Charles Harrison: Art historian and critic celebrated for his work on the journals 'Art-Language' and 'Studio International'
Monday 07 September 2009
Charles Harrison's work as an art historian provides inspiration to a generation of artists, historians and theorists. A prolific writer, author of books on history and aesthetics, he engaged directly in the practice of art and worked closely with artists. Harrison became editor of Art-Language in 1971 and since then has continuously associated with the artistic production of the Art & Language group. In his writing and teaching Harrison found a natural way to express the issues. His combination of analytical precision and an at-times anecdotal use of humour made complex ideas accessible.
It was while working with Peter Townsend, the editor of Studio International magazine that Harrison found his platform. Townsend's editorial and tactical genius was to be surrounded by young artists and writers debating the contemporary art scene. Harrison began work after an informal interview with Townsend in the Museum Tavern in London on Christmas Eve 1965. Within a year he had organised a special issue on Mondrian, commemorating the artist's time in London. His graduate research on British art between the wars made him ideally placed to obtain reminiscences from Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson and Naum Gabo. His research led to the publication of English Art and Modernism. Harrison had to keep the extent of his involvement quiet until October 1967, when he was no longer in receipt of a grant.
He edited the feature on British artists in the Biennale des Jeunes in 1967 and immediately became friends with the sculptor Barry Flanagan and artist Jeremy Moon. Harrison wanted the magazine to show artists' work without interpretation by critics and so asked each artist to provide a statement for inclusion alongside photographic documentation. He supported numerous artists including the New Generation sculptors, artists from St Martins, and sculptors from The Stockwell Depot.
Harrison said one of life's greatest pleasures is collaboration, that there is no beating close, intense work on a shared venture. He cherished the kind of friendship where there is some kind of risk in the communication; in a tribute to Moon, he wrote, "I always had the feeling he was putting his painting at stake when he talked, however outlandish the context I or another interlocutor might have established... this seemed like a mark of respect both to the painting and the conversation."
He worked with Flanagan on the 1971 film The Lesson, which showed Flanagan demonstrating the installation of his work at the New York Cultural Center. It was screened at the NYCC in a programme that also included films by Richard Long and Bruce McLean.
The American art critic and historian Barbara Reise proved to be a good sparring partner for Harrison. After her arrival in the editorial office of Studio International, Harrison found himself freer to assert views in contradistinction. She was, he said, more catholic than he. They disagreed on how to analyse questions of interpretation and to make judgments about a work of art's quality transparent. Harrison disapproved of the way she privileged subjectivity. This issue and its analysis remained at the core of Harrison's work.
Anthony Caro regarded Harrison's support of the newly emerging radical and largely dematerialised practices as a betrayal of formalist ideology. Consequently he would not allow Harrison to visit his studio when he was preparing a review of Caro's Hayward exhibition.
Throughout his time on Studio International Harrison also taught in art schools and universities. The combination suited him and due to his involvement with artist's practices he naturally found himself organising exhibitions. He found the activity unsatisfactory and frustrating as it inevitably involved compromises with the institution concerned. When this occurred, in particular in New York, he felt he had let the artists down. His experience at the NYCC was scandalous: he was denied access to the executive suite and had to use public phones to source compatible equipment as well as install the work, all within a week. When the press arrived, Harrison was naturally in no mood to answer any "half-witted questions". The catalogue was a joint publication with Studio International and though it is an exemplary form of documentation, it tells nothing of the blood and sweat.
I told him about a job reference for him which I found a copy of among Townsend's papers. Townsend pointed to his knowledge and efficiency and remarked on "his healthy interest in combative discussion". Harrison commented: "how like Peter to turn a vice into a virtue."
Harrison's writing attracted attention in the United States. Phillip Leider, Artforum's editor, commissioned him, while John Coplans exerted pressure on him to become assistant curator at the new museum in Pasadena. Harrison, though flattered, regarded his loyalty to working with the circle of artists in the UK, and to Studio International, as more important than a tempting career move.
This was before he resigned the assistant's post to devote more time to editing the Art-Language journal. He remained on Studio International's masthead as a contributing editor, though after Michael Spens took on the publishing of the magazine, Harrison's involvement was advisory. But when Spens dismissed Townsend, Harrison, incensed by his cavalier treatment, wrote a letter in which he withdrew from any further engagement with the magazine. One regret he spoke about was that in gaining his conversation with Art & Language, he lost his conversation with Townsend.
On his first visit to New York at Leo Castelli's preview for Robert Rauschenberg he saw a "most unusual looking man" who he approached, asking, "are you John Coplans?" The man retorted, "Hell no, John Coplans is ugly." It was the innovative dealer and curator Seth Siegelaub, with whom Harrison would work on an interview published later that year in Studio International as well as Siegelaub's edition of Studio International as guest editor, when he took the radical step of inviting six critics, including Harrison, to give over eight pages each to an artist or artists of their choice.
In New York he met Lucy Lippard and Joseph Kosuth and they quickly became friends. Kosuth and Harrison shared an intense ideological exchange and discourse and had extensive correspondence. Harrison convinced Townsend to allow Kosuth's Art After Philosophy to be published: a long piece by an unknown artist showed the extent to which he had faith in Harrison. This essay has been reprinted in numerous anthologies including Art in Theory 1900-1990 and is still frequently discussed by art students today.
The three-volume project, a massive undertaking, demonstrates the spirit of generosity with which Harrison approached writing and teaching. He wished to democratise access to dialogue and information without compromising standards and it shines through in his dedication to the ethos of the Open University.
Charles and Trish were generous and kind hosts and many speak of Charles' culinary expertise. I won't forget the delight of hearing him play the French horn, in a quick warm-up before lunch, a great but serious relaxation. Charles was rarely without a hat; he wore these with style and they added intrigue to his modest circumspection.
Charles Townsend Harrison, art historian: born Chesham, Buckinghamshire 11 February 1942; tutor in Art History, Open University, 1977-2005, Reader in Art History 1985-1994, Professor of the History & Theory of Art, 1994-2008, Professor Emeritus, 2008-2009; Visiting Professor, University of Chicago 1991 and 1996, Visiting Professor, University of Texas, 1997; married 1961 Sandra Pearson (divorced 1982, three children), 1985 Trish Evans (two stepchildren); died Banbury, Oxfordshire 6 August 2009.
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