‘The same hand paints it all’

With a career survey at Frieze Masters, Malcolm Morley on soldiers, style and painting Jasper Johns

Born in London in 1931, Malcolm Morley studied at the Camberwell College of Arts and later at the Royal College of Art. Moving to New York in 1958, he embraced the heroism of the post-war American school, befriending the likes of Jasper Johns - whom he has described as one of his “alter egos” - and has remained in the area ever since.

Morley received the first ever Turner Prize in 1984 for his first retrospective at the Whitechapel the preceding year. Sperone Westwater’s solo presentation at Frieze Masters 2017 spans works from the early 1960s to the current, including sculpture alongside the painting for which he is widely acclaimed. Sometimes hyperrealist, sometimes fluidly disembodied, and drawing on found imagery and 3-d forms, Morley’s painting displays an intense, ambivalent engagement with abstraction and figuration, representation and the imaginative re-creation of the world. Sir Norman Rosenthal has stated that Morley “wants to have his cake and eat it too [...] and he does.” The presentation at Frieze Masters constitutes the first survey of the artist’s work in his home city since 2001.

Frieze.com: The most recent painting in the survey at Frieze Masters is of soldiers in the Trojan War, and some of your most recent paintings, in a similar vein to Mortal Knight (1997), depict toy medieval knights. What appeals to you about these toy-like figures?

Malcolm Morley: The knight paintings are based on paper models, which were carefully built in my studio, then posed and painted. The models are historically correct, i.e. each figure represents an actual knight who fought in the Battle of Agincourt. In general I refer to the objects I paint as models. Toys are to be played with whereas models are to be looked at. What appeals from a painterly perspective are the patterns making up the object, the sense of Cubism in the shape of the armoor. They are very modern looking.

morley-body-wounded-knight.jpg

Malcolm Morley, Mortal Knight, 1997. Oil on linen with attachments, 43 x 36 x 15 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Malcolm Morley, Mortal Knight, 1997. Oil on linen with attachments, 43 x 36 x 15 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

 

Frieze.com: Is there a continuity between these complex battle scenes and the violent action of earlier works such as Theory of Catastrophe (2004), or do they belong to different periods, with shifting concerns?

MM: I have no shifting concerns, only what is going to be the next painting in terms of my temperament at that time. The continuity is that the same hand paints it all.

morley-body-goalie.jpg

Malcolm Morley, Goalie, 2004. Oil on linen, 242 x 168 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Malcolm Morley, Goalie, 2004. Oil on linen, 242 x 168 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Frieze.com: There’s a big retrospective of your peer Jasper Johns on view in parallel to Frieze Masters at London’s Royal Academy. How have your careers intertwined?

MM: When I first came to the United States in 1958, Jasper Johns was showing his ‘Target’ paintings. They hit an optical nerve in me I did not know I had.

morley-body-1966.jpg

Malcolm Morley, State Room with Eastern Mural, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 82 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Malcolm Morley, State Room with Eastern Mural, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 82 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

In the early 1970s we all lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At that time I approached Jasper with an idea, which would entail his going to a street portrait artist in Greenwich Village. He would pose for a portrait, and then I would make a painting from the portrait. The Village portrait artist made Jasper look like a 1930s crooner in pastel, but Jasper was very good-natured about it. Unfortunately all was lost when a fire destroyed the contents of my studio.

morley-body-locust.jpg

Malcolm Morley, Day of the Locust III, 1979. Oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Malcolm Morley, Day of the Locust III, 1979. Oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

On another visit to his downtown studio in a former bank building at 223 East Houston Street, Jasper was working on his Map (1967–71), based on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Airocean World, which he was painting in wax encaustic. I was familiar with the medium, but his use of it was a revelation. The combination of the body of the encaustic against the body of another colour was so meaty, and the final polishing lent a hallucinatory and brilliant effect. Since then I have often used the medium in my three-dimensional pieces, such as Flight of Icarus (1993) and Trafalgar Cannon (2013).

morley-body-canon.jpg

Malcolm Morley, Trafalgar Canon, 2013 Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Malcolm Morley, Trafalgar Canon, 2013 Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Main image: Malcolm Morley. Photograph: Jason Schmidt. Courtesy: the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

Most Read

From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018