He emails me from Warsaw airport: ‘Waiting for a snow-free road to the Ukraine, last tour of the year, we'll see.’ It could be from Chicago. Or Osaka. Or Sanaa.
He asks me to write a few words for ‘an opening in a good gallery in my town, old and new works, some of the old works never have shown before.’ I expect images of faraway places like those in his ‘American Landscapes’ series, and one or two works are indeed redolent of a life spent on the road – the disconcerting, illicit coupling in ‘...mysterious’, set against a generic bed-head in a generic hotel room; the fleeting, business-like physical contact of ‘the italianadventure’ (1996).
But these are images from closer to home: impressions of more familiar terrain, for his hometown. In ‘trees on the railway’ (1992), the scene is glimpsed through the slatted window of a passing train. But in most of the works the pace is slower – the landscape as seen by a man who is a dedicated walker. As he steps out, he has time to pause and to put time into the looking: to discern the textures of the topography, to witness the play of light. In ‘scharpenacken in moonlight’ (1979) – ‘the “scharpenacken” is still my favourite walking area in Wuppertal’ he writes – the ghostly illuminated route stretches ahead; in ‘cloud over karst’ the dark cloud casts its ominous shadow over the white limestone; in ‘rheinlandschaft’ (2010), a pale glimmer reflects on the grey waters.
Always the conjunction here of the rooted and the airy: of heavy grounded-ness and flights of fancy, of dwelling and passage. Early, cigar-like, cucumber-like zeppelins are airborne but remain suspended, barely moving. Later, the land becomes dark – black earth – evoked in the materiality of crayon in 'rheinlandschaft' (1995); and substantial – transformed into miniature, sculptural maquettes in ‘bergische landschaft’ (2008) and ‘rough landscape’ (2010).
Of all the works, the most affecting for me is ‘the damage is done’ (2010), a large painting dedicated to fellow musician American Joe McPhee. The yacht has capsized. But is the figure drowning or – against the odds – swimming? Perhaps both: the risky life choice of two men who have maintained an extraordinary vitality and imagination, even through the most difficult of times enshrined here.
As always, there is a seamless connection between his art and his music – tough, uncompromising and yet shot through with the lyricism and poignancy that comes with mature years. Rough-hewn, naked beauty...
And to the end something is always flying – ‘flying object’ (2010).
Cardiff, December 2010
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