On 16 April, a show is opening at the ICA that is very important to me.
It is of paintings by David Robilliard.
The first Robilliard show in London for over 20 years.
It is titled “The Yes No Quality Of Dreams” after one of David’s works.
The last Robilliard show was in 1992, was in the Foyer Galleries of the Royal Festival Hall.
I still have the leaflet for it.
It’s one of my most treasured pieces, even though it’s just a handout.
The show had a big effect on me.
David Robilliard came to prominence in the 1980s, an artist and poet who both published books and created works.
He developed a spare style of great resonance.
By the mid 80s, he was showing in London.
In 1987, his work was reaching a sense of full accomplishment.
In the same year, he was diagnosed as HIV positive.
In 1988, he died at the age of 36.
For a few years, his work was shown, with exhibitions in New York, Belgium, Germany and in 1993 at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam.
And then, barely anything.
A solo show at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 1998, of which no record exists online.
A show at ScheiblerMitte in Berlin in 2009, reviewed here in 032c.
But in his home country, in the 21st century, nothing.
I first became aware of the ICA’s interest in Robilliard during a conversation with its executive director, Gregor Muir, about the Trojan show he staged there in October 2012.
Last November, Rob Tuffnell held a show of early works on paper, which I wrote about here.
And now, after a long process of finding the works, and gathering them together, the ICA’s show is about to open.
The show will focus on paintings from the last years of his life.
Like this one, from a private collection.
The show is curated by Muir, very much a labour of love, like the Trojan show . I met up with Gregor the other week to talk through the show. We are in his office on the top floor of the ICA, Robilliard’s poetry books, catalogues of his work, and print-outs of photos of him are on the table in front of us. To begin with, Gregor talks about Robilliard’s connections with Gilbert & George, who were big supporters of Robilliard [here's an image of Gilbert and George flanking Andrew Heard and David Robilliard, at the Guggenheim in New York, 1985].
They paid for the publication of his poetry books, and described David in 1984 as “the new master of the modern person. Looking, thinking, feeling, seeing, bitching – he brilliantly encapsulates the “Existers” spirit of our time.” David also did much for Gilbert & George – he was responsible for finding many of the young men who would appear in their work.
Gregor and I soon got to the nitty gritty – piecing together what is known of Robilliard’s life, why his reputation vanished, and why his work still resonates. As always, I’m printing these words pretty much verbatim, because I believe that spoken language should be typed out in full.
ME: And so he arrived in London in what year?
GREGOR MUIR: He arrived in I think it was the end of the 70s. [Gregor finds an accurate biography] Born 1952, Guernsey, he moved to London 1976, and he started to share a studio with Andrew Heard at that time [Andrew was an artist who outlived Robilliard and championed him after his death. Heard himself would die from AIDS related illnesses in 1993]. We then hear that he was the original Shoreditch artist, that he was living in Garden Walk which is right by Rivington Bar and Grill, he sort of becomes part of the Shoreditch triangle. And actually for some reason this is referred to as pioneering, but I don’t think he would have seen himself as at the forefront of something. It was just a cheap place to live.
I think there’s something of that in everything he did, like, I’m just going to do this…
That’s also interesting because you can sense that he’s slightly a different man I think in the early 80s. I’m only used to seeing images of him in his mid 30s
Where he’s got a confidence about himself…
[Here's an image of David at the launch of his poetry collection Swallowing Helmets, which I took at Rob Tufnell's show last year]
Yes, and in a way you kind of get the sense that he’s going from club kid, perhaps, [Gregor shows me an image of David looking very young, shot at the Blitz club] he looks to me in his leather jacket and drawn face someone who’s very much a sort of club kid, by the mid 80s, he’s kind of got an art career, and he’s showing first with James Birch [a London gallery, where David showed in 1985] and then Birch and Conran [with whom he sent out monthly poetry cards in 1987], he’s now through Gilbert & George becoming known to these bigwig European curators like Rudi Fuchs, who has had curated Documenta [in 1982], and is beginning to see David as potentially an artist he’d like to work with more, which he does. But it’s also an interesting thing – the European art world at the time would have dictated that Rudi Fuchs was pretty much holding court at this time, and with the budget to boot, working in Holland as he did. I mean ’87 was a big year for David, because he’s showing in Eindhoven [in Holland], and then he’s releasing his book Swallowing Helmets, so this is David being more confident. A box of poems comes out as well and you’re sensing a kind of feeling that things really are on a role, but then of course we speculate and I can find out, that he would have been diagnosed as HIV positive in 87.
I was about to say, it’s a big year, but then also it’s a year when
It’s a catastrophe.
It’s interesting because in some of these images from he doesn’t seem to know. I presumed in 87, all the works would be elegiacal, whereas these are still flirtatious and got fun about them.
’87 you’ve got responses too the campaigns on TV [Gregor reads from a work in a catalogue that won't be in the ICA show]. ”I had safe sex last night. I went home alone”. That’s not the end of that poem, which is that he says, “I had safe sex last night” and someone asks him how, and he says, ” I just spat it out”. There’s a sense of those big HIV/AIDS ads creeping in. You already sense that it’s around, it’s there, and there’s this sense of unfortunately David beginning to become the most eloquent person to respond to this period. It’s as though he’s trundling along, and then suddenly he sails into this area, and it gets stormier and stormier. “The thing that thrilled them is the thing that killed them” is one of the lines. He probably didn’t wish to be, but as we know poetry becomes a form of testament. It can document periods in such an incredibly precise way, and in a way that’s what he found himself doing. And that’s the oddness because he then becomes a kind of the Samuel Pepys of the AIDS generation.
What about “Life Isn’t Good, It’s Excellent”?
I’m puzzled myself because first of all I find the line way too optimistic…
You see I’ve always found it really sad. The interesting thing is this Gilbert and George text from the 90s [in front of me is their only statement about Robilliard after his death, in which they describe him in choice and poignant words]. They call him the ”sweetest, kindest,” and then it says “handsome, thoughtful, unhappy, loving, friendly…” They celebrated his sadness. I find “Life Isn’t Good…” an unhappy line.
“Life Isn’t Good” I get, but “It’s Excellent” I don’t know if it’s almost over the top bravado.
For me because the “excellent” sits on the man who’s not drawn in, so there’s an emptiness to the excellent. It’s not excellent with an exclamation mark. It doesn’t have any guide how to say it.
I felt very strange about that line and I’ve been trying to put it into context. I think as far as I know, it becomes a great title for the book [it was the title of a posthumous book of poems], it’s a publishers kind of title, but virtually everything else in his work has a lilt of being utterly let down in love.
It is also the image that’s on the leaflet of the show I saw in the Royal Festival Hall, the last London show before yours…
It’s unreal. That show was so shockingly at the foyer galleries in 1992. 1992! This is the shock horror of it, because again for me it’s been a conversation initially with Aurel Scheibler in Cologne, who has works by David Robilliard, and in talking to him couldn’t believe this was the case. This is why this show has come about, from that shock realisation that it was that long ago. I think Robilliard is all in that cheek and despair. It’s not Morrissey, it isn’t a more catholic doomsday, it is more a kind of the language of a young old queen. I think it’s really odd because I thought there might be more Polari in the writing but there’s none [Polari is the old slang language of London's gay subculture].
But it seems like he lives a very frank and truthful life, there’s not the need for a screen of a secret language like Polari, his language is very open and honest.
I was thinking, this work [Gregor points to a work not in the exhibition] ”That Beat It Quickly Smile” which I get it’s kind of cheeky, and “beat it”, I wondered if that hadn’t been playing around, because he was really in love with Michael Jackson, and certainly I think that he was probably looking more to lyrics and music rather than always making a direct connection to poetry. And some of them are so pithy, they are like lyrics.
It’s interesting that, although you’ve got that photo of him at Blitz, he’s not really identified with any London scenes.
That’s because I think he really does embrace the radical position of the poet, and unlike the other post punk poets he’s somehow true to poetry without having to sensationalise poetry to make his point, William Burroughs is practically producing rap records of his poems in the 80s. What you have with Robilliard is a niche poetry, he doesn’t want to put bells and whistles on it. His way of taking it into culture more widely is through painting whereas others want to take it into the punk scene, I think he isn’t feeling he needs to run with the set at this point.
When he’s sharing the studio with Andrew Heard in the late 70s, is he defining himself as poet or artist or is the difference irrelevant? To have a studio implies some sense of practice.
It’s difficult to know. This period is somewhat beyond my reach, other than I get the feeling that to be an artist in that period is really dominated by the world of Acme Studios [a charity founded in 1972 to provide artists with affordable studio space] and projects like Matts Gallery. The orthodoxy of that time was Cork Street as the centre of the known universe for art. At the time there isn’t Frieze magazine, there’s no attempt to join the international world, it’s very locked down event. The key thing for the radical artists of the day was probably getting to show at the Whitechapel or maybe the ICA. Then being an artist was a way of eeking out an existence, it’s a way of spending your life. I think so many artists have been have come through the East End, and in the 70s and 80s when they were there in vast numbers you were talking thousands of artists occupying Beck Road for instance [a tiny street near London Fields where Throbbing Gristle lived and worked], you had the more successful ones breaking out, Helen Chadwick might be a good example, but I think for David it’s a world of having Gilbert & George round the corner, and going back and forth.
It might also have been then that as he wrote on paper, the worlds then looked beautiful and that then evolved into work with the words being seen as pieces in themselves.
I think so, and also I think it’s said isn’t it that he had scribbled notes scrunched up in his pocket, and I think at some point there must have been a comment, possibly from Andrew to David, possibly of, why don’t you paint those? And it would have been that simple. And what he arrives at is incredibly, these paintings are incredibly fresh. They’re so fresh now, and it’s not just the blankness of the canvas, there’s some quality that they have. Anyone could chuck little paint at a white canvas. It doesn’t mean that it’s fresh. And I think there’s some situation, if you look at the technicality of them, there are coloured lines that are changing in colour.
[It's something you see in the work Disposable Boyfriends, coming to the ICA from a private collection in Frankfurt]
There’s a very clear sense of those changes in colour not being blended in or in any way smudged. It’s a clean colour line where he starts with blue, then he stops, then it goes to yellow, it stops and it goes to green, and so on. I think in a sense what he’s doing is saying. This sense of these very beautiful pure colours on a white canvas are just rather glorious.
There’s something about the clean graphic quality that the underground desired, immensely. Because they were living with that with ad hoc ism, they were living in rundown East End, the whole world around them was crumbling, and had crumbled, and it was about raw plaster walls and so on, it was the walls that you hung these on that became an important part of this, in other words hanging one of these up in a studio in the East End in that period in Garden Walk in Shoreditch, it would have looked radically fresh and new.
That’s something I’m very pleased with the ICA show that we’re doing, we’re going for total purity. It’s so purist. It’s paintings. We’re not doing an archive. We’re not putting it into a historical context. We obviously have no interest to disconnect the poems from the paintings, but for instance I was thinking the other day we should put labels next to these, then I thought, well actually, they are already their own labels. They are very very fresh. I cannot wait to get them on the wall. I now know they are down in Vauxhall in storage. We’ve got crates that are building up there, I think we’re one short. It’s been an incredible journey just to pull these paintings together.
What was the decision making process? Was it a conversation with Aurel Scheibler in Cologne?
It triggered it in my mind. And also the shock of realising that there hadn’t been a show in this country for so long. I suspect that art world deaths are the worst, because they play into people’s egos and fantasies, and often I’ve noticed that an understanding and an appreciation of a certain artist can disintegrate after death so quickly, through a lot of falsehoods and ownership issues. I think there is here an opportunity to bring the paintings together so that we really celebrate the work without any problems or hang-ups or need to address anything other than let’s get this work up on the walls again.
So thereafter, having spoken to Aurel Scheibler, I started to try and find out where the paintings are, and it’s taken a little while. But recently two of them entered the Tate collection, which is amazingly good news, and they were donated by a wonderful lady called Judy Adam who was hugely helpful. Judy Adam used to work at Anthony D’Offay gallery, and had a really great understanding of David’s network, and through her we were able to contact his sisters, and others, and she’s been a huge help. Many of the works in Europe and few in London, I think that it really maps if you put Rudi Fuchs network on a piece of tracing paper and the whereabouts of the works it very closely matches that. It’s more of a kind of a dutch Rhineland type of collector base, which was of course the most active at that time because the Cologne Art Fair was the key art fair for contemporary work. Have you ever seen David speak?
[Gregor goes over to the computer on his desk. Previously we'd been talking about a film called The World Of Gilbert & George, in which Robilliard briefly appears. He tries to find the place on the DVD]. Of course you always hear that Robilliard was in The World Of Gilbert And George as the “angry man”, so you’re thinking, oh right he must have been that man chucking bottles at the wall, and it’s not that at all. He actually seems perfectly calm. It’s a very odd thing because you realise that in trying to get a single still [Gregor means for the catalogue, which the ICA will publish during the show], his face is changing all the time. I think I understand a bit more now when people talk about his presence. People I know who did meet him say he was quite noticeable in a crowd. It’s a kind of thing where… [suddenly Robilliard appears, and starts talking. “I am angry”, he says.]
["I am angry"]
GREGOR: See the eyes?
["I am angry"]
GREGOR: His expression is changing constantly
["I am angry"]
[And he's gone]
GREGOR: That’s it. But imagine if you take stills, it’s funny how much his face changes. We had to take about eight stills because every millisecond his face is different. And it’s this slightly funny eye, and his teeth are…
Really british teeth
And this eye because it’s dark on this side.
He’s very similar to Lee McQueen in his face.
[Gregor has been brought a list of the titles that are in the show]. This is what we have. “A Roomful of Hungry Looks”. “Instant husbands”. We have got “Life Isn’t Good”. ”Yes No quality of Dreams”we just got, which is really helpful.
Since it’s the title of your show. Did it look like you weren’t going to get it?
Yup. We were told we weren’t going to get it. I won’t say much more than that. But we do now believe we’re getting it. And I love that. I think it’s one of his more illusive lines, “The Yes No Quality of Dreams”. It keeps you going. It never finishes somehow.
What I would like to do, from this show, is find out where the rest are. This is as much as is humanly possible. We know the Stedelijk has some very beautiful ones. But honestly, do they exist some of these paintings anymore? I don’t know. I have a slight fear that quite a lot are no longer with us. Again unfortunately with no-one there to protect his market in the true international art world sense of things, there’s an absolute falling away. And I daresay some of these works are lost.
I read somewhere that the show at the Stedelijk was the biggest solo show of its kind by a contemporary artist. It was huge. And then it all falls apart. That sort of small collection of bits, a few group shows. There is a solo show at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 1998, the rest is not even noise. It’s a kind of, you get this incredible sense of the whole thing being pushed out to sea and never coming back.
The drawings is another project and another show. It’s just going to take a long while to do the big picture. It’s all still, it’s one of my typical projects where it all still feels like mid-research. Because we’ve pulled together not just the works but people who may not necessarily have been in the same space for a long time. So the opening is going to be this incredible coming together of people. And this is the time, it’s timely. This thing of looking at the 80s isn’t just retrospective, this is the only time you can realistically approach these subjects, because there was real pain in there for a long time. And it’s only now that we can pull it all in. And I hope that this just gets the ball rolling. This isn’t the definitive show. It’s not. It’s based largely on what we can pull together. It is an incredible project, we won’t see this show happen again for a long time, but the feeling is it just might, the main aim is to get it in the DNA of the younger generation of artists, who I feel this work could be very pertinent. What I don’t want is for it to come and go and for it to have not latched on. It’s got to, and I think there’s the sense that when we see them all in the same space, it’s going to be pretty emotional stuff.
[Gregor's next appointment has arrived. It turns out we've been talking about Robilliard for 70 minutes. I'm sure we could have carried on].
The exhibition opens on 16 April until 15 June, click here etcetc.
On May 2, I’m joining Louisa Buck, Toby Mott and Gregor Muir for a panel discussion of David Robilliard’s life and work – it’s part of their Culture Now series, and you can get tickets for it by clicking here etcetc.