Working Out a Way Things Might Matter: On the Writing of Stuart Morgan
Paul Thek, Untitled (Diver) (1969–70), synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper
If I can begin the long way, in my research for this piece I was struck by critic and poet Jeff Derksen’s ‘Times and Places of Critique’, a paper presented at the 2009 conference ‘Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism’ in Vancouver. Given that – less than two miles from my flat – the London Olympics have just concluded, it’s worth the detour to hear his thoughts:
‘Locally, the pressures of neoliberal transformation (in the lead up to and wake of the 2010 Olympics) in Vancouver have amalgamated a new set of expectations, contexts, and possibilities for art criticism in the city and beyond. Art criticism and critical discourse is at an extremely potent or even bloated moment in Vancouver. Even in its modest scale, art and criticality have been drawn in to a war of values in Vancouver as the city looks to rebrand itself within the nexus of “creative cities” globally. This public transformation is mostly driven by private initiatives, “visions” and power configurations, and it involves the becoming “public” of art at a time characterized by the privatization of public space and goods […]
But within this new set of mediations – both global neoliberal urbanism and local rebranding of the city through culture – gone are the days when we could calmly locate culture, are or literature as merely secondary, reflective, or even outside the economic. Gone are the days where we could seek the belatedness, the comfort, or the potential of being merely superstructural, of being miraculously the last out of the gate and at the tip of the vanguard […]
Cultural and social critique, then, whether they use art and art institutions or the social as their entry point, face a similar question: How to produce new publics and how to forge non-absorbable forms of critique that will allow us to take aim, take time, take space, and take collectivised pleasure in order to grab the present moment by the hand and lead it to less arrogant forms of social reproduction?’
Derksen questions the ‘limitations and temporality of criticism’, but ends on an optimistic note, concluding, ‘This imagination of time and agency as event, history and upset calculations seems to be a fertile construct for cultural criticism and art writing: historical, present, and yet overturning calculations.’
Although the Olympics have only recently finished in London, shifts such as the loss of innocence and the economic shotgun wedding with the creative happened here several decades ago. However, as a sort of thought exercise, let this earlier, shifting locale that Derksen describes stand in for an earlier London and British art scene. For this might give an idea of the setting from which the critic Stuart Morgan was writing in the 1970s to the late ’90s.
This is largely a confessional of sorts, a look at Morgan’s writing from my own, distant perspective. I became familiar with his work only once I moved to the UK in 2007, five years after Morgan passed away, through a chance encounter with the collected publications of his writings (What the Butler Saw, 1996, and the posthumously published Inclinations: Further Writings and Interviews, 2006). Ten years after his death, what I’d like to offer is a series of anachronistic proposals.
The first is that Morgan was a writer who wrote almost exclusively for the specialist art press; whose main audience and ideal readership were artists; whose writing I would like to claim can be read now as a form of corrective for current art writing, in its combination of accessibility and insightfulness that can be approached by both art and uninvolved, ‘non-art’ audiences.
The text that I want to focus on is his 1995 essay on Paul Thek, ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Get Up’. The second anachronistic proposal I am going to make is that, in reading about Thek alongside and within Morgan, there is a sense of parallel, analogy, and confusion between their two stories, between the impression, consumption, and legacies of their life and work.
As many will be aware, Morgan was a British critic who for more than two decades wrote for a number of international publications: frieze, Artforum, Arts Magazine, Art Monthly, Artscribe, Beaux Arts and Vogue. In his introduction to the frieze-published 1996 collection of his writing, Thomas McEvilley called him ‘the pre-eminent British critic of the past 15 years’; in his 2002 obituary for Morgan, Adrian Searle named him ‘Britain’s most significant writer on contemporary art’. Though a fire destroyed most of his possessions and notebooks, two books have gathered together a selection of his essays, reviews and interviews. Despite his career while alive, his renown and these publications, Morgan’s presence in critical and artist circles seems to have diminished, to the point of younger practitioners often being unaware of who he was.
The essay on Thek is exemplary of Morgan’s approach to subjects and artists, attempting to inhabit their way of thinking, then stepping back out and looking in with a mixture of tenderness and critical perspective. With the advent of last year’s touring retrospective, Thek has since shifted from being the quintessential ‘artist’s artist’ to gaining broader recognition, so reading introductions to his practice now, after his rescue from the bins of art history, already seem almost melodramatic. Nevertheless, it’s useful to look at how several other writers have chosen to begin looking at the same subject. Here is a brief survey of opening sentences:
‘The relative neglect Paul Thek bemoaned during the latter years of his unfortunately curtailed career has inevitably become part of his posthumous legend. Much of the evidence of various unrealised projects, installations long ago dismantled, and works irreparably damaged in transit or destroyed by museums unwilling to allocate them storage is faint and fugitive.’
This is Caoimhin Mac Giolla Léith, beginning at the end, in a 1999 book accompanying a small show of Thek’s lesser-seen paintings in Dublin.
‘Thek spent much of his creative lift in self-imposed exile in Europe, and his cosmopolitan art was nourished by the passage of this fugitive life. He believed in process, voluntary poverty, life and materials in flux, in working with simple everyday materials where the metaphors were always ready at hand. He believed in the grace of fluidity and the transience of time that inspired creative works, and that the materials of arts were meant to be transient, a marker, a sign of his act of passing through.’
Ann Wilson’s essay has a similarly solemn tone, a sort of eulogistic manifesto, accompanying Thek’s exhibition at Witte de With in 1995. Morgan’s essay, written on the occasion of the same survey, opens properly on a different gambit:
‘The year is 1963. In the catacombs at Palermo a good-looking young man is standing, arms folded, with skeletons ranged behind him. As a portrait, the snapshot seems far from successful: the subject seems out of place because his mind is elsewhere. The second attempt by the same photographer, a head and shoulders shot taken eleven years later, shows the subject, still handsome in his way but baggy-eyed, with thinning hair and a lined forehead. Only one clue reveals that it is the same person. For by now the loss of focus that had previously seemed charming has become an inevitability; he looks straight through us because he cannot escape his own mind. Perhaps he is still in Palermo, among the catacombs. “There are about 8,000 corpses,” he wrote, “Not skeletons, corpses decorating the walls, and the corridors are filled with windowed coffins. I opened one and picked up what I thought was a piece of paper; it was a piece of dried thigh.” As always his reaction was unusual… “I felt strangely relieved and free,” he wrote. “It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers.”’
Morgan’s approach might similarly speak of Thek’s sombre attitude and isolated later life as most writings on Thek do, but for Morgan, this is evoked and effected through the subjective inhabitation of a portrait photograph, travelling back and forth in Thek’s lifetime. Immediately, he sets out an approach of speculative projection, aligning us ambivalently with Thek’s imaginative process with a conditional, limited third person narrator, still managing to inscribe us in to Thek’s perspective.
The essay unfolds in a series of chronological jumps and parenthetical asides, reading Thek’s shifts in vocational roles and representative characters via diary entries and events that will happen ten years down the line. Morgan charts Thek’s downward spiral, investing in his ‘unhelpful explanations’ and inhabiting his intricate, crumbling cosmology, but only to up to a point: ‘there is no point in pretending that the last years of Thek’s life gave rise to his finest art’.
The essay ends on a question:
‘Did he ever relax into the situation as it was, or did he continue to look straight through it to something else, somewhere else, as he seemed to have done for the whole of his strange, confused, cryptic, inspiring life?’
This open-ended cliff-hanger palms off some of Thek’s restlessness onto the reader. But there is also the sense of the Morgan’s empathy spilling over, finding himself in his own words. Morgan notes a moment from Thek’s diary where he writes: ‘I want to make a real place to rest and worship in, not just art.’ Searle’s obituary for Morgan ends on the statement: ‘Morgan never chose a career at all, but pursued instead an exemplary, difficult life in art.’ In their immersive, chaotic dedication, reading from the present we can get the sense of one finding themselves in the other.
‘Instead of being judged for their capacity for deduction,’ Morgan argued in a talk he had given in 1991 in Eindhoven, ‘critics should be respected for their capacity for intuition, sympathy and imagination. To gain full impact, after all, criticism has to display qualities of creative thinking. And no definition of criticism should omit this element of artistic inspiration.’
I spoke with Ian Hunt, writer and poet, friend of Morgan’s and editor of his two publications, who said:
‘He liked to cause trouble. What he really wanted to do was creatively confuse some of the terms of judgement. He actively wanted to get people to think for themselves, to question their lives. He saw criticism as a structure in which it was possible to do that, and his commitment to it involved being interested in how things mattered culturally: so he looked at every level of art, and at things that aren’t art. I think part of what he was about was a defence of the essay as a rigorous questioning form that inevitably involves a subjective aspect; he’d learnt from American essay writing, journalism, and literature, in its use of a confident subjectivity, and combined that with empirical analysis of things and historical contexts. He crafted the essay as a questioning form to show how things might matter, and as a sketch of speculative possibility used to provoke thought.’
There is a difference between Derksen’s and Morgan’s pre-Olympic tones. We could say that Morgan eschewed the language of critique without shying away from the activity, the intimate down-and-dirty of criticism. It’s tempting to say that Morgan’s writing feels like one of the ‘non-absorbable forms’ Derksen seeks, but it’s also possible to find in Morgan one of the figures who helped shaped, define and drive the British art scene from a small haven to its current corporate Olympian blockbuster status. Nevertheless, his tone of open inquiry is one I find to be lacking in current criticism. Morgan’s clues, his ‘perhaps’, his questions, his ways things might matter, are perhaps the strongest reason why I feel his relevance to the present. His writing is of the conditional, the provisional, of suspension and examination. What does his empathetic, propositional seriousness mean? Reading it now, it feels invitational, mischievously creative and conspiratorial, unfettered by concerns of the boundaries of art, culture, life.
Most people claim criticism is of the present. But that supposed present is highly unstable: seeing an art work that was made months or years beforehand, culling those minutes of experience days later into a piece of writing that is published several weeks or months later. Criticism isn’t necessarily of or about the present, more in the just-future tense, written in the past towards addressing and affecting the just-after the present. So I’d like to conclude on one final anachronistic proposal: that criticism, and the critic themselves, should be anachronistic – historical, but un-present, by proposing a range of creative calculations of the conditional.