William Tillyer and I met at his studio. He was busy working up to a retrospective show, a celebration of his 75th birthday, at mima in October 2013, with concurrent exhibitions at Platform A Gallery Middlesbrough, Bernard Jacobson, London, and a watercolour show in the North York Moors Gallery in late September.
FS: There seems to be a lot going on in the studio. Are you making new work for the mima show?
WT: The mima show will be a mixture of work, new and old. I am looking backwards, at interests I had since I first went to art school in 1956, to my present practice.The Jacobson show will be called The Watering Place, after the Rubens painting in the National Gallery. Gainsborough and Constable also painted versions of this, so I’ve been cribbing all sorts of stuff.
FS: Is your Watering Place a particular place?
WT: It’s invented from experience, from various landscapes, and how I want a painting to work. I’ve taken the essential composition for the new works from an earlier student composition called The Vortex, being a vortex of sky above the moors. I like to work on a structured or open surface and, in many ways, The Watering Place is simply an excuse to articulate my thoughts about surface and structure in painting.
FS: How important is this particular landscape to you ….. I mean the North York Moors?
WT: This moorland is very important; it’s what I am most familiar with. I am from Middlesbrough, but I’ve known Glaisdale, your part, since 1942, visiting regularly with my family, eventually living there.
FS: The country must have been quite a contrast to Middlesbrough, with its chimneys and furnaces ….
WT: …Yes, Middlesbrough is surrounded by beautiful countryside, not only moors and coast, but the river Tees, such a beautiful river, clear like ale as it falls from Dufton Fell. You were talking about the geometry of this landscape, particularly evident in those small dales, Glaisdale, Fryupdale, Danby, where you look down onto chequered patterns of fields. As a student I painted these almost aerial views. My present interest in Patinir, a Flemish16th century artist, is connected to this theme; he takes a bird’s eye or ‘world’ view, looking down, with a distant horizon. In an unconscious way that is what I was doing with those early landscape paintings, looking down into the dales from the moor, almost as if from a glider.
FS: And you get different views of the same thing, this irregular grid, wherever you are. I came to grids via the topography of the area, the fields, the dales and their dry stonewalls. In adopting this abstract painting language, I assumed I was making abstract paintings. Maybe you would say they were figurative?
WT: Well it depends, you were probably simplifying, taking an essence; I doubt very much that you were making purely abstract paintings. But there isn’t a need for those labels now, everything fuses together. I dip into any pot I care to choose. In many people’s eyes that puts me down as a post-modernist, revamping from a canon of forms. The real crux of the problem is that painting as an activity has become marginalised. My thinking is to find room for its continued expansion, I’m particularly interested in tracking the change in painting in terms of surface, to one of physicality; a conversation between illusion and reality.
FS: Some of your own work, where you include hardware as an object, was certainly a development …
WT: I was trying to add something physical to my work at that time. If you make a piece with doors the inference is that you can open and close the doors, as in a triptych. In trying to analyse the visual world I looked for things that imply or create an activity and therefore an expectation, an involvement, behaviour.
FS: If you were to be told they had been made yesterday you wouldn’t be surprised.
WT: These pieces were made in the early 60s; Norbert Lynton described them as some of the earliest minimal pieces. Hardware implies function, and behaviour became a very important word for me at the time. I know I am not unique in holding this view, but my contention is that the viewer in the gallery space is part of the process of looking at a painting; I wanted to take that further, beyond the canvas to the wall and back to the viewer, a circular process.
FS: Your open grid paintings do that, take the viewer through to the wall beyond the painting. The Victorian canvases, which you produced in Melbourne 1981, do that too but in a different way. Can you tell me how you came to cut the canvas?
WT: I had been working with a metal mesh support, but when I was offered the residency at Melbourne University, I decided to work with the traditional canvas again, but not in the usual way. I started exposing the stretcher bars at points where I needed a right angle, cutting the canvas to create physical structure in the composition. Alan Bowness (Director of the Tate 1980-88) asked why I didn’t paint the stretcher bars, but they were exposed as stretcher bars, just as hinges were present in some of my earlier pieces, as hinges, real objects as opposed to pictorial illusion.
FS: Contextualising your work could be said to be a problem, it doesn’t seem to belong to any specific movement but rather draws from what’s going on around. Norbert Lynton suggests that you were attracted to Constructivism, in contrast to the naturalism which was dominant at the Slade when you were there, but your work has never been associated with that movement in Britain: artists like Malcolm Hughes, John Ernest, Michael Kidner and Jeffrey Steele. Your approach, academic as well as instinctive, seems to have been to embrace opposites simultaneously, Constructivism and Dadaism, expressionism and hard-edged geometry, ‘the tension between the Artificial and the Real’. You are setting your own course, perhaps a radical modernist might fit the bill?
WT: I was not attracted to Constructivism, or indeed any movement. Navigating my thoughts and motivations happened to come close to Constructivism and, in one or two cases, became early Minimalism. But I never set my camp in any one kraal. Artifice, as a counter to The Real, and visa versa, has always attracted me. You could perhaps describe me as a radical modernist.
But I do recall, around 1965-66, that minimal pieces I was making incorporating hinges, handles etc, were leading me into a cul de sac. I needed that humanist element as well, which is an aspect of being a Painter.
FS: You mentioned Huysmans’ A Rebours when we first met, as a work of seminal importance to you. Lynton suggests that there is in you an element of the protagonist, Des Esseintes, which makes artifice the link in your work. Is this fair?
WT: And of course Norbert Lynton was perfectly right, I am Des Esseintes, not knowing in which world I live, but enjoying and trying to assimilate diverse discourses.
FS: You quite often mention the importance of other painters to you, historic, rather than contemporary. Do you see yourself in a long line, a succession of artists almost with a calling?
WT: With any activity you need some support and all the experience of painting is in the past, even if it’s as close as last week. In order to move one’s thinking forward, one needs to reflect on the past. You are forever looking at people who have been involved in the same business, and have found their answers.
I was pleased to see the new hang at the Tate devotes a whole room to the Basic Design Course in British art teaching, people like Harry Thubron and Richard Hamilton. This course, much influenced by the Bauhaus, was about thinking in an analytical way, and that approach has always stayed with me.
FS: How do you approach this analysis?
WT: I think of it like chemical analysis, taking something apart, seeing its components, thinking of different ways of putting it together, finding what effect this or that might have.
FS: Your work needs to be seen in its entirety, from your early Minimal works to your recent open mesh paintings, to understand its significance; it’s not that you change but come at it from a new direction. Has this created difficulties for you?
WT: Not at all. The difficulties, as you put it, are the meat, the nub of the dilemma, when creating paintings.
FS: Do you come to new work with a clean slate then?
WT: You never really start afresh, you always continue from where you were. You are constantly thinking of other possibilities or changes so new work embodies what you have already done. I have always been against churning out more of whatever has been successful.
FS: I suppose we are always drawn back to the same path but time may add a perspective, and extra possibilities occur.
WT: If you’re smart, you edit as you go along, and painting is a continual editing process. If like me, you keep some work back, you tend to end up with rejects, but this allows later reappraisal, finding that perhaps something wasn’t so bad after all.
FS: Has the importance of seeing your work as a whole caused difficulties in the understanding of your work?
WT: Not for me, but my work has not been seen in its entirety. A lack of familiarity has not put me up there with well-known names but my work has been continuous for over 50 years in its intent and motivation; I have been able to follow the whims of being a professional Painter by having the support of my dealer/agent.
This support was always in defiance of the controlling art world /curatorial management system, to my mind an inappropriate control with so much emphasis on Turner Prize art. This will, of course, sound self-serving. Even so, it is this stance by the establishment that I feel is in opposition to the remit and existence of a National Museum Collection.
FS: Am I right in thinking you have spent your entire working life making art? Or did you also spend time teaching?
WT: After the Slade, like most of my contemporaries, I taught at various art schools, but always continued to paint, and eventually had the backing of a dealer.
FS: To get back to making the work, you have a thought ……… you decide on the support, you decide on the form it’s going to take, is there ever a problem in going forward, in making the first mark?
WT: There is always the problem of planning a first mark, with gestural marks you must be prepared to accept what falls on the paper or canvas. So there’s a slight Zen quality to the operation.
FS: Do you have a practised gesture you find yourself using?
WT: I hope not. With the Westwood paintings, which I made in 1990, I wanted to move away from the grid; I started making marks, generally on the diagonal, a natural movement for wrist and brush, almost calligraphic. I bought a set of industrial sweeping brushes, loading them with lots of paint. The stratification these coarse brushes created was rather exciting, a new way of working for me. Presently I’m using decorators’ tools, working from ‘back to front’, forcing the paint through a canvas mesh, like cheese through a grater.
FS: Do you work flat on the floor?
WT: Large gestural marks on mesh have to be worked on the floor. This way of working is also linked to my watercolour drawings, which mostly emanate from gesture.
I like finding ways of making marks which mirror natural events, like the marks made by pebbles on a beach as they are sucked back by the force of a wave. I enjoy direct opposites and so I embrace control. In the 1960s I made a series of etchings, utilising a lattice grid. I liked the mechanical process as opposed to the hand drawn calligraphic mark.
FS: Geometry in your painting seems to be a dynamic component, a compositional device, not a system.
WT: I use geometry in all those ways, including systems. Essentially the grid, for me, is a metaphor for modern life.
FS: Do you listen to music while you paint?
WT: Yes I listen to music and it’s very important to me, however I have tinnitus and music helps to block out the tinnitus noise.
FS: What do you hear?
WT: Clocks ticking extremely fast …….