Saturday, 21 April 2012

An art education: remembering Leeds (5) First year reviewed

William Scott: Painting, 1956

The first year was wonderful. At the end of it I was part of a group show at Bradford's Lane Gallery and was the most represented poet in an anthology of poetry from the art school, edited by Martin Bell, titled, well, Anthology (I have two copies in a drawer). I hadn't mentioned Martin's vital role in my own development because I was concentrating on visual art. It is not so much that I want to give an account of my own experience as such but, at this distance, it has to be told and discussed from that perspective. The very fact that Martin Bell, and, soon after, Jeff Nuttall, was there made Leeds invaluable for me.

There was no signing in in the first year. Everything was informal. You grabbed tutors as they were passing, or they looked in to see if you were in your area of the studio. You could go for weeks without seeing them. I was nearly always in the studio - early there, late to leave - so I did see them. But I was having a lucky year. Many who came on the course at the same time had no such clear sense of direction and might have been thrown by the freedom. I think it is quite likely that the majority of first year students were not there most of the time. The studio could feel quite empty. You were left to find yourself with such help as you could get.

If people didn't quite know what they wanted to do they tended to get caught up in the various performance groups. There was always something to do there and the shows could be spectacular. I remember only one other painter, though there would have been about ten. No one, as far as I was aware, was painting what one might call conventional pictures.

One of my close friends from the house began as a painter in the spirit of William Scott but within a term had moved into conceptual art. I was pumped up with colour and romantic love. Others were more detached and less giddy. A good number would be in the library checking on latest developments in the magazines; Studio International was the leader. Some were working in plastics, possibly under the guidance of Glyn Williams. But if you didn't quite know what you were after you could sink fairly quickly, to which the department's reaction might have been that teaching the students workaday crafts would only delay the process of discovering that there wasn't much substance there in the first place.

It would have been cruel if that was the case - and it actually was the case in effect if not by design - because those without that kind of substance would go away with not very much. You could have a great time if the wind was in your sails, but if there was no wind, nobody was going to blow you along.


looby said...

I wonder if you used to drink in The Falcon (although sounds you were quite diligently not doing that most of the time). I only ask because of a (true) story of someone in the more performance orietated group, and a couple of years or so after you left - was one night famously asked by the somewhat flinty landlady to "finish your glass."

The strange dialect in which she was asking him to drink up struck him as odd, so he took the injunction literally. He smashed it and ate it. He was pissing blood for a week.

In 2009 I was helping out at Leeds Expo and was utterly fascinated by Paul Rooney's work "Thin Air" and the accompanying essay from which I am deriving these anecdotes by the Belgian art historian Annette Gomperts.

There's a website, which doesn't really convery much of the work, but more usefully, a link (which appears broken from here at the moment) to a pdf of Gomperts' monograph.

George S said...

Do you mean The Fenton, which was the nearest pub? If so, I did drink there occasionally. I was in touch with Paul Rooney when he was putting Thin Air together.

The story of finishing the glass sounds just about feasible. It's a very Leeds story. I remember a film of Nuttall, pretty well naked inside netting, poking his fingers out like worms. There was also the later case of the performance artists shooting white mice and being attacked by the audience.