Michael Andrews: Earth Air Fire, Gagosian Gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London, until 25 March 2017

The School of London has attracted a huge amount of attention since the term was first coined by R.B. Kitaj in 1976. Kitaj was in search of like- minded figurative artists to support his own thesis that drawing and observation were fundamental to the making of any painting worth its salt, and he selected an exhibition for the Arts Council, entitled The Human Clay, to prove his point. He identified more than forty painters in this so- called School, offering a richly varied interpretation of his own criteria, and including such unexpected contributors as Carel Weight, Stella Steyn and William Turnbull. No one has pursued this kind of breadth in sub- sequent School of London shows (though such a wide-ranging museum survey would be both welcome and fruitfully controversial), and gradually the membership has been fined down to a mere handful of household names. Francis Bacon leads the team, closely followed by Lucian Freud, Kitaj himself, Frank Auerbach, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Howard Hodgkin. Michael Andrews is one of its least-known stars, and although the Tate mounted a large retrospective of his work in 2001, the recent show at Gagosian will have been for many an introduction to an artist who has remained reclusive even in death.

Andrews (1928-95) is celebrated among artists but is not familiar to the gallery-going public, which makes this extensive showing of his work in a commercial gallery so valuable. But why is Gagosian, an American-based internationally successful dealer, putting on Michael Andrews, a relatively obscure (in his terms) art brand? Perhaps because he wants to buy into the School of London kudos and tempt out of the woodwork masterpieces by Andrews’s more expensive confreres. In the meantime we were given a superb exhibition of museum quality accompanied by a vast hardback catalogue (price £60), showcasing some of Andrews’s best paintings. His early work tended to focus on figures in interiors, engaged in social inter- action, the later was more to do with an inhabited landscape. For my taste, Andrews’s Lights paintings of the early 1970s are among his finest, but he only reached his peak in his last years with his superb evocations of the Thames, painted when he was dying of cancer. Of these, The Estuary is pre-eminent, and to see this magisterial painting (along with its sibling The Thames at Low Tide) made a visit to Gagosian especially rewarding.

The second time I viewed the show, I did so in the company of the painter Jake Attree, a long-time admirer of Andrews. Attree, born in York in 1950, is a painter of landscape and city, focusing on the north of England, and building up the surfaces of his pictures with lavish and occasionally pebbly impasto to invoke an ancient cathedral or a storm passing over the moors. He lives in Saltaire, near Bradford, but was down in London for the opening of his own exhibition of recent paintings at Messum’s in Cork Street (during February and March), featuring a new set of oil pastel evocations of the moors about Haworth, famous for their Brontë associations. Three of them – among the most beautiful in a very strong show – took as subject snow on the Haworth landscape, conveyed through an intriguing mixture of oil pastel over watercolour and emulsion. Clearly Attree has reached a new level of mastery in depicting the weather of the moors, and as a consequence has become something of an expert in how to depict high land through the seasons.

I asked him what he felt about Andrews’s deer-stalking pictures of the 1980s – a subject I have often felt uneasy about, and which on occasion I have likened to American cigarette advertisements: outdoors man in the Big Country. Attree was altogether more positive: ‘I remember when they first appeared they received from some quarters a certain disapprobation because of the subject matter. The subject is no more than a pretext to make a painting; I always found these paintings beautifully handled, as is the case in practically all of Andrews’s oeuvre.’ Attree makes a very important point here – that in many respects the prime subject of the painting is the paint, and that narrative or content is often nothing more than an excuse to make marks and shapes with colour. However, I feel that with Andrews’s best paintings the subject knits with the paint-handling to make an image that has greater unity than a picture which adopts its subject as some sort of justification. Thus I love passages of paint in Andrews’s paintings of fish, but I am dubious about the subject, which in its association of ‘school’ and social conformity seems to me too glib. (His young daughter was going through school at the time.) But, as a counterweight to that, I greatly admire the late great Thames paintings, in which everything is locked together into a single resounding statement of majestic maturity of experience and perception.

Attree first saw Andrews’s paintings in the mid-1960s and they had a strong and immediate impact on him ‘not least because they were works that seemed somehow to deal with contemporary issues in a subtle and nuanced way, in that they were not narrative or linear in their implications but rather suggestive and elegiac…. Then, as now, he was the antithesis of ubiquitous, another quality I found attractive.’ Attree quotes Leon Kossoff’s enthusiastic observation that Andrews was ‘painting the poem of the 20th century’, perhaps a hard job description to live up to, but surely not nearly so restricting as the critic Lawrence Gowing’s assertion that Andrews only ever painted masterpieces. Gowing was a perceptive and informed commentator on Andrews’s work (see his excellent essay in the catalogue to the Hayward Gallery exhibition of 1980), but his support in this case must have been a heavy burden. Perhaps this was one reason why Andrews painted so little, and why there is almost nothing of any substance left in the Estate with which to promote his posthumous reputation. The Gagosian exhibition is mostly borrowed from private collectors.

The show focused on the period 1970 to 1995, and although there was a group of ten small head studies from the 1960s, and a handful of 1950s works, Andrews’s early career had to be taken on trust. This was a pity as some of his most important works – the paintings that established his name – date from before 1970. (Amongst these I would place A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, The Deer Park, and the glorious triptychs All Night Long and Good and Bad at Games.) However, we are shown The Colony Room of 1962, a seminal interior figure composition of hauntingly high quality. For Jake Attree it was and is an impressive painting. ‘It made me think of Degas then in its deeply intelligent cropping and placing of figures in a pictorial space that hovers wonderfully between the mimetic and the abstract. It also conjures up, if you know it even a little, a certain time (1962) in a certain place (Soho) in a way that it is not possible to analyse verbally, because it speaks to us so fluently, so articulately, in a silent language.’

The subject is of course the infamous afternoon drinking club much frequented by Francis Bacon and his intimates (Lucian Freud can be seen, eyes like headlamps on full beam, glaring out from the middle of the picture). The image is spontaneous-looking and beguilingly painterly – perhaps because it has what Andrews himself described as ‘a certain punched- up definiteness’. Attree continues: ‘The drawing within the painting is intuitive, rigorous and absolutely convincing.’ This reaches to the heart of Andrews’s achievement, and elucidates his ability to fuse the observational with the remembered and the imaginatively comprehended. He may have attempted metaphors and myths, but at bottom he was an acute observer of modern man who found new ways of rendering his perceptions in paint of startling and compelling lucidity. Kitaj would have approved.

Andrew Lambirth is a writer about art who also writes poetry and makes collages. Besides contributing to a range of publications including The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian and RA Magazine, he was art critic for The Spectator from 2002 until 2014, and has collected his reviews in a paperback entitled A is a Critic. Among his recent books are monographs on the artists David Inshaw, Eileen Gray and William Gear. He lives in Suffolk surrounded by pictures.

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