Inside the artist’s studio: Bob & Roberta Smith

One man, two names, a lot of words 

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

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen