Peter Booth: Doorways, Dreams and Frozen Hands

Peter Hill sits down with Peter Booth to take a journey through the artist’s five-decade career, ahead of a new body of work.

Words: Peter Hill

Photography: Zan Wimberley

 When I was making the big, monochrome, door paintings – not that I ever called them doors –I was still a young man, in my 20s,” Peter Booth tells me in the studio of his large St Kilda house in Melbourne. “I was influenced by what was going on in the art world at the time, in reduction, minimalism and colour field painting. But during all that period I was making figurative drawings – I’ve always done that. ” We are surrounded by his recent output of paintings, soon to be exhibited at Karen Woodbury Gallery, in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane.

The air is heavy with cigar smoke, despite the open window. Large, imposing canvases encircle us, like a wagon train from a Western movie: snow-covered landscapes; a tall, thin segment of cliff at Sorrento; a Boothian figure in a lemon yellow shirt, braces and a blue dunce’s cap, who points at a spider the size of a pineapple; and most poignantly of all, a double- headed portrait of his younger twin brothers, both of whom committed suicide, in identical fashion, a few months apart. “I think about them every day,” he tells me. They crowd around us and stare down at the dozens of drawings spread out on the floor, covering every available flat surface: gnarled trees like arthritic hands, charcoal spiders, severed body parts, bug-men with insect wings, tropical mangrove leaves.

“So all the time I was making those monochromes, in the 1960s and 1970s, I was also making figurative drawings,” he gestures to the floor. “Then at one point, on one particular day, I just decided I wanted to make paintings that were like my drawings. And that’s when the change occurred, starting with a series of small landscapes.”

In the later monochrome paintings, broken glass and razor blades were collaged on to the paint surface, referencing an attack made on him with a bottle and to a period when he was self-harming. But over the years there have been many benign influences, including Shakespeare (Macbeth in particular), Goya, Samuel Beckett, Jack Yeats, Doris Lessing, L.S. Lowry, fellow Sheffield resident Margaret Drabble, and Philip Guston.

We’d been talking over coffee about our mutual admiration for Guston and how he changed dramatically from the surrealist mural work, through abstract expressionism, to the late, great canvases that were so influential to a generation of neo-expressionist painters a decade later. The art world was collectively horrified, his galleries dropped him and many artist friends disowned him. “I always liked Guston’s quote about that change, late in life, from abstraction to figurative painting. He said: ‘When you leave your studio at night it’s always better to leave some people in there rather than a few lines.’ I think that’s terrific.”

We turn our attention to a recent landscape (188 by 219 centimetres). The foreground is of immaculately white snow, the sky a pinkish grey and both of these bands of thick paint are joined by clusters of black tree trunks framing a scattering of small black rocks.

“There are degrees of difference in paintings. It’s not just abstract or figurative,” he says, gesturing with the butt of a once-large cigar. “Within my figurative way of painting, there are landscapes and there are figure paintings. And there are huge differences between the two, even though they may have been painted in the same way, with a palette knife and no solvent. If it is a figure painting, it is like having some friends in the studio with you. I used to have some of the figurative ones in my bedroom, stacked to face the wall. I’d often turn one round and when I woke up it was like a friend being there, rather than a hill or a tree.”

Like Guston, Booth was also way ahead of the pack that would gather around the writings of Italian critic and theorist Achille Bonito Oliva. “They called it the trans-avantgardia at the time. But I wasn’t interested in any of that jargon. I was painting in the way that came naturally to me. Apart from the work of other painters, I’m more interested in detective novels and good television documentaries. But I don’t even buy books about other artists. I only read the ones my friend Norbert Loeffler gives me. ” He immediately enthuses about a documentary he’d watched the previous night. “This plane from New Zealand crashed in Antarctica. A sightseeing flight that went straight into Mount Erebus in broad daylight. There were no survivors. One body they found was completely encased in ice. And a hand, also frozen in ice.” It sounded straight from the Booth lexicon. Fire and ice; waiting for the apocalypse; mass death, not yet here but approaching. The Gods doing nothing.

His early masterpiece Painting 1977 owned by the National Gallery of Victoria – a male figure with burning red eyes, white dog, and end-of-the-world landscape with flame-red sun – is, again, archetypical Booth; the ultimate, close-up, society of the spectacle.

And this key painting places him as a leader at an enormously important point of world painting, especially in the maturity, ambition and resolution of this particular work. Several years later he would exhibit in the 1982 Venice Biennale. He has a few works in the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but one day Booth will be collected by all major museums around the world. It has to be, to properly tell the story of that particular point in time, when painting last ruled the waves.

While many of the trans-avantgardia painters of the 1980s leapt on its key tenets of myth and tragedy without ever having experienced much angst in their own lives, Booth was born into the sort of ruined landscapes that he later peopled. So there is a great honesty about his work and a psychological depth to his dreams and nightmares. The place was Sheffield, in Yorkshire, a steelmaking city in the North of England. The year was 1940 and because the city was a major arms manufacturer it was blitzed relentlessly by the Germans. On three consecutive nights, not long after Booth was born, large parts of the city were reduced to rubble, with the loss of 660 lives. Robert Lindsay has written about “the family emerging from their coal cellar, which was used as a makeshift air-raid shelter, to see the full extent of the devastation of the bombing.”

I asked the now 75-year-old artist about this. “I was too young of course to remember much of the blitz, but the bombing continued to 1943. I do remember my father taking me out when I was very young and describing the buildings and factories that used to be around where we lived.” This rhymed with my own Glasgow childhood; even ten years after the end of the war, the bombing of Clydeside had left bombsites and big gap-toothed tenements all over the city, the stone sooty black from the industrial revolution. Sometimes it would all be covered in snow. Like a Booth painting, avant la lettre.

DOUG HALL
Former director of Bendigo and Queensland Art Galleries; instigator
of QAGOMA and Asia Pacific Triennial; Australian commissioner at the Venice Biennale for Shaun Gladwell and Hany Armanious

“It is not possible to tell a truly coherent story of Australian art from the last 50 years without Peter Booth being represented in collections by works from each decade,” Doug Hall tells me from his apartment in Collingwood, Melbourne. “His geometric abstractions from the late 1960s were followed by the dark near-black so-called doorway paintings from the early 1970s. They are unmistakably his own and yet international in attitude. As a student I saw exhibitions of these in 1973 at Chapman Powell Gallery in South Yarra. I wished I could own one and it has taken decades for me to realise my desire.

“Booth has become a special case for curators and public collections,” Hall continues. “He is inseparable from any account of Australian abstraction from the late 1960s and his launch into expressive apocalyptic imagery singles him out as one of our most inventive figurative painters of the past 40 years – some might say the finest.

“He’s one of a small handful of artists that need to be collected in depth if collections are to be relevant and up to date. Curators have a propensity to acquire works from an artist’s formative years, resulting in many artists being consigned to brief periods of moments in the sun. Booth defies this curatorial conduct.”

CHRIS DEUTSCHER
Director, Deutscher Fine Art Director, Deutscher and Hackett

Chris Deutscher first exhibited Peter Booth’s work in 1989 at the newly launched Deutscher Gertrude Street. He represented Booth throughout the 1990s and since 2013 Deutscher has again taken on the artist’s Melbourne representation. Here he reflects on the artist, his life, and career.

“Peter’s upcoming winter exhibition at Karen Woodbury Gallery will be his first in Melbourne for three years and comes with an enormous air of anticipation from both private and institutional collectors.

Since the National Gallery of Victoria’s The Field exhibition of 1968, Peter has remained one of the country’s most prominent artists with a truly unique and powerful vision. Represented with paintings and drawings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, Booth’s institutional and international status has contin- ued to grow with the comprehensive retrospective exhibition Human/Nature at the National Gallery of Victoria (2003-2004) and his recent inclusion in Australia at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 2013, organised by the National Gallery of Australia.

Peter’s imagery covers a vast array of landscape and figure subjects, sometimes veiled in an almost disturbing sense of quiet and isolation, in sharp contrast to the spectacle of strange men in desolate landscapes. All of this would not resonate without the artist’s brilliant sense of drawing and mark making, his layering of thick paint applied with a palette knife – building and always evolving.

“As Peter Booth’s first exhibition in Melbourne in three years, the June 2015 show at Karen Woodbury Gallery will include both recent paintings and works on paper with a wide range in scale and price. Painting prices will typically range from $30,000 to $250,000 for large works, with drawings mainly in the $2,000 to $20,000 bracket.”

PETER BOOTH WILL EXHIBIT NEW PAINTINGS AND WORKS ON PAPER AT KAREN WOODBURY GALLERY IN MELBOURNE FROM 3 TO 27 JUNE 2015. PETER BOOTH IS REPRESENTED BY CHRIS DEUTSCHER IN MELBOURNE AND OLSEN IRWIN IN SYDNEY.

Image: Peter Booth. Portrait by Zan Wimberley.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 72, APR – JUN 2015. 

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