In Denbigh Road

Peter Campbell

David Sylvester, who contributed regularly to this paper, died last June. People who worked with him usually agree that he was the most engaged and patient looker at art they ever knew. Robert Rosenblum rightly says, in David Sylvester: The Private Collection, that there was something comical about his high seriousness, but it is also true that, ‘unlike the rest of us ironists’, he could make one feel (or at least feel one ought to feel) that ‘art might matter more than life itself.’ When, as a collector and curator, he chose and displayed objects, the ordering, spacing and lighting often led you to see and understand them better than you ever had before. His egotism would have been intolerable had it not been accompanied by doubt and curiosity. He was a wonderful interviewer, willing to ask obvious questions as well as clever ones – and to listen to the answers. Moreover he invited anyone who happened to be around to take part in the game of discrimination; all his friends were rung at one time or another to have a sentence read out for criticism or confirmation. Any visit to his house was likely to involve a discussion about the placing of a sculpture or just how high on the wall a tapestry should hang. He loved arguing about who was the greatest this or that – he was passionate about cricket, perhaps his penchant for making dream teams came from there. In his own case there are no lists to be made. No one else was playing quite the same game.

Two farewells to him take place this month: the sale of his private collection on 26 February at Sotheby’s in Bond Street – it will be viewable there from 20 February – and a small exhibition at Tate Modern, chosen by him from the museum’s collection, which runs until 24 March. The Sotheby’s catalogue is a proper memorial in two ways. First, it offers a portrait – much more than a eulogy – in quotes from friends and in Rosenblum’s short, affectionate essay. The monster whose coercive telephone manner ‘gave a new meaning to the phrase “pregnant pause”’ is there, as well as the art addict – which is to say, the man; for his sensibility was never off duty, and unlike most critics he was not overcome late in life by a failure of appetite and inability to respond to what was new.

The catalogue illustrations are the second thing to remember him by, for they show not only the objects he collected, but also the rooms in his house in Denbigh Road, Notting Hill where he had installed them. There are pieces – like the biggest of the Roman portrait heads – which had been with him for decades. Others, like some of the Indian sculptures, were bought over the last few years. The modern work, much of it gifts from artists, is mainly drawings and prints. They were hung in subsidiary spaces – the Barnett Newman etching and lithograph in the kitchen, the de Kooning drawings on the stairs. In the two main rooms half a dozen pieces, bathed in diffused daylight, didn’t so much offer themselves up for attention as demand it.

The pieces he chose for the exhibition at Tate Modern (he would have been happier had it been in the old building) ask that you think about relationships. In the first room, for example, two Giacometti sculptures are placed quite close to an abstract, but not yet rectilinear, Mondrian. It comes to you that all three works play tricks with the brain’s way of processing information. The flattened head of the Giacometti bust adds an illusion of still greater depth to its actual three dimensions, while the Mondrian, only a step away from the divide that separates picture of object from picture as object, is still using marks which indicate depth. The Bonnard in the same room is back at the beginning of that road, while in the two Barnett Newmans the concept ‘picture of’ has no meaning at all. They are in the second room. The hanging there would, I think, have made Sylvester give birth to several litters of kittens. More than half the space is divided off by a fence of stretched wires – perhaps Richard Serra’s standing slabs and rolled up sheet of metal are not so well poised as to be proof against a cannoning child. This means that one of the two Barnett Newman paintings can only be seen obliquely, that neither can be advanced on and retreated from, and that the glossy dime-store brilliance of the Jeff Koons sculpture – Koons was one of Sylvester’s late enthusiasms – can never be removed from the corner of your eye. (In Rosenblum’s account, watching the giant balloons in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade triggered for Sylvester ‘a eureka experience, offering him a whole new way of looking at Koons’s sculpture’.)

The third room is much more successful. It could illustrate an essay on the history of the mark in modern art. The hefty strokes in the late Picasso are still European painterly, the black tangle of the 1951 Pollock was made by a painter who hadn’t been conditioned to use a brush that way, while the de Kooning and Twombly could be set up as another contrasting pair – the one with a painterly and the other a scrawly version of the same round-hand script.

Sylvester himself would have pushed more interesting and more difficult connections. He could write of one Twombly that ‘we discern phalluses and orifices, we interpret the splatters and spots as bodily secretions,’ and of others that ‘a high tension is set between the marks, making the space full of energy and full of stillness.’ Of a Newman lithograph he said: ‘I kept it on the wall, twenty years passed before I began to see it,’ before he ‘started responding to the richness of the black, its simultaneous flatness and depth, hardness and softness’. One could find in his writings remarks of this kind to gloss almost all the works in the exhibition – remarks which challenge you to see if you, too, can pause, let the work have its way, and notice what that way is. What persuades you to follow Sylvester’s solipsistic accounts of feelings in front of art is the fact that the work he chose to praise does, in the end, very often work for you too, even if you begin by rejecting it. He was very good at seeing what would stand up to long looking – the pieces he collected prove this. In that sense he backed winners, many of which are represented here. In the introduction to his collected criticism, About Modern Art, Sylvester tells how Britain in the 1950s had, as he saw it, to be saved from John Berger (both men had stints as art critic for the New Statesman) whose ‘rhetorical skills and . . . performing skills on TV won considerable support, financial as well as moral, for inferior artists.’

Berger had a Ruskinian interest in the social context of art. Sometimes he backed the wrong artists when they seemed to be doing what he thought art ought to do. Sylvester was a Pateresque aesthete who looked within his own experience of works of art for a confirmation of their value. During the fifty plus years of his working life he saw the reputation and value of the modern art he admired rise. At the very end he may have sensed that an art world which took account of his kind of concentrated attention was giving way to one which was more interested in quick shocks and managed celebrity. Almost the last contact I had with him was after I’d written something to the effect that the membrane which once seemed to separate art from non-art was now entirely permeable. He rang to say that he agreed. It is clear when you look back that one of the things which kept uncontaminated the high seriousness of the Modernism he admired was the sort of writing and exhibition-making he excelled at. His authority owed almost as much to the weight of his personality as to the power of his writing. There is no one who looks like replacing him.