PRINT September 2001


David Sylvester

It’s hard to believe David Sylvester is no longer with us. On both sides of the Atlantic, his imposing presence—a huge amalgam of mind, body, and passion—seemed a permanent fact; and his death on June 19, after a prolonged battle with cancer, feels as unreal as the news that a mountain on our horizon has vanished.

I cannot remember the art world without David’s looming large. Only last October, in Berlin, I came upon him by surprise while touring Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum. The effect was hallucinatory, with his dramatic figure and oracular voice radiating throughout those haunting, still empty spaces. But David could enter any room, whether in a gallery or in somebody’s home, and instantly fill it with the uncanny intensity of his focus on whatever matter, trivial or grave, preoccupied him at the moment. It might have been his quandary over why the taxi driver took this (probably more expensive) route over the one he would have chosen or his fury about how some New York editor had just chopped up his polished prose (“No wonder,” he would add, “Americans like meat loaf”), but it was usually art that dominated his thoughts and conversation. He could silence the cheerful gossip at any dinner table by posing with urgent solemnity a question like “But who do you think is greater, Giotto or Matisse?” And in front of works of art, he could stand or sit immobilized for what seemed, for those with mortal attention spans, an eternity. (I remember, back in the ’60s, being obliged to stop in my tracks and ponder with him an unusually wide Color Field canvas that I would ordinarily have taken in while making my way to the elevator.) Whether on the telephone (where it would take untold seconds for him to say “Hello” or “Yes”), at a symposium panel, or in more informal situations, he gave new meaning to the phrase “pregnant pause.” Often the delay between the most casual question addressed to him and his sonorous, frequently monosyllabic response could feel like nine full months, during which time he would furrow his brow and assume gestures appropriate to the utterance of an Old Testament prophet.

For David, all words and thoughts about art had an almost religious gravity, generating in him a constant self-surveillance which at times seemed so anguished and paralyzing that one wondered how he could write anything at all. Many of us remember those unexpected early morning phone calls in which David would barge into your life, desperately begging a moment to read something he had just written—a phrase about a Newman painting or a Twombly sculpture—in order to make sure that he wasn’t ridiculously off the mark. The demon of self-doubt always stalked him. There was, of course, something comical about his high-seriousness; but I suspect that all our smiles covered a bit of envy. Unlike the rest of us ironists, David, with a burning, ingenuous faith in old-fashioned truth and beauty, was someone who made you feel that art might matter more than life itself. A fusion of Michelangelesque terribilità and Rubensian carnality, he kept leaping from the Olympian heights of artistic Last Judgments to the earthly pleasures of savoring specific works of art one by one, brushstroke by brushstroke, a passion that also made him famous as a painstaking genius in the art of installation. And these sensibilities permeated his living quarters as well, where he would arrange with exquisite precision such private treasures as a Roman portrait bust or a Persian carpet and worry even about the exact placement of pens on a writing table. This burly, Falstaffian character was as obsessed as Whistler or Wilde with hairbreadth aesthetic nuance.

Given what was always his ponderous tempo, whether at airports or cocktail parties, it is amazing how prolific he was. A quick check in the Research Libraries Information Network catalogue discloses 265 items under his name, from books and exhibition catalogues to interviews and TV presentations, but this tally does not even begin to include the countless newspaper and magazine articles he wrote on everything from cricket to James Bond movies. His output was full of surprises. I recall how, flipping through Vanity Fair in 1984, I stumbled upon an article titled “Satyr vs. God” and discovered one of the most moving essays about an old-master painting I had ever read. It was David’s awestruck account of Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, which had just been on loan to the Royal Academy from its obscure Czech home in Kromeriz. In only one page, he immersed himself totally in this masterpiece, wallowing in the vibrant magic of its pigment and sensing the epic Shakespearean dimensions of the late Titian’s reading of this gruesome tale of divine retribution that, for David, had “the feel of an enactment by twilight of some mysterious ritual celebrated slowly with a calm rapture.”

But of course, David was best known for his commitment to contemporary art. Americans, who usually thought of him as one of several major international critics equally significant to New York and Paris, may not realize that in his native London, his position is of singular importance, a second coming of Roger Fry. In fact, David was the evangelist who, in the ’60s, could persuade British audiences to look sympathetically at the likes of Moore, Giacometti, and Bacon, a feat accomplished through his vivid and clear prose, a beam that pierced the fogs of art-critical jargon. Of Moore’s wartime drawings of the London underground, he wrote that “the shelterers seen waking from a sleep take on an air of rising blearily from death” (1968). Of Miró’s bronze Lunar Bird, “it is cocky, bullying, tumescent, all rampant libido” (1967).

Such descriptive prowess reigned decade after decade, as he embraced one generation after another. As a Londoner, he predictably wrote about an ongoing roster of compatriots, from Bomberg and Spencer to Riley and Hodgkin. But he was even more of a proselytizer for the Americans, especially on British soil, where he early espoused the causes of the most difficult and exalted of the Abstract Expressionists and then went on adding, with equal enthusiasm, the stars of Pop art and Minimalism and, most recently, Jeff Koons.

For David, art and life were always intertwined. I remember his being perched at a friend’s Central Park West apartment window, peering at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for the first time. Suddenly, the procession of giant balloons triggered a eureka experience, offering him a whole new way of understanding Koons’s sculpture. One almost saw the scales fall from his eyes. He often helped scales fall from mine, too, prompting me, back in the ’80s, to look freshly at late Picasso, a period that for me and many others had first appeared to be a ragged, frenzied decline of the master’s powers. But David, again fusing art and life, brought to these last decades a human understanding that he poignantly distilled in his catalogue essay for the 1988 exhibition in Paris and London. “They are works,” he said, “which lay utterly naked the horror of growing old,” an insight that must also have provided a two-way mirror between artist and critic. His search for human truths also revitalized the tradition of the artist’s interview, one of David’s favorite forms of exploring the connections between real-life people and the art they made. Astonishingly for a man who ordinarily dominated every conversation, he became, most famously with Bacon, an intent listener, a kind of psychoanalyst who, with a few well-chosen questions, could prompt patients to explore the concealed memories that might shed light on their art. The diversity of artists who succumbed to his spell is startlingly wide, from de Kooning and Serra to Morris and Gilbert & George. The good news is that an anthology of these interviews is slated for publication this fall by Yale.

David could be both tortoise and hare. His pithiest writing swiftly followed the changing gallery scene. But he was always involved with projects of much longer incubation. Exhibitions, of course, fell into this category, such as the pathbreaking “Dada and Surrealism Reviewed” (1978); but his most mammoth, and often overlooked, achievement was the catalogue raisonné of Magritte’s work. I remember thinking, back in the ’80s, that with David’s scrupulous concern for both big and little things, whether the philosophical concept of the entirety of an artist’s work or the detailed format of each entry, this project would never see the light of day. But with the assistance of Michael Raeburn and Sarah Whitfield, who was also to be his last long-term attachment, the first of the five volumes actually did appear in 1992, launching a stately procession that, hard to believe, reached completion five years later, in 1997. Although David was usually classified as a working critic, this magisterial catalogue should elevate him to the rank of great scholars, a height all the more astonishing given the fact that he was essentially self-educated. (His expulsion from University College School for truant behavior was, in fact, a preview of his inherent nonconformism, which kept him apart from institutional affiliations.) What he did have was his own insatiable hunger for knowledge and for the experience of art, passions he cultivated during a long sojourn in postwar Paris, where, with youthful zeal, he absorbed himself in the world of Sartre and Giacometti.

Now, half a century later, David lives on not only through his art writing, an indispensable model of how to make words communicate the pleasures and mysteries of visual experience, but through his legendary persona. Those who knew and loved him continue to swap stories. (To someone who telephoned him during his last days and asked, “Are you in the middle of something?” he retorted, so we heard, “Yes, I’m in the middle of dying.”) How could I ever forget our last visits to him in the London hospice where, as he lay dying, he insisted on having his anxious guests play his favorite game of quantification, listing the greatest of the great? In this case, we had to guess the twenty-two supreme works by the nineteen twentieth-century artists that he himself had chosen for an exhibition the Tate was planning in his honor, an event that, sadly, he will have seen only in his mind’s eye. With his fervor for perfection, David controlled everything. In his final days, he even orchestrated his memorial service down to the last detail, including the choice of art-world speakers. There would be music by Bach arranged by Birtwistle, poetry by Thompson and Eliot, passages from Wittgenstein and Ecclesiastes, and Richard Serra would read David’s unpublished text on Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. I am told it was all a marvel and that his spirit presided completely. And I suspect that somehow, somewhere, he is guiding, and judging, these words as I write them.

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.