21: publishing comes of age?

Small publishers come in all guises, but newest art-publishing house `21' is certainly unusual
Take one supersonic pop star, one West End gallery owner, one magazine editor and one millionaire ex-Tory MP. Mix lightly, and make - a publishing company?

If these four - David Bowie, Bernard Jacobson, Karen Wright and Sir Tim Sainsbury - sound unlikely bedfellows in the world of small presses, then perhaps the background to Britain's newest art-publishers will explain their connection.

It all began with the art critic and author Peter Fuller, a figure variously described, both during his life and since his early death in 1990, at the age of 42, as an "arch-fundamentalist", a "byword for conservatism", "unfashionably moral", the scourge of "Biennale Club Class Art" [his own phrase]. His belief in the essential Englishness of English art found an answering echo in Bernard Jacobson, whose gallery in Clifford Street boasts such names as Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, David Bomberg, William Scott and Peter Lanyon. The two became close friends; on a wave of crusading zeal, in 1987 they collaborated to launch the magazine Modern Painters, which, like its chief founder, attracted from the start praise and disparagement in about equal portions.

Modern Painters is dedicated to ideas with broad appeal (disoblig- ingly called, by one art critic, "middle-brow"), and often written by non-specialists ("amateurs"). These include novelists - William Boyd is a member of the editorial board and a frequent contributor - and writers in other fields. Even seven years after Peter Fuller's death, both he and the magazine he made have the power to keep a roomful of people arguing with affection, or affectionate irritation, or just plain irritation.

Peter Fuller's creation survived him, and has kept on keeping on under the editorship of Karen Wright, who had been Fuller's deputy and with the mag since its inception. It is a high-production glossy with substantial backing - Time Out's Tony Elliott is a major shareholder - and a circulation nearing 17,000. Its high-profile editorial board now includes David Bowie, rock star and perpetual re-inventor of himself, also an enthusiastic painter and multimedia artist who has been making art since his boyhood.

In April 1995 Bowie's first solo exhibition, of work from the last 20 years, was mounted in Cork Street. It was a daring move for a rock-star- turned-painter to lay out his wares in the heart of London's art world: it looked as if he was asking for trouble. But he made several very respectable sales, and seemed to escape without much critical savaging. A devotee of Modern Painters, he was introduced by Bernard Jacobson and joined the editorial board in 1994, and later the same year contributed a vast, rare interview with the reclusive French painter Balthus, Bowie's not so near neighbour in Switzerland. When in June of last year he conducted a long and unusually (for the subject) fulsome interview with Damien Hirst, it seemed as though Bowie was proving one strong influence in softening the battlelines between conceptual and conventional art, of which Modern Painters had been a bastion.

SO HOW, and why, did they move from all this to publishing books? "Well, it was always part of the plan, with Peter and me at the beginning," said Bernard Jacobson. "We always thought of doing books, but the time was never right until now."

Some of the longer commissions at the magazine started to suggest book- length topics, and Jacobson's gallery catalogues have often grown to monograph length. And, as Karen Wright points out, for both of them the notorious pitfalls of illustrated publishing are part of well-trodden territory. Rather more mysteriously, Jacobson adds, "And there are things that should be published."

What things? He appears quite relaxed about starting off by publishing a book that hardly reflects his own hottest enthusiasms, still less the spirit of Peter Fuller. The first product from "21" (the company is named for the new century) is by Matthew Collings, who writes a regular diary for Modern Painters. Its context and content - see David Sylvester's review, left - imply an admirably wide definition of "things that should be published". While David Bowie recently portrayed Andy Warhol brilliantly and sympathetically in the film Basquiat, and Matthew Collings places Gilbert and George at the head of his pantheon of contemporary greats, Peter Fuller famously accused these artists of "vacuity and vulgarity". Eclecticism obviously rules at 21. The next two editorial projects reinforce the sense of a wide spread: a book on Jackson Pollock and one on Peter Lanyon, sometime, soon.

21 is an entirely separate company from the magazine, and has recently added to its triumvirate of directors Sir Tim Sainsbury, art-lover and art-patron, and until recently Tory MP for Hove. He completes a team that is almost terrifyingly well connected and well financed. This, we begin to realise, is a very long way from the usual story of small press enterprises, with their almost invariable sagas of debts, doubts and damp premises. With money, clout, PR genius and art expertise like this, it's hard to imagine what this company couldn't do.

To begin with, they show their determination to head for the mainstream by distributing their books to the trade through an arrangement with general publishers Fourth Estate: definitely not to specialist bookshops and museums only. When they are asked about the future, though, the partners are vague. Ideas, it seems, are arrived at casually, and casuallydiscussed. Each of them already has a successful career, or two, or three - and when they tell you they don't expect to make any money, you feel relieved, because you know they won't, at least not yet. This is part-time publishing for the love of it: as Karen Wright says, "We'll just see what happens."