Eyes were opened and minds expanded when the art critic Mel Gooding, who died last year, visited the gallery. Author of countless books on major artists, including our own Michael Rothenstein, his loss is keenly felt. In this archival conversation, Mel and Mike talk art, books, and learning how to look.
Mel Gooding photographed in his home office by Jay Goldmark
Mel, you are always anxious, at every opportunity, to talk about other people. And I want to talk about you.
Because you didn’t start, did you, thinking about a career in art, as an art critic. Tell us about the start, would you?
Well first of all, I look back now and see that I have had a kind of career in the last thirty-five years. But it was never intended as such. I spent the first major ten years of my life teaching English literature and language to mature students at Sidney Webb college, and I taught what I had studied, which was English, at the University of Sussex, in its first proper year in the glamorous early ‘60s. I had wanted to go to Cambridge and failed, basically, and more or less given up when I saw an advert asking for people who didn’t necessarily have brilliant qualifications but nevertheless wanted to study at university.
The beauty of Sussex was that it was a very broad curriculum. Alongside your core subject, you also took a whole number of contextual papers over your three years. That meant you did some history, some intellectual history, philosophy, of one sort or another. And that suited my temperament. At grammar school, which I went to late, having failed the 11+ (the beginning of an unillustrious career when it came to exams) we had an art teacher who said ‘You’re a bit of a dilettante Gooding’ – ha! – meaning that I liked a bit of this and a bit of that. Another teacher said to my mother, ‘Melvyn is like a butterfly.’ Same thing, you see: he likes to go from one thing to another. I have a very short attention span, Mike. So I loved that it was a broad education. And incidentally, I also philosophically agreed with a broad education.
Mike Goldmark and Mel Gooding photographed at Goldmark Atelier by Jay Goldmark
At Sussex I was blessed with a number of very, very good, influential English teachers who came from the Scottish system, notably David Daiches, the great critic, whose classes I attended. They said of Daiches, the books of the world can be divided into two: those he has read, and those he has written. He was a wonderfully learned man – at that time, a kind of grand panjandrum of English criticism, and he wrote one of the key books on the nature of criticism itself. I didn’t do very well in my finals, but my teachers liked me and I think respected what I could do, so I was accepted for an MA.
The point is that I was brought up reading English at a time when everybody was very much under the sway of close textural criticism as a way of approaching literature. This in fact goes back not just to University but also to my school, to one of my most marvellous and valued teachers, a man called Neil Salmon. He had come from Downing College, which was the Cambridge college I wanted to go to and failed to get in, and there taught F. R. Leavis. Leavis had an enormous impact upon English studies and upon the way people looked at and read novels and poetry. So although I didn’t go to Downing, I was deeply influenced by Leavis, had all his books, and I was taught by Leavis-ites, and this taught me to pay close attention to the text. When I started writing about art I carried that over, because that’s what I thought you had to do.
I paid little attention to what other people had done, which I began to learn often involved very little attention to the ‘text’ indeed. You don’t look at the painting, you look for what its subject is, what is it about, and what can you say about what it’s about. When I started to write, everybody admired Peter Fuller – and so did I. Peter Fuller was tremendously significant at that time, and people regarded what he said as very important. But whatever was the bee in Fuller’s bonnet became, so to speak, the subject of the pictures he was looking at. They became the excuse for him to opine on this, that or the other: psychoanalysis, theory of aesthetics, whatever. And he was a great believer in what he called taste. Peter Fuller believed that he was gifted with taste, and he thought this was terribly important. I’ve never really given much time to taste. I actually don’t believe what my opinion of a work, whatever an ‘opinion’ is, should be of any significance. It seems to me that other things are what matter. I know we have to use this language, what is this painting or sculpture ‘about’, but what’s in it for us? I’m much more in favour of D.H. Lawrence’s approach to art than your average man of letters. Lawrence said, ‘I’m not interested in art for art’s sake, I’m interested in art for my sake.’
May I tell you a little story about Peter Fuller? As we both know his magazine was called ‘Modern Painters’. On one occasion he sent a young lady to Saffron Walden to interview Edward Bawden. She knocked on the door, and Bawden, who was sometimes deaf, took an age to open it. When eventually he did, she announced ‘I’m from Modern Painters’, to which Bawden replied ‘There aren’t any in Essex’ and closed the door and that was that.
That’s a very funny story. Like all good stories, there’s a certain amount of truth in his response, because of course in that corner of Essex at that time there were a lot of artists, but there weren’t many modern artists. But among them there was one, a highly significant figure, someone I have written about and spoken about, and that was Michael Rothenstein.
Michael Rothenstein, photo Nick Clark
Michael was regarded as a kind of eccentric by the others around him in Great Bardfield, where so many people – Ravilious and Bawden and Armstrong and various other artists – lived and worked. Special trains used to bring people up from London to traipse through all their studios for these famous open days that they held every spring, and of course Michael, the only real modern artist among them – I think many of them found Michael’s studio most puzzling, because here there were no pictures of pastoral England and pubs and other such things.
You talked about what you bring to art criticism, and that business of the way you look and think. In the gallery we were privileged to watch that because you kindly wrote a book for us on the prints of Michael Rothenstein. We were amazed at the way you tackled that, the time you took over it. We would put work out on the floor for you to see, and you looked and looked and looked, and we’d never come across anyone who wrote on art who had got anywhere close to behaving like that. And in that process, the amount that we learnt, because the way you did it was infectious.
Well that’s a very, very nice thing to be told. I can tell you I remember the history of that. You had mentioned to me that you thought that I might write something, a small book on Michael, who I had written about; I had written a book about his collage boxes for the Royal Academy some years before. And I knew and loved the man. I had always been struck in Michael’s case by the variety and diversity of the work, and at times wondered what was he up to myself. The first time I came, you laid out a whole lot of different prints across the floor, in a kind of semicircle, so that I could look at them. And I tell you, when I came that first time and looked at those prints, I was in a complete funk. I looked and I thought, how am I going to deal with this? What am I going to say?
You should remember that I knew Michael personally. I’d been to his studio many times, I had prints by him, I admired work by him, I had some idea – a better idea than many, perhaps – of what were his preoccupations. Because he was very much an artist with preoccupations: things that fascinated and touched him in some way. He was interested in things the other Great Bardfield artists didn’t seem to be terribly interested in, in their art anyway – things like sex, glamour, crime. If Michael looked, as he often did, at a cockerel in a farmyard (he was brought up on a farm) he saw more than a cockerel. If Bawden drew a cockerel, he would draw it beautifully, with a certain amount of verve. He would give it a kind of heraldic quality, and that would be it. But when Michael looked at a cockerel, he was terribly, terribly conscious of the first four letters of its name. The prints are open about this: you look at them and that’s what they are about. It’s a symbol, an emblem of sexuality, and that means it’s interesting to us as human beings – not in a historical, or an agricultural sense, but in a human, emotional sense. Michael was a person with obsessions. I said preoccupations, but I could better have used the word obsession.
Mel Gooding on the life and work of Michael Rothenstein
Did he actually talk about them or did it just appear in the art?
He did, but, if I can put it this way, not obsessively! He was fascinated by glamour and female beauty, as we might think about it, and he found it in photographs in newspapers, in magazines, in pin-ups. These were the preoccupations that find expression in those prints, and you have to relate to that if you are going to get anything out of them. A central, thematic element in those prints, certainly where there is any kind of natural history in them, is in the way the farm, instead of being a place of pastoral peace, is a place of great violence – for example, in the violence of the plough when it cuts the soil. Blake knew about that when he wrote in the Proverbs of Hell ‘The cut worm forgives the plough’. Michael too knew that the creative, the positive, the necessary, the wonderful thing about farming and agriculture, the cultivation of the field – he knew that in order for us to have the milk, to have the meat, to have the corn, entailed endless acts of violence. Against natural creatures, not just in slaughter, but the taking of young heifers away from their mother cows to ensure a continuing supply of milk. He knew and felt that terribly deeply, but he saw it always in metaphorical terms. Always as metaphor for an aspect of human experience.
What didn’t seem possible when I looked at those prints, as it is with most artists, was to start at the beginning. To see the early work develop, see the introduction of first one theme and then another, see the development technically, especially in printmaking, see how someone develops and perverts technique in order to get effect. You couldn’t do all that with Michael because he very quickly cottoned on to things like the use of photography and so on, all the techniques you could use – and of course the great thing about Michael was he couldn’t give a damn about technique. Most printmakers are a little bit anal retentive, you know, there’s a kind of ‘can we get the registration exact, oh dear those two lines don’t meet’. Michael couldn’t give a damn about any of that, any more than he could about making strict editions. He was a print dealer’s nightmare. As you probably know!
What you did for us, in essence – I wanted to talk about it, because maybe I’m wrong, but it feels to me there aren’t vast numbers of people writing on art and looking and thinking in the way you do.
Well as I said, I like to think to some extent that goes back to my history, my beginnings in literary criticism. Teaching literature is very much a business of close looking, of discussing, of bringing out, of not determining from the beginning what this thing means – whatever ‘means’ means!
May I ask, was the move from literature to art influenced greatly by marrying Rhiannon, the daughter of a very great British artist, Ceri Richards?
Ceri Richards in his studio
I was already interested, certainly, in art, but of course having two in-laws who were both artists meant that you were then in it. Ceri died quite young, and only a few years after I met and then married Rhiannon. He was an extraordinary man. I could go to the studio and be with him when he was working, which seemed an enormous privilege.
Can I say, going into any artist’s studio and talking with them about what they’re doing is an amazingly privileged thing, and I haven’t lost any sense of that. I still find it to be an extraordinary blessing. I have to say that quite a lot of the time when I go into an artist’s studio I’m the one who does the talking. I can’t help it Mike! But the blessing of course is that often what I have to say the artists themselves find interesting, and find that I’ve helped them to see what they’re doing, and that of course is a tremendous privilege. To be somehow almost inside the process.
Watch Mel Gooding talking about Ceri Richards' Sortant
Ceri’s reputation is in a fairly fallow period, critically, but in the late ‘60s he was one of the giants. In that wonderful book Private View, he’s there at the beginning early section with the living masters, Moore and Sutherland and Scott and so on. And of course Ceri knew all these artists, and they all admired him greatly. I’m saying this for a reason, because here he was in the ‘60s: he had represented the UK at Venice and won a painting prize at the Venice Biennale; he was a Marlborough artist, which counted for an enormous amount then – at one point one of the directors had said to Frances, Ceri’s wife, ‘We only take on artists if they’ve done Venice’, so he was a big figure. People who were taught by him at the Slade and the Royal College during those late years revered him.
But in the last three or four years he was very depressed. We now know that heart trouble, especially undiagnosed, leads often to depression, and that’s what he died of, his heart failed. I remember seeing him at some point in the last year of his life, sitting on a divan, head in hands, and talking, and him talking, and knowing that this was somebody who was depressed and somehow hurt. And I thought, how can you be so successful, how can you be what you are, and yet feel as he certainly did in certain respects as if he were a failure.
And I learnt several things. I learnt that people wrote about him mostly with high praise, but a small remark was enough in a review to depress him. This was before I began to write, and when I did I knew that you could be smart-arse if you like, and make a clever remark, you can put somebody down, it’s not hard. It’s not hard at all. But you have no idea of the damage you might do.
So I went into writing, over 10 years later, knowing that what you wrote could be very hurtful, and that it wasn’t clever to say that this artist is not as good as so-and-so, and even if you thought it, who gives a damn what you think? So what? What does that tell anyone, that I had that idea in my head? What does it tell you about anything? I thought from the beginning, the last thing I want to do is to write knocking copy and get a name that way, and I never did.
Early on when I was writing for Arts Review I went to an exhibition of a group of fairly young artists. I looked at this show and I thought, oh these are terrible. So I rang the editor and said this show’s dreadful, so I don’t really want to write about it. Could only write critical, negatively critical things. Great! That’s what you should do, write that! Editors love knocking copy, especially if it’s smart-arse. I said no I can’t. As far as I can see, these are artists who are going nowhere and they don’t need any help.
I just couldn’t see the point of it, and still can’t. For me, I have to say most of what I want to write is a kind of intelligent celebration, trying to find something to say about the work that will illuminate it, that might bring something out that other people might not have seen, or to hold something together in a way that suggests a coherence that maybe hasn’t always been found. That I think is worth doing. I’ve often said, the first critical utterance is ‘Ah! Wha? Wow! Ugh.’ You know, the grunt you make in front of something. At that moment, you are operating as a critic, whatever the noise might be. The hard bit, I have to tell you as a writer, comes after!
You’ve written a lot of books, Mel. And you’ve written a huge number of books on abstract artists. What drew you in that direction?
Do you know, when I said I don’t sense myself as having had a ‘career’, although of course there’s no other word to describe it, I’ve made very few decisions. They’ve usually been made for me. Somebody asks me to write a book, I admire the work and think there’s enough in it. I write a lot of the time because it is my own way of finding out what I want to find out. I’m a very curious person. But when it came to abstract, I began that part of my career really by writing my first book about John Hoyland. I’d been writing before then quite a lot in magazines and so on.
It’s a peculiar challenge to write about abstract painting, but that makes it more interesting in a way. What can you do with it? What can you make of it? What can you, make, of it? The work is there, it’s your job to create it, and that still strikes me as a fascinating thing to do. I’ve long said that the job of the critic is to get out of the way – to say enough, and then to disappear stage left so to speak, and leave the work shimmering, making its own music, creating something inside the mind and spirit of the person who is looking at it, that enhances. That, in a way, is the great gift art itself makes. You know, without the art, no critic; without the book, no reader. But you could also say, without the reader, no book. Every book is recreated by the reader reading it and every work of art is remade by the intelligent apprehension of the person in front of it. It’s this interaction that creates something itself creative and enhancing. The enhancement of course can be intellectual. I mean we don’t look only with our eyes. The eye, as the great Leo Steinberg said, is part of the mind – and therefore is involved in a whole lot of complex activities.
Do you have a book that you think, well that’s the one I’d like to be remembered for, or is it the next one you’re going to write?
It’s a very difficult question. I learnt a huge amount writing my book on Patrick Heron – not the first book that I wrote, but very near to, and a book I very nearly didn’t write. I think in a way it turned out to be almost a model as to how a book might be written about a considerable artist, and that was partly from working closely with Patrick. He was very articulate and he’d written brilliantly, both about his own work and about others.
I liked the book I wrote on Ceri, my father-in-law, because I think it shows how a rich intelligence, with a rich cultural background, can be seen as the essential factors in the making of a particular and specific kind of image, and kind of work.
I wrote a book some years ago about Herman de Vries, great Dutch artist. I would say he’s one of the great natural philosophers – that is to say, someone who works with thought and action about nature itself, in a way that illuminates it for us at every level, and sees the work itself as a philosophical enterprise. The book I wrote on Herman was very difficult because it was about an artist who came out of science, and I’m certainly not a scientist. I think the book in a way was the first real exposition if you like, the first presentation of a particular kind of intelligence at work on nature through art.
And the other book I like very much is the book Abstract Art, which I did for the Tate as part of a series called ‘Movements in Modern Art’. Of course, abstraction wasn’t a movement in any real sense, not in the way that you might say Cubism, or Dada, or British abstraction in the ‘30s was a kind of movement. I like that, because it doesn’t work at all like an art history. One of my problems is I don’t have a great liking or respect for art historians. I read them, and the good ones are amazing – amazing. Someone like Michael Baxandall, or Panofsky. Your mind is altered, enlarged by them. But your natural run of art historians, especially in the English empirical tradition, I think are very, very boring and incredibly snobbish. So I think that book really was an attempt to get to the heart of abstraction, and what it meant in 20th century thinking.
Mel, it’s been an absolute delight, as always.
Well, I couldn’t ask for a higher compliment. Whether I deserve it or not is another matter!
Watch the original chat between Mike Goldmark and Mel Gooding aboveMel Gooding (1941-2021) was an art critic, writer, curator and lecturer on art and architecture. He published numerous monographs on modern artists, including Frank Bowling, Bruce McLean, Patrick Heron, Ceri Richards, John Hoyland and herman de vries, and was author of catalogue introductions and essays on many others, including Patrick Caulfield, Frank Auerbach, Joe Tilson, Terry Frost, Robert Motherwell, Kurt Schwitters and Pierre Soulages. He also contributed texts to a number of artists’ books, including ten publications with Knife Edge Press (a creative collaboration with the artist Bruce McLean), and worked as advisor, editor and writer for over twenty-five years with Redstone Press.