Michael Andrews

Gagosian, London, UK

Between Michael Andrews’s death in 1995 and Gagosian’s current solo exhibition, subtitled ‘Earth, Air, Water’, his work has flown low beneath the public radar. His only retrospective to date was held at Tate Britain back in 2001 and placed a heavy emphasis on his 1960s, Edouard-Manet-meets-grimy-pop canvases of Soho’s bohemia at play. The best known of these is The Colony Room I (1962), a tense vision of the titular drinking club as an absinthe-green hell, featuring cameos by his fellow ‘School of London’ painters Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. The former props up the bar like a bloated teddy bear; the latter meets our eyes with a glare so scalpel-sharp that it might sober us from a lifetime’s boozing.

Hung at the entrance of the Gagosian exhibition, The Colony Room I remains a thrilling painting (that lurid pink slash summoning up Bacon’s shirt collar!). However, in the context of the later, Zen Buddhism-inspired land-, sky- and seascapes that structure much of  ‘Earth, Air, Water’, it feels like a cramped antechamber to a much more ambitious project: to face the vast indifference of the universe and find within it not only beauty, but also peace. This hasn’t always been my response to Andrews’s post-1960s work. Writing about his Tate retrospective in frieze 16 years ago, I lamented his decision to abandon painting cocktail parties and creeping existential dread for serene, seldom-peopled vistas, which I claimed (with the kind of unwarranted cockiness only a 23 year old can muster) had ‘the dulled edge of a post-rehab rock star’. Looking at them now, with their near-frictionless, spray-gunned acrylics, their gently suffusing stains, they have an almost psychedelic clarity. It’s my age, isn’t it? You’re going to tell me it’s my age.

Michael Andrews, The Colony Room I, 1962, oil on board, 1.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London and the collection of Pallant House Gallery © The Estate of Michael Andrews; photograph: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

Michael Andrews, The Colony Room I, 1962, oil on board, 1.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London and the collection of Pallant House Gallery © The Estate of Michael Andrews; photograph: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

Michael Andrews, The Colony Room I, 1962, oil on board, 1.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London and the collection of Pallant House Gallery © The Estate of Michael Andrews; photograph: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

‘As it seems, so it is’. This was Andrews’s painterly principle, which meant embracing not only the contingency of his perceptions, but also the fact that they were nothing more than the weather patterns of his mind. The hinge between his party pictures and his elemental works was the ‘Lights’ series (1970–75), in which the self is imagined as a hot air balloon (a take on R.D. Laing’s idea of the ‘skin encapsulated ego’), drifting over London’s bridges or kissing the sands of empty beaches with its shadow. Lights I: Out of Doors (1970) is painted from the perspective of the balloon’s basket. Beneath us, hovering far above rolling English hills, we see another balloon, its white form trembling between solid and liquid, like a creamy burrata or a blob of acrylic paint on a palette. Clearly, something was about to give.

Give it does. From the mid-1970s on, Andrews’s is an art of both limpid naturalism and quiet ecstasies. The self becomes a channel for a world in constant flux, and time appears to exist only as permanent now. His watercolour A Pond: Spring (1977) might have been made by simply blotting his paper on the surface of an algae-speckled pool, while the Australian Outback’s ancient rocks appear, in Valley of the Winds Katajuta (The Olgas) (1985–86), to be formed from freshly set blancmange. The dark humour of his party pictures reappears in School IV: Barracuda Under Skipjack Tuna (1978). Here, piscine predators and their prey share the same impossibly blue waters. Give them each a stiff drink and we’d be back in the Colony Room. 

Michael Andrews, Thames Painting: The Estuary, 1994-95, oil and mixed media on canvas, 2.2 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London and collection of Pallant House Gallery © The Estate of Michael Andrews; photograph: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

Michael Andrews, Thames Painting: The Estuary, 1994-95, oil and mixed media on canvas, 2.2 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London and collection of Pallant House Gallery © The Estate of Michael Andrews; photograph: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

Michael Andrews, Thames Painting: The Estuary, 1994-95, oil and mixed media on canvas, 2.2 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London and collection of Pallant House Gallery © The Estate of Michael Andrews; photograph: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

In Andrews’s final canvas, the bleakly beautiful Thames Painting: The Estuary (1994–95), speckles of that river’s silt have found their way into his pigment, while a gaggle of Victorian gentlemen fish on its foreshore. We might think of James McNeill Whistler, here – the great mudlark of British painting – or we might simply think of where Andrews’s Styx-like Thames leads.

Main image: Michael Andrews, School IV: Barracuda under Skipjack Tuna, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 1.8 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: James Hyman Gallery, London © The Estate of Michael Andrews

Tom Morton is a writer, independent curator and contributing editor for frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

Issue 186

First published in Issue 186

April 2017

Most Read

Ahead of its South London Gallery performance, how Tom Phillips’s Irma – a work that questions the genre of opera...
With the opening of the 15th Istanbul Biennial this week, a guide to the best exhibitions around town
Ahead of the openings of EXPO Chicago and the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, a guide to the best exhibitions...
Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924, oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut and Ettie Stettheimer
The Jewish Museum, New York, USA
Highlights of the exhibitions and performances taking place during Berlin Art Week 
Reflections, a favourite verse, and a new poem dedicated to one of the English language’s most renowned poets of the...
Nicole Eiseman, Sketch for a Fountain (Skizze für einen Brunnen), 2017, Skulptur Projekte 2017, bronze, gips, wasserbecken. Courtesy: Skulptur Projekte Münster
Various venues, Münster, Germany
Buoyed by Manifesta announcing it will dock in the port city in 2020, is Marseille becoming the new LA? 
Ahead of this year’s DC Open and gallery share Okey-Dokey, a round-up of the best shows across the Rhineland cities
From artist Enoch Cheng’s nocturnal balletics to fascist violence in Charlottesville, rethinking the political agency...
Opened 15 months ago but remaining empty until now, the inaugural show at the landmark Palestinian Museum in Birzeit
The dual sides to the city’s Cph Art Week
Queer cringe at the BBC and other diversity dilemmas
Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books), 2017, under construction in Kassel as part of documenta 14. Photograph: © Rosa Maria Ruehling
On documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel
Chris Kraus’s biography of the first female ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’
Remembering the artist whose occultist experiments transformed her body and biography into art 
In this microcosm of the disenfranchisement of ‘Late Great Britain’, what use is art?
Public debate around Confederate insignia has little to do with historical fact, and everything to do with collective...
A multi-faceted collaboration between Matthew Barney, Ragnar Kjartansson and the Iceland Dance Company reflects on...
What Luc Besson’s Valerian and a number of recent artists’ 3D films are getting right about our current reality
The removal of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore shows decisiveness after years of inaction – already they stand...
Yayoi Kusama to open her own museum; Confederate monuments removed in Baltimore; David Roberts Art Foundation to leave...
From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017

frieze magazine

September 2017