Great stripes forward

GERALD MORGAN A profile by George Melly
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I could see him at the window of the terraced house in the steep street as I was paying off the taxi. Gerald Morgan, described in my brief as "This unjustly forgotten octogenarian Welsh abstract expressionist".

"Unjustly forgotten" and "Welsh" is true, but he is in fact only 76 while "abstract expressionist" is, as we shall find out, an equivocal description at best.

As I climbed the steep steps, he opened the slightly shabby front door with a deep bellow suggesting great events in the offing. Having met him several times before, I'd expected this, not to mention the ensuing monologue on the injustice of the world delivered with all the "hwyl" of a Welsh Methodist preacher, punctured by muttered asides and growls of appreciation.

In comparative old age, Gerald is remarkable in appearance. He has a formidable profile like that of a Venetian carnival mask or a heron and his eyes too, behind his mended glasses, have an avian intensity. There is nothing senile about him either physically or mentally. He crackles with energy and looks both spare and strong. Nor is he in any way bohemian. He wears his neat practical clothes with the workmanlike air of Braque or Leger. Once the photographer had done his job and gone, Gerald and I sat down in the predominantly beige front-room (not the best colour for abstract art) for a short, preliminary chat before taking a serious look at his pictures.

It is an interesting, if at times disconcerting, exercise to engage in conversation with Gerald Morgan. Life has made him wary yet at the same time he remains ingenuously optimistic. He weaves and ducks like a boxer so you find yourself constantly off-balance, yet it is obvious his purpose is defensive, not aggressive. What is more confusing, however, is the mixture of naivete and sophistication. For example, as we sat down, I told him how charming I found Mumbles, a hillside village climbing up from the bay a few miles along the coast from Swansea.

"You can be sure of meeting me in Mumbles," he said. "Towards the end of the afternoon in Westbourne Place..." After a moment's disorientation, I realised he was paraphrasing a sentence from Andre Breton, the inventor of surrealism, and just as I had quoted it in my book Paris and the Surrealists, which he had probably read prior to my arrival. This was a subtle ploy and in absolute contrast to the odd burst of outrageous flattery based erroneously on the belief that I have much more influence in the art world than I have, and that, if I chose to give a thumbs-up, he would be famous worldwide within the week. I have always tried to disabuse him of this belief but nothing can shake him. He tends, too, to build one dream on another. For example, a show was recently on offer in London. "We have contacts in America," he'd written to me and he felt that a New York show would automatically follow on from London and he imagined me controlling and organising the whole operation, with the two of us sharing the "glory and financial rewards" together. In the interim, the gallery in London had shut down. As so often in Gerald's career, a mirage had dissolved, something concrete had crumbled. He remains sanguine, however, putting it all down to what he calls "the flicking fanciful fickle fucking finger of fate". Like many Welsh people, he is a master of alliteration.

Before we became entangled in aesthetic theory, and a life of modest successes always undermined by ill luck, I suggested we looked at the pictures, hung and framed in the neat front room and on the stairs, but elsewhere stacked against the walls and furniture.

Apart from a few early works, the paintings fall into two categories: the precise "stripe" pictures, chromatic and executed with masking tape, and what I think of as the "lozenge" series, white shapes on a black background, like stones on the bottom of a stream. You may be wondering what either of these have to do with abstract expressionism, that wild, romantic, risk-taking outburst of the Forties. There is a link, though.

"Over 40 years ago," he had written to me, "having abandoned a career in pharmacy, I was plodding along, turning out competent mediocre trad paintings when, during a visit to the West End - WHAM! I had suffered a head-on collision with a Jackson Pollock action painting. I never fully recovered from the crash..."

And so he returned home, he told me, "in a state of shock, and dabbled in action painting for a while..."

On the stairs was a rather strong monochromatic work of a kind of explosion, as if a mine had gone off deep underground throwing up columns of soil and rocks high into the air. "That's my farewell to Pollock," growled Gerald, and it was my first clue that most of his life had been darkened by a love-hate relationship with that great artist. He could, and did, mention the rest of that extraordinary generation - Motherwell, Rothko, De Kooning, et al - and always with unstinting admiration. But only Pollock surfaced over and over again in his conversation, sometimes as a god or king, more often as if he were playing Mozart to Gerald's Salieri. At one point, I referred to the painter as "Jack the Dripper", an old joke that Gerald hadn't heard. He gave a great snort of laughter - he was as delighted as if I'd handed him a new and lethal weapon in his fight against his beloved enemy. When we'd finished looking at pictures, we went downstairs again and I asked Gerald to explain the relationship between his ambivalent enthusiasm for action painting and the neat and calculated stripes. After trying to emulate Pollock, he told me, he "suffered from withdrawal symptoms, and, following a period of anguished mental constipation, began in the late Fifties and early Sixties to regurgitate the assimilated Pollock - hence the birth of the vertical stripe paintings..."

What is convincing about this somewhat cloacal metaphor is that, in America, there was indeed a new generation of artists who, equally intimidated by the reckless gamble of abstract expressionism, turned to hard-edged abstraction. In the lofts of uptown Manhattan, they replaced the gesture with a planned return to order - in Westbourne Place, Mumbles, Gerald did the same. Yet, in America, horizontal stripes were not initially much in evidence, or at least only in the loosely stained deckchair-like works of Morris Louis. I deliberately brought up Louis's name and drew a blank, and indeed I suspect that Morgan knows little of American post-abstract expressionist art. His chief obsession is to prove that he pre-dated Bridget Riley and, in that Riley initially explored Op Art, he is certainly correct. "I cannot be accused of plagiarism" is a constant theme. He's very defensive about it.

As to the lozenge pictures, he calls them "block paintings". He told me that they had been "kick-started" by the geometric compositions of Piero della Francesca. "As soon as I saw his work," he said, "they screamed `block paintings' at me!"

As Piero is one of the calmest painters in art history, it is difficult to imagine his work screaming at anyone, but whereas Gerald's own work is meditative and controlled, his behaviour is excitable and at times almost hysterical. I asked him the title of one beautiful black-and-white diptych. "It's about freedom and relationship," he told me. "The two most important words in the English language."

"I should have gone to New York," he told me several times during the afternoon. "I've always regarded New York as the mecca of abstract or non-figurative art." He paced the room like a caged puma."As it is, I had to paint my whole work here..." and he indicated the pretty street outside. "In this hole, this ass hole..."

At about this point, his second wife, whom he married in 1948, a quiet and pretty woman he clearly worships, brought in tea and biscuits and sat in for a time to listen. Gerald was immediately much calmer. At my request, she showed me her husband's scrapbook and it was quite impressive, with excellent reviews of both mixed and one-man shows, in some cases by distinguished critics - only, as Gerald maintained, there was no feeling of continuity, of build-up. It can't be easy being married to so frustrated a man, but sometimes his wife challenged some of his more flamboyant assertions. For example, his most often retold moment of glory was when Graham, brother of Richard Burton, bought two of Gerald's paintings and presented them to the star and his wife to celebrate "some anniversary". "So," Gerald told me with dramatic emphasis, and several times over, "two of my works are hanging in Elizabeth's Bel Air home in LA." His wife didn't deny this story, but she modified it slightly: "They may not still be hanging" - it was a long, long time ago.

It was a long, long time ago too since hard-edged abstraction ruled the roost, although there does see to be a revival of interest (Ellsworth Kelly, for example, is currently on show, although ill-attended, at the Tate). So there is some truth, despite the exaggeration, in Morgan's claim. "Stripe painters like Bridget Riley, Davenport, Sean Scully," he wrote to me, "in recent years are striding like colossi across the London-New York scene, winning awards, commanding large prices, when - arguably - the original `stripe' man is shown, people say `Morgan? Morgan who?' "

To underline the injustice of it all, he told me that recently "an ancient abstract expressionist called Harold Shapinsky (unknown to me) had been rediscovered and gone to fame and fortune." We were back in the world of pantomime with the good fairy and the demon king, yet Morgan is a fine and honest artist and does deserve consideration, and especially in Wales, a country of poets and musicians but with few painters of note or merit. An official retrospective in Cardiff wouldn't come amiss, and could indeed lead to wider recognition. Perhaps, though, some of his obscurity may be his own fault. He himself told me that he often got cold feet before an exhibition, and an admirer wrote, "In common with many Welsh people, the publicity and bright lights frightened off the artist..." - not only Welsh people either. I have known many provincial painters who have turned back on the threshold of success, the Liverpudlian Arthur Ballard for one, and he was almost there.

Although we spent over three hours together, Gerald told me very little about his early life. He was born in Merthyr Tydfil, where his father had been a successful scrap-iron dealer. In the war, he had trained for an RAF air crew, but his health wasn't up to it and he became a "Bevan boy", working down the mines.

Like his brother, he studied to be a pharmacist, but gave it up to paint. He spent only two months at art school, and later sold insurance to support himself. He'd been a part-time crooner with a dance band. While he was earning, he and his wife went up quite often to London to see the shows, but not now - they had only their pensions.

Ever since I'd arrived, he'd complained at the brevity of my visit, and had become more and more insistent that I prolong my stay. "We can play jazz," he told me frantically. "We can play `The Hawk' [Coleman Hawkins]. Have another whisky" (he had bought me a whole bottle, although he himself only drinks lager). "At least send away the taxi for an hour." But I couldn't and didn't. I'd a gig to do in Cardiff. He couldn't bear me going - he desperately needed confirmation, attention, an interest in his life of effort.

Gerald Morgan is a mysterious, admirable old man and a dedicated artist. Just as I was leaving, he mentioned that he wished he could afford to go and live on a Greek island. There he could paint the 30 or 40 decent pictures that were still inside him.

Gerald Morgan is represented by Abulafia Gallery, 1 King St, Llandeilo, Carms, SA19 6AA. Access on the internet: WWW.shopwales/co.uk/abulafia

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