Erotic Review Magazine

Face to face with Richard Cork

by Jamie Maclean / 21st April 2015

"Talking to artists is like embarking on voyages of discovery…"

Last month saw the publication of the award-winning art critic and curator Richard Cork’s book, Face to Face: Interviews with Artists. Cork was 18 when he chanced upon Picasso, drew his portrait, and talked to him. That meeting sparked a lifelong enthusiasm for talking to artists that has continued throughout Cork’s impressive career. The collection of revealing conversations, first recorded for BBC radio, spans the pantheon of contemporary British artists, from Howard Hodgkin, Richard Hamilton, and David Hockney to Anish Kapoor, Grayson Perry, and Rachel Whiteread. Whether drawing out Francis Bacon’s musings on the afterlife or the story behind Tracy Emin’s My Bed, Cork’s approach is always insightful and sympathetic. Here ER’s Jamie Maclean (who strangely published one of Cork’s earliest articles) turns the tables and interviews the interviewer about the process of talking to great artists.

JM
Why did you want to write this book?

RC
I think I felt that now that several artists have died (three, in fact, Francis Bacon, Tony Caro, Richard Hamilton) it was time to embark on making a collection of interviews that go back over thirty years I suddenly realised that I was incredibly lucky to have interviewed so many outstanding artists.

JM
Considering the influential group you’ve chosen and interviewed, do you think artists have made an impact the way we live, or the way we think, in a sort of ‘top-down’ way? In other words, is contemporary art now cool? More so, that is, than ever before?

RC
I think that in Britain, the attitude towards modern art has actually gone through a revolution during my lifetime. Because when I was young, an awful lot of people, not just people who were older than me, but also my contemporaries, actually did think that modern art was a load of rubbish. And this really did continue right up into the 1970s when there was that famous, not to say hilarious moment, when the tabloids discovered that a Carl Andre brick sculpture had been acquired by the Tate and they put it all over their front pages:  “WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH: How The Tate Dropped 120 Bricks”  and an awful lot of people in Britain went along with that, they were very grumpy about the whole thing.

JM
When, in the 70s, was that?

RC
Mid-70s

JM
About the same time as Tom Wolfe’s 1975 article The Painted Word. So a similar reaction about conceptual art was going on at the same time in America.

RC
Interesting! But it wasn’t even as if Carl Andre was conceptual: he was minimal – he dealt with real, sculptural form. It wasn’t as if he were writing something in his postcard book and framing it and bunging it on the wall. Not a bit of it! And a lot of people in Britain were not only dismissive of modern art, but actually quite angry about it. I remember that so vividly, and looking back now, from 2015, the transformation that has taken place in this country is truly astonishing; I don’t think we quite realise it, really. I do think that London is now the world centre, very probably, for modern art. It’s the place to come. It’s got so many galleries, so much interest. Tate Modern… you only have to say those words, don’t you?

JM
Some artists’ success, and here I’m thinking of the YBA group I suppose – it hardly applies to the older generation of artists – appears to have relied upon a certain amount of self-promotion. Even Hockney admits to ‘re-inventing himself’ as he looked for recognition. Do you think this applies to any of the artists you’ve interviewed in subtle, or even blatant, ways?

RC
I think that the more artists I met and talked to, the more I realised that you can’t really generalise about this, and the more I discovered that most good artists are very, very individual people. I wouldn’t have included them in the book unless I thought they were good, either. There are plenty more who aren’t in the book.

JM
There isn’t very much about the artists’ lifestyle. So you’re concentrating mainly on their work?

RC
Yes, very much so. Although I was very struck, of course, when I visited the artists (and I didn’t visit all of them in their studios, by any means) by how totally individual and how totally different they really were. I mean you only have to compare Francis Bacon, living in a funny little mews in Kensington…

JM
Yes, I used to bump into him at the checkout in Europa Foods, nearby. He often queue-barged, too.

RC
You mean he was buying his champagne? Laughs

JM
Yes, that sort of thing. Probably more like ‘blotting paper’ to soak it up.

RC
Francis’ mews – looking back now – was really not very big. And you had to climb up a funny little narrow, teetering staircase to get to the top. How he managed, when he’d had too much champagne, I cannot think. How come he didn’t just plummet down the stairs one day? But if you compare that with Tony Caro, who had the most amazing, huge… almost kind of factory right in the middle of Camden Town, Georgiana Street, where you were very aware of enormous spaces where people were hard at work and Tony moving from one space to the next all day. And of course upstairs, his wife, Sheila Girling, was painting away. I think they’d been married for at least half a century, a wonderful, mutually inspirational couple.

JM
Do you think artists eventually become self-important? Because they’re told that they are important so often by the institutions that take them up? Do you think that this affects their work, or the way that they perceive themselves?

Your book is unique because you’re connecting with the artists on a less formal level. Did you encounter different levels of humility or egotism?

RC
It would be very difficult to interview a very puffed-up artist who was very full of him or herself, because you wouldn’t get very far with them, really, and you’d soon get very tired of what they were saying. I would say that, time and again, I was struck by how self-critical these artists, even the most celebrated ones, turned out to be. But I remember an extraordinary moment in my interview with Francis Bacon when he suddenly said, “ I can’t draw!” and I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “I mean what I said – I cannot draw.” And I suddenly realised that one never really saw Francis’ drawings, even though in a funny kind of way, there’s something very linear going on in his paintings, isn’t there – the way he defines the countours… And on another level, I remember when I interviewed Cornelia Parker, which was in front of a packed audience at the Courtauld Institute, she was very honest about how difficult she’d found it do develop from her childhood and how she’d had to fight against her Catholic demons and she grew up with a German mum who used to read her the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, so she was quite haunted by that.

JM
Maybe that’s why she blew up the garden shed, as if it were a Hansel and Gretel witch’s cottage? There’s a fair amount about ‘recognition’ – by galleries, critics, museums, collectors, which is obviously important in a morale-boosting and financially-surviving way to the artist, but what about Mr and Mrs Average Viewing Public – does the artist care very much for the fact they also have some critical input. Writers have to take readers into account – does the same apply to an artist and his or her audience? I’m reminded of your The Art We Deserve TV documentary. I think you made the point that there was a massive gulf between the appreciation of the general public and the gallery-going, art-appreciating crowd, which is pretty small by comparison. The vast majority of the 62 million people in this country will read about Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin at a celebrity level, but will not know about their art. Is there a disconnection here?

RC
Well, I think there used to be the kind of gap that you’re talking about to a very alarming extent, but the proliferation of exhibitions, of contemporary art of a very adventurous kind, not just in London, but up and down the country: I’ve witnessed the Baltic in Gateshead opening up to a whole new audience. And free admission is another thing that makes a massive difference in terms of our national culture: I got very worried in the 1980s when that was under threat. Occasionally it’s irritating when galleries are very full and you can’t see the painting because of the crowds in front of it.

JM
You don’t entirely rejoice in the glorious accessibility of art to an increasingly appreciative public, then?

RC
I do, I do (laughs), but it’s when they start using their phone cameras – and take themselves standing in front of, say, a Van Gogh. A sort of Van Gogh selfie… then it’s not so good. But I shouldn’t complain because… I have a memory of going to places like the National Gallery when I was young, and room after room was empty. And when you did see visitors there, they were not children. No children at all, it was all grown-ups. All that has changed so much

JM
Yours is a book about artists connecting with you through conversation. The questions you asked were important. Did these vary for each artist, or were they simply reactive to their work? Did you feel greater empathy towards some than others? By which I don’t mean ‘did you like some artists more than others’, but rather ‘did you connect through an admiration for their ideas, or pure visual enjoyment of their work’.

RC
I had a lot of respect for every artist that I interviewed in this book. Also I was very aware that someone like Richard Hamilton was very happy with the whole notion of talking about his work and explaining it and commenting on it almost like a critic, and unlike most artists he was one of those guys who wrote extensively about his own work, a whole volume, in fact, which is actually very unusual because most artists wouldn’t dream of doing that. Some artists, who are not in the book, are so shy that they have always refused to be interviewed: they’ve said ‘no’. They just can’t do it, and I can understand that entirely, even Francis Bacon…

JM
(interrupts) He sounds like a difficult interviewee in some respects

RC
Well, not really. Once he got going with the champagne… I remember that ‘champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends’ was one of his great expressions that he used to come up with at the Colony Club.

JM
And which did he consider you as?

RC
(laughing) Oh, I wasn’t a friend; I didn’t meet him that much. But I do remember trying to interview him once (and this certainly isn’t in the book) at the BBC in the 1980s. He came into a recording studio at the BBC, a very formal, clinical, box-like room, and he was actually very, very nervous and inhibited, and he found it very hard to say anything, really, at all.  So I just think that, despite his background of an uncle as director of the V&A, Francis was only able to be at his most articulate in an interview when he was recorded at home in Reece Mews.

JM
For the most part you talk to living artists who represent the current evolution of art. A hundred years ago, the paintings of Bomberg or Malevic would have meant little to a public brought up on a diet of painting that hadn’t changed all that much since the Renaissance. We often think that it’s only science that has evolved so bewilderingly fast. In talking to your subjects, did you get a sense of how things might develop in the next hundred years? Will technology and art blend, meld and merge even more than they have already? Because there are at least three multi-media artists who you talk to in that group.

RC
The artists interviews are arranged chronologically, oldest to youngest, the youngest being Tacita Dean, and if you look at her work, she fits the bill of what you are talking about. You never know with her what she’s going to do next. She uses all sorts of different media, and the occasion of our interview was a work of art which she’d done for BBC Radio 3, so it was an audio work, but that was just the starting point of our interview, and we went on to confirm that just about every piece she’d done is in a different medium. You can’t predict anything with her – she doesn’t know herself. Fascinating, in a way, because if you compare her with Bacon or Caro, they were totally committed to a single medium: painting or sculpture. But then, take David Hockney. Everybody thinks they know what a Hockney is, but he keeps on exploring the new technology; for example, look at his iPad paintings. And when I interviewed him in the 1980s, he’d just done a whole lot of work for opera – sets for Glyndebourne.

JM
Yes, perhaps he’ll investigate translating two-dimensional art into three-dimensional art through 3D printing next…

RC
(laughing) You never know…

Richard Cork, Face to Face: Interviews with Artists, Tate Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1849763240, illustrated, hardcover, 240 pp, £19.99

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