Jonathan Anderson in conversation with Offer Waterman
OFFER WATERMAN This is the first time I’ve invited someone to curate an exhibition at the gallery and I knew whatever you proposed would be unexpected. One of the things that I’ve always found enlightening about how you work is how you refuse to operate in only one context. There’s fashion, of course, but it’s always connected to art, design, and so many other things. When I think about what you do, I get the impression that you look at everything. One of the first works I sold you was a Cedric Morris painting. I’m not sure why but it surprised me at the time that you were interested in a painter like Morris, maybe simply because I thought someone from your generation would be focused on purely the contemporary. I’m fascinated to know, what interested you in curating a show here?
JONATHAN ANDERSON Modern British artists were my entry point into art, and also collecting. It probably started with a visit to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, which made me appreciate not just the beauty of individual objects, but how objects speak to each other, especially within the domestic space. In the home, a bowl or a piece of furniture is as interesting and significant as a painting or sculpture. I was excited about the prospect of making a show here because you have this incredible building which is grand, but with domestic proportions, and your programme has a natural fluidity which moves between painting, sculpture, ceramics and modern and contemporary. When did you move into this building?
OW I founded the gallery in 1996 and was originally based in a basement on Park Walk, Chelsea. Around four years later we moved to a larger building on Langton Street. It afforded me the opportunity to deal more heavily in sculpture — a medium that I have always felt very passionate about. This opened my eyes to the importane of viewing three dimensional works in the round. As the business grew we needed larger premises and after a five year search a good friend told me about the perfect five storey Georgian building in Mayfair, formerly the historic William Morris & Co showroom. It needed a great deal of work, but I saw great potential, I had a vision of what it could be and that excited me. It ended up being a huge conservation project, to restore the building back to its former glory following all of the original plans. There are some fascinating original details that remain, including the little pulley mechanism over the grand staircase that was used to hoist Morris’ tapestries up onto the large walls.
JA The Morris connection is another reason I was excited about curating an exhibition here. Morris has always been a huge influence on my own work. He’s such a quintessential British figure, and as a designer and cultural force he was so important. I’ve collaborated with the Morris Estate on various projects and his work remains so radical.
OW I loved the idea that this space was both a home and a showroom — it’s exactly the atmosphere that suits the way I work. It’s very private, comfortable. I like that people will come and spend time and look at things in a relaxed way. Homes have carpets and wooden floors, so there’s a level of comfort that I look to replicate in the gallery.
JA I’ve approached the design of my stores in the same way. I don’t think people want an impersonal shopping experience. They want to imagine how it connects to their everyday lives, so I always want stores to have the level of comfort a home might have. I think some of the greatest collections experiences are found in a domestic context because you see much more personally-driven relationships between things.
OW This show is exciting for me because I get to see things in the space that I’d never usually show, fashion especially. It feels to me that people are beginning to realise that great design is as important as a great piece of sculpture. There are some incredible resonances between works in the show, dialogues that make me look at a Hepworth sculpture or Lowry painting for example in a completely new light.
JA This show continues some of the themes that we explored in the Disobedient Bodies exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2017, where juxtapositions between pieces of art, fashion, design and furniture show very similar intentions with regards to representing the body. For this show, there are the same sorts of juxtapositions but the theme is more focused on the idea of the city — how it influences and inspires. That goes for all cities, but London in particular is so important to me, and to lots of artists in the show. It’s a city that’s gone through many transformations, especially over the last few years, but it remains a place driven by creativity.
OW I think you’ve translated that energy into the galleries so beautifully. Each room feels like a completely different viewpoint of what is such a multi-faceted city.
JA I wanted the exhibition to feel like a series of snapshots as you walk through the city, so the corridors become streets and the rooms become these different kinds of spaces or experiences you encounter every day. When you walk through the gallery’s front door the first thing you see are two car dress looks that I designed for LOEWE a couple of seasons ago. On a fundamental level they explore the relationship between the human body and the machine, but with a surrealist twist and a sprinkle of humour. They sit opposite one of my favourite paintings by L.S. Lowry of St. Luke’s Church on Old Street. I’ve driven past this church in East London a few times a week for years and it has not changed at all. It provides this constant backdrop as life moves and transforms around it. So on the one hand the city has this incredible speed but also a slowness. It’s one layered on top of the other. I felt it was important to reflect this tension in the show, and so linocuts by Sybil Andrews, Claude Flight and Cyril Power vividly convey a sense of dynamism, while Sara Flynn’s twisted black Camber Vessel (2023) and William Turnbull’s Standing Female Figure from 1955 conversely offer up a feeling of stillness of monumentality.
OW Many of the vessels in the show have an anthropomorphic quality. I was looking at Sara Flynn’s piece and thinking about what an interesting dialogue there is with Hepworth’s Elegy (1945) in the first gallery. They both have a restrained sensuousness. The Igshaan Adams work that hangs on the staircase compliments them both beautifully, and I love how it nods
JA This piece by Igshaan is particularly beautiful. He based the design on lino floor patterns in Cape Town. I wanted to include it not only because of the textiles reference but also because it suggests a map or birds eye view of a city. They are painstaking works to make, thousands of beads that give his works an incredible texture and depth. It’s also a piece that questions the supposed boundaries between art and craft.
OW I think the Adams offers a wonderful counterpoint to Frank Auerbach’s painting Park Village East (1994), situated opposite. Describing the patch of North London encompassing Camden, Chalk Farm, Primrose Hill and Mornington Crescent as his ‘world,’ Auerbach painted it incessantly. By the time he made this particular painting he’d been painting this area of the city for four decades and here this sense of immediately is deeply felt, yet there is a remarkable freshness and familiarity as if he were painting the subject for the first time. I’ve handled many Auerbachs in my career, but I’m very particular about the type that I’m drawn to. I like those that are a puzzle and seem to dissolve depending on your view point, challenging the viewer and I get the same sense of retinal mystery when looking at Adams’ work.
JA I love how sculptural they are, it feels as if he’s carving with paint. Auerbach is the quintessential London artist. His work is an incredible record of the changing city. I empathise with the restlessness which is so palpable in his work. It felt right to have a work by him at the beginning of the show because in a way, the exhibition is a bit of a love letter to London. Despite the changes and challenges this city has faced, particularly over the last few years, there’s still this pulse of creativity which runs through it. Of course it’s the people that feed that, so as we move into the first room of the show, I wanted to explore the idea of the crowd.
OW This is my favourite room in the exhibition.
JA I love it for the way it balances classicism and the contemporary, which is London all over — an historic city that is always changing and modernising. I wanted this room to feel quite intense. It’s lined in a dark brown linen and all the forms play with the body and repetition to create this sense of conversation, the idea of different people meeting, different minds meeting. In the windows, I love these groups of bottle forms by Akiko Hirai. They are silhouetted against the windows to create a skyscape.
OW The way the linen obscures one of the groups really draws attention to the exhibition design, which has completely transformed the galleries.
JA I love these galleries and so wanted to find a way to emphasise certain features while also introducing colour as a backdrop. We’ve created fabric-lined rooms within each gallery space, which abstractly references the idea of the decorated interior.
OW I think it has the interesting effect of making you really look at each piece — even the two-dimensional works — as sculptural objects. Take this spectacular drawing by Henry Moore from 1940 comprised of a group of swelling, biomorphic hollowed out standing forms, that has a beautiful correspondence with all of the other works in this room, the ceramics by Magdalene Odundo and Hans Coper, as well as the Tinsel Dresses from your WAW20 collection at JW Anderson.
JA These dresses are pretty extreme pieces, but chosen because of how sculptural they are. I worked on these just after the pandemic, which was a time in which we were so attuned to touch and proximity and distance. These pieces are almost like cocoons, they totally encapsulate the body. You can see the obvious reference to Magdalene Odundo’s work in their tiered organic shapes and the way they appear to hover just above the ground. Seeing them here in a gallery, I can see how they could totally be read as pieces of sculpture in their own right.
OW It’s interesting to see them without the body, because really they are a body in and of themselves. What are they actually made from?
JA They are knitted using lurex tinsel. It look a long time to construct these pieces.
OW They work so well flanking this sensational Kossoff painting Outside Kilburn Underground, March (1985), where you are immediately confronted with the physicality of paint.
JA It’s quite an overwhelming picture, and I love its enormous scale in this small room. You really feel like you are stepping into the bustle of the scene, which is mirrored in the vitrine opposite it, holding works by Magdalene Odundo and Hans Coper. They sit so naturally together. I know Magdalene was always inspired by Coper’s sculptural forms, but these pieces of hers feel like living bodies. They are so sensual. I remember her once telling me how much she loved watching Naomi Campbell model and walk. These pieces have such poise.
OW You really do want to touch them, like all ceramics. But Magdalene’s work really does conjure the body like no other.
JA This is also a particularly interesting group of works by Coper. The black ‘bud’ form is spectacular. I have looked at these pieces so many times as inspiration for garments or for heels of shoes. Then in the corner, I placed the beautiful Barbara Hepworth, which I like being able to look at through the case with Odundo and Coper.
OW It is a work called Elegy from 1945. It’s such an elegant and precise piece of carving that dramatically evokes the undulating landscape of what was then the artist’s new home in St Ives, where she moved to escape the Blitz in London. Hepworth carved this piece directly after the war and its title, meaning a song of melancholy or lament, conveys the pervading sadness of the time. For me, the sculpture’s hollows and painted white interior gives a sense of hope and light coming out of the darkness.
JA I love that idea of darkness into light because that’s the impression you get when you walk from this room into the next, which takes the Playground as its theme. It is lined in vivid orange linen and has a completely different atmosphere. If the first room is where the adults are rushing about, this room is all about youth, messing about in parks, and a lot of teen angst and desire.
OW This large work by Richard Hawkins sets the scene. He is a relatively new artist to me.
JA I love his work, he’s an artist who is a barometer for what is happening in culture — how we consume images, how the algorithm feeds us what we desire. And it reflects the way I consume culture in many ways — this collision of forces and ideas. You have a Van Dyck-like character in one corner; Justin Bieber in another… it’s all operating on this one plane.
OW Somehow it’s also rooted in classicism and traditional modes of painting. The outlining of forms we see here makes me think of other 20th Century painters like Patrick Heron.
JA There is a collapsing of art histories in his work, it’s a metacommentary on painting. And I like the jolt that it gives you when you walk into this room, moving from the previous austere space to this one which is full of angst. That follows through in some of the fashion pieces I’ve included here. These BMX handlebar and skateboard looks I presented in a menswear show a couple of seasons ago. I wanted to take these icons or symbols of youth culture, but explore how it is broken in some way. And I love how these sit alongside the paintings by L.S. Lowry in this room.
OW These Lowry paintings are really special. His stylised manner lead people to think that he was a na.ve painter, but in my mind they are actually very technically adept works with a lot of charm. If you look closely you can see how he builds the surface and hollows it out on the faces and the hands. You need to be incredibly accomplished to produce something so simple.
JA Somehow Lowry is always contemporary and I hope this context highlights that for people. They were very much of their time, but they could also be now, or hundreds of years ago. I have wondered whether he was looking at Bruegel.
OW Oh for sure, I think he was incredibly knowledgeable about art history.
JA I also think there’s a really interesting juxtaposition with Florian Krewer, whose figures or crowds in the urban landscape remind me greatly of Lowry. And thinking about what you were just saying about how Lowry paints faces and hands, I can see that Florian does that too — those features become really textured and expressive.
OW There’s a coolness which I think works so well with this Hockney drawing of Mo McDermott. He’s got such great attitude and swagger. The inaugural exhibition in this gallery was of Hockney drawings which I’d spent years tracking down. For a long time they weren’t as prized as they are now. I think they are where you see the true Hockney. He is a genius at capturing the essence and character of an individual with an unsurpassed economy of line.
JA Finally in this room, above the fireplace, we have three amazing ceramic sculptures by Shawanda Corbett. I’ve worked with Shawanda before and actually we photographed her for a JW Anderson shoot by Juergen Teller. Each piece has such incredible form, and the surfaces are so dynamic. Her pieces are often titled in a way that suggest they are a specific character, and then when she installs them together you get the sense of these vessels having a conversation. They are social pots.
OW You can see the influence of more sculptural ceramicists like William Staite Murray, who also titled his works and considered them as sculpture. I’ve shown ceramics at the gallery since the beginning, especially works by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and it’s been amazing to see the shift in people’s appreciation for ceramics over the past ten years or so.
JA Let’s squeeze into the next room — the pigeon coop.
OW This is usually a very small office, it’s been completely transformed.
JA Completely by accident, the pigeon has become synonymous with JW Anderson over the past year. When we made the Pigeon Clutch for the show it was done as a humorous interlude, but people love that touch of surrealism. I wanted to push it here, never wanting to miss an opportunity to work with Anthea Hamilton, I asked her if she’d customise a small number of them. She’s hand-painted them in tartan and lettuces which just feels very Anthea!
OW They work perfectly with this pigeon painting by Lucian Freud from 1946, which we sold recently but have been lucky enough to borrow back. Freud was a true animal lover with a penchant for birds. He made this painting during his five-month stay with Craxton on the Greek island of Poros. Intimate in scale, it’s a jewel-like painting with all the charm of a postcard. Freud actually made this on the cover of a book he stole and gifted it to the Maestropetros family with whom he was lodging as a thank you.
JA I’ve always been obsessed by pigeons because they are these ubiquitous animals that most people see as pests, but they are actually really wonderful creatures. They have great personality. Continuing the pigeon theme, Pol Anglada has made these two erotic drawings of boys with pigeons for the show. I like that this room is combination of a pigeon coop and peep show. It’s intense and absurd. Let’s head upstairs to the next gallery.
OW This is a very beautiful space.
JA For me this space was about celebrating the British love of flowers and gardens and how even in a city like London you are always close to nature. It’s only when I return after being in Paris or anywhere else really, that you suddenly appreciate how green London is. I love it when you see a pub that has almost been consumed by hanging baskets. It’s beautiful and ridiculous. Flora and fauna were also so fundamental to Morris & Co designs, so there’s a nod to that too in here. There is such an incredible tradition of painting flowers in British art and we have examples by two of the greats here: Christopher Wood and Cedric Morris.
OW Christopher Wood’s personal biography is almost as interesting as his work and it’s hard not to read some of that into his works, even a vase of flowers like this. You look for the melancholy, the tortured soul. He’s quintessentially British but of course he also lived in Paris and was immersed in the avantgarde there, associating with the likes of Picasso and Cocteau. The na.vete is studied and crafted.
JA The work is just so modern. It’s similar to Cedric Morris and the way he painted irises, which he famously cultivated at Benton End. The way he paints is both very precise, because he was a plantsman, but the way he frames his paintings give them a surrealist quality. They seem to overtake the frame. I’ve hung it next to a collage by the American artist Joe Brainard because I find their work has a similar intensity that’s almost suffocating, but also joyful.
OW That very much echoes the surrealism in these incredible flower sculptures you designed for LOEWE.
JA They came from a show where I was looking at the idea of nature and artificial nature. Plants that are so extraordinary that they start to look fake. These were tops that were worn in the show — I’d always thought about them on the body but seeing them here coming out of the wall, they look really beautiful. I love their sculptural presence alongside the smaller, almost miniature works by Doron Langberg and Eliot Hodgkin.
OW He was an artist who really understood nature. I love how you’ve hung this work down low, so you really have to duck down to see it. I don’t think I would ever have thought about doing that — it is very clever in how it makes you shift your perspective, encouraging you to look at it all the more closely.
JA I think this split pink bowl by Lucie Rie will be a surprise for many people.
OW It’s an example of a work often referred to as ‘happenings’, that are the result of a firing accident. There aren’t many out there and I think she must have kept this one because she saw it in its final phase as being an amazing sculpture in and of itself.
JA This one is particularly beautiful, because not only is it a pink bowl, which are always so highly prized, but it looks remarkably like a flower.
OW And so now we get to the final room: The Pub. Why did you want to end the show with this room?
JA This room is all portraits, and I wanted to create this sense of a conversation between these real and imaginary characters, gathered together around the bar, drinking from these beautiful thrown — almost anthropormophic — beakers by Jennifer Lee. And so I adapted the shape of the room so that the works were presented in an enclosed environment, facing one another, they kind of stare you down. Even when they are of imagined figures — like in Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Jem Perucchini or Stanislava Kovalcikova’s works — they somehow challenge you, or draw you in. can When you think about all the great British artists like Freud, Bacon, Auerbach in the 1950s, you think about them meeting in soho drinking dens. Then you have the YBAs, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin in the ‘90s — for all of them the pub is where they shared ideas, created discourse, had arguments. We still socialise but the world has changed now and we’re more likely to have a conversation or debate with someone online than face to face over a drink. The pub is a democratic space, anyone can walk in and have a drink and that’s such an important part of British culture.
OW And that’s really palpable throughout the whole show, where artists from different countries and different times are positioned in direct dialogue with one another. In this room we also have two artists — Auerbach and Freud, who shared a similar backround having been born as sons of Jewish families in Berlin, fleeing to Britain during the war and ending up as two of this country’s greatest artists.
JA And their works here are both so powerful. I love that in this exhibition we’ve united such different international artists, many of whom have made their home in London, because for me that’s the most amazing thing about this city, where the creativity is completely rooted in it being a place that has always opened its doors to people from across the world. It’s that diversity of culture and thinking that drives London, and I feel that’s something we should never lose sight of.