INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT SMITH
Published by Galerie R
1 January 2019
Q. How did your interest in Art begin?
RS : My mother got me interested in Art. She didn’t have an art background but she’d seen an exhibition of the Abstract Expressionists and couldn’t stop saying how fantastic it was. She taught me to draw and I liked Art as a subject at school. I did a foundation course but didn’t get a place at art college. I worked in a warehouse and went travelling to France and Africa before going to Sir John Cass in London to study Photography, and then to Farnham in Surrey to study Photography, Film and Television in 1983.
At John Cass we were all mature students with completely different interests and it was a great, fertile environment. By the time I went to Farnham I felt out of place. The course was all about documentary photography and I was interested in photography as fine art and left at the end of the first year.
Q. What were your early influences?
Graphic design, the Bauhaus, the New Topographics. Then Roy Lichtenstein, Kline, Pollock, Judd, Bridget Riley, Warhol, Duchamp. Picasso was really intense but you still had to go through him in a way. Anthony Caro’s ‘Early One Morning’ inspired me to be an artist. I later got into Turner, Manet, van Gogh, Monet, Delacroix.
Q. Did you exhibit at this time?
I did a few exhibitions at Cass and Farnham and in a group show at Camerawork in Bethnal Green. I couldn’t really make a lot of work as it cost a lot to make large photographic prints. I was living in bedsits and made miniature works. I tried to get a studio but I didn’t need a studio like a painter. I think you can generally say what you want to say in miniature.
Q. You’ve never been represented by a gallery. Did you apply to galleries?
I’d make submissions from time to time. I thought my work was okay but it wasn’t very coherent and it wasn’t obvious what I was trying to do. That said, a lot of the ideas and the work from that time I’m still doing.
Q. What were the origins of the ‘Line’ artworks?
When I was at Farnham a friend, Tim Hutton, who was also studying Photography, and I, were both interested in human intervention in the landscape and wondered how we could take the New Topographics further but I think we realised you can’t. Tim was very into the Greenwich meridian and the idea of a single line defining the world. I was making conceptual photographic works, lines and rectangles projected onto thick sheets of glass painted with light-sensitive emulsion. I went back to the line idea later and saw it more from a fine art perspective. Barnett Newman’s ‘zips’ were the only other use of a single line in art history that I was aware of, but I didn’t feel it was the same. It’s such a basic graphic element and yet it has many implications, defining territories and dividing areas. It’s a representation of the human need to impose its ideas on the world. It could also be seen as an end of Modernism.
Q. When did you start to exhibit seriously?
I didn’t really exhibit at all. I was living with Jacqui Ham (musician with Ut and Dial) and we were moving around a lot. We ended up moving to St. Ives in Cornwall but I still felt out of place, even with St. Ives’ artistic history. After Cornwall I moved to France around 2000. I exhibited my drawings in small galleries and town halls. I adapted what I was doing to the context I was in, trying to be contemporary and do real work but conscious that the context of rural France was not the same as Manhattan or Shoreditch.
Q. You use computers a lot in your work.
There was a resource centre in Penzance and I learned graphics software and started scanning things, objects, packaging. It was the beginning of a lot of work like art materials, receipts and scanned objects .
Q. Were you drawing at this time?
I’d started drawing in London in the late nineties. I didn’t have a studio or the money to make other work. It was a time of video, installations and so on, drawing was like taking Art back to the dark ages. I felt that if you were an artist you should be able to say what you want with a minimum of materials. I saw an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery called ‘Drawing the Line’ curated by Michael Craig-Martin and it was fantastic, ‘old master’ drawings mixed with modern works on paper. It had a big effect on me and helped me think about the possibilities of drawing.
I started walking through London constantly drawing on the same sheet of paper but the results were very chaotic. I made a few A4 drawings walking, and on buses, but couldn’t work out what I was doing. I wanted to keep drawing on top of the drawing because that’s what happens when we keep moving seeing different things. When you’re in a city you only take in a fraction of what you actually see. I wanted to represent the experience of constant change rather than a fixed viewpoint which most representations of a landscape are, to make Art but not in a studio, disconnected from the world outside.
I made a drawing board as large as possible that would fit under my arm so that I could walk and draw at the same time. It took a lot of different approaches, lots of very detailed and complicated layering before I realised that a scribble is all I wanted the drawing to look like, something chaotic and close to instantaneous, but based on observed reality. I wanted to have the kind of freedom Pollock had, but where the lines were depicting something observed. I was interested in scribbles and doodles as forms of spontaneous and unconscious expression, while also supposedly being the most meaningless, least aesthetically contrived mark-making possible.
Q. Do you think an artist should be able to draw?
I don’t think there’s any obligation, it depends what kind of work an artist does, but drawing is interesting because it’s so direct and basic.
Q. There’s are references to Art history in a number of works, how did this come about?
I was staying near Paris and found out that Auvers-sur-Oise was nearby so went to visit. I drew the sites of van Gogh’s paintings and others around 2011/12. It led to work I’m doing now, mixing art history with drawings and computer graphics. Impressionism was a lot about techniques, materiality, and how processes of representation and interpretation work. I like how an image changes depending on the process used. It’s a reminder that an image isn’t reality. It’s why I like Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein is often associated with comics but so much of his work is about Art and Art history.
Q. Isn’t this work just decorative, and out of place in today’s conceptually based art world?
Some of these works do go back to something aesthetic rather than idea-based. Impressionism wasn’t about pretty pictures, it was about painting, perception and materiality. The looseness of Impression Sunrise paved the way for a lot of modern art. Impressionism was about image and surface, rather than Cézanne’s representations of depth and structure. The computers I use allow you to go into the image and take it apart which for me is an echo of the painting techniques and materiality of the Impressionists.
Conceptual forms have dominated art practice for several decades, but no one has gone beyond, or come anywhere near, Duchamp, in my opinion. All Art contains ideas.
Q. Do social media have a place in today’s art world?
Technology may be useful as a means of communication but tends to remove people from actual experience. The experience of Art is often dependent on its physical presence and the relationship the viewer has with an artwork in a space. Social media are playing havoc with materiality.
Q. When did you start writing about Art?
After leaving college. If I couldn’t make work I spent time in libraries. I was always having arguments about modern Art, people generally being hostile and finding myself having to defend it. After trying to explain modern art most arguments would turn to the idea that talking was pointless because Art is whatever a person thinks it is, but that doesn’t explain the consensual nature and coherence of Art history.
I felt that the most basic question - “What is Art?” - hadn’t really been answered adequately. I started trying to answer those kind of basic questions in essay form in Penzance around 2000. Penzance library had an unusually good art section. They let me take most of the modern art section home one Christmas when they were redecorating the library. They had lots of monographs where you can find what an artist says about their work rather than interpretations by critics and historians. Finding what artists actually said about their own work wasn’t always easy.
Q. Why did you feel the need to write about Art?
When I left art school there were still many critics denigrating great artists like Caro, Riley and, of course, Duchamp, Warhol and Andre. I read, and started writing, so that I could be more confident that I knew what these artists’ work was about. We often think being pretentious is the fault of artists but historically it’s often been writers and critics who have tried to interpret Art in ways which are overwrought and often quite specious. I feel that Art’s primary role is to communicate with its audience, and it can and should do that without any interpretation. But if explanation is needed then it has to be clear. I think the public are very sensitive to pretentiousness.
Q. Don’t you think subjectivity plays a role in deciding what Art is?
Not really. In the sense of what one likes, yes, but not what constitutes Art, which is decided over time by consensus.
Q. Don’t you think that the ‘great artist’ is a worn out concept?
We often fall back to the argument that ‘everything is Art’, that ‘everyone is an artist’ but we need greater nuance in those kind of discussions. When I started writing about Art I realised that the number of artists in any history book is only a few hundred over several centuries, but they’re who we mean when we talk about Art and Art history. That means just one or two artists per year over the five centuries since the Renaissance, and that is quite a dramatic statement, but I think it’s true. It therefore begs the question of how today there can be hundreds of thousands of artists, and what exactly it is they are doing. I tend to hold to the idea that Art is Art when it is historically significant and everything else is a form of creative expression but not necessarily Art.
Q. When did you start playing music?
I was in a group at foundation course. I started playing more seriously when I moved to London and started an electronic project with a maths teacher friend, David Harper. I started playing with noisier guitar bands at the end of the Eighties and in 1991 started Dial with Jacqui Ham from Ut and Dom Weeks from Furious Pig.
Q. What are your musical influences?
The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, The Birthday Party, The Fall, The Beatles, Dylan. I think for rock musicians there are a lot of very basic references. I like early blues and quite a bit of jazz, especially Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and field recordings.
Q. Is it easy to be both a visual artist and a musician?
They’re very different and use different energies. Both are very intense and full time occupations and require time, resources and infrastructure of one kind or another. It’s a very underappreciated part of cultural production.
Q. You’ve talked about the “End of Art”, taking on from Hegel, Danto and others. Do you really think Art is finished?
Of course you can’t say that Art is over, you never know what might happen, but you have to wonder if a certain trajectory hasn’t been achieved. When you look at Rothko or Kandinsky you’re talking pure spirituality. Modern Art seemed to use ever less means to express the profoundest emotions and ideas possible. After a century and a half of such enormous developments it is hard to find any new terrain. The fact that a lot of contemporary art is dealing with social issues is, for me, a sign of that.
Art reminded us where we should be headed, what our ideals are, and I think Art has done most of what it can. Art doesn’t make us change the way we see the world, it is the world. Art, and culture generally, encompass many of the the values we live by, most like and appreciate. Art doesn’t materially change things, to do that you need practical and pragmatic solutions and that’s not the realm of Art.
Q. You’ve stayed outside the gallery system. Do you think you might stay unknown?
I didn’t believe in the private gallery system as the primary system for supporting artists. I came out of college in the Eighties when the art market was exploding and saw much of the world’s great historical Art disappear into private collections. Art isn’t primarily a commodity. Art should be seen, should be seen as work, and artists entitled to a living wage, which comes back to the question of what Art is, who is an artist and how to support them. When it is obvious that an artist is significant their work should be bought by museums. Just a few decades ago this didn’t seem possible but it is becoming more common. Art is a part of humanity’s collective history and should be available to everyone. Major galleries and museums should be free or at least affordable.
It is difficult to exist outside the formal structures and channels which administer Art, which create a kind of stasis which is hard to challenge. A status quo develops which stops things from being accepted in real time, although the pace of things has changed, though not necessarily always in a good way. I just tried to do my work, get by as best as I could, and keep all my work in the hope that it would be available for public display. All these questions need to be part of a better and deeper understanding and appreciation of Art and culture, which, apart from bringing enormous sums into the economy, are so essential to the human condition.