Sam Thorne Interviews Derek Guthrie
In these convivial surroundings near the harbour in St Ives, the two men talked about Derek’s life and career, the chances that led into publishing the New Art Examiner, his broad philosophy of the visual arts, how age has found him accidentally ‘walking history’, and his hopes that a renewed Examiner will continue to champion independent thought long into the future.
ST: I am the artistic director here at the Tate, St. Ives and I teach critical writing at the Royal College, founder of Urban School East, free to attend which I founded two years ago and I’m a contributing editor of Freeze as well. Joined by Derek Guthrie, artist, publisher, critic, any of those things, how do you identify?
DG: Co-founder of the NAE. And I’m a secret artist, I don’t exhibit. And I occasionally write but I’m more of a backroom person rather than an outfront person. Its nearer my nature, but I’ve acquired a reputation over the years.
ST: So behind the scenes, co-founder of the NAE. Maybe we can talk about reputations.
ST: So, I’m curious what was your first connection with St. Ives was . Because as I understand it, you didn’t grow up around here.
DG: I came down here when I was about 18.5, thereabouts, I was student at the West of England College of Art and we had a sketch club exhibition which was work done outside of the college and Peter Lanyon was at that time at Corsham Court (Bath Academy of Art)and I got the prize.
ST: So when would this have been?
DG: Approximately 1956. I was a very nervous and timid child and it went to my…it fired me up so to speak. I came down here and of course, we heard about St. Ives.
ST: What did you know about St. Ives at that point? What did it mean?
DG: Well artists lived down there and Peter Lanyon spoke about it and one of our faculty was coming down here all the time and you would have known him by name a guy named Paul Filer. So it was a sort of an exotic remote place.
ST: And were you aware of Lanyon’s work before you met him when you were… ?
ST: No. That’s interesting And so you came down here after winning this prize.
DG: Well, just to have a look, I only came to visit.
ST: And what did you find?
DG: Well, I found a very beautiful place. And I went up to Man’s Head and I felt the world or the sea and it had a profound effect upon me. I felt so moved by this I decided on this as sort of home. I couldn’t live here at the time but it became my touchstone so I kind of made a series of return visits one way or the other.
ST: Where were you living at that time?
ST: And so did it ever become a full time home?
DG: Oh yes, a few years later.
ST: What did you do in between?
DG: I dropped out of Art school and I went to Paris. And you can see some of this in a long interview in Art Cornwall. And I lived in 9 Rue Gît-le-Coeur.
ST: Famous address.
DG: Oh yeah, next door to William Burroughs.
ST: Was Brian Guyson there at that moment?
DG: No, I was very young and naïve. And just took in stuff. But I was painting memories of St. Ives.
ST: So you were in Paris, living next door to the Beats but you were painting St. Ives. And what kind of style of paintings were you making at the time?
DG: I think my first trip to London as an art student I went to Whitechapel and saw an exhibition which really resonated with me. DeStael, and so west of England is very conservative and I learned many lessons but I didn’t understand them until years later. It planted in me a dissatisfaction for art education. Anyway DeStael go through to me and the west of England was all Slade and Post Sickert and you had all these middle aged faculty and of course the reasons people were appointed to be inside the tradition of the place and I remember asking them about Picasso and they couldn’t talk about Picasso because they had rejected Picasso. So that was the beginning of awareness and I just fumbled my way through from thereon.
ST: Did you see in London at that time any other important exhibitions? I’m thinking of This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel or the American painting show that was at the Tate?
DG: Yeah I saw that. I didn’t see This is Tomorrow but I got to be very familiar with it because I followed what was going on. And I was certainly aware one way or the other of all the discourse.
ST: How were you following things? Through magazines or publications?
DG: Publications and talking to other people.
ST: Do you recall what kinds of magazines you were looking at the time?
DG: There was Studio International and that was like a major place. Yeah and Apollo with pieces in the back. I can’t remember the names of others.
ST: So you were in Paris for awhile and then you moved here in a more full time capacity.
DG: Actually, I took a quick trip to Ibiza. That was before there was an airport.
ST: Oh really? How did you get to Ibiza?
ST: And why was that? What took you there?
DG: Well, this was one of these places where writers and painters were going. It was a sort of underground.
ST: Walter Benjamin spent a lot of time there.
And so you were in Ibiza for some time and then you moved to St. Ives.
DG: No I went back to London.
ST: And when was this?
DG: I moved to the Portobello Road. When the race riots broke out. I was on the corner, and then I got down to St. Ives. And I lived here for three years.
ST: What years?
DG: I can’t remember exactly.
ST: Maybe around 1960.
DG: Yeah I guess. And then I moved to Newlyn.
ST: Why was that?
DG: Because I could see St. Ives was dying.
ST: Were things going on in Newlyn at that time?
DG: Well, Newlyn wasn’t inundated with the tourist trade. And I could see it was the beginning of a paralysis. Exactly what was going to happen I cold see in the early days. I didn’t want to deal with it. It got too ugly.
ST: Why did you stay so close? You wanted to stay in West Cornwall?
DG: I wanted to stay in West Cornwall
ST: And what was it that was keeping you?
DG: It was home for me, it was my identity.
ST: What artists were you talking to at that time?
DG: I was talking to all of them.
ST: Who would that have been?
DG: All the St. Ives school. I think I got to be a member of Penwith which was also very interesting. I think I might have been the youngest member. And that was a great education.
ST: Education in what sense?
DG: I learned about how people spoke about Art. And I learned how people behaved in the Art world.
ST: What kind of work was being exhibited at the Penwith at that time?
DG: All the normal stuff.
ST: Because Penwith had been running for a dozen years. It would have been after Nicholson had left.
DG: Hepworth was around.
ST: Was she still involved? I thought she left the society at that point.
DG: Well there was trouble she left and she came back three months later. By accident I’m a little bit of walking history actually.
A fight started, well, I remember Penwith when it was on 4th Street and then they purchased their present location. And everybody used to send in but the big boys gradually dropped out for diverse reasons as the gossip goes. Peter Lanyon was the power behind the throne in Newlyn. There were only two places to exhibit in Newlyn, or Penwith. But there was a different tradition and history that was operative there.
ST: I suppose I’m more aware of the history of St. Ives, but what were you encountering when you were in Newlyn? How was the work different?
DG: You had the residue of the old time figurative painters. And figurative art didn’t get much of a look at Penwith. It was really not trendy. I learned about Art world fashion and how it gets into people’s heads. And how they find, initially, themselves one way and the other. It was my graduate school. But without anybody giving degrees.
ST: What was your niche? What niche did you find?
DG: I was a figurative artist and I never embraced total abstraction. That was the big fight that was going on, everything, whether it was abstract or not. An non figurative art, did it start as figurative or did it start as abstract? The ideology was flying like mad everywhere. So those were the options that were in the air.
ST: To what degree at that point were you influenced by American critics, I mean Greenberg of Rosenberg, the formalist critics?
DG: No I wasn’t aware of them at that time. It was in St. Ives again on the ground that I learned that criticism was important. And I very very quickly learnt there are two kinds of people in the Art world: there were people who read criticism and there were those that did not. And that lesson stayed with me my whole life. And that did me very well years later when I fell into being a critic by accident in publishing. That taught me that lesson. I learned in St. Ives you’ve got to have words with you if you want to be a professional artist.
ST: Did you in terms of, say, visitors who were coming to Newlyn and St. Ives that period, of course there were a number of famous international people who came through – were you aware that there was a steady traffic of, say, critics.
DG: Sure, you had to be in the right circles and invited to the parties. I was a fringe kid.
ST: Was that deliberate?
ST: You wanted to be at the parties?
DG: No, I didn’t want to be. But I would have given anything to have been invited. But some artists were infinitely more accessible than others. And that was to do with personality. I remember a hilarious time its when Antony Armstrong Jones, Lord Snowdon make his famous book. Have you seen it?
ST: Yes, I have.
DG: Well, everybody went beserk over this, I mean you would have thought Obama was visiting or something it was just like madness, and the games that people used to play. Certain people were abroad and they flew back to be around Anthony Armstrong Jones. I learnt this whole business by being a very acute observer. Now I was making up my own mind about Art and I wasn’t rushing to arrive anywhere. I was much more interested in finding my steps. And that’s what I held onto.
ST: Were you exhibiting at the time?
DG: I got a show in the Portland Gallery which is a very small gallery just off Bond Street. And they showed naïve artists, that was their stock and trade. And they took me on, by the time I was 24 I had three sellout shows. But, again, my learning experience at the Portal as an exhibiting artist opened up so much awareness. By that time the Pop Art thing had started and I knew St. Ives was dead. There’s this famous movie, called, Pop Goes the Easel by Ken Russell and when that came on television, that was it.
ST: When was that?
DG: I don’t know. But I knew that was the end of St. Ives. Now I had shows and I was hanging out a little bit in London but I saw the effect of that, and oh, Laurence Alloway was another one that we used to read. And of course, the daily papers were much more into criticism then than they are now. They were a vital source of information and the Sunday supplements had just started, the colored supplements. So I learned a lot by being in London and being a 5 minute wonder.
ST: How was it for you to be showing at the Portal Gallery which was exhibiting naïve artists? First of all, how did you feel to be in that kind of context but then.
DG: I didn’t care because I wasn’t going to go anywhere in St. Ives because the orthodoxy precluded me. The orthodoxy was so deeply rooted. And of course, you had innumerable hangers on and people who would join in so there was no way, I could, I remember right now a funny incident. I came back from London and I was very pleased with myself cause I made the Times and the Telegraph and all that kind of stuff and St. Ives was slightly fashionable. And everybody I knew at the Castle Inn got up and sat at another table. And I said, what’s up, what’s up? And they said, we don’t talk to chocolate box painters.
ST: Chocolate box painter?
DG: That was the ultimate thing you could say about a figurative artist. And the Penwith Society had this situation of electing members every year or so, I remember when they kicked off Dod Proctor, who was a fine leftover Edwardian painter but all the young Turks regarded it as obsolete. So this is when I learnt a kind of trendy prejudice.
ST: Sure, I don’t know what kind of work you were making at the time but if you were showing in a gallery that was focused on naive Art, I imagine your work was some way away from chocolate box painting.
DG: No they weren’t chocolate box painting, they were no where near chocolate box painting.
ST: So what were they?
DG: They were sort of , I like looking at things and I got my inspiration but they look, kind of slightly abstracted. It was an abstraction of what the eye saw. I was interested in the process of abstraction. Not in the process of composing to see what you found out. It was more a voyage of discovery and by this time I’d given up the thick paint which I did before.
ST: Were you looking to New York at all at this point?
ST: So what kind of Pop were you looking at?
DG: There was one show and they had a few but the big thing was I got to know Peter Blake slightly, when I was showing in the Portal. And Peter was a kind of strange one off. Though he got incorporated into the Pop movement he was Pre-Pop and he was doing his own thing in kind of eccentric way. But he was like a prophet. So it all caught up and absorbed him. He also visited St. Ives at that time. He did a great painting of a boy eating a hotdog on Rednagh Hill.
ST: He was here for a little while wasn’t he?
DG: And Joe Tilson as well, they were mates. They talked to me and I learnt a lot from them. It was all kind of informal, I mean the scene was much smaller then and artists were much more important then than they are now. Cause what artists thought was much more important. And you didn’t have the whole market PR machinery that has grown out of the Art world.
ST: Then what happened to you next you were in this position of relatively young, you were exhibiting.
DG: I lived down here for six year, I had to leave Cornwall, I didn’t want to, I had a wife at that time who was desperately unhappy. So I went to London to try and look after that situation. Shortly afterwards, I got a Commonwealth Scholarship and I went to India.
DG: That was such a fantastic experience.
ST: What does a Commonwealth Scholarship involve exactly?
It s like having Residency with money for two years. I was attached to Baroda University which is one of the modern campuses in India.
ST: That must have been incredibly exciting.
DG: Now understand I got to know Bernard Leach in Penwith. He took a shine to me, we used to talk a lot. And I wasn’t a Potter and he said a lot of stuff that I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know what it really meant. I learnt what it meant years later and I learned a lot from Leach.
ST: What kinds of things?
DG: Just aesthetics.
ST: Did that have a particular resonance for you when you went to India?
DG: Not exactly, I mean I learned one lesson in India. Which is a simple lesson, I learnt that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
ST: You found peace?
DG: No. I learned to deal with a cultural vacuum, which in a way joined up with my own personal vacuum.
ST: Did that have an effect on your work?
DG: Not particularly. I felt better about my work at this time because figurative Art had returned on the scene and it wasn’t deemed obsolete. I was in no way fired by the concerns of the figurative artists.
ST: Who you have in mind here, people like Hockney?
DG: Yes, Allen Jones and the guy who did the large glass?
ST: Richard Hamilton.
DG: I was aware of all the talk that was going on. I read Orwell’s essays on comics. Have you read that?
ST: I don’t think I have.
DG: It’s a very important essay. Very English and anticipated their concerns by a long time.
ST: I just remembered you mentioned Alloway, he actually mentioned in one essay that Francis Bacon was the first ever Pop artist. He said the first ever Pop was made in 1949 by Francis Bacon.
DG: There was all this talk Hamilton and Reyner Banham and others who I don’t know were trying to form an intellectual analysis of Pop. They had it worked out in various ways. Now Alloway was a bit in your face as a personality and he had a huge chip on his shoulder.
ST: Chip about what?
DG: Class, which he was quite happy to tell you in a very short time. Now I think he invented the word Pop in the English context, I’m not sure about that.
ST: Its sometimes said its Hamilton.
DG: But Hamilton, they were talking about popular Art. I think it’s a kind of trendy word, it might have been Alloway. I’m not sure but if I looked at it the Royal College the Young Contemporaries. And the Young Contemporary show was a big deal then because everybody went there to see what the students, what the new trends were.
ST: And that was being shown at the ICA at that point?
DG: I think so but other places. There was one more and it came from the kids in the Royal College and Hockney was a major part of that. Do you know how that came about?
ST: How Hockney?
DG: … and the others got into that?
DG: This is a very interesting historical that few people know. Kitaj got a English speaking scholarship and he went to the Ruskin which was traditional and not exciting and he changed to the Royal College. He was a figurative painter. Now Americans were like gods in those days. And here was this red bearded guy, straightforward American in the Royal College and he did two figurative paintings. Now all those guys, Hockney was doing abstract at that time. That gave them confidence to get into Pop. There were two paintings that were key in this and they were in the Evergreen Review which was a hippie Magazine out of San Francisco and one was ‘The Last Confederate’ and the other was ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’. This tipped them over into reviving Dan Dale out of their memories. The other thing was the 1944 Education Act which meant that the working class boys suddenly dominated the Slade and the Royal College and Bloomsbury culture died at that point.
ST: You mentioned Reyner Banham as well. Banham was fixated on Los Angeles in the 60’s.
DG: That was the vernacular Hollywood architecture. I remember as a little boy looking a photography albums, like early editions of National Geographic, you would open up to America and they would have pages and pages of photographs of all the funny signs they would have or drive-ins that looked like a beer bottle, Disney architecture which was commercial architecture. I was aware of that as being a very American thing. Now the people who were a bit younger than me which was the generation on, got to be more aware of it. That’s how California through Pop, through America – so that was how it leached into the culture.
ST: What took you to America? We’re skipping forward a bit.
DG: No I came back and I was here and by this time London had changed. And nobody cared about Paris any more.
ST: This was the mid 60’s.
DG: I went to America in 1969, the year after the Democratic riots and I had been coming back from India for about a year and a half. I chose to go to Chicago because by this time having lived in India and having lived in Paris and living here I kinda had an acute awareness that the culture of a country is largely defined by the metropolitan center. But in a way always metropolitan centers always had an international outlook. Because they related to other centers whereas the regions didn’t. I didn’t want to go to California. So Chicago seemed a good place.
ST: What did you know about Chicago at that time?
DG: Just that it was Second City. I didn’t go there for the culture, I thought I would go there for awhile, get used to America and then make my way to New York. I didn’t want to go straight into New York.
ST: It was a kind of stepping stone.
DG: It was a stepping stone that never happened. I never lived in New York although I spent a lot of time there.
ST: Did you know people in Chicago or did you just turn up?
DG: No I just turned up. I got a teaching job. What happened was, you see I didn’t have a degree but I had a young man’s confidence I wouldn’t have now. So I went to Chicago on a charter flight and I checked into the hostel at the University of Chicago. And I knocked on every door in Chicago asking people for a job. And what I could sell was me and my history and somebody gave me a job in the evening divisions and that guaranteed my return to Chicago.
ST: Where were you teaching?
DG: On the southside, an irrelevant place.
ST: Okey, so you were teaching Art?
DG: Yeah, it didn’t matter.
ST: Who were you teaching? What kind of age group?
DG: The kids were the dregs of Chicago. They were ¾ black and the others were rejects from the Catholic School System so it was very, very basic but it was a wonderful experience of falling into the downtrodden in America.
ST: What did they make of you as this Englishman who had been living in Indian and Paris?
DG: Someone crazy. So exotic you wouldn’t believe it. It was all fantasy.
ST: And so how long were you doing that for?
DG: Couple of years.
ST: And what happened after that?
DG: I met my future wife, a woman called Jane Addams Allen. And she was the great grandniece of Jane Addams. I don’t know if you know anything about Jane Addams.
ST: Oh, she…education reformer… Hull House.
DG: She was one of the great activists who founded Hull House. And a great admirer of John Ruskin. And Jane was from that family. And I fell into a very rich aspect of American culture, I was so fortunate and it was a chemistry made in heaven. And we got to be art critics for the Chicago Tribune by accident. And we were not towing the party line.
ST: What was the party line?
DG: Hairy Who?, They were alright but they weren’t the greatest thing since sliced bread. Chicago is a very repressive city. Its very team minded. And its quasi fascist.
ST: In what sense, quasi fascist?
DG: You can’t buck City Hall. The social divisions in Chicago are so absolute.
ST: How were you encountering that as an art critic?
DG: Because the nouveau riche opened their own Art Museum, which is called the Museum of Contemporary Art. And that was on an ethnic basis. Because it was alleged that the Art Institute was anti-semitic.
ST: Oh really? Huh.
DG: Now whether it be true or not I don’t know. But it was a great indication of how you still have in Chicago that kind of precinct thinking which is defined by ethnic heritage. And Daley kept his position as the overlord by knowing this better than anyone else.
ST: Were you, how were you making a living at this point? You stopped teaching, you were working…
DG: I stopped teaching, there was no living from being a stringer for a newspaper.
ST: Even then?
ST: That’s good to hear.
ST: Because I think it gets slightly romanticized that in the 60’s and 70’s it was possible to make a living from that.
DG: Oh, people are very romantic. People have a great tendency to be romantic. It’s a way of deciding that life was easier for your fathers than it is for you, which is always an essential human need.
ST: So when did, you were writing for the Chicago Tribune, what were the magazines that you were looking at that time?
DG: All of them, you know. Art in America, Art News, Art Forum.
ST: Was Art Forum, primarily, was it on the West Coast then?
DG: No, it already moved to New York. And the person who established it was a strange man of English culture called John Coplans, who was an abstract painter in his time. I remember the name in the past, he was a white South African. He got hold of Art Forum and made it what it was and we were very good friends with John. And I learned a lot from him.
ST: Were you writing for Art Forum then?
DG: No. Didn’t want to.
ST: Okey. How focused were they on N.Y. and to what degree did they cover Chicago?
DG: He took charge of it when it went to New York.
ST: It went from San Francisco, to LA to New York.
DG: Yeah, yeah. John got fired from Art Forum which is one of these great stories which shows the creeping power of money that come to dominate all the important decisions. I think the Longbeach Museum got taken over by collectors and stopped being a public not-for-profit. And John wrote a great article explaining it. And they had lots of money. I think Charlie Cowles who owned Art Forum at that time got to be a dealer. The price of not bringing a lawsuit was to get rid of John Coplans.
ST: So he was gone.
DG: So he reverted to being a photographer. And he was a very good photographer. Anyway he went to Ohio and he was in charge of the Akron Museum and his big patron died. He got stranded in Akron so he returned to New York and lived out his life as a photographer. But again, this was my education. And it was all reality and aesthetics and being able to swap opinion without getting into trouble.
ST: When you got to Chicago and you started to encounter work like the Hairy Who, the Imagists had you been familiar with that work in the U.K?
DG: No. It hadn’t traveled.
ST: What did you make of it when you first encountered it?
DG: Well it had its own dynamic and I’m not suggesting they inherited influences but then you had Funk Art out of California and it was a manifestation of being interested in images that you derive out of popular culture. Now it had a Chicago twist, which is to do with Chicago which California didn’t have.
ST: Its interesting that Imagists and Funk never really got shown beyond those cities. It wasn’t being shown much in London during that period.
DG: Well, there wasn’t enough money to be made out of it. Art only travels when money gets put into it. You know that better than I do. Given your history. I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve always looked at the Art world through binoculars.
ST: That’s interesting because I remember you mentioning to me that when we met before that the New Art Examiner and I think you alleged that had a circulation 2nd only to Art Forum at some point in North America.
DG: A key point in the Examiner which is a bit lost in history and the reason its lost is also very interest is Jane and I were unofficially blacklisted. We couldn’t even get a job in Chicago.
ST: Blacklisted, why?
DG: Unofficially. But nobody would give us a job. Not even part time.
ST: What was your sense of why that was happening?
DG: Jane knew Chicago society very well and she made a great statement once, she said you don’t have to go too far up the social ladder before you see the walls start to slip in other words the pyramid acts quite quickly. Chicago is not known for independence, its not known for intellectual adventures. Its true the Imagists happened in there but I wouldn’t call it exactly an intellectual adventure. Chicago calls itself the Second City. Which means its insanely jealous of New York. And it feels permanently bullied by New York. And it is permanently bullied, like Manchester is permanently bullied by London. It’s the problem of any regional urban center that has enough of its own culture. Nelson Algren will tell you all about this, have you read City on the Make, well that will tell you the whole thing,
ST: What was your interest in Chicago cause it doesn’t sound like …
DG: We had a niche in the Art world and we started publishing. So we were having our adventures. Just like anybody.
ST: When did you start publishing?
DG: October 1973.
ST: That was the first issue of the NAE.
DG: And it had no money and it was only done in the community. It was just a newsletter. And somehow we hung in which is an epic story. But we had to leave town to survive the NAE. So we took the absurd decision, was we’ll go to D.C. But we kept the office in Chicago. And we controlled it from D.C.
ST: Why was that?
DG: Because it was integrated into the community.
ST: Community in D.C. or community in Chicago?
ST: Why weren’t you in Chicago?
DG: Because we couldn’t get a job.
ST: I see you were working from D.C, but publishing from Chicago.
DG: No we had an office in Chicago but we started collecting writers from D.C. It was a two headed hydra.
ST: Why did you have an office in Chicago at all?
DG: Because it was fixed there and we had Chicago subscribers, advertisers and there was a cash flow. That would have dried up if we pulled the magazine out of Chicago.
ST: Where was the cash flow from?
DG: Advertising and subscriptions and grants.
ST: Who was advertising?
DG: By that time a number of people started to advertise.
ST: I’m intrigued because you position yourself as an outsider and yet you also talk about being supported by Lanyon, meeting Blake, Tilson about having advertisers.
DG: I haven’t spoken to you about the problems, I’ve indicated there were problems.
ST: Umm, tell me about the problems.
DG: Well, they are just normal human problems.
ST: I don’t understand.
DG: People tend to get friendly with people if there’s mutual admiration societies. There are not many societies that are intellectually free. I, not being an educated person, I had the working class fantasy that when you got to be an artist and I read the Wasteland, I remember the great line, “women walking to and fro talking of Michelangelo.” So I had this picture of Bloomsbury, where it was full of nice people being sensitive and being sensitive to each other’s sensitivities. But its not like that. But I had to make my own.
ST: And that’s what you were making with the NAE.
DG: And that’s what I did. With Jane was highly educated. So we were our own kind of little society there. As we included other people, I quickly learned something. The real test of any person and this is an old fashioned idea – you got to publish, talk is not enough. Because when you cross the line to the public domain something happens. And that is a very important line.
ST: In the early days of the NAE, what were you publishing?
DG: Jack Burnham, have you every heard of Jack Burnham?
ST: Yes, he wrote the essays Systems Esthetics.
DG: Yes, and he wrote ‘Beyond Modern Sculpture’. Which was the first… Jack … now Jack loved us. And he was writing for us when were were scruffy nothing. In fact one of the great articles we published was him. And it was called ‘Gotterdamerung in the Guggenheim’. And it was on Beuys. It was one of the best articles ever published on Beuys. But you see we were never important enough to get anybody to archive us.
ST: Do you have the full..I mean how man issues?
DG: We have the… we did 29 years of publishing. It’s a Hollywood story but its very hard for me to tell it.
ST: How long were you in D.C. then?
DG: I had 15 years in Chicago and 15 years in D.C.
ST: Okey, and so for the latter half of the magazine you were running it from D.C.
DG: We got ill and retired back to Cornwall. I kept a low profile. And had a nice place and was quite happy to look at the trees. I returned to painting. And Jane got ill and so there was strife with that. When Jane died I was invited back by a friend to be a visiting artist and it was a small campus down south, so I went there and visited one or two other little local campuses. Anyway I went to these places and I was treated with great respect. I did not know that the Examiner had become integrated into the extended arts society and every little campus I went to, there was at least one or two staff members who were keeping the NAE for teaching. And that was only because we were ahead of the game and we were doing early talks on feminism or gender or whatever, whatever. And I, Jane did too … we realized that the artist is deprofessionalized.
ST: When was this?
DG: I suppose I got the idea when I was in St. Ives when I was a kid. Aha, the artist has been deprofessionalized now.
ST: No, they haven’t.
DG: Really? What do you mean? No, It depends what you mean by professionalism.
ST: I would mean MFA as the kind…
DG: No, I don’t think that the way to professionalism. That’s one way but I don’t think its…
ST: But if you were to let me finish I would have said….
ST: Up until two or three decades it was by no means common for the MFA to be the terminal degree and now there are some hundreds of thousands MFA’s being produced in North America every year.
DG: Its nonsense.
ST: So I would argue for that’s not a good thing or bad thing I’m suggesting that’s a
mechanization of producing professionalism.
DG: But I have a different idea of professional other than the kind they call professional.
ST: That may be.
DG: I probably have a Romantic idea. But I think it means to have the confidence to think. And that has been hammered out of most graduates. And if that’s professionalism, I call it Eton finishing school, which doesn’t give the intellectual confidence to think about the Visual Arts with its history of implications and all factors that feed into it.
ST: Yeah, I mean look I completely agree. What I think though is its pretty clear to me in the last 15 or 20 years is one of the major stories about the production of Art is the story of professionalism in the art world.
DG: Who’s talking against it? Not many, there’s one or two. Now class warfare, usually filters in the culture, one way or the other. Either side, I’m not making a moral judgment. So it tends to give people a cause. So whatever the cause on the right or the left overrides certain considerations and it becomes a safety net because you belong to a certain kind of evangelism. Now my whole life I have only fought for freedom of expression, the right to have an opinion and if you are going to have to share your opinion you have to be absolutely honest and tell people why. To me, that’s what a critic is. I don’t see many critics around anymore, they are not allowed to be around any more. Because our culture is waning. Our culture…
ST: I would agree.
DG: Our culture is getting paralyzed.
ST: If we could go back a little bit, take few steps back, you mentioned Jack Burnham, I think you mentioned you published Peter Scheldahl, who were your people who were your most regular contributors over those years?
DG: Janet Koplos who is now writing the history. Eleanor Heartney.
ST: Who is Eleanor Heartney.
DG: Eleanor Heartney has written three books and I think she is a very good art critic, she was from the Midwest. You see, we only had Midwest people that we would meet, now we had an awful lot of people, there are various names but they are now academics, all over the place. But you wouldn’t know of them because they are not on the five star level. That kind of changed a little when we went to D.C. as D.C. is only three hours from New York. So I could go up and down during the month.
ST: So you were visiting N.Y. regularly during the 80’s and 90’s. What do you think was going on in N.Y. at that point?
DG: I was there when the whole SoHo thing happened. New York now is spinning in on itself. Its losing itself, its become trendy and… Jerry Saltz, was I think we were the first people to publish him when he was a kid in Chicago.
ST: Okey, but you were talking about N.Y. and soho
DG: Well, it was like trendy, you know. It was a surge.
ST: To what degree do you see the NAE as being focused on Chicago or the Midwest or to what degree was it international publication?
DG: We were like a franchise.
ST: In what sense?
DG: Well, we liked the idea of local editors. And this is why, we can talk about this later because this is to do with Cornwall and Daniel. I think there’s a very interesting relationship between good criticism and making Art. Its very close if not, symbiotic.
ST: Could you expand on that a bit?
DG: I remember what Herbert Read said once, I quote from memory, he said the critic is not like the Art historian who dissects the cadaver. The issues are dead. The critic has to be a poet and dream and share the dreams with poets, with artists.
ST: Is that still a definition of the critic?
DG: Well, that’s his definition and I’m quite happy to quote it for the moment. I don’t make definitions, but I know when I have interesting conversations. One way and the other I have picked up some academic friends who are highly qualified who like having conversations with me.
ST: You mentioned about regional editors, what do you mean by that?
DG: I think artists have to assume responsibility for being involved in criticism. St. Ives was made not because it was a beautiful place which it is beautiful, its because there were writers here. And Ben Nicholson in his own way, he churned out more letters and he was involved in thinking and Herbert Read was down and Heron was a very important critic and Bernard Leach of course was a great writer.
ST: Sidney Graham?
DG: He was a poet, I’ve got good stories about him as many do he was a poet, he would verbalize but I don’t think he published any criticism. It was all part of the freewheeling conversation that went on. Now its laced through with testosterone own culture but that was of the times but there were conversations and I don’t know if that’s still true today. I can’t get it, maybe its cause I’m old and I intimidate people but I can’t find uninhibited conversation about Art. I think that’s the whole downside of how the system is working. I think its intimated artists
ST: It certainly seems to me there’s a sense of let’s say, the collegiate or the consensual looking back at the criticism of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s when there were still very vituperative critics who were really kind of divisive and.
DG: Well, so was Harold Wilson and so was McMillan.
ST: But in terms of just to stick with art criticism I …
DG: But they were no different than the language of the time. I am slightly balking at the idea that it was just the art critics.
ST: I wasn’t making that point at all
DG: I was just making sure it was a broader context.
ST: Perhaps we should turn a little bit to these two interim issues and what you hope to do with the NAE.
DG: We are starting from zero, now I know how to start from zero cause I did it before. I have a group in Chicago and we have a University that’s going to sponsor us in the Fall.
ST: You mentioned that.
DG: And I don’t quite know what that means except that it means that for the first time I’m not living on the razor’s edge. And there will be enough support so that we can become a little bit professionalized rather than flying by the seat of our pants.
ST: What’s the University?
DG: I can’t tell you cause its not public yet.
ST: So they will be providing some kind of support.
DG: Oh they will be providing an office and support staff and God knows what.
ST: So, you will have an office in Chicago but you’ll be based in Cornwall.
DG: No. I can travel.
ST: But you are living in Cornwall.
DG: Well, we’ll see how it goes.
ST: So you might move back in Chicago?
DG: No, its not either or.
ST: I’m just asking where you are running the magazine from.
DG: Well, I have an editor in Chicago and I have an editor in Cornwall.
ST: Okey, where was this published?
DG: It was published here.
ST: That’s what I was asking.
DG: Yes, but it depends what you mean by being published.
ST: Where is the printer?
DG: No, that’s not the publisher.
ST: I well understand what a magazine is Derek.
DG: Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry, sorry I … Its printed here but it could be printed there, I don’t understand the modern technology because now you can get magazines on demand. It can come out, you don’t have to go to a printing house anymore, so my mind as to explain myself to you, as I moved to Washington and I didn’t live in Chicago but I was the publisher living in D.C. I had the last word. Now it doesn’t alter the fact that there still has to be editors because editors are the local people who interact with the community.
ST: I absolutely agree.
DG: Now writing for people who don’t see the exhibition is a different kind of writing than if you are writing for someone who will see the exhibition And that is a big, big problem.
ST: What do you see the problem as being?
DG: How to write about something that people have no idea what they are looking at. And how to explain the local context to them.
ST: And so what is the local context for the NAE today? Because the photo on the cover looks like from somewhere around here.
ST: But it still has connections to Chicago. So what’s the kind of if we are thinking of a community of writers or readers, what’s that community?
DG: What’s the community for Art in America or Art Forum?
ST: I would say Art Forum is still overwhelmingly speaking to primarily the community they regard as New York. It rarely goes beyond that.
DG: Well, I used to know the circulation figures of these magazines. I also know their budgets. And I also know 90% of their income comes from advertising. And I think that is a bigger determinant than who reads them.
ST: Bigger determinant of what?
DG: The content.
ST: Yeah, perhaps.
DG: And I want to get away from that because I want to make room for people that don’t have money but have a brain.
ST: And so how are you … this is being supported by a university?
DG: No, its not.
ST: I thought you said it was.
DG: I said it will be.
ST: So how is this being supported?
DG: By Daniel and I.
ST: But it will be on a subscription model rather than be beholden to advertisers.
DG: Our budget was never more historically than a third. By advertising. And I think that was a reason we were balanced. Your life as a curator you know you have to think about money and where to get money, who to ask and all that kind of stuff. We don’t talk about that when we talk in the Art world and I think this is one of the reasons the Art world is dead. This is one reason I think its not professional. Because your average artist doesn’t understand the nature of selection and maintenance that goes on in the Art world. And that is why they are deprofessionalized.
ST: I’m not sure who I would understand to be an average artist. I’m not sure when you talk about money either …
DG: Well I’m sure they talk about it but they don’t understand it. Look, I’ve learned to be a quasi insider because I’m old and I’ve been in the Art world ever since I was young and because I published a magazine I have certain access due to all the information that crosses your desk. But your 25 year old graduate student from a local Art Department doesn’t know any of this except what gossip they pick up. If they are at the Royal College they are more likely to get better gossip than if they are at a local art school.
ST: Yeah, but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore and I’m not surprised when I’m visiting places outside the traditional centers and via the Internet people are as much and in some cases better informed because they spend more time online.
DG: Your right, regionalism produces another kind of awareness because you are not in the maelstrom which is the same reason I decided initially when I went to America to go to Chicago because I didn’t want to be in the hothouse. I knew what the hothouse was like because I lived in London and Paris and I knew how it affected people.
ST: Yeah. Yeah.
DG: So I wanted to be hip to not being in the hothouse of the country. But regional hothouses are no better or worse than urban ones.
ST: Maybe so, maybe so.
DG: Ethics are consistent everywhere.
ST: So I have another meeting at 4 o’clock so I’m going to have to wrap up in a moment, so maybe we an just talk briefly about how many issues you are hoping to publish a year of the new NAE.
DG: Well it’s touchy feely
ST: You are seeing how it goes.
DG: Yeah. What else, you know, I can anticipate to a certain extent how many will sell. I can make that projection because of my experience, but then what I’m going to do is what we did before, whatever the revenue is from each region they will go toward deciding how many pages of coverage goes in the magazine.
ST: So the amounts of magazines that are sold in a given region will determine, may or may not determine, coverage.
DG: And also grants and also advertising. So that is the way of professionalizing the local editor.
ST: And so in this early stage with these interim issues what’s your kind of speculative sense of this. Talk me through the kind of coverage you have in this issue.
DG: Well, I mean I have a Chicago constituency and fortunately Leon Golub and Ed Paschke are showing in London. So we responded. Now, so that’s a nice coincidence.
ST: Sure, sure.
DG: I understand Hepworth is going to be showing in the Tate, so we are certainly going to think about that in the future.
ST: Just opened last week. Yes. Is Jim Nutt another Chicago guy?
ST: He’s having his first ever London show later this year.
DG: Is he really?
DG: Oh well then we’ll think of that obviously. You just reminded me of a story, can I lead back into..?
ST: Go right ahead.
DG: Would you please look in the essential NAE and read the story on the Imagists going to the San Paolo Biennale.
ST: Yeah, sure.
DG: That was the article that Jane & I wrote and that was taken off the galleys of Artnews because Chicago advertisers pressured them into taking it off. That is where I learnt the power of money. Now if you read that article now you will see that it was …oh then I was in London and I sold the article to Studio International. No problem. So its not a question lf professionalism it’s a question of paying your dues. And I’m afraid the Art world is so much into that at the moment. And it’s a difficult problem.
ST: Let’s hope you can counteract some of that
DG: Let’s hope you can help me. (Laughter) You’re an insider, I’m an outsider.
This interview was transcribed from audio by Managing Editor, Annie Markovich. Two sections of video may be found at: youtube
Volume 30 number 1 August / Septe,ber 2015 pp 18 -31
3 thoughts on “Sam Thorne Interviews Derek Guthrie”
What a treasure to read! Why is it on the last pages of the website?
In any case I am one of the lucky few to have discovered it, only 245 to date.
Not to be forgotten when Derek Guthrie says, “I remember what Herbert Read said once, I quote from memory, he said the critic is not like the Art historian who dissects the cadaver. The issues are dead. The critic has to be a poet and dream and share the dreams with poets, with artists.”
Hi Giovanni de Santis,
There are now over 680 people who have discovered this article, in part I believe thanks to you Giovanni. I’ve just discovered that Guthrie will have an exhibition near Bodmin in Cornwall in May 2019. Like many others, I am very curious to see his work.
Mr. Guthrie, you said in your interview with Sam Thorne that ” I learned how people behaved in the Art world.” In your opinion, how is it that people behave in the art world?