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Transcript of a talk by Paul O'Keeffe on 'Fontana' by Peter McDonald

Paul O'Keeffe: Good afternoon everybody, welcome to the picture of the month and to the first prizewinner of the 25th John Moores exhibition. There have been 26 first prizewinners - 25 exhibitions, 26 first prizewinners. The anomaly occurred in 1969, when the judges couldn't make up their minds between Mary Martin and Richard Hamilton. Now I'm not absolutely sure about this, but it coincided also with Mary Martin's premature death while the judges were deliberating.

So, 26 first prizewinners, 25 exhibitions. The first prizewinner at the first John Moores exhibition was in 1957 and it was a man called Jack Smith for his 'Creation and Crucifixion'. You can see it, it's a huge thing, and it's from that era in the 1950s - the sort of kitchen sink era. And by happy chance it's the interior of a kitchen with washing lying around and I think there's at least on shirt drying and that gives it that crucifixion... [element]. It's got absolutely everything in it except the kitchen sink I might add. It's not essentially a kitchen sink painting, but it comes from that era.

Now Jack Smith, when he got his first prize in 1957 was awarded the first prize of £1,000. Which was an enormous amount of money - £1000...1957. Two years later, our family bought a semi-detached house in Thingwall for just over £3000. For years £3000 was the biggest amount of money to me. I still measure money in £3000s. If I get £3000 for something I think I'm doing very well.

So, he got £1000 as the first prize and he said memorably - they asked him; “How do you feel Mr. Smith? What difference will it make to your life?” And he said; “Well it means I shall paint for a short time, on canvas instead of hardboard.” Because 'Creation and Crucifixion' was painted on that old staple, hardboard. Quite how long £1000 lasted him in terms of canvas, we don't know! This year Peter McDonald received £25,000. Now he's not going to spend his £25,000 on canvas, because he's already rich enough to paint on canvas anyway.

Now for a long time, over the 25 years it's been running, the John Moores first prize occasionally would become a purchase prize. Now I've never really understood this because in the old days the artist would get the £1000, or however much it was, and then they would be told that it's a purchase prize. So "Here's your prize and we get the picture." You see? So the picture was automatically forfeit to the gallery. Now they haven't done that throughout the history but they do it occasionally and what it means is that over those 25 years, we haven't got some of the first prizewinners. And it means that there have been some paintings that would have looked well now, in the permanent collection, which were just lost because it wasn't a purchase prize.

Nowadays, the first prize is not a purchase prize. But, the first prize is always purchased. That means - subtle difference, but quite a considerable difference for the artists because Peter McDonald has got £25,000 prizewinning for this and he's also got his asking price. And if you look at the price list - most of them are gone by the way, I've been told - he got the asking price that the Walker has bought his picture for, [which was] £5287.50. A snip!

So what it means in a way, though the fact that the Walker tends to buy generally speaking the first prizewinner for the permanent collection, is that after all these years, the John Moores exhibition is still working in the same tradition of the original autumn exhibition in Liverpool when the gallery was first opened in the 1877. The idea was that the council bought the best paintings from each successive autumn exhibition, to build up a permanent collection of contemporary art. And if you go into room eight that is the core of the collection. That is contemporary art from 1870 onwards. And so to this day we are still buying each successive, contemporary art first prize. The product of which you can see in that exhibition of first prizewinners.

So Peter McDonald's 'Fontana' is now part of the Walker Art Gallery's permanent collection and as such it has the rather dubious honour of featuring as October's picture of the month. Which is why you're all here. Now normally when I'm asked to do a picture of the month I usually get to pick the picture of the month that I'd like to talk about. Sometimes they'll say "We haven't done this for a long time, talk about that." And I'll say either "Yes I think I can talk for half an hour on that." Or I'll say "No I can think of absolutely..." very rarely I say no. But there is certain amount of choice involved and I can decide whether I'm to have half an hours worth of talk to devote to it.

Picture of the month in October is difficult because I agreed to talk about the picture of the month in October without having actually seen the thing. In fact I agreed to talk about this picture before even the judges had seen it. Before it became the first prizewinner. And it's always a bit of a risk because I turn up at the opening night of the John Moores thinking, "My God what am I going to be stuck with?" Because let's face it, it could be anything! And I imagine myself sometimes standing in front of a blank canvas with a blue spot in the middle, [audience chuckles] and having to think of half an hour of what we call in the art critics' trade, 'art boll*cks' [audience laughs] to say about it.

Now, it helps if you're talking about the first prizewinner if he's got a track record in the John Moores. So two years ago it was Martin Greenland and he has exhibited several works in the John Moores. He hit the jackpot two years ago and got the first prize. I was able to talk about not only that picture, but the development of his work through successive John Moores exhibitions. I was appalled to find that Peter McDonald to my knowledge has never actually exhibited in the John Moores exhibition. Well in fact no, he has never exhibited in the John Moores exhibition. He's a young man. So he's got no track record. I needn't have worried really because a lot can be said about this and it does help if there's an art historical element to the work. And a great deal has been said about this painting and Peter McDonald's work in general.

One of the things said about it by one of the judges, Paul Morrison, says that it references, it makes reference to, colour field painting. Now colour field painting was a sort of off-shoot of American abstract expressionism. It's the sort of 'tidy wing' of abstract expressionism where instead of sploshing paint on a canvas, you divide the canvas up into flat, clear, plains of colour - pure colour. Very hard edged, very, very tidy. This grew up in the 1950s. So it's an abstract style of painting, grown up in the 1950s, out of abstract expressionism. Characterised by canvasses painted in large areas of flat, solid colour with a minimum of surface detail, very little texture. Now there's an alternate terminology, which is 'chromatic abstraction', which draws attention to the colour.

So flat, fields of colour with very little texture and in the original colour field painting, no subject at all. This was purely non-representational, this was very, very austere. You scorned subject. It was just black, red, blue, tastefully juxtaposed. No subject. You couldn't actually see what the picture was of. And this is where this picture differs from colour field painting. Because unlike colour field painting of the 1950s and 1960s this picture is of something. Luckily for me! Because I can talk about things - I find it easier to talk about a subject.

There are flat fields of colour on this but they can be 'read', as it were. Whenever you have two lines, diagonal lines, sloping from there...to there and coming together - two parallel lines in perspective. So we're looking there at a rectangular plain, seen in perspective. It's a wall. You have another plain there, which becomes the floor. So there's a wall, a floor, connected to a ceiling above and at the back here another wall. So we read it, despite the lack of detail, as being a room - an interior.

Now there's something in the room and this something is a very elemental figure. You can tell it's a figure - there's an arm there, like that. It's been made to look like a cylinder. This is the only element of shading in the entire picture. It becomes a raised arm. You have a cartoon-like fist, it even has little veins in it, so you can see it's a hand. But very, very, simplified. So it becomes a figure. A figure in a room, a figure in an interior, which is a subject.

Go through the Walker Art Gallery - go to room one. You'll see Henry the Eighth, a figure in an interior. Go to the other extreme to room 11 and you'll see Lucian Freud's 'Paddington Interior'. Harry Diamond standing there, with a dead Yucca. [Audience chuckles] Harry Diamond, Henry the Eighth - two Harrys - but both of them have that in common; they are both figures in an interior.

Now this shape here, you have an oval, egg-shape - this oval coloured egg shape here - it's bordered by a white border here with black dots on it. Now, that can be read in just the same way as the other plains in the picture. It can be read as a circular canvas and the white bit is where the white canvas is stretched around the stretcher. It's white because the artist doesn't really need to paint the edge. With any luck someone will put a frame around it and you won't see the edge, you won't see the nails. But it can be read just by this band of white with black dots as a canvas.

So, it's an interior, with a figure and with a canvas. That makes the canvas a work of art and it makes the figure an artist, and it makes the interior a studio. So it becomes another more precise subject. It is the artist in his studio. And there are all sorts of examples of that throughout the history of art. You think of Corbet's artist in his studio, self portrait, with a studio crowded with friends and relatives and a naked model and a picture. You think of Picasso - Picasso did a whole series of drawings and etchings of the artist in his studio. Usually with the artists standing there in front of a canvas with a big palette, usually with a rather nubile, naked, model. Yes?

So Rembrandt as well - Rembrandt's self-portraits are very often seen with a palette in an interior. So it becomes an artist in an interior. Now the arm comes up, there's a fist and he's holding a spike instead of a brush. And when we examine the so-called canvas here - and for this purpose I'm calling the canvas that patch of mustard yellow - the canvas is actually perforated. But not by this painted spike, it's perforated by a real spike. There are actual holes in it, not only the painted canvas but in the real canvas on which the painted canvas is painted. I can't tell you hard difficult that is to say! So it has real holes.

And then we come to the title of the picture; 'Fontana'. Now if you look up fontana in an Italian or Spanish dictionary interestingly, it means fountain. Fontana was also a paperback imprint, with a fountain for a logo. This fontana, which Peter McDonald makes reference to in this picture, is Lucio Fontana. Now Lucio Fontana was Argentinean but of Italian parentage. He was a painter, architect and in the late forties and early fifties and sixties – he invented something called the 'Movimento Spaziale'; the spacialist movement.

As an architect he was interested in space, in three-dimensional space and expressing three-dimensional space on two dimensional canvas. As a sculptor he was also interested in the 'third dimension' and one of the things he did in his 'Movimento Spaziale', his spacialist movement, was he made holes in the canvas. Very often he would stretch a canvas, paint it with one colour - very much in the colour field tradition - an even coating of one colour paint. And then he'd take a razor and he'd make one, two, sometimes three vertical slashes in it. Now the effect on the taut canvas of putting a vertical slash in it, made it three-dimensional. It went from length and height, to depth. Because the vertical slash acted on the tension of the canvas and it curved the edges of the cut inwards. So already you had something which had a third dimension. He also did a whole series of painting in which he just bodged holes in a canvas and very often oval pictures like this. And he would bodge holes in them, drawing attention to what was behind the canvas.

Right, so 'Fontana' is the title, you've got holes in a painted canvas, you've got a figure - artist in studio - Lucio Fontana at work. Now one of the things about talking to the first prizewinner of the John Moores, preparatory to doing a picture of the month of his work, is you get to phone him, And I phoned him and I asked him various questions. And I said "What governs your colour?" And my heart sank when said "Well it's largely intuitive." Because I thought well, yes, it's easily said 'largely intuitive' - it means that even he doesn't know why he chooses one colour and not another!

But what he was that he started off with this floor area and if you think about it, floor, ground, is always brown. Children when they paint houses always put either the bottom is brown or green, meaning grass or soil. So he started off, he says, with brown here and then all the other colours harmonised with it. So he experimented with different coloured plains here, as to what would look best with brown. But he said it's largely intuitive. So he didn't give me anything clever about his colour choices.

So then I asked him about the head. And you see you've got the body here and this arm and the rather simplified fist here with its veins. But what do we make of this enormous great shape on the top? Which is almost as big as the artwork he's working on. And so I said, "Well tell me about the shape of the head" and he said well originally he had the idea that the head would be a head with a large quiff. This meant something to me, because during the 1950s at school, the only heads that I could paint were teddy-boys. And they always had a large quiff and a flat head and a cigarette hanging out of the mouth and a scar on the cheek and sometimes they carried bicycle chains. But that quiff there, that's what he started with, this idea of a quiff.

And then it was also supposed to have a beard. Not that Lucio Fontana had a beard incidentally. I've seen photographs of him and I've never seen photographs of him wearing a beard. Nor did he have a great quiff. But that's by the way. So it started out as a quiff and a beard and then it was simplified or abstracted so it becomes a shape. And I said; "Well somebody pointed out at the private view that the head looks like an artist's palette." And he said; "Ah yes!" He said; "I noticed that, while I was painting it." [Audience laughs] And I thought well that's good because it was fortuitous, coincidental, but let it stick, because yes, a palette, an artist's palette.

I actually phoned him back because I'd forgotten to ask him something and I said; "What about these bits of flesh colour here and here." And he said well, starting from the quiff and the beard, this large head piece then becomes a helmet. And so if you think of it as a helmet then this is the real nose and this is the real mouth just jutting out in profile. And that's all I could draw him on in regard to the nose and the mouth.

But it calls to mind, to me anyway: does anybody remember 'The Hitchcock Hour', Alfred Hitchcock? It always started with this wonderful abstract profile of Hitchcock brilliantly done with about three curved lines. There was a large curve there, a large curve there and just a hint of a mouth. And it looked like nothing. And Hitchcock himself comes on in silhouette profile; [half sings] dee dum dee de de de dum dee dum and he goes across and actually fills the profile. And you realise that what you've been looking at is a perfect profile of Alfred Hitchcock. So that has that sort of element. I mentioned this to Peter McDonald and he knew what I meant but he wasn't going to be drawn on whether that was an inspiration - I don't think it was.

This large area, which for the sake of argument we'll call the artist's head, crosses various plains in the painting. It crosses the ceiling which is very, very dark grey, and where it crosses the dark grey of the ceiling it becomes a dark brown. Where it crosses the lighter grey of the wall, it becomes a sort of - I'm very bad on colours - a sort of grey-purple. [Someone from the audience suggests taupe as the colour] Yes, yes! And where it crosses the mustard yellow of the canvas it becomes this orange. And interestingly, where it crosses these shapes here it changes this one from a sort of lizard green, to a light tan as it were. So it's almost as if the actual shape of the head is a coloured gel in a specific colour and if you put a coloured gel on any other colour, it will change the colour subtly. Yes?

But then it has another effect on these four shapes. This is a Fontana canvas being worked on by the artist, bodging holes in it - it's unfinished. These four hanging on this plain, which we read as a wall, are finished canvasses. This one has holes in it except where the artists head crosses it. Inside the area of the artists head, these holes are painted. They are painted holes. But outside they are real. So inside the artists head is the concept of the work of art, outside is the finished work of art, complete with holes. So yes I think what he means here is that the area inside the head is altering the background of the picture.

And that's about all I have to say to you!