sun 23/06/2024

10 Questions for author Martin Gayford | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for author Martin Gayford

10 Questions for author Martin Gayford

The prolific writer on his love of art and jazz, and what makes a good writer

Portrait of the art writerMartin Gayford © Josephine Gayford

Over the past four decades Martin Gayford, The Spectator’s art critic, has travelled the world, been published in an amazing range of print and digital publications and written more than 20 books, many of them involving his fascination not only with looking at art, but also its making.

Several, including Looking at Pictures, have been collaborations with David Hockney. Man in a Blue Scarf, his account of sitting 250 hours for his portrait by Lucian Freud, is a classic. He has also published books on Michelangelo, Constable, and Van Gogh. 

His association with art is deeply personal. His book on post-war British painting and painters, Modernists and Mavericks, is based not only on his own perceptive eye but on extensive interviews with artists who he often knows as friends. His newest book, The Pursuit of Art, brings together 20 essays which deal with visits to art and artists, forming a diary of sorts.  

He lectures extensively and teaches at the University of Buckingham. Having studied first at Cambridge and then the Courtauld, he once again lives in Cambridge — which he obviously loves — noting its marvellous museums, interesting fellow inhabitants and world-class university library.

While he relishes the town being “small enough for me to walk everywhere,” his pace is hardly slow. He is staggeringly prolific. It is unclear how he has time to breathe.

MARINA VAIZEY: How did you begin writing about art?

MARTIN GAYFORD: Well, it's a subject I've been interested in since childhood, and which I studied at the Courtauld Institute after doing my first degree (in Philosophy). But the true answer is, partly by accident. I began writing about music and was jazz critic of the Daily Telegraph for many years. One day I was having lunch with the arts editor, Miriam Gross, when she asked if there was anything else I'd like to write about. I said I'd always been tremendously interested in art. She replied, "Why don't you do something for next Wednesday?" And I haven't stopped since.
Many of your books are written in collaboration — David Hockney comes to mind, as does Philippe de Montebello, past director of the Metropolitan Museum. How do you go proceed with these kinds of project? 

Each one is different, precisely because they are collaborations. In the case of Rendezvous with Art, we had begun the project and had already a number of meetings and conversations, when Philippe suggested from then on we meet up in galleries and museums and structure the book around spontaneous conversations we had in them. This worked well, and meant that a good deal of the process involved flying to Florence, Madrid or Paris and teaming up with Philippe on the spot. With David Hockney, I suggested the first book  A Bigger Message  then he proposed the second, A History of Pictures (including the title). That one grew partly out of long days of conversation at his house in LA, but also involved email exchanges across the Atlantic.

Much of what you review is the work of artists who are friends and sometimes even collaborators. Surely that presents both benefits and difficulties. Can you tell me more about that?

I think critics who don't talk to artists will never discover how artists think (that applies to art historians too). Indeed, much of the best writing on art is either derived from conversation with artists  Baudelaire on Delacroix, much of Vasari  or written by artists themselves (Van Gogh's letters). But it is true that you can become too close to be impartial, so I try to avoid reviewing exhibitions by my co-authors.

There’s always a clear sense that you are writing for your readers, that you are sensitive to the different ways your audience looks at art. How important is this to you?

I like writing to be clear  an idea I think I picked up from George Orwell. If it's confusing, boring or obscure, that is clearly a failing on the part of the author. On the other hand, if it's precise and elegant anyone will be able to understand it; and if it's describing an experience they haven't yet had the pleasure to be derived from a minimalist sculpture, for example, or performance art  perhaps they will want to go and look at that thing themselves.

Your output is prodigious — thousands of articles and reviews, events, lectures, curating, travelling… How much free time do you have and what do you do to relax?

There was an interesting piece in The Times the other day by Jenni Russell, arguing that it's impossible to concentrate hard and creatively for more than about four hours a day. That's what I do: I write from breakfast time to lunch  on most days (seven mornings a week if I'm busy on a book project). Afternoons are for research and seeing exhibitions. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time listening to music  jazz and classical  watching films, reading, cooking and talking. Admittedly, there is a danger of some of those interests turning into work. At the moment I'm thinking of writing a book which will include music as well as the visual arts.

Your new book The Pursuit of Art is a collection of essays about visiting art and artists around the world. What inspired the collection? Why did you decide to do it now? And how did you decide what went into the collection?

It came about through a mixture of chance and reflection, rather similar to the procedures some of the artists describe in the book. A few years ago, I suggested a series of talks to Susan Marling of Jazz Radio in which I revisited past interviews. Then, a while later, we did another series, also for Radio 3, about difficult and/or diverting journeys to see art. After these were broadcast I wondered whether they might be the basis of a book. My publishers, Thames & Hudson, thought they would so I added 11 more, rewrote the earlier ones and thought harder about the threads that linked them together. Of course, there were many more meetings and trips that could have been included. In fact I've wondered about doing another volume sometime.

What have so far been the highlights of your career?

It's tempting to echo several jazz musicians I've talked to, who would say, "My next album will be my best". Sitting to Lucian Freud for a year and a half was an extraordinary experience, though I'm not sure it was part of my career exactly. Working on the exhibition Constable Portraits at the NPG was enormous fun. And I greatly enjoyed spending a lot of time - in a virtual sense - with Michelangelo, including many hours in a sometimes almost empty Sistine Chapel.

Much of your work has been about contemporary artists. Which past greats have appealed to you and why? 

Actually, I started on the old masters, though as a teenager I was also interested in contemporary art  Rauschenberg for instance, who's in this book. I have always been drawn to the Renaissance, the Venetians especially (Venice will be the subject of my next book), and late 19th to early 20th century Paris. But it would probably be easier to name what I don't like. I'm not a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and tend to hurry through the 19th century academic rooms of any museum.

How do you see art developing in the future?

That's a question I would leave to artists to answer. Some of my collaborators  David Hockney and Antony Gormley, with whom I'm co-writing a book at the moment  certainly have thoughts on the matter. David would say that whatever happens, people will still like looking at pictures.
The question you must have been asked thousands of times: who would you include in your ideal gallery, whose work would you like to have at home?

When I visited Clement Greenberg, I was impressed to discover he had a Jackson Pollock in his bathroom. One of those would be nice to have  so would a Titian, Constable, Van Gogh and Cézanne (not necessarily in the bathroom).

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