In early October 2019 David Cook and I visited Peter Doig: Paintings at Michael Werner, and Cy Twombly: Sculpture at Gagosian, both in London. Afterwards, we discussed the shows by email. The following is the result of several weeks of electronic toing and froing.


Peter Doig, “Musical Equipment Ltd.”, 2019
Oil on linen
50 x 38 cm

David:

We have been looking at Peter Doig’s work for a long time – since before he won the Turner Prize (1994), and became internationally known – even becoming the most expensive living European artist for a time. Back in the 90s, I was struck by a quality in his work that was clearly determined to go its own way, but seemed insular and alienated to me – almost like outsider art. What is it about his work that has so engaged people since then – has it changed or have people become more receptive to his style?

Richard:

Yes, there’s quite a difference in style between these paintings and those he made in the early nineties. The earliest I remember were based on family snaps and shots of landscapes. They seemed to have some kind of biographical significance for him and were painted in a heightened form of realism where some areas of colour were pushed to supersaturated extremes – combining figurative and abstract to create something rich and exciting to look at. At the time painting as an activity in itself was not popular – there were very few painters getting exposure who weren’t “slumming it” as part of their conceptual practice. Peter Doig’s work was like a breath of fresh air – they were just undeniably great paintings. And I think he is partly responsible for resurgence in interest in new figurative painting.

The subject matter may seem insular and alienated, but the way he painted those works meant that they teetered on the edge of the decorative, whilst being rigorous, mysterious and contemporary – a rich visual stew and it was inviting – even in dense almost monochromatic images there were fresh, bright areas of colour, and the viewer could identify objects and people in the images – there was an “in”. They are pleasurable things to look at – I think that probably helps a lot.

David:

You are absolutely correct to say that Doig was flying the flag almost alone for painting in the nineties, when it really was deeply unfashionable. His early work was groundbreaking – or felt that way. He was making conventional easel paintings in a straight up modernist style. What he offered us was an image, albeit enigmatic, but one that was free of postmodern irony. There was no ‘twist’ – and his materials were very traditional. But somehow his work had absorbed all sorts of other things: he was contemporary and forward looking, not a reactionary throwback.

Peter Doig, Spearfishing, 2013
Oil On Linen
288 x 200 cm

That very immediate and personal idea of a talented individual realising a vision remains at the heart of the popular idea of what an artist is, and does.

Doig is a visionary artist – and for a visionary artist, when the vision is lost there is not a lot to fall back on. And it might not come back. For the artist of process (like Gerhard Richter for example), everything is thought out beforehand so quality is more consistent; easier to admire, but harder to love. Doig is easy to love when the vision is there, for sure.

But now I wonder if all those layers – all that atmosphere of the Canadian lake mists – has been blown away in the Trinidadian sunshine. He has been resident there for 17 years now, and I feel these new paintings do not have complexity of the night fishing series,  They are still easy on the eye – bright colours, the allure of beautiful bodies and the sea, but they seem more or less like the work of any old expressionist artist. Is that fair comment?

To be continued…