Visual Arts: Portrait of the artist as a young man (going on sixty)

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Painter, poet, printmaker, collector, composer, curator, sculptor, singer, translator... At 60, the polymathic Mr Phillips is still just trying to do what he's always done: be an artist as best he can. Profile by Andrew Lambirth

When the artist Tom Phillips was 50 he hired the Oval Cricket Ground for a celebratory birthday match between the art world's great and good - artists versus critics. (Perhaps it should become an annual event; an effective way of exorcising bad feeling between the two camps.) Interestingly, Phillips doesn't actually play cricket himself, though he loves it dearly; it was the spectacle, the idea of the thing, that appealed to him. This year he turned 60, and obviously could not let the event pass without suitable commemoration. Six main events, one for each decade of his life, were planned, comprising three exhibitions and three books - a substantial achievement, by anyone's reckoning.

Phillips is a man of prodigious energy and multifarious talents. He owns to more than a dozen identities: besides being a painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor, he is variously essayist, composer, film-maker, collector, poet, curator, singer, translator, fiction-writer and musician. And more. He welcomes the invitation to do different things, such as designing the sets for the recent production of The Winter's Tale at the Globe Theatre. He laments that there are never enough projects like that. "I get very very few things in the way of commissions unless it be portraits, and portraits are not what I want to do." In 1989/90 Phillips had a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. Key examples were on show, such as his regal depiction of Iris Murdoch. Ninety per cent of his portraits are of friends or associates. They usually take a year to produce, and demand a commitment of time and energy Phillips would prefer to bestow on other activities.

Many people know of Tom Phillips for one thing only, the strange image- book and treated Victorian novel, entitled A Humument. Influenced by the cut-up technique of William Burroughs, the pages of the original novel (A Human Document by WH Mallock) are re-worked into new texts. Intestinally- linked speech bubbles meander through new scenes painted over the Victorian prose, sometimes only partially obliterating it. The range is wide. Phillips has worked on this project for more than 30 years, constantly revising his original treatment. As he says: "It does contain, in some reflected sense, everything I've done. Its imagery is mostly allied to other things I've made." It's a sort of Phillips compendium, a textbook of styles and a notebook of ideas.

Each page is a text and a picture, the originals done in watercolour or gouache, with pen and ink, typing or collage. In its latest incarnation (a "Second Revised Edition", to be published by Thames & Hudson next month), it consists of 368 pages of contextual derailment, punning and visual inventiveness. Phillips becomes a poet through the activity of chance, selecting a few words from a Mallock page. Thus: "to-morrow must be our architect", or "be doubtful and fresh" or (referring in part to Cezanne) "the air seemed full of dead generations". It is best read, or declaimed, aloud; Phillips himself does public readings from it.

The images are sometimes not obviously linked to the words. The drawing often has a science fiction quality to it, a caricatural aspect. Some pages are fractured into stained glass segments, others consist of ramparts of dots like some mad pointillism. The book is chaotic, sexy, non-sensical, prophetic, witty, autobiographical, aphoristic, neologistic and surrealistic. Also cryptic. It is serious play, like all good art. Mock-heroic, it is deliberately discontinuous but with its own characters (Toge, Irma and Grenville) and its own narrative line. It drops anchor into sense, but cleverly does not linger. What is its function? Commentary or entertainment? As Phillips states in the book, it is "written for rounded ladies full of arty London gossip". So there you have it.

The character of any artist is complex. Says Phillips: "On one side I'm incredibly vain, on the other I'm incredibly humble. These two people fight each other." He is sanguine about the necessity for self-belief. "Vanity must play a part or you couldn't keep going in this job." But he also needs a response. "I want to please people or give them pleasure. I always think of the delight that I hope to cause. I chuckle at things and I enjoy them." Nevertheless, it can be said (and on this occasion I said it) that Phillips deliberately makes things difficult for us, particularly in his writings. He hides behind aliases, plays games with identities, sets up alternative readings to trail red herrings. Isn't this counterproductive? "No, if you're concentrating, you can have a good time." He thinks that about five people in the world follow what he does, in the sense of fully comprehending the tricks he's up to. What price elitism?

Two of this anniversary year's exhibitions have been in London, at galleries close to the artist's studio home in Camberwell. The first, now over, was at the South London Gallery, next to Camberwell School of Art, where Phillips studied from 1961 to 1964. Entitled Sacred and Profane, the show consisted of skulls cast in bronze, plaster or glass, patchwork quilts, wrought-wire crosses made of linked words, and paintings in mud. Also a suite of orange-peel collages on the subject of a serial castrator, Clementine Seville, the Peckham Peeler. The show's twinned themes were sex and death. The quilts are composed of dozens of prostitutes' advertising cards taken from phone booths, sewn together for Phillips - with some inevitability - by women. The word-sculptures either form the crosses of Golgotha ("the place of the skull") or an autobiographical poem called Song of Myself, the beginning of which is based on The Seafarer, an Anglo- Saxon poem that Phillips has been struggling to translate for 40 years. Phillips, recently re-married, glories in the flesh and the spirit, in these works pondering provocatively on sin and redemption in an age of political correctness.

The other London exhibition is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 18 January, and is titled Drawing to a Conclusion. If that sounds rather pessimistic, the title actually derives from a drawing in which erasure was the principal means of making marks. This exhibition is more retrospective in feel, covering 20 years of mostly works on paper. Phillips loves to experiment, witness the wide variety of mark-making in his work, from the representational to the abstract. "Quite a lot of what I do is just improvised drawing to find out what I can do; there's no reference to anything. It starts off with gestures and marks which trap you into changing them. Most of what you start off with is lost, it's removed. It's like changing key or tempo in music." Phillips resists the appellation of literary artist, though he is a compulsively literate one. For instance, in a richly- coloured recent painting called The Winter's Tale, on view at Dulwich, he claims there is no narrative, and that the title is "semi-arbitrary". According to Phillips, it's related to what he was feeling at the time of working on the stage designs. It's a kind of portrait of a mood or state of mind.

There's a shared catalogue for these two exhibitions, the text of which ends in mid-sentence. The implication is that all this is very much work in progress, by no means the last word. The third exhibition is really a Tom Phillips road-show, a constantly touring exhibition of his graphic works, last seen in Swansea in October. As to the three books, one is the new revision of A Humument, another complements the Dulwich show, and the third is about the relation of music to art. Dulwich was the nearest gallery to which the boy Tom Phillips could cycle to see great pictures. He now repays the debt with a remarkable book called Aspects of Art: A Painter's Alphabet (Bellew pounds 14.95), a series of commentaries from A to Z on the paintings in the Dulwich collection. Phillips writes very well about the pleasures of art, explaining them, firing our interest with his own enthusiasm and learning.

Likewise the music book. Based on a series of articles written originally for BBC Music Magazine, it contains 50 encounters between art and music, and is a heady mixture of anecdote and interpretation. Music in Art (Prestel pounds 24.95) ranges from the Cyclades to the 20th century, from Giorgione to Patrick Symons and Augustus John. It says more about art than music, which is perhaps strange considering that Phillips is personally so devoted to both. At the opening of his Dulwich exhibition, a surprise item was the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's setting for viola and tenor of Phillips's Song of Myself. The artist, who has been painting Birtwistle's portrait, was taken unawares and apparently overwhelmed.

With regard to his own musical composition, there's a CD coming out in the New Year on Largo Records called Six of Hearts, consisting of six songs Phillips wrote for Mary Wiegold. She commissioned what are in effect texts from The Humument set for soprano and ensemble. Before this, Phillips hadn't written anything for 20 years. "I had a little era when what I was doing was relevant, and that had passed." His opera Irma, for instance, dates from 1972, and was recorded by Gavin Bryars in 1978. (Phillips himself prefers the 1988 CD version on Matchless Recordings.) When he stopped composing, he found himself drawing the pieces he couldn't write in music. The supreme example of this is the very beautiful charcoal and conte drawing entitled Last Notes from Endenich, which Phillips hangs above his bed. It is reproduced on the binding boards of Music in Art and represents the unearthly music Schumann heard during his last days in the asylum at Endenich.

For a long time Phillips thought that sculpture was the one thing he couldn't do. He'd already lived long with his collection of it (mostly African) and subsequently curated the Royal Academy's exhibition of African art, when he felt the urge to try it for himself. Is it really that easy? "You find you can do anything," he maintains. "If someone said, `Choreograph a ballet', choreography is only organised human movement, so you say, `What human movement would I like to organise?' And you could do it." Yes, perhaps, but should you? I ask. "That's a difficult question," admits Phillips, who, predictably, already has. "You should do it if you feel like it and someone'll allow you to get away with it. And if you've got something to give."

Phillips claims to have only two collectors in the world, one in Miami and one in London. They are his only significant patrons. "I do very well but I wish I could earn a living. I can't earn what I spend. And I'd quite like to have a comfortable life now; I think I've put a lot in, and I'd like a little back. I don't want to travel ninth class." He mentions the cost of mounting the two London exhibitions, money not easily recouped since most people wouldn't perceive the shows as selling venues, and would therefore never think to enquire for prices. And at the moment Phillips has no dealer. As he says: "I am my own ineffectual businessman."

Regarding his life with level gaze, he considers all his different activities to be in fact only one. "There's a metaphor for it. What I am doing is making a net: everything I do I make join to everything else." He is currently working on a millennium project, a postcard history of the English Speaking Peoples. "That comes out of a very old preoccupation with postcards. Nothing I do is new. I laid down all these lines a long time ago. At the end of the Sixties I found myself doing certain things, and I haven't yet finished them. There was no plan - the plan comes after. You wouldn't know what you wanted to say before you started the activity."

This millennium project revolves around postcards written by people to each other over the past 100 years. The cards are the content. The only thing Phillips will be doing is to orchestrate them into "a kind of poem of the century". The idea is to publish them as a book displaying both text and image, ie both sides of each card. "It's a document about taste, about events as reflected in postcards, about the way people write and address each other, the things they know, how they refer to the world." Intended for the year 1999, it will be a summation of one aspect of Phillips's activity - that of social historian. What then is his real role? "I'm trying to understand something, on behalf of other people. I'm logging my attempt. I'm just being an artist as best I can with the equipment given to me." Seems fair enough.

`Drawing to a Conclusion': to 18 Jan, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE1 (0181-693 5254). `A Humument', second revised edition, published by Thames & Hudson on 26 Jan, pounds 14.95. Website: http://www. rosacordis. com/humument