Turner Prize: The art of controversy

The prize has always caused trouble - the inaugural winner, Malcolm Morley (left), didn't even turn up to collect his award. As it celebrates 21 years of existence, Chris Maume recalls a difficult beginning

Tuesday 06 December 2005 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The Turner Prize can generally be relied on to generate a stink - an ability it has had since the very beginning, when the first winner, Malcolm Morley, denounced the "horse race" for art as "disgusting". It was disgusting enough for him not to turn up to collect the gong, but not quite disgusting enough to prevent him cashing the £10,000 winner's cheque.

That 1984 award had come as something of a shock, not only to the art establishment but to Morley himself. On being informed that he was on the shortlist, he had likened a Turner nomination to a woman's breasts: "You want them but you don't think you'll get them," he said. On the night of the first awards ceremony, at the Tate Gallery, the then Minister for the Arts, Lord Gowrie, announcing the winner, declared that Morley had led a chequered career. His own preference, he said, lay with the sculptor Richard Long, who, of all the candidates, came closest to the spirit of Turner. Long would subsequently win the prize, as did two other nominees, Howard Hodgkin and Gilbert and George. But the die was cast: the Turner Prize had kicked up a fuss, and would carry on doing so.

Most of the opprobrium came because Morley had hardly set foot in his native land for over 20 years. He was born in London in 1931, and his memories of the Blitz, and his obsessive boyhood model-making, have continued to inform his work. A delinquent adolescence led to Borstal, and it was while he was serving three years in Wormwood Scrubs for theft that he turned his cell into a studio and took up art.

Admitted to the Royal College of Art, where he trained with Peter Blake, in 1958 he left for New York, where he has livedsince. He made his name as a photorealist, then as a pioneer of "New Expressionism", a movement which the great American critic Clement Greenberg described as "a tendency to make art, especially in painting, that's ugly. I mean deliberately ugly."

Morley's work, though, is a vibrant melange of autobiography and myth. His style evokes Cézanne, as well as the gamut of the major 20th-century art movements, principally Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. "I have this tremendous belief in the relationship between what we call the unconscious and conscious life," he once said. "I think we're really more like icebergs. There's this huge underbelly. The idea is to integrate the two so they become one."

Dissatisfied with his abstract monochrome pictures, Morley turned to representation, and by 1964 had developed a photorealist style - he called it "Superrealism" - working largely from newspaper pictures of battleships. Later, his motifs were increasingly violent, while his influences - principally the sea and all things nautical - expanded to take in Greek mythology, film, Old Masters and the Mediterranean scenery he loved.

Since 1984, Morley has mostly stayed in America and so has remained on the margins here, notwithstanding his major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery four years ago. The second Turner winner, Sir Howard Hodgkin, has complained about his low status here, but with little justification (notice the "Sir"). Morley, however, is genuinely underrated: perhaps there is something too furiously expressionist about his best work for domestic tastes.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Morley returned to his early repertoire of ships and planes, now in large-scale installations and painted from models observed through a camera obscura. In recent years, he has painted in a figurative style based on photographs.

Morley was a controversial Turner winner because he was an exile, but clearly his work would have been very different had he stayed put. He would have been around to adorn Swinging London, like Blake, but he might never have experienced the emotional liberation that gives his work such an invigorating charge.

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