Peter Doig, Contemplating Culture, 1985, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 × 95".

Peter Doig, Contemplating Culture, 1985, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 × 95".

Peter Doig

Peter Doig, Contemplating Culture, 1985, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 × 95".

What did Peter Doig paint before he became the artist we all know? “Peter Doig: Early Works” showed, in twelve paintings and thirty-eight works on paper, his development from the early 1980s, when he was an art student in London, to the more contemplative and romantic landscape works he started to make later in the decade.

The earlier works evoke a young man who enjoys urban bustle and nightlife, who is eager to study art but quick to mock a too-serious approach to the classics. The lines and brushstrokes are rapid, the figures cartoony, as in Mr. Courbet, 1984, which shows a guy ready to lick a woman’s vagina, and clearly refers to L’Origine du monde, 1866. Chez Paree, 1986, is a bigger canvas depicting a man having a drink in a nightclub (Doig once lived above one). On his left, a woman is bending over, exposing her backside and legs and red high heels. On his right, a classical sculpture of Hercules brings a veneer of culture to the scene. Many of these works are reminiscent of Otto Dix’s sharp portraits of city life from Germany in the 1920s, but with a touch of Raymond Pettibon–esque humor. They are amusing, spiced up with sex, cars, and pop culture, but don’t seem particularly original; this is not the kind of work in which Doig would finally find his distinct voice.

Contemplating Culture, 1985, seems to be a hinge between early and later work. A figure is looking intensely at a Roman bust, engaged in a serious dialogue with the past. In the background, London is visible under a flaming-red sky, while in the middle ground, just behind the figures, we see a table with colorful fruit, a bottle, and a knife—a still life evoking Matisse or Bonnard. The act of looking (at art), here an explicit motif, will become a more subtle if ever-crucial reference in Doig’s work from the 1990s onward. Showing a lonely figure walking in nature, At the Edge of Town, 1986–88, announces the Doig with whom we are now familiar. The palette has become more limited—in this case to green, blue, and purple. Dark, symbolic contours of trees in the background animate the scene. The modest but effective Winter Wheat Field, 1986–88, in which the faint suggestion of a house in the fields is accomplished with just a few brushstrokes, also hints at the later Doig. Here, urban hubbub has made way for a solitary and meditative mood.

Some continuity can be found in Doig’s love of intense color and his interest in art history, but the show emphasized just how much of a change was involved in the shift from the early Doig to his mature work. The artist turned his attention from the bright lights of the big city to natural, melancholic settings that appear as states of mind. Concerning his early years, Doig has remarked that it was great to paint for some time without being noticed, and “to just make a fool of yourself.” And there is a lot of fooling around in these paintings, as well as some joyful exploration of art history. These may not be Doig’s most captivating works, but it is fascinating to see how a driven young painter gained focus and began to channel his energy into the more constrained approach that we now identify with the name of Peter Doig.

Jurriaan Benschop