There is a passage in José Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity about Warhol’s pre-Pop work of the Fifties, which might apply equally to Keith Vaughan’s work, both of that decade, and to the majority of his output:
‘When one looks at Warhol’s early works from the 1950s one grasps a gilded world of homoerotic desire that registers the unfolding of a line of utopian thought, a desire for a place and time that was not imaginable for men who desired men.’ [i]
Vaughan’s career can be seen as that of an artist perpetually striving through his art towards a form of utopia in which he might create his place in the world; a place where as an outsider he might achieve equilibrium.
Language, form and performance
Both Vaughan and Procktor utilized established formal and technical/stylistic currencies, in doing so queering (or re-queering) the canon. Stylistically, Vaughan often based his painted male figures on forms from classical sculpture. This use of the idealised forms and postures of antiquity anchored his work in an established tradition, so licensing its homoerotic subtext. He also used the themes of classical myth as subject matter; many of his works use myth and allegory to convey codified personal meaning. From the late Fifties he developed a more expressive painterly language, one that was informed by gestural abstraction. His subject matter of figure, figure in landscape and landscape, remained constant, whilst style, technique and application developed from this assimilation of contemporary painting. His use of the techniques of abstraction extended also to an abstraction of form, so that the body became camouflaged or deconstructed, merging with other bodies, and into the landscapes in which they are set. (One might add that the blatant iconography of Sixties Pop was anathema to Vaughan’s sensibility; he felt bewildered and outmoded by it.)
At the time when Vaughan’s more physical engagement with painting began to evolve in the late Fifties, he was in his mid-forties. Conversely, Procktor’s engagement with a self-evidently physical mode of painting commenced whilst a student at the Slade School (1958-62; the period coinciding with Vaughan’s painterly transition). Procktor adopted an expressive form of painting influenced by David Bomberg and his acolytes, of whom several were present at the Slade during this period. [ii] Notably, Procktor chose this Bombergian approach in preference to the equally dominant tendency then current at the Slade, that of the more restrained practice of the Euston Road School. Upon graduation in 1962, he continued to work in this manner until a short time after his first London exhibition in 1963. The work in this show was largely autobiographical in content, and included veiled references to his homosexual relationships, though its underlying subject can be defined as the act of painting itself, in which, incorporating some of the formal devices of abstraction (which like Vaughan he took from artists such as de Kooning), he propelled (or performed) himself into life as a contemporary painter. Procktor’s subsequent development during the course of the Sixties was towards a more restrained practice, of a form of dandyist painting in the tradition of Whistler (and hence of a different brand of performance). Procktor’s use of watercolour, the medium he became especially associated with, was itself dandyist in its apparent ease of execution. The very diaphaneity of watercolour – and its historical association with aristocratic lady amateurs – bolstered perceptions of Procktor as lightweight, or served to confirm such views for those who wished them so. The lightness of touch Procktor developed served in fact as an essence of modernity in the Seventies, providing him with ‘the chic of facility’ (a term used by the artist John Craxton in reference to Procktor’s watercolour portraits, during my interview with him), and aligning him with artists and designers of his circle: including Hockney, Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell.
Classicism: literature and form
Of Cy Twombly’s use of ancient culture as source material, Roland Barthes has written that it ‘operates’ a kind of citation, adding:
‘[a citation that is] that of an era of bygone, calm, leisurely, even decadent studies: English preparatory schools, Latin verses, desks, lamps, tiny pencil annotations. That is culture for TW [Twombly]: an ease, a memory, an irony, a posture, the gesture of a dandy.’ [iii]
Here Barthes might be referring to a character from Evelyn Waugh, or to Lytton Strachey and the Cambridge Apostles. His explicit reference to Englishness and to a particular type of English class-bound masculinity is relevant to both Vaughan and Procktor; as is his reference to dandyist gesture, though that is more obviously apparent in the latter. [iv] Procktor had initially wanted to go from school to study Classics at Oxford or Cambridge, but his family were unable to support him. Vaughan, largely self-taught, immersed himself in European literature and poetry and in the Classics whilst a young man, and his habitual reading deeply informed his art and sensibility. In both it might be said that the kind of arcane education/sensibility credited by Barthes to Twombly (in Twombly’s case as something adopted rather than experienced; hence inherently dandyist), acted at once as solace, disguise and defence. Procktor certainly used a kind of Firbankian verbal repartée as a mode of self-defence. Readings of his apparently felicitous art were informed by this element of his constructed persona, his verbal felicity a deflective smokescreen which problematised contemporary readings of his work.
There is a parallel with Twombly in Vaughan also, in their references to the Classical world. Barthes has described Twombly’s ‘[making of] antiquity into a repository of decorative forms.’ [v] As already stated, for Vaughan the Classical world provided a repository, both of narratives within which to frame his motifs, and of forms; those of antique sculpture of the male body. Twombly of course referenced its written language as well as its forms, in painting often centred on a form of writing; écriture as sign/motif. Neither artist’s work is about the Classical world in any literal or historical (history painting) sense, but rather, both grasp elements or associations from it, in art that evokes the sensual via allusion to the cerebral and literary-poetical.
© Ian Massey 2013
The text here is extracted from a longer critical essay. The full text can be found here: http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/19277/1/imasseyfinalthesis.pdf
The quote from José Esteban Muñoz is used by courtesy of the author.
[i] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, NYU Press, 2010, p. 144. In his book Muñoz draws on Ernst Bloch’s and Theodor Adorno’s theory of the utopian function of art.
[ii] Amongst Slade students at the time were Bomberg’s former students Dorothy Mead and Dennis Creffield. Frank Auerbach, another former Bomberg student, was a visiting tutor. Vaughan also taught on a part-time basis at the Slade when Procktor was there. The two became lifelong friends.
[iii] Barthes, Roland, The Responsibility of Forms, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, p. 162.
[iv] In both Procktor and Vaughan the construction of a dandyist persona, in part intellectually-driven, is a factor. Vaughan’s dandyism, found in his sartorialism and gentlemanly restraint, was of a more conservative brand than that of the theatrical Procktor. His sense of himself as a virile masculine sensualist was crucial to him personally, and to his painting. Notably, the sensual aspect of Vaughan’s painting greatly diminished when his own sexual virility disappeared.
[v] Barthes, Roland, The Responsibility of Forms, p. 189.