The sparkling heritage of British art schools
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The rich art school scene of London and the rest of Britain gets its due in a special booth display at Waddington Custot gallery at Frieze Masters this week. The gallery aims to celebrate both the academic and social aspects of a cultural education, and the ways in which the schools nurtured the careers of many artists we know today. “[Continental] Europe had its salons and cafés, while in Britain it’s been about art schools and the pub after classes,” says Roxana Afshar, director of the gallery.
She and co-director Jacob Twyford have focused primarily on the period between 1960 and 1990 (although the booth also has some earlier and later works), looking broadly chronologically at the transfer of influence of the major schools.
The timeline is more “nuanced”, Twyford says, but in the 1950s, institutions such as the Royal College of Art (RCA), Chelsea College of Art and the Slade began to take the lead over the then more traditional Royal Academy Schools. Alumni from these schools on the Waddington Custot booth include Peter Blake (RCA), Patrick Caulfield (Chelsea and the RCA) and David Hockney (RCA). The baton then passed to St Martin’s until the 1970s, under the sculptor-teacher (and Royal Academy Schools alumnus) Anthony Caro.
Then came the rise of Goldsmiths College, from which the Young British Artists emerged from the late 1980s — Ian Davenport, Michael Landy and Fiona Rae are among their early proponents represented on the Waddington Custot stand.
Inter-connections between contemporaneous artists are explored: there are, for example, works by Bridget Riley who was at the RCA at the same time as Blake. And as many artists went on to teach, the often spirited tutor-pupil relationships come to the fore. Afshar highlights Caro’s “Table Piece V” (1966, £120,000) as an example of his minimalist practice that was not necessarily adopted by his pupils. In striking contrast is an early work by Caro’s pupil, Bill Woodrow, “Car Door, Armchair and Incident” (1981, £80,000). Here, the blasted parts and violent overtones seem distinctly un-minimal. “Like the best teachers, Caro prodded and provoked a reaction,” Afshar says.
Among the archival material presented in a slideshow at the fair is a 1963 letter from another of Caro’s pupils, Barry Flanagan, who left St Martin’s in 1966. Flanagan types to Caro that “As a student I remember your job to be that of making the student think for himself . . . You pushed.”
Michael Craig-Martin, whose MFA was from Yale University and who later became the influential teacher of the YBAs at Goldsmiths, also features, through his distinct “Handcuffs” (1985, £80,000). The artist-teacher is also part of the Frieze Masters talks programme this year and will discuss how his time at Yale translated to his teachings at Goldsmiths (in conversation with Emilie Gordenker, director of The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum, October 5).
There isn’t much work by Craig-Martin’s poster YBAs for the Waddington Custot booth this week, partly because this goes beyond the gallery’s own story under Leslie Waddington. Also, Twyford says, “I’m sure we could have found works by Damien Hirst or Sarah Lucas, but they may have been too disruptive. Michael Craig-Martin opens up the future that we know comes.” Craig-Martin became a Waddington artist in the 1980s though more recently has joined Gagosian gallery.
Art schools were “a life-changing experience”, says Bill Woodrow, who was at St Martin’s (now Central St Martin) between 1968 and 1971, then at the Chelsea School of Art until 1972. He talks of a time “to experiment without restraints” and adds: “Throughout the country, art schools acted as hubs and points of reference for the exchange and interaction of ideas about the art being made at that pre-internet time.”
The gallery has tried to avoid too much nostalgia, Twyford says, but at the same time feels it important to make a wider point.
“These institutions still give a strong sense of community, but there’s a problem lower down the system where there’s a lack of investment in what are seen as ‘softer’ subjects,” he says, lamenting the lack of art teaching for schoolchildren. His own father taught fine art at London’s Ravensbourne College (now Ravensbourne University), until the late 1980s.
Plus, he says, the gallery is flying the flag for the capital as Brexit looms: “London has to defend the cultural activities that made it so attractive on the international stage in the second half of the 20th century.”
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