David Sylvester

David Sylvester, who wrote many memorable pieces for this paper, died in 2001.

Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

Icannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

A good deal of indoctrination must have gone into that. Did it come from...

Unexpected juxtaposition is one of the great artistic devices of the 20th century. In collage. In passages from The Waste Land where each successive line is a quotation from a different source. In the editing of any new-wave TV commercial. In contemporary collecting and curating and anthologising – where those who play with the arts bring together artefacts from a variety of times and places in encounters meant to surprise at first and then look inevitable.

On the Edge

David Sylvester, 27 April 2000

The debate went on for most of the 20th century: was its greatest artist Matisse or Picasso? This was perhaps the only century of the millennium in which the championship was a two-horse race – and a very close race, so that there may never be a consensus lasting more than fifty years as to which of them was the winner. Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction in their greatness, one relating purely to its nature, not its degree. It’s that Matisse did not possess or need to possess genius.’

Art dealers are promising subjects for biographies. They buy and sell portable objects that can easily cost more than a castle or two. They survive by outwitting some of the world’s most cunning and ruthless manipulators of wealth, and they also know how to charm the old rich, key sources of supply. When they deal in the work of living artists they shape the careers of some of the most charismatic and paranoid individuals of their time. Their operations tend to sail dramatically close to the wind of commercial ethics and sometimes of the law. And, having lived lives generally presumed to have been even shadier than they were, they may well be immortalised as builders of temples of high culture.

In New York the Museum of Modern Art’s Pollock exhibition was thrilling in the manner of a saga. With exhilarating force it told the incident-packed story of an inspired and inspiring career cut off at 44 by a self-destructive death. It showed what confusion there was in the early development of a young artist of limited talent and uncertain direction. It demonstrated how he found within himself an intuition of the course he had to take, an uncharted course for which he was uniquely suited. It proved that by the time he was in his mid-thirties he had become a major artist who was opening up possibilities for a whole generation of painters, most of them older than himself, and then for a host of artists who came after. It displayed an extraordinary variety of formal invention and mood which nonetheless functioned inside the fairly narrow framework within which his peculiar talents were effective. It recorded a career fired by demonic energy, cosmic imagination, intense integrity, vast ambition and the physical intelligence of a great dancer or athlete. At the same time, it was an exhibition which affected the mind more than the viscera because of the unsuitability of the galleries housing it.

Get out: Francis Bacon

Julian Bell, 19 October 2000

Somewhere in London, two heads would be nodding together: one tall like the boulder topping a cairn, the other broadened like a Hallowe’en pumpkin. Two lordly sensibilities, the...

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Not His Type

Frank Kermode, 5 September 1996

In a preliminary chapter called ‘Curriculum Vitae’ David Sylvester explains that he became interested in art when, at 17, he was fascinated by a black and white reproduction of a...

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Men at Work

Tom Lubbock, 12 January 1995

Personal witness has a peculiar status in the criticism of painting and sculpture, a status which it seems not to have in the criticism of other arts. There’s some feature of the visual...

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Robbing banks

George Melly, 25 June 1992

Inspired by the bourgeois ‘bad taste’ of Magritte’s house in the Rue des Mimosas in suburban Brussels, Jonathan Miller took off into one of his self-intoxicating fantasies. We...

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Bacon’s Furies

Robert Melville, 2 April 1981

In the preface to his new edition of montaged interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester draws our attention to what has become the last section of the fifth interview. Altogether, there are...

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