New York

Malcolm Morley, Tilting, 2017, diptych, oil on linen, overall 50 × 100".

Malcolm Morley, Tilting, 2017, diptych, oil on linen, overall 50 × 100".

Malcolm Morley

Sperone Westwater

Malcolm Morley, Tilting, 2017, diptych, oil on linen, overall 50 × 100".

Malcolm Morley’s late oeuvre, which this show to some extent encapsulated, has an undeniably boyish core. Having worked his way through various isms and influences in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s to considerable acclaim, the transplanted Brit (Morley moved to New York in 1958 when he was in his late twenties) returned in the ’90s to an early preoccupation with nautical themes, wartime imagery, and model making. Repressed memories of traumatic events had bubbled up via psychoanalysis from the turbulent depths of his famously troubled childhood: As the Wiki-myth would have it, Morley spent the first twenty years of his life grappling with cruelty (at the hands of a resentful and abusive stepfather), conflagration, and loss. As a young boy, he is said to have been both thrilled and horrified by the war with Nazi Germany that consumed his country and destroyed his familial home. An oft-told tale, perhaps too perfectly explicative to be completely credible, puts young Morley in his bedroom as the walls buckle and collapse from the impact of a doodlebug bomb exploding down the street. In a 1996 interview in, aptly, Bomb magazine, he describes in lurid detail (we learn that his stepfather threatened to kill him that fateful evening after busting him masturbating) how a highly intricate model of the HMS Nelson he’d just finished building and was about to paint was “totally evaporated,” leaving nothing but a gaping hole where the locus of fantastical pleasure had once lain. Of course the inference here is that Morley spent the rest of his life painting that boat, while the additional biographical details might help explain his persistent depiction of explosive, indeed, ejaculatory, activity.       

Adding, in the late ’90s and early aughts, combative sports and eighteenth-century British history painting to his distinctly masculine thematic inventory, Morley, who died this past June at age eighty-six, is now best known for skillfully rendered (he was at one point a pioneering Photorealist) pastiches of deeply personal, and therefore eccentric, psychoactive imagery. Roughly two-thirds of the nineteen paintings in this show, titled “Tally-Ho” (after a British expression emitted by huntsmen on sighting a fox and later adopted by Royal Air Force pilots radioing in their intention to engage the enemy in a dogfight), were executed in the past three years. The remaining works exemplified key phases of the artist’s aesthetic and methodological evolution. At the center of it all, and flanked by numerous smaller pieces mining similar imagery, were two large, vibrantly illustrative pictures—Tilting and Melee at Agincourt, both 2017—featuring jousting medieval knights in full heraldic regalia astride their caparison-clad chargers. In Tilting, knights sporting competing insignia face off in a bifurcated composition that places the figures atop flat, color-contrasted grounds—a bright bluish green to the left and a crisp lemon yellow to the right. A lesson in pictorial intensity—the jousting tournament is an enduring anachronism of ritualized, aestheticized violence, amped up here by a Pop palette of seductively counterposed hues—the painting is predicated on opposing cultures and impending destruction. Another split composition, Melee at Agincourt cuts to the clash, depicting a pileup of jousters, six per side, converging in symbolic dialectical annihilation at the center of the frame, though this time the action is situated on a flat, unifying field of acidic yellow. Equal parts mock-historical tableau and schoolboy sublimation, the work shows the artist laying claim to painterly grandeur through his submission to frustrated foundational urges. 

Morley occupies a curious and singular position within the canon of late-twentieth-century Western painting. As a disaffected Englishman in New York, he ended up hybridizing British and American formal and pictorial concerns (think Richard Hamilton folded into James Rosenquist) while balancing programmatic modernist agendas with subjective fascinations and psychotherapeutic excavations. Eventually, the scales tipped from contextual considerations to unselfconscious enjoyment, from cultural reflexivity to childlike play, at which point he began drifting toward a regressive reification of self-perpetuating, elemental conflicts that both tormented and propelled him. In doing so, he plugged that blasted hole with a pleasure principle shot through with inextricable unease.