“Being a friend of Patrick Burke and collecting his work”.
A talk given by Andrew Polmear at Ropetackle Gallery, Shoreham-by-Sea on 15.10.2018
For me it all started nearly over 30 years ago on my birthday, with this picture: Blue Lady No 3. My wife gave it to me for my birthday; she knew Patrick slightly because they both worked at what was then Brighton Polytechnic. I loved it at first sight before I’d had time to think about it. I think I understand now more about why I love it. I love the colours – dirty yellow against that intense blue with all the other colours in the rainbow scattered around. I think it’s the muddiness of the yellow that saves it from looking like an ad for IKEA.
1982/1 “Blue Lady No.3” Oil on canvas 61x77cm
Then there’s the excitement of mixing representational and abstract – something he does in almost every painting from the 1970s on.
A bit of biography is relevant here. He started as a highly skilled etcher – his etchings were purely representational. It was his etchings that won him his Rome Scholarship. But once in Rome he turned to pure abstraction. After that, he combined both ways of working and that, above all, is what we have in this exhibition. Other 20th century painters combined abstract and representational elements in one painting but I can’t think of any that did it with the abandon that we see in this painting. He feels no need to explain the figure – she’s not lying on a bed or a beach – and the abstract designs don’t relate to her in a thematic way.
Then there’s the composition of the whole piece – that blue shape aslant like that – unsettling – but held in place by the abstract bits, apparently scattered about but actually carefully placed.
Finally, he’s managed to paint a nude without a hint of eroticism. I find that an enormous relief after centuries of paintings of the young female nude in which there’s almost always an erotic element. Patrick has no interest in titillation. He just wants to represent the shape of a woman and see how he can fit it onto a canvas.
My brief is to talk about what it was like to collect his work. And that began that same evening. I was burbling on so much about this painting that Margaret said “ring him up and tell him”. Now, that is something I would normally never do, but I did; and as we talked I realised he was really interested in what I thought. He wasn’t checking that I’d read the picture correctly, he wanted to know what I saw in it – fully prepared for the fact that it might be different from what he’d seen in it. So I went round and we talked some more – and this went on for 28 years – or rather I talked and he nodded or shook his head. He would almost never explain his work. Talking to Patrick about his work was fraught with danger – he could get really upset if you weren’t taking it seriously enough. I twice read a painting of his quite differently from what was in his mind – but as it happened we managed not to fall out. One was High Wire (2002/11). He asked what I thought of it. I said, “what a great performer, he’s dancing on that wire, and doing it all effectively blindfold”. He said “No! The truth is he hasn’t the first idea how the f..k he’s going to stay up there for a second longer”. He was clearly talking about himself. The cowboy is even wearing Patrick’s scarf. He often referred to his life as being on a tightrope: financially, emotionally, and artistically. But he would not entertain the thought of climbing down – to be creative he had to stay up there.
2002/11 “High Wire” Oil on canvas 76x61cm
The other was this lone figure in a bare room ( The White Room 2008/4). It’s a picture of Patrick in his studio at 43 Brunswick Square. I said I thought it was full of emptiness and despair. He shouted “NO! look at his right hand. He’s holding a brush. The easel is to the right just out of sight and he’s about to start work” (which indeed was the case).
He wasn’t upset that I’d misread it – he was rather pleased. He quite liked to wrong foot the viewer. He hated the thought that his paintings might be obvious. But he’d always leave a clue as to what he had in mind: in this case the clue is the brush and, when you look closely, the man is not staring at the wall but looking off canvas to the right.
Now – here’s a big question that people often ask. Why collect 60 paintings by one man rather than 60 different artists? He’s not the only fish in the sea – not necessarily even the best.
My answer is that having lots of paintings by the same painter is hugely more meaningful than having one – you can see how the paintings relate, how an idea starting when he painted one really comes to fruition in the next one and so on. Put a dozen pictures by the same painter in one room and see how they resonate with each other. Now that sounds a bit far-fetched so I’m going to pick out 5 themes that I detect in Patrick’s work, where we benefit from having more than one picture to look at.
1977/3 Players in Red Oil on canvas 71x92cm
Firstly, take the issue of abstract and representational. Take the painting of two squash players (Players in Red 1977/3). Some of the lines and great blocks of colour are clearly part of the squash court; some, like the patterns along the extreme right of the picture are purely abstract. But the picture is more about the players than about the abstract elements. Contrast that with an untitled small painting from 1991 (91/9).
There is a representational element – there’s an aeroplane trailing a green ribbon – but that’s dwarfed by the odd collection of objects in the foreground which make little sense in themselves – some abstract, some representational. I love this painting – it always makes me smile – I think it’s because the plane is so small and these nonsensical objects are so big – it turns reality on its head. In earlier paintings the abstract element is usually bold and vividly coloured. In later paintings it’s more sparse, but often crucial in the design of the painting. Those two paintings – Players in Red and Untitled 91/9 – are at opposite ends of a spectrum of how he handled the merging of abstract and representational. Almost every painting made from the 1970s until his death lies somewhere on that spectrum.
1991/9 Untitled Oil on canvas 28x23cm
This playing with reality that we see in Untitled 1991/9 keeps cropping up – it’s the second of my 5 themes. He does it again in a painting from 2000 (2000/1) but in a different way.
There’s this huge plane dominating the picture, but the pilot is turning round, looking up at a tiny figure standing up at the top, as though on a platform. It makes no sense realistically. Even more odd is the oblong of green top right. Look really closely and you see it has a door handle. And what does Patrick call the picture? Not Blue Plane, but Green Door! He combines not just two incompatible worlds (the plane and the man on the platform) but a third world (what lies behind the door). You can find this amusing or disturbing according to your mood.
My third theme is the way he experiments with gender. Look at this painting (Untitled 91/4) – just before he retired from work.
It’s hard to know what to make of it. The face is clearly that of a man but the hat is a woman’s. Is he having a joke, Magritte style, or is he trying to disturb us? The colours are pretty sombre if he’s just having a laugh. Then look at The Tribunal (1987/14) from 4 years earlier and you realise the question of gender is not a joking matter at all.
1987/14 The Tribunal Oil on canvas 150x182cm
Let’s dwell on this painting for a while. Patrick never spoke about its meaning, he just gave it to my wife and me – we carried it across the square, because he lived opposite us at that point. Clearly there’s an accused sitting on the right – male and female mixed, but he/she seems pretty relaxed about things. Then there’s an accuser – the large man with his finger in the air. But what about the other characters, presumably the jury? They lounge about, pointedly taking no notice. And then there’s this clown-like figure – a sort of Master of Ceremonies – looking at the audience as though to say “what do you make of this?” The Indian god Krishna is always represented with a blue face. I wouldn’t put it past Patrick to have known that.
Then there’s the art rather than the meaning. Much of it is abstract masquerading as realism. That great block of red seems to be a table but it’s not – it has no legs; the chair ditto. The figures entwine effortlessly, the background is hectic with vivid colour. The composition makes the eye roam restlessly about, unable to settle. Wonderful. It’s endlessly intriguing.
1987/7 Ma Pomme Oil on canvas 75x55cm
Another theme that keeps appearing is the magic wand. In this exhibition it first appears in Ma Pomme (1987/7). If that’s the only picture you see you wouldn’t know what to make of it. This alluring young woman holds a multicoloured stick behind her back. But it’s there again in The Tribunal, this time held by the clown. The more often you see it the more you realise it represents the magic of which a human being is capable – art, music, love, the things that make life worthwhile. Its last appearance in this show is in an extraordinary late painting (Three figures etc 2004/12).
That’s Patrick himself, walking home from the shops with, probably, a bottle of wine, a piece of cheese and an Italian sausage in a plastic bag (that’s pretty much what he would buy on a regular basis). It’s a painting full of repose – he’s aware of the dancing girl but he doesn’t need her any more. He’s painted the older woman at the table with affection but again without desire, and here’s the point, she’s laid down the magic wand – she’s the opposite of that smiling seductive young woman, holding it behind her back in Ma Pomme. Every time I look at the painting I feel the relief.
A final issue that I’m going to discuss is that Patrick was painting, at least in part, to communicate with the viewer. Several of the paintings in this exhibition have a character in the foreground who looks, not at the picture, but at you. The Tribunal is one, Grand Promenade (01/7) is another. What is this figure saying? I think it’s something like “so what do you make of this?” It’s another way in which Patrick plays with two worlds on one canvas. But he’s also signalling that we have to do some work, not just look at the painting passively.
Grand Promenade 2001/7 Oil on canvas 91cm x 71cm
While we are looking at Grand Promenade, I’ll talk a bit about it. What on earth are these people doing? And what’s that boat doing offshore? I can tell you that they are waiting to visit the Island of Love. I know that because Patrick, in a rare moment of explanation, told me the painting was inspired by Watteau’s painting of 1717 The Embarkation for Cythera. I went straight home and Googled the painting. It’s very different of course – much more licentiousness in the Watteau – but it’s a picture of people on a beach waiting for a boat, to take them to Cythera. Cythera was the birthplace of Venus – hence it’s other name – the Island of Love. It’s an interesting example of how he worked. His subject matter might be triggered by anything, an Old Master, a photo in a newspaper, someone passing in the street. What he makes of it is entirely his own. We don’t need to know what the initial trigger was (though it can be interesting).
So, those are the themes I have selected to make the point that the more paintings by the same artist you see, the more you understand.
The next big question is, do paintings stand alone or does it help to know the artist? They have to succeed as paintings. But, if they do succeed, then getting to know the artist and understanding what lies behind the work adds to the experience. Knowing what was going on for Patrick in his life did explain some of the turns his painting took. There are some very bleak paintings in the exhibition from a time when his mood was very low. In 1991 he retired to Spoleto in Italy – a move he’d planned for years – but within a month he’d decided it was a ridiculous fantasy and he was back in Brighton, his money gone, his morale broken. He painted, not himself, but dark paintings of faces (92/7), and this strange picture of a gambler (92/10). He tried a seascape, and there are some tremendous seascapes in the exhibition, but this one (93/1) came out pretty bleak.
1992/7 Untitled Oil on canvas 23x20cm
1992/10 Untitled Oil on canvas 38x33cm
1993/1 Untitled Oil on canvas 26×28
To return to the gambler, Patrick asked me what I thought was going on. I said I thought the gambler was trying to improve his luck by tilting the table, but no matter how he tries, he can’t get the dice to fall as he wants. He said “yes, that’s about it”.
2002/3 Black Sweater oil on canvas 36x28cm
Who are the people in these portraits? Patrick was adamant that they are never portraits. They often started with a face he has seen in the street or in a magazine, or with someone he knew, but he had no interested in making a likeness. He would just use that as a starting point to create a face, a look, a mood, that interested him.
In a rare moment Patrick did once tell me about the source of one “portrait”. This painting from 2002 which he called Black Sweater (2002/3) has a strong feeling of unhappiness, or unease about it. Sometime after he finished it he realised who she was. She was a young fellow student of his at the College of Art. She had been rather withdrawn and shy and no-one took much notice of her until, in her second year, she killed herself. At the time Patrick had felt guilty that he hadn’t noticed her distress. But of course, he had noticed it, because over 40 years later, it comes out of his subconscious into this painting.
1989/6 Untitled Oil on canvas 53×46 cm
I want to end with one of his most gorgeous heads (1989/6). I’m sure I know who the original inspiration for this was – and she’s here tonight – but that’s not important. What is important is the sense of femininity the picture exudes – the glow of her skin, the delicacy of her necklace, the tenderness of her gaze. I’ve said that I like that there is nothing erotic about his nudes. This is what he does instead. He captures the essence of her femininity. At least, that’s what it means to me. Pauline Ford, the art historian, sees danger in that look. Patrick would have liked that – that we had such different views. That’s the ambiguity, the complexity, he valued.