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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Malcolm Morley

Rainbow, Malcolm Morley                                
Beach Scene, 1968, Malcolm Morley
Most professional artists, early in their careers (often while still in college), "land" on a kind of signature style and a few limited content areas which, while they may evolve somewhat, in general, remain fixed as identifiably theirs for the rest of their lives. Myself, I've seldom painted anything other than what I've dubbed "emotional realism." In more recent years I've had a tendency to "twist" that into a Postmodern mode, but the style and content haven't changed much. Having said that, let me point out such consistency is not necessarily a good thing. Gallery owners and art historians love it. It makes categorization of the artist much easier. But it also indicates an artist unwilling or unable to explore their range--to take chances. Let it never be said that the British-American artist, Malcolm Morley, falls under that heading. If you look back over his fifty-year career as a painter, his style especially, is literally "all over the place."

Rules of Engagement, 2011, Malcolm Morley
Malcolm Morley,
As to content, Morley seems to have an affinity for ships and planes. From that point on, again, his content, like his style, rambles far and wide, seemingly having no limits. In large part, this trait has to do with who he is, not just as an artist, but as an individual. There is a deeply psychological underpinning to his work, one he's not at all reticent in clawing to the surface for all to see. Sometimes, it "ain't pretty." Born in 1931, Morley grew up in the north of London where, during the WW II blitz, his home was bombed...completely destroyed. For a while, the family was homeless. This could explain Morley's fascination with aerial combat (above). His years as an adolescent were bleak. As a young man, he was arrested for theft and spent three years in prison. It was there that he first became interested in painting.

S.S. Cristoforo Colombo, 1965, Malcolm Morley
After his release, Morley studied art at the Camberwell School of Arts, then later at the Royal College of Art from 1955 to 1957. It was the middle of the Abstract Expressionist era so Morley decided to be an abstract expressionist. That being the case, he took a boat to America, the worldwide hotbed of Abstract Expressionism, though he bypassed New York for Columbus, Ohio, where he briefly taught art at Ohio State University. Then he found a teaching position in New York City, at SUNY Stony Brook for four years before moving on to the New York School of Visual Arts. In the early 1980s, Morley was briefly married to a Brazilian artist, Marcia Grostein. They set up a studio in a former church located in Bellport, New York. Their marriage ended in 1986, as did his second marriage to a former student, Fran Bull. Today, Morley still lives and works from his "art church" (below) with his third wife, Lida.

Morley at work in his studio.
Tackle, 2004, Malcolm Morley
With the passing of the Abstract Expressionist era of Modern Art, Morley grabbed the brass ring of Pop Art, influenced by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and others, though he considers Cezanne his preeminent painting idol. Turning a full 180 degrees from his former style, Morley embraced Photorealism (or Super Realism) at a time when the style was just starting to develop. It's uncertain whether he influenced the early pioneers in this new art or they influence him (perhaps both), but his paintings from this period are among his most outstanding work. His Rainbow (top) is one of his most his best pieces from this era and also demonstrates his mastery of the difficult medium of watercolor. Morley's more recent Tackle (right) from 2004, could easily be mistaken for a photo, except that it appears more real than any action a photographer could likely capture from the sidelines.

Beach Scene, 1982, Malcolm Morley
The Theory of Catastrophe. 2004, Malcolm Morley
Today, still active well into his eighties, Malcolm Morley draws his content from a variety of sources, what he calls "cross-fertilization." He uses old calendars, travel brochures, popular fiction, old movies, all of which he stirs together in creating a kind of oxymoronic hybrid of Super Realism (his choice term) and the Expressionism he embraced as a student. In 1984, while still a British citizen, Morley was the first winner of the famed Turner Prize awarded each year by the Tate Gallery for his Neo-Expressionist work not unlike his Beach Scene (above) from 1982.

Texas Swing, 2009, Malcolm Morley
Morley's Texas Swing (above) from 2009 is a fairly accurate indication of the type work the artist is producing today as he mixes in a generous portion of Leroy Neiman into his Pop/Expressionist style. However, as a long time lover of marine art, I'm quite partial to Morley's 1965 S.S. United States with New York Skyline (below). The skyline, of course, has changed drastically in the past fifty years. The ship...well, it's changed drastically too, since being taken out of service in 1969. Today, and since 1996, it's a rusting hulk, tied up at Pier 82 along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Both are an ever-present reminder that, for better or worse, all things change--even (or especially) artists.

The S.S. United States with New York Skyline, 1965, Malcolm Morley


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