PRINT Summer 1980

Malcolm Morley: Talking About Seeing


IF THERE IS A METAPHYSIC behind Malcolm Morley’s painting technique, it is eroticism—the eroticism of seeing. Although still best known for the cool precision of his travel-poster- and photograph-derived paintings done between 1965 and 1969, his most recent work displays an unabashed painterliness and directness that express a wish, like Monet’s, to have been born blind and then suddenly to receive sight. Hiking through art history and autobiography, stopping wherever he is surprised—Van Gogh, Delacroix, a dream about his analyst, the Tampa, Florida, Zoo—Morley is relentless in his quest for visual diversity and plasticity. Densely painted surfaces steam with a variety of strokes and marks that express the temperament of a born-again painter. Instead of photographs, the models for the paintings are now drawings done directly from nature, or tableaux set up with toy soldiers, model planes, trains, etc., or a combination of the two. The subjects, like the surfaces, have become more openly personal. Morley is concerned with what to paint, not just how to paint. Like some work by past artists of an expressionist bent, Morley’s paintings run the risk of clot and cant; but, at their best, they present a hearty visual clarity to hungry eyes.


Klaus Kertess: How would you characterize your main concern as a painter?

Malcolm Morley: I take painting very literally to be a thing to do with seeing. I want to know what perception is in terms of painting. The idea is to try to develop a painterly sense of the world and to create a dialogue between that painterly seeing and its resolution on the flat plane of the canvas. I want the eyes to float and bob like buoys on the wetness of the painted surface.

K.K.: You’ve always used a grid to translate seeing into painting.

M.M.: Yes, precisely.

K.K.: And each section of the grid is painted separately.

M.M.: Yes. That way I don’t have anxiety of the whole. It allows a greater penetration, and I get a concentration of a kind of molecular-bunching-up of seen things. I can avoid figure-ground problems. Normally, you spend all the energy on the figure, and you just fill in the ground. This way everything is ground.

K.K.: Does the grid matter to the final painting?

M.M.: It matters in that it has determined everything about scale and marking.

K.K.: Do you always require a concrete source—or what you refer to as a “model”—for your paintings?

M.M.: Yes. I myself have no interest in making the model. I’d feel that I was breaking the magic of it, because it’s the idea that somebody else made the model that gives it authenticity, that connects it to the outside. I feel that children always make their models by having them.

K.K.: So you must actually see what you imagine?

M.M.: Yes. Yes.

K.K.: After 1969, you stopped using photographs and travel posters as models and started painting more physically and less precisely. What made you change?

M.M.: The idea of a release of painterly temperament through an engagement with temporal space. It’s just as simple as that. Of course, it’s much more complex too. I began to feel that there was a loss of an erotic sense because of the separation from three-dimensional experience. I needed to represent three-dimensional seeing on a two-dimensional plane.

K.K.: You actually cut a hole in a painting to see through?

M.M.: Yes. I was in my studio with a friend looking at one of those Super-Realist paintings. We were really stoned and started looking at tiny bits of the painting through a magnifying glass—that’s really where the energy of the painting was—in all those tiny strokes. I realized I wanted to see through and into, instead of across. I became more interested in the physicality of the surface. I mean what are all those hairs on the brush for, anyway?

K.K.: How did you adapt the grid to three-dimensional models?

M.M.: By looking through an open grid at the model.

K.K.: So you cut a hole in the grid, too?

M.M.: Yes. That way I can see in bits. It’s the idea of fast looking but at tiny bits. Glancing so that you get a flash—to keep seeing spontaneously so memory doesn’t interfere, so that the vision is pure rather than organized.

K.K.: So the first grid catalyzes your seeing; then a second, related grid organizes the painting.

M.M.: Yes. I’ve become my own camera.

K.K.: The paintings are quite flat.

M.M.: Yes. I feel that what’s good for painting is to have things close together and bunched up, so the models are often small and seen at close range. I want a lot of variety in a small space. You know I’ll stage a tableau with a post card arid a toy train or blow up a toy Indian from two different sides or do a live parrot at close range. It gives me a great deal of freedom with scale, too.

K.K.: You changed your medium as you changed your method.

M.M.: I changed from acrylic to oil. Oil allows more diversity, and it’s denser and wetter. Modulation. I want modulation. Acrylic is for a more homogenized surface. I want to allow as much variety as possible.

K.K.: Many of the paintings done between 1971 and 1978 have disaster as subject: train wrecks, an earthquake, planes crashing into boats. Some of the paintings use your Super-Realist works as models in tableaux that include objects such as toy planes—was this a way of destroying your own past?

M.M.: Partially, but it really was a dovetailing of needs. The Super-Realist paintings seemed to be too much about rewarding repression and retention, but they were also a model or rehearsal for how to structure the whole idea of vision. So I could combine this idea of interest in the paint surface and the idea of anti-Super-Realism and destruction and going through a divorce and going mad . . . you know—everything.

I felt this technological and psychological breakdown—a loss of confidence all around accompanied by a lot of airplane crashes. You know, the technological pile was getting very heavy.

Also the most formative parts of my life were spent in England, during a very violent war. I was subject to bombing and brought up on war films.

K.K.: What do you remember about World War II?

M.M.: Well, I was an adolescent, so I didn’t have the real feeling of horror that the adults had. I had this kind of weird appreciation of the dog fights over London. I remember a doodlebug (buzz bomb) hitting once and running back to my room to see if the model of a ship I had built had been destroyed.

K.K.: Is the use of model planes and trains, and, more recently, the use of toy soldiers, a conscious evocation of your childhood?

M.M.: They make it possible to set up panoramas on a small scale.

K.K.: But they’re more than that, aren’t they?

M.M.: Well, yes, I like the toy soldiers much more than I let on to. They’re not as beautiful as peaches, but they’re more interesting. There’s a kind of unconscious reality going on in toys—all toys are icons to begin with.

K.K.: The toy cowboy pointing the dildo in The Lonely Ranger Lost in the Jungle of Erotic Desires is really you, isn’t it?

M.M.: That painting is very personal. It sums up 20 years of work. It let me break away from the anxiety into the kind of reconstruction that’s going on now.

K.K.: You mean the drawings of animals done directly from nature that you’re using as models for paintings?

M.M.: Yes.

K.K.: Why animals?

M.M.: The content seems to stem out of a plastic need—a necessity to make a mark in a certain kind of fashion. It took me a long time to figure out, but arabesque marks feel better to me than straight lines. That somehow led me to animals because they represent arabesques and movement. Of course, animals are very esthetic to begin with. You see a zebra and it looks as if the stripes have just been freshly painted—those glistening stripes and that beautiful pink belly, in the sunlight.

Also, that deep feeling you may have had with animals as a child. Everything comes to rest, and there’s not even a personality problem. You kind of let go . . . I feel I can let go.

K.K.: The drawings are certainly freer than anything you’ve done before—like going back to Delacroix through de Kooning. But as models for paintings, they’re much less specific.

M.M.: That’s true. It allows much more invention. Certainly a pencil drawing has much lower information than a photograph. The painting still reflects the source, but now the source is pencil marks. I’m very aware of a shift in responsibility now that there’s greater participation in the model and what it represents.

K.K.: What other subjects are you thinking about painting?

M.M.: History paintings.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.