Gordon Baldwin is one of Britain’s most assured and original artists. He is thought of as a potter, but his work is too sculptural for the category to work well. And if you consider him to be a sculptor who happens to fire rather than carve or cast his work, you are likely to overlook its textural subtlety and sense of colour. Oil paint is one way of rendering texture and colour, fired earth another. To my eye, the excitement of Baldwin’s pieces lies in their nearness to, and dialogue with, some of my favourite twentieth- century painters: Juan Gris, Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies – all Spaniards, as it happens.
Good painting, of course, is also sculptural. Bernard Berenson used to write about the tactility of the Italian Renaissance masters. While their conquest of dimension through geometry bequeathed us illusion and colour, the way they handled the physical properties of paint gave us weight, tactility and the object-life of great art. Looking at a piece by Baldwin makes me want to greet it.
I met the artist in 1957 or 1958 when I was seventeen going on eighteen and he was still in his twenties. I was a senior boy at Eton College and he the new young art master. Senior boys, emerging from adolescent torpor into seemingly self-confident manhood, could be horribly condescending to new ‘beaks’, as masters were called. We had to address them as ‘Sir’, but we did so with a sneer. (Another such was David Cornwell, who went on to become the great novelist John le Carré). How little we knew, how little we were able to foresee.
Nowadays I live part of the time in a small cottage containing a large piece by Gordon Baldwin. In a manner unique to his art – he shares it with one or two architects, Gehry and Hadid for instance – this work fused organic with geometric form. It looks like a cross between a nuclear submarine and an overgrown tuber, or tumour. I am not sure whether it is beautiful or ugly; it depends on the mood or the light. I do know that it is an impelling physical presence, with its own curious inert life. Were I to sell or smash it, I would miss it like a person. It passes the test, in short, of a work of art. Current art criticism, in my view, is insufficiently visceral and neglects what might be called the radioactive life of works of art: their ability to alter the space that contains them.
Meantime it is good that the Marsden Woo Gallery in Clerkenwell celebrates this maker, as I do, with awe rather than condescension. I wish him many more years to people our rooms with his odd, compelling and visually logical beings.