British colourist Albert Irvin RA is not only an innovative and widely influential abstract painter, at 90 years young he is also a true inspiration to the art world! Bert, as he is affectionately known to friends and family, has had a dramatic career spanning seven decades, and the same drive to paint and re-define his artistic ‘language’ still pushes him to work as a full-time artist today. Albert has been painting upon canvas fabric and stretcher bars produced in the John Jones workshops since the 1980's and is still a regular client today, we caught up with him at Gimpel Fils Gallery .....
Q) How do you feel when you see paintings which you created 40 years ago?
A) You have to change, you can’t stand still. Every artist has someone say to them ‘I loved the paintings you did ten years ago’. I hope someone says that to me ten years from now! As an artist you inevitably lead yourself onto paths you can’t predict which you didn’t necessarily think you were interested in following to begin with.
Q) How do you think your artistic practice has changed since you began painting?
A) As I’ve got older, the colours have got brighter. Years ago, in order for you to make an important painting one felt that the colours had to be subdued or the painting wouldn’t have the right gravitas. After studying the work of Matisse and Van Gogh I realised it was possible to create meaningful work with dense bright colours, and that’s what I’ve continued to do. I don’t know how bright they’re going to go!
Q) We’ve heard before that American artists and abstract expressionists had a big impact upon your work, how did they inspire you?
A) It was a crunch moment. No question about it. When I left Goldsmiths in the 1950’s my training had been pretty academic – drawing from the model etc. I started hanging around with figurative artists in search of the same language that I was looking for. I went to see a show of American art at the TATE which included the likes of Pollock, Kline, Rothko and Still – it was a powerful punch! They were grouped under the label ‘abstract expressionists’ but they were all so different. They had moved away from objects as a means of communication which was really inspiring.
Q) How would you like your work to be remembered in the future?
A) Beethoven’s fifth symphony is one of the great heights of the human spirit. Call it ‘delusions of grandeur’, but I would like my paintings to be remembered in the same way!
Q) Can you talk us through the titles which you give to your works, their significance and how you select them?
A) Over the years I have started to title my paintings after street names, mainly because my work is informed by my passage through the world and my perception of everyday experiences. The journey from my studio became a metaphor for my paintings – or maybe it’s the other way around? I hate calling my work ‘untitled’, so I started with the streets around my studio. I ran out pretty quickly! Now I’ve convinced myself that the concept is valid, I can use the street names of wherever I go as a way of paying homage to places of interest.
Q) How important is it to you that people understand the history behind your work?
A) I don’t understand it myself! I hope if they buy it, they appreciate it, but viewers don’t have to know everything behind a piece. Understanding the history is an extra ingredient, but not a necessary one. You don’t have to read a programme to benefit from the music at the Proms.
Q) Have you produced any artworks which you really didn’t want to sell?
It’s a strange sense, I don’t want to lose my work, but you can’t replicate it. Edvard Munch said that every time he sold a painting he painted another one for himself! I’m not quite as clingy as that, but it is sometimes hard.
Q) Do you use colours straight from the tube?
A) No, I mix them to create subtle changes. John Jones supply the canvas fabric and stretchers for me and I stretch the finished paintings myself in the gallery. I work on a large scale less than I used to as I don’t have anybody to help me in the studio. A larger canvas is difficult to manoeuvre and I am fast approaching doddery-ness!
Q) Have you ever had studio assistants?
A) Nearly all successful artists now employ teams, but I still cling to the notion of the lonely artist in the studio – That’s just the way I am! It doesn’t mean I disagree with hiring studio assistants. I won’t hear a word against Damien Hirst – he bought three paintings at my last show!
Q) What keeps inspiring you to continue painting?
A) One of the reasons I am as old as I am is because I am still painting. I’m going to paint till I blow up! Facing a blank canvas never gets any easier. Placing it in front of me, I think to myself ‘it’s in there somewhere, I just have to get it out!’ like a sculptor faced with a block of marble.