock. I thought that his dismissal of Jackson Pollock,
who is a greater artist than Bacon, of course, was... I just found it impossible to take.
And I felt alienated from him. Of course, Bacon never stopped pouring scorn on Pollock.
What was the compulsion? It must have been a defensive reaction, wasn't it?
Well, I don't know if it was defensive. Bacon was pretty scornful about
most artists and he rejected most of his own work, too. But I mean he did reject most
things. Two of the artists to whom I have been...both whom I admire most and with whom I've
been friendliest, Bacon and Giacometti, I dislike the way in which they found so little
other art that pleased them and that they accepted. I always liked, with DeCooning was an
artist of similar stature, DeCooning's ability to appreciate other artists; I enjoyed that
But you then came back to Bacon and more, perhaps, importantly, or just
as importantly, you admitted that the years when you hadn't liked what Bacon had done you
later recognised were an essential period of transition and you wrote that. And you've
also been very, very candid about the artists that either you didn't recognise at the
time, of whom I think Jackson Pollock was one and Rauchenberg was another. And you've
always been very open about admitting it. Have you found that difficult, or do you regard
that as a piece of professionalism, that when you so to say get something wrong or don't
get it right enough, it is your responsibility to explain to the public that that's what
you've done. In other words, you are not being omniscient critic.
I think one has got a responsibility to do that, yes.
But have you found it difficult?
No. It's not a secret shame.
So what is your relationship when you write, to the reader?
I've always tried to write with a maximum of clarity. I've believed in a
precept of Wittgenstein; 'Whatever can be said, can be said clearly'. And whereof one
cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. I've always excluded from my writing vague
metaphysics, complicated intellectual constructions, I've tried to write as simply and
directly as possible and most of my reworking of my writing, and there's a great deal of
reworking, is towards making it simpler and clearer. Whether I do that for the sake of the
reader, or whether I do that because I have an aesthetic liking for clarity I'm not sure,
but I certainly do think that one should try and work to be clear.
But you've been very directly active in the art world in other senses. You have
been a major curator of exhibitions. How much does that matter to you?
When I started writing about art I didn't think that this was something
that was going to happen. It happened because I was asked to do a big show - 1951 - and
its gone on happening and its certainly the part of my work that I most enjoy, by far.
What do you enjoy about it?
One of the last conversations that I had with Henry Moore before he
became senile was I said "the older I get the less I like writing about art and the more I
like choosing and installing exhibitions." When I'm writing about art I always feel that
what I have to say is beside, its to one side, I never get it, I can never get IT, I can
never grasp the artist. But when I do an exhibition I have the feeling that I can really
present an artist in the way that shows his work at his best. I feel I have an ability to
chose the best works and to place them well, and tellingly. And that whole business of
taking a group of works, and taking a space and putting the works in the space, the
different configurations one can make in different spaces is absolutely marvellous. It's
the nearest one comes to making art, because an exhibition is a kind of collage.
Aren't you overwhelmed by the process, by the task of selection?
Much less than I'm overwhelmed by having to write about a great artist. So
I said this to Henry and Henry said "Oh, I disagree. Words are the most powerful
instrument of communication. Not images, words. Tolstoy's novels, those are the most
powerful instruments of communication."
There was an occasion - and I want you to describe it - one of your first
really seminal meeting with various artists in Paris , when you were a comparatively young
man and you were introduced, I think, by Carnweiler, weren't you, to the whole group of
them. You just came into this room and there they all were, the legendary names of the
contemporary art world. Did you meet Giacometti on that occasion, also? And you'd seen
Giacometti in a café and he was always, I think, sitting alone. And you simply and
understandably, perhaps, lacked the courage to go up to him and say "I'm a young man that
you don't know". But after that you really got to know him very well.
Yes. He painted my portrait in 1960 and I think there were about 24
sittings, 25 sittings, something like that. And I was always touched by this: he had two
models at the time, whom he was painting. One was myself and the other was Yani Hara, the
Japanese professor of philosophy. And I would sit for Giacometti in daylight. He would
get up, you know, about lunch time 'cause he to bed about six in the morning and he'd
paint me 'til the light failed, about seven o'clock. Then I'd go off and then Yani Hara
would arrive and Giacometti would paint him for a few hours. And after that, Yani Hara
would disappear to make love to Giacometti's wife. I'm not being indiscreet; this fact is
in the public domain. Giacometti encouraged this. But, Giacometti would say towards the
end of my posing "Let's meet for dinner at midnight" and I'd say "You've seen enough of me
today. You don't want to see me again later". And he said "Those who work together, eat
A good principle. Now, you've written about the extraordinary direct gaze
that his sculptures have, those incredible tiny heads are full frontal, the gaze is
frontal. He demands that gaze. They look at the viewer and he demands them back. Was
that how he painted you? Was that the sort of engagement...
No, he couldn't paint me that way, because you're sitting opposite me in
exactly the same way as Giacometti was when he painted me. Only two or three feet nearer.
And you'll notice that I'm not looking at you full in the face. I'm looking at you with
my head turned very slightly to one side.
That's cause we're not sitting exactly opposite one another.
No, it's not that at all. It's because I have a defect of eyesight and if
I look straight in front of me with both eyes, I get double vision. And it's a defect of
eyesight that I've had since birth. So, when Giacometti painted me, I wasn't frontal. I
was just slightly, half-way towards a three quarter view.
Did that irritate him?
He dealt with it and Therriard who was a great man in the art world said
that he though that Giacometti's portrait of me was his greatest portrait. And one or two
writers have suggested that Giacometti deliberately varied his usual practise, but he
didn't. The only way I could sit for him was looking slightly askew. And actually, I
think that possibly it was a help to him not to follow the usual... I think if Giacometti
had a fault, he was a very great artist, but I think if he had a fault, it was because he
was too formulaic in approach to the subject and I think in a way that maybe his drawings
are his greatest part of his work, 'cause there he didn't insist - with drawings you
can't, when you're drawing of a portrait, but anything else - on that intense frontality.
You say somewhere that towards the end of Giacometti's life there was a
feeling among some, maybe yourself, certainly Picasso, thinking that perhaps what
Giacometti was doing was less interesting. And somebody said to Picasso "That is because
Giacometti's looking for a new solution to figuration" and Picasso said "There isn't a
solution. There never is a solution. And that is as it should be." Is that, in a sense,
the key statement about writing, certainly, and about art? That the person who looks for
the answer, certainly is not going to find it and shouldn't be looking for it.
Well I think it's a marvellous statement - you agree, don't you?
I certainly recognise it. But is that one of the reasons why you are ready
to go back and review what you yourself has said. Because anything that you have written
is never there and finished. It's the best response you can make at the time.
Oh yes. That would certainly be the case.
I've often thought that you can judge a person, or you have an interesting view
of a person according to their enemies. And I think it's quite useful to have enemies and
you have this very public row which I think you've still kept up with John Berger. What
really divides you and do you regret anything about the public nature of your
No, no, no. I think that Berger was a wonderful writer. A marvellous writer.
And I thought that his judgement of contemporary art was very bad. And because he was
such a good writer he had a lot of influence and I thought his influence was distracting
the public's attention from the best art towards less good art. And I thought that that
was not a good thing. So I thought he was a dangerous figure.
Am I fair or actually misleading to say that you regarded him as an enemy?
That is, I have to say, my word rather than a word than you have I think actually used
about John Berger.
We started by being friends. Ideological differences came between us. But
then, I think, it was his first novel 'A Painter Of Our Time', he wrote a caricature of me
- I was a character in the book - and I thought it was an unkind caricature and not only
unkind, but unfair, because he suggested that I was corrupt. And I don't think I am
especially corrupt. The one thing that has corrupted me is friendship with artists. I
haven't been corrupted by the temptations of money, but I have been corrupted by feelings
of kindness towards artists whom I like, and haven't been as tough with them as I ought to
As you've raised the question of money, does the fact that you write within
the context of an increasingly commercial world - I mean, contemporary art, I was going
to say it's so commercialised, it probably always has been - does that raise particular
problems for you and do you ever find yourself saying "I know that certain people want
this new artist to be valued and I'm not going to let them make some easy money". In
other words, does this consideration of writing in a commercial market have an effect on
what you write?
First of all I must say that the amounts that one is paid for writing about
art are derisory. If, for example, my advice is sought by a collector on a purchase he
wants to make and I give that advice, I can be paid a fee for that. I'm not in the least
ashamed of doing that. I have sometimes advised a collector not to buy a work by an
artist I both like and whose work I admired, but I've said "You should not buy that work".
And one gets a fee for that kind of advice. The difference between the speed with which
one makes money as soon as one gets involved in the commercial side of the art world and
the sort of money one makes by sweating over a book for two years, or an article for two
weeks and end up by getting £200 is appalling and it constantly appals me. Or by working
on an exhibition in the public sector. The amount one is paid is derisory.
It appals you, but does it upset you personally?
But still, you would never say "Damn it! I'll go into dealing. I'll just to
be a commercial consultant and charge whatever it is, a thousand pounds a day".
In the 1950's, my admiration for Carnweiler lead me to think that I wanted
to become a dealer, because one can be very creative as a dealer. And I admire dealers,
the best dealers, on the whole, more than I admire the best museum people. They have to
have enormous courage, they have to put their money where their mouth is. And I respect
good dealers and I respect dealing as a profession. Although it's a dirty profession, at
the same time it's a valuable profession.
Why is it dirty?
'Cause you have to get the better of other dealers and dealers tend to
be unscrupulous in the way they do that.
I wonder though, David, how good a dealer you would have been? And that's
on the basis of something that you said a little while ago. And that is that you have so
disliked, so hated being cruel and critical to artists that you know as a critic. Now,
as a dealer, if you're going to be a good dealer, presumably you have to be honest with
and perhaps rather brutal with artists?
The answer to that is that after entertaining this thought for a little, it
was in the mid-fifties. I think it was the time... When I say that I wasted those years
gambling, I wasn't only gambling, but it took up most of the time, because I would go
racing three or four days a week and probably to the dogs three or four times a week. So
it took up lots of time, and studying the form book and so on. I did do other things, too.
And it was about that time that I did entertain the thought of becoming a dealer. And I
decided that I couldn't be, for this reason: Once or twice I'd been given works by artists
to try and sell on their behalf. And in one or two cases I was successful and I would
make a profit out of the collector, to whom I sold the thing. Now, the collector would,
in most cases, be a rich person. But I was ashamed of taking a profit. The successful
dealer is somebody who, when he's made a million dollars out of selling a collector a
work, feels he's done the collector an enormous favour. And he probably has. But in my
case when I felt that, I felt an irrational sense of guilt that I was making a profit out
of selling something.
It's your Communist training, isn't it?
I suppose it is. But it was an irrational sense of guilt and I knew that
it was therefore impossible for me to be a dealer.
Have your sympathies stopped developing? And that is not an offensive way
of saying 'have you shut off?'. Do you find that the work of the Hirsts, the Whitereads,
the Gillian Wearings, people like that, that you come to that as fresh, relatively
speaking as to the work that you first saw in the 20's and 30's?
I think that I'm able to respond, viscerally, to the work of artists born
up 'til about 1945/1950. After that I tend to feel a bit lost and don't trust my
responses. I used to have, when I was young, tremendous confidence in my ability to pick
winners among the younger generation. And I find that it's now got out of reach.
You don't get that visceral response when you look at a Gillian Wearing
video, for example?
No. I do get a visceral response from Rachel Whiteread and sometimes
from Damian Hurst. The National Portrait Gallery decided that they wanted to put me in the
gallery and they asked me who I'd like my portrait to be done by, which was a wonderful
privilege. And I chose Jenny Saville, who's 30 years old.
And how's that going?
Well, she's in the middle of it. And I haven't seen the results. But I
think Jenny Saville is a marvellous artist and so in the particular case I chose a 30 year
Is it less painful than being painted, or is it very similar to have been
painted by Giacometti.
Well, it's very different, because Jenny takes a lot of photographs and
works from those, although when you look at the works, you'd imagine, actually, she worked
from life. She doesn't. She works from the photographs that she takes. So it's less
There's been extraordinary change in our lives, from the war time experience,
when there was virtually no art for people to see. Now, when you can hardly get in to
Tate Modern and many other galleries, does this present any sort of a problem? As far as
the government is concerned and many others, the more people through the doors the better,
and the better the gallery you are and so on and so forth. I'll put it this way: Is there
sense in which modern art might now be too popular?
I think all art is much too popular. If I go to a great concert and I
see empty seats, I am annoyed.
So am I.
I regret that there are empty seats and I get... my own response to the
music is heightened by the sense of being one of a number of people who are all sitting in
that space responding to the same work. But you see, the presence of other people in the
concert hall don't get in the way. It may increase the coughing a bit, but you get
silence. But art needs silence as music needs silence. Not quite as much, but it does
It certainly needs space.
And it certainly needs space. And one cannot, I cannot enjoy a work of
art with people jostling around me to see it.
So how do we reconcile these two contradictions, as far as the experience
of doing modern art today is concerned?
I don't know the answer to the problem. Being a professional I am often
given access to exhibitions or museum displays which I can see in solitude. But the
problem is a terrible problem and I don't know the answer to it.
Are museums, are galleries the new cathedrals?
That is where people go to find, we go to find our spiritual or
But in a cathedral at High Mass, people attend to the service and they go
there to pray. And they go to become involved.
Is there an element of that in going to a modern gallery?
Not much. Or people wouldn't behave the way they do.
What's wrong with the way they behave?
They talk too much, they jostle too much, they look too short a time,
despite what was said before. They treat it as a theme park. I think a museum should be
a temple. But there is a simple, practical problem of the crowds. A cathedral is built
and again, like a concert, it's wonderful when a cathedral is full for a service, but the
problem with art is peoples getting in one another's way, getting in the sight lines of
other people. And it's a problem that has to be taken very seriously.
A wonderful place to stop. I'll linger on that. David Sylvester, thank you
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