On the eve of a major retrospective that opened at Tate Liverpool in February 2009 (and recently closed), Lynn MacRitchie met with Glenn Brown at his studio to discuss his work. Here’s an excerpt from the interview which ran in the April issue of Art in America.
Oil on panel
48 x 61-3/8 inches, oval (122 x 156 cm)
GB I get a real kick out of painting. There are not many other things that can give you that long-term satisfaction, that “my life is worth something” sort of feeling. It’s intellectually stimulating: the problem-solving aspect of “How can I continue to make things better?” At the end of the day I always feel that I’m short of what I wanted to achieve. The paintings are a struggle to try to get to work. To some extent they often fall slightly short of my aspirations. That’s what keeps you going. You start on the next one because you always feel that you might get closer to this goal of the ideal painting. Sometimes you see it. Or you see other art that inspires you and you come back to the studio and think, “Oh, my work is so dull,” so you try and improve.
LM There’s a group of painters from what used to be called the YBAs (Young British Artists)—you, Chris Ofili, Gary Hume, Peter Doig—who’ve become established. It seems to me that your work is very different from theirs.
GB I think we’re all quite different from each other. It’s a bit difficult to say that it’s a group, really.
LM I meant that you were contemporaries rather than any kind of organized group.
GB It’s an interesting point because in many ways it would be nice if there was a group, if a style had developed that was YBA painting. It would be nice if there was a group discussion and everybody had moved things on in a group way, like Cubism, Impressionism, Expressionism or even Neo-Expressionism. But I don’t think that the YBA thing was ever about that group sense of itself, of trying to answer a question together. I think it was more about competition, people spurring each other on in a competitive way, which is also good.
LM Each of the YBA painters found a way to develop, which can be very difficult for artists. You make a start, go to art school, then you go out into the world, get one or two shows. But to keep going can be hard. What I get from your work is the sense that you’re really digging in, really delving into what painting is and what painting could be. You take things to a deep level of exploration. I get the sense that you are very settled, very secure in your purpose.
GB That’s interesting! [laughs] If you say someone is very settled and secure as an artist that sounds very bad. It means that you are no longer questioning and pushing things forward. But, as I said, maybe that avant-garde notion that you have to continually hit your head against what’s new and what’s rebellious no longer really exists. Hopefully, now it’s about what is good painting and intriguing image-making rather than just what’s new or what hasn’t been seen before. I think the whole rush to “what’s new” has been interesting but in retrospect the results look a bit dull. If you look back at the history of 20th-century painting, some of what were thought to be high points at the time aren’t so high any longer. For instance, I would say that Mark Rothko’s late work isn’t a high point. It was avant-garde and new at the time, but it looks rather dull and uninspiring now.