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Inside the artist’s studio: Bob & Roberta Smith

One man, two names, a lot of words 
  • @matildbattersby

The artist, Bob & Roberta Smith, who has two names but is actually one person, was very nearly called Bart Simpson. Born Patrick Brill, the painter spent his early career in New York and, in a bid to grab the attention of galleries, made a huge variety of work and began sending it out under different names.

It was 1989 and the first episode of The Simpsons had recently aired, hence his appropriation of the youngest male member of the cartoon family’s moniker. Sending out the huge volume of work, under a number of different names, was a scatter-gun approach by a promising painter who hadn’t yet decided which route to take artistically. When he sent out a series of text-based paintings of political statements under the name Bob Smith, his artistic fate was sealed. It was the first of his pseudonyms to get a response, so he decided to stick with it, and the text style that had first sparked gallerists interest.

“People seemed to like these text paintings by Bob Smith. It might sound a bit facetious, or disingenuous, but it made me focus the mind [on a particular style and technique],” he says. “It made me realize that poking people, irritating them by writing to them, was a good thing. So I persisted with this idea of Bob Smith.”

  • Bob & Roberta Smith exclusively allowed independent.co.uk into his studio for a rummage through his archive and a conversation about politics, arts philanthropy and arts propaganda. Watch a video feature (above)

The Roberta bit was added later, when he returned to the UK and began collaborating with his sister, whose real name is Roberta. As Bob & Roberta Smith they achieved some success and notoriety. But Roberta was not keen on the world it thrust them both into. “She thought it was all terribly elitist and so she retrained as a group psychotherapist,” he says. Bob retained the name Bob & Roberta Smith despite his sister’s departure; something, he jokes, that her psychotherapist training gave her a thing or two to remark on.

For Bob “poking people” means painting tongue-in-cheek versions of “green ink letters”, the written rants sent into newspapers by cranks, these days more commonly found in online forums.  “I wake up every day and I listen to the Today Programme on Radio 4 and I buy a newspaper. It makes me very angry and then I write on some panels the first thing that comes into my head, basically,” he says. “I’ve always liked the idea of the green ink letter, the mad person in the suburbs throwing brick bats at the people in power.”

He is very engaged in politics and believes that, while there isn’t a responsibility for artists to express their opinions on world issues, freedom to produce art and freedom of speech are one and the same. The artist’s website currently carries an open letter to the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, in which he slams the “destruction of Britain’s ability to draw, design and sing,” via the erosion of arts and humanities subjects in the national curriculum.

Bob is a model of the community-spirited artist: he recently donated artworks to (totally separate) upcoming exhibitions by homeless charities Shelter and Crisis, has made a piece for next week’s Contemporary Art Society fundraising gala, and was one of several artists (including Tracey Emin) commissioned to produce a poster for the London 2012 Paralympics. Despite being a firm and famous part of the art world, it is not immune from Bob’s acid pen and in December he was a vocal supporter of the campaign to stop Tate renewing its sponsorship deal with BP.

Although Bob makes his political feelings quite plain by using bold written statements in his artworks, the typography is not simply a means for clarity, but is in itself an artistic choice. “I enjoy the visual look of letters. I think it’s very important. When I was a kid I used to enjoy looking at pages of text. I was a slightly late developer, I think I was mildly dyslexic and used to suffer from terrible headaches, so I used to see letters and words shifting on the page.”

Despite being a Goldsmiths graduate Bob was in America when the Young British Artists, spearheaded by Damien Hirst, gained such attention in the nineties. “Goldsmiths was exciting but I slightly associate the YBA thing with Tony Blair and that period of really excessive wealth. I don’t want to turn art into cash like that. My thing is to suggest to people that they make their own art.”

Bob & Roberta Smith contributed one of 44 artworks being auctioned next week at the Contemporary Art Society’s annual fundraising gala, for more information visit www.contemporaryartsociety.org/leap