Arts Council Collection

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Richard Cork

Richard Cork
Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009

You were selected as an external purchaser to purchase works for an exhibition. In 1973 you curated an exhibition entitled Beyond Painting and Sculpture. What was your relationship with the artists in that show?
 
RC - I think by then I knew most of them. The story is that soon after I graduated from Cambridge in 1969 I got an astonishing break: becoming the art critic for the Evening Standard at the age of 22. So I was terribly young, and it was a very exciting moment for anybody from that generation who wanted to write about art. You felt that everything was changing. It was extraordinary: everything was being questioned, everything was opening up, nothing was sacred at all. And the work that you had grown up thinking was revolutionary, like Anthony Caro, all that was being superceded, supplanted or questioned at the very least by this extraordinary new generation. I suppose you could sum it up by calling it conceptual art, but that's such an awful phrase. It doesn't begin to convey what the young artists were actually doing.
 
All the artists in my show were very difficult to classify, so you couldn't really fit them into anything other than a rubric like 'beyond painting and sculpture'. You couldn't define what they were all up to with any rigidity at all. There was a feeling, not of brotherhood exactly, but a powerful sense of 'them and us'. We were not hung up by any of the old barriers, which we regarded as completely arbitrary.
 
So at that point I felt very strongly that I was part of a new generation, and it was adventurous. I wanted my exhibition to have a definite purpose, because in those days there was a strong antagonism between the new group and the older generation of artists who still very much believed in the supremacy of painting and sculpture. I remember huge arguments erupting, like the first time I met Anthony Caro. He had taught Richard Long at St Martin's, but Caro refused to consider what Richard Long did to be art. I couldn't believe that Caro was so negative about such an outstanding young artist!
 
How was the show received in the press and was there much resistance to the exhibition?
 
RC - Resistance was quite tough, but on the other hand I must say that things were opening up. It was all quite positive because it was such a radical, ground-breaking time. Even when you got a negative review or response, that was part of what you were expecting and challenging. I had been a teenager during the Sixties, when there was a sense of revolution in the air. A big formative moment for me had been visiting the Duchamp retrospective at the Tate in 1966. It was organised by Richard Hamilton, who was a great friend of Duchamp. And I remember writing in the early 1970s that I was able to trace the origins of my involvement with these young artists to the impact of this exhibition. It was a revelation because Duchamp was not anything like as well known as he is now. It made you rethink everything in terms of art being a series of propositions. Duchamp opened it all up, because he believed artists could do anything. It didn't matter what kind of heretical strategies were deployed so long as there was a consistent, powerful vision.
 
How had you mainly come to know the artists in the exhibition Beyond Painting and Sculpture?
 
RC - I suppose you come to know artists in various ways. One is by going along to gallery exhibitions early, as critics often do, before they open to the public. In those days artists didn't really sell much work in Britain, there was very little money in it at that point. The whole scene was quite different. More often than not you would find the artist in the gallery still setting up, still tinkering. Things like video were new then and half the time they didn't work. But if the work interested me, I would have a chat with the guy who made it.
 
I have always been interested in talking to artists and trying to understand their mind-set, finding out what makes them tick. I am also fascinated by visiting their studios. You can learn a lot there.
 
The exhibition was particularly exciting as it brought a lot of photography and video based works into the Collection for the first time. It also purchased works from artists who have subsequently become established international names.
 
RC - Yes, that's right, I think Gilbert & George's were the first video works to enter the Collection. John Stezaker in those days was quite a different artist, he hardly used images at all. He was very much a words man, and the works we had in the show were text pieces. A lot of the artists have gone on to do incredible things.
 
What was your relationship like with Gilbert & George?
 
RC - I had interviewed Gilbert & George in their studio before then. I remember going round to their Fournier Street place, and all they had was the ground floor. Of course now they have the entire house and a massive studio in the garden. It was quite extraordinary going around there because you felt -- even though you were just having a chat -- that you were possibly part of a piece. At that time you didn't know whether you were talking to them or to a 'living sculpture'. There was a fascinating ambiguity.
 
The particular works that you decided to purchase for the exhibition have become well known works from a particular period of Gilbert & George's career. Was there any specific reason behind selecting those works?
 
RC - I remember them talking about the work 'In the Bush' and describing taking walks 'in the nature', which I found especially humorous. I did want to get close to their notion of 'living sculpture'. In those days they weren't really doing photo pieces so much as drawings and painting. But they were always distancing themselves, and regarding what they were doing as one thing among many. It was one of their key attitudes: that you could move very subtly from one means of visualising to another, and new alternatives kept cropping up -- as they continue to do today.
 
I bought three very different works to give a sense of how they considered all these various things to be art; to show the range of what was going on. In those days, the Arts Council Collection also had a few issues with photography. I don't think they really knew how to deal with it. But Gilbert & George don't really make video works any longer, they produce mainly large photographic wall pieces, so maybe these works are quite rare now.
 
I remember inviting Gilbert & George to my house for dinner, and they arrived very drunk. In fact, they were so drunk that when they left, late in the evening, I went upstairs to the bathroom where they had used the loo. There was an extraordinary mark on the mirror where one of them had pressed their lips against it. I think they had drunk quite a lot of Gordon's before they came around. So maybe they were performing the work for me.
 
The Arts Council Collection supports artists who have made a significant contribution to British Culture, that's not to say exclusively artists born in Britain.
 
RC - Gilbert & George do have a thing about nationalistic contexts. They flew into a rage when the old Tate Gallery became Tate Britain. They thought art should never be confined by national identity, and said they never wanted to show there for that reason. I remember going to the Venice Biennale when they had the British pavilion over there, and meeting Gilbert's family from the Dolomites. I realised how very Italianate he was actually, a combination of Swiss and Italian.
 
What do you remember about meeting Victor Burgin?
 
RC - I talked to Victor Burgin quite a lot about his work, and he came over to my house with his wife. I also enjoyed visiting him when he lived in Dulwich. I knew him quite well at that time. If I was strongly interested in an artist and wanted to find out more, then I would just contact them. It wouldn't really be chance encounters so much as organised meetings.
 
Performance - Narrative Piece is one of his more conceptual works. At that time Burgin was also doing pieces that didn't rely so much on using words. This work is much more austere. It's interesting because it throws something back at the viewer, it makes you question your own responses to the work and sort out what's going on inside your own brain. The image itself is like an interrogation image. It's mysterious. I remember liking the austerity and dealing with words and ideas conjoined with images, so that the image is being challenged all the time.
 
You had a very different relationship with Hamish Fulton than you did with the other artists in the exhibition. In what way did it vary?
 
RC - I knew some of the artists much better than others and I didn't really know Hamish Fulton at all. In fact, I bought his work for the Collection because the Arts Council had already purchased a Richard Long and I wanted to represent Land Art. So acquiring a Hamish Fulton seemed to make sense. Unlike Richard Long, whose work often conveys a strong sense of his own presence in the landscape, you don't get that with Hamish Fulton. The images are beautiful, well composed and much more romantic. Rather than making works in the landscape, they are more about recording and respecting the natural world. But looking back now, we realise that both Hamish and Richard were, in their different ways, exploring issues of absolutely central importance to our existence on the planet today.