THE DEATH of Keith Spencer at the age of 46 is a tragic loss to the British art world. In the two years since the launch of his magazine Contemporary Art his enthusiasm and single-minded determination helped to establish what rapidly became an important platform for contemporary art criticism. But while Contemporary Art provided a much-needed voice for British critics, few realised that Spencer's own experience of art and publishing was largely self-taught.
Keith Spencer was born in Lincoln in 1947. His parents separated and he was to spend his remaining childhood in a children's home, an experience which left bitter memories. For many years he worked in the music business, first as a roadie for rock bands and later as a disc- jockey. However, it was his passion for poetry that first introduced him to the publishing world.
He read his own works on the poetry circuit, which brought him into contact both with other writers and, fortuitously, with the art critic Peter Fuller, a fellow resident of Bath. This contact led to the idea of a journal combining poetry with the visual arts. Loosely styled on Beardsley's Yellow Book, the first issues of the Green Book consisted of little more than a few stapled pages. From these small beginnings grew a quarterly publication which the critic John McEwen described as 'the best 'little' magazine to come along for over 20 years'.
My own association with Keith Spencer began with a phone call in 1988. I was immediately aware that here was someone with a passion for art publishing that amounted almost to a mission. Although the Green Book was broke and had been out of publication for a year, he was calling to talk of the possibilities for the future. Sure enough, under the sponsorship of the Redcliffe Press, the magazine was relaunched the following spring and ran for a further 11 issues.
If the Green Book was the prototype for what later became Contemporary Art, it was also the testing ground for Spencer's own philosophy. Looking back over the articles he commissioned, one can see his interests developing from a parochial, though sincere, defence of British art into a broader concept of contemporary art in a more international context. The new publication grew from this expansion of his own horizons, and it was obvious that Contemporary Art represented more than a change in format and title.
For someone who held vehement views on art, it is perhaps surprising that Spencer never aspired to make his own voice heard in print. Both the Green Book and Contemporary Art were vehicles for other writers, never himself. This generosity of spirit extended to other art magazines, which he saw less as competition than as fellow travellers. Even as the editor of a rival magazine, he regularly commissioned articles from me and was ever keen to share his plans for Contemporary Art.
Keith Spencer's death came at a moment when both his professional and personal life held much in store. He was devoted to his teenage daughter, Jessie, and had recently become engaged to his girlfriend, Trish. He died at his desk while putting the final touches to the latest issue of Contemporary Art.Reuse content