The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

A Tribute to Alan Uglow

Photo for Alan Uglow. Tribute credit: Tim Ayres.
Photo for Alan Uglow. Tribute credit: Tim Ayres.

For more than 20 years, I lived next door to Alan Uglow. His presence, sloping down the Bowery in his signature pencil black pants and Swedish policeman’s leather jacket, seemed one of life’s permanences. When we would meet, we’d pick up where we left off, slipping into studio talk and what was happening with his beloved Chelsea team. His unprepossessing, crusty English working class humor encased a deeply intelligent and refined core. This construction extended to his work. Picture a soccer field removed of the sweating, straining feats of its players as they struggle for purchase, pared down to the field itself—an ethereal platform, the air, light, space, goalposts shimmering at the edges, drawing you in and expanding outward. High modernism meets the populist religion of team sports.

Alan was bluntly honorable. I don’t know if it was an extension of his sportsman’s code of fair play, but I experienced it firsthand in the mid-’90s at the Baldacci Gallery, where we both showed. Alan was unfailingly generous and supportive; he respected women.

An authentic human being, Alan pursued his passions with enthusiasm and was not interested in the “life at court” aspect of the art world. He lived his moment on the planet to the fullest—with all of the attendant missteps, self-destructive behavior, and regrets that anyone with a taste for risk and a total commitment to his calling experiences. I miss my Bowery mate.

—Medrie MacPhee

As a collector, I live with the works of Alan Uglow, which are objects of perfect contemplation. I am not an artist, not an art historian, not an art theorist, not an art critic. I simply live with the objects I acquire, mostly unencumbered and uncontaminated by the combative disputes about history and theory that punctuate the art world. I came to Uglow’s art before I knew anything of the artist. It is a privilege to be able simply to look, and no artist in my collection rewards looking as much as Alan Uglow, who also became my friend in the last years of his life.

What do I see and how does it reward? Uglow’s art unfailingly astonishes me. It simultaneously calms and excites. The originality, clarity, purity, intelligence, elegance, and luminosity of the work is visually and intellectually thrilling, but its perfection simultaneously calms because it produces a sense that all’s right. It is paradoxically still and moving. No matter how little one may know about making art, Uglow’s craft is transparent and immense. Regarding such grace is rewarding in itself and confers grace. The art is also ravishingly beautiful. The critical writing about Uglow is sometimes embarrassed or ambivalent about its beauty and perfection. More’s the pity for those critics.

When I return home, which is filled with Uglow, I never fail to look anew with the same sense of excitement, and, yes, awe I felt when I first saw his work at Gimpel Fils in London in 1995. To live with such objects is to be continuously enriched. Although Uglow’s works may initially look simple, the longer one looks, the more complicated and rigorous they become. The architectonics are clear but pyrotechnic in their unexpected complexity. The enormous number of minute choices of the making reveal themselves and then recede as the enthralling pleasure of looking dominates other responses.

Alan Uglow had an unquiet soul, and lived in an artistically, politically, and interpersonally unquiet era. Out of the chaos within and without, Alan created with his intelligence and vision an ideal order that gives respite. Was the chaos causally related to the order that emerged? Talking to Alan about his work and reading interviews with him and critical writing about him, it seems that most of the artistic motivation was aesthetic and intellectual, situated in the art historical and critical issues of Alan’s time. I am unconvinced. But, whatever the source, Alan followed his own muse with maniacal artistic integrity. With clarity as his constant ambition, and singularity of purpose, Alan created art that moves the eye and the intellect, and is a balm to the soul.

—Stephen J. Morse

Alan Uglow has left the building. The thing is, when artists leave, they leave stuff behind: art, paintings, works. We will have to deal with that. We will, though I might not be the best person to talk credibly about Alan Uglow’s work because I took his paintings for granted. They were good paintings. Period. And Alan was a good painter.

You could find him in bars, which is where painters ought to be. He smoked. He drank beer, “Speckled Hen” or “Stella.” He had been in the Whitney. He showed at Bykert and at Mary Boone’s. We saw his paintings in Amsterdam. We talk about them in Berlin. His paintings were precise and consistent. His wife is an American poet: a situation as perfect as his paintings.

He also kept a genuine British working class attitude: “football,” punk rock, and skinhead boots. Plus, he was totally aware of the contradictions in the American Dream: the Pioneer, the Prince, or the Palace on the Bowery.

Of course, things have changed. The Bowery hotels became New Museums, the “Good World,” “White Slab,” TV, flat screens, and Chelsea belongs to an oligarch whose girlfriend heads an Art Center. But the contradictions have survived; they could even be more acute. And, with its insignificant means, painting is still around. We remember Mondrian’s lines, Newman’s zips, the border and the edge. And we will remember paintings leaning against the wall, a couple of steps in the third dimension and some photographic images: the symbolic, the imaginary, the real.

In the end, and with a precision close to perfection, Alan Uglow has helped to define painting. He made it. We loved him, maybe that’s why Roberta Smith said he was a “painter’s painter.” She also said, “Tellingly, his early passions included the spare, attenuated figures of Giacometti.” And, as we all know, Giacometti’s “Walking Man” is a “Johnnie Walker.”

—Olivier Mosset


Medrie MacPhee, Stephen J. Morse, and Olivier Mosset


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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