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The lesser famous Barry White

The Bolton-born artist talks to Charlene McAuley about St Ives in the 1960s and why big paintings aren't always best

Published on October 28th 2009.


The lesser famous Barry White

You’d be forgiven for assuming that 72-year-old painter Barry White would be taking life easy by now. His massive canvases have been displayed in exhibitions across the UK and Europe for over 50 years, and he's more than secured his place in the British contemporary art scene.

“A painting can be described verbally, but is essentially to be experienced, as one might experience an unfamiliar landscape.”

But as with many creative people, his passion continues to drive him long past the time when many are lapping up retirement. A new exhibition which will be previewed at Woodend Studio in Mossley on Sunday 1 November shows that he's not just producing new artworks, he's taking them in a new direction.

Those who are familiar with White’s art will know he paints on a large scale – at times, a huge scale – with a trademark interplay of organic and geometric forms. The largest painting measures 15ft by 7ft and the average is 6ft by 7ft. But amongst those giant canvases, he will exhibit a series of 3ft by 2ft charcoal works.

In the car on the way to his studio, he explains why he decided to downsize: “These days, I work on two to three at a time, and take much longer than I used to,” he says. At first, I had to persevere as I’m used to painting on a large scale. It feels natural. However, I’m very pleased with them, although my back is still hurting from bending over.”

“I hope that my paintings evolve as I evolve,” he continues. “Every work has to be a new experience with an element of risk-taking. You’ve got to be able to surprise yourself.”

The new direction is evidence of his reluctance to conform to expectations. Rather than pandering to the fickle tastes of the market, White remains wholly committed to his belief of what makes a painting special, not the buyer’s. His refusal to name his works is just one example. “I don’t use titles,” he says. “Titles can be misleading, and more often than not, pretentious. A painting can be described verbally, but is essentially to be experienced, as one might experience an unfamiliar landscape.”

A personal favourite of mine is what can only be described as ‘Dr Coghlan’s Solution’. Using a mathematical sum, which his old friend Dr Coghlan of the University of Manchester unwittingly scribbled, White used it as a starting point and created a wonderful work of art. “It’ll be interesting to witness his reaction when he comes to Sunday’s preview, as he doesn’t know what I’ve done,” he laughs.

White was born in Bolton but moved around the country because of his father’s job, finally settling at Leigh Grammar for Boys. On the decision to go into art, he says: “I always wanted to go to art school. Academically, I wasn’t interested. I made enquiries and chose to go to Wigan in 1954 – it was the best move ever.”

After being awarded a painting scholarship, White debuted his One Man Exhibition in Manchester in 1959. In the same year he took his MA in Art Teaching at Goldsmiths College in London.

It was around this time that he moved to St Ives, Cornwall, where he shared a studio overlooking Porthmeor Beach with the late, minimalist artist Bob Law.

“At the time, St Ives was like Paris in the 1890s,” he says. It was buzzing with the leading lights of the art scene – Terry Foot, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Brian Winter to name a few. “I wouldn’t say they were influential, rather they were accessible and helpful. It was a great time.”

He exhibited frequently in the UK and several times in Chicago, where he taught in the mid-Eighties. It was during this period that he produced a series of black and white paintings. He was told by gallery owner Jan Cicero (the “archetypal American businesswoman”) that monochromatic paintings were not in vogue, but she nevertheless exhibited his work. “When we were discussing prices she told me to add another zero – I liked her attitude.”

No doubt it was also the idea of taking a risk that struck a chord. All the decisions White has made in his career have happened without a contingency plan. “I’ve never left something with somewhere else to go. I'd much rather wait to see what happens.”

White finally left his teaching job at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1988 to paint full-time at the Woodend Studios in Mossley, which he and fellow artist Michael Downs started in 1986.

Walking into the studio to view the yet-to-be-assembled smaller works, you’re hit by just how cold it is. He says it's always a few degrees colder than outside as he “can’t be painting in a warm studio”.

White’s daily routine consists of taking the 16-mile drive from his home in Didsbury to his studio where he’ll make an assessment – in his “ruthlessly self-critical” fashion – of yesterday’s work. He’ll work in silence on his paintings until lunch. Afterwards, some jazz music, his “other love”, will be played as an accompaniment to painting. “Music, especially jazz,” he says, “has been a very big part of my life. The creative energy I sense there is a great stimulus; there’s a strong parallel in the improvisational nature of both forms of expression.”

So what about when he’s not painting? “I like good beer, real ale of course,” with the nearby Dog and Partridge in Didsbury being his local. “A beer and watching Manchester United is always good.”

Just as we’re summing up our conversation, he tells me a story about himself and his old friend Ian Dury, both needing the toilet, and a vase in an antique shop in Knightsbridge being of use. “I’m still waiting for Ian’s biographer to publish that,” he laughs. No need to Barry, consider it published.

Barry White’s preview will be at Woodend Studios, Mossley on Sunday 1 November from 11am. For further information about this and other works email info@barry-white.net. www.barry-white.net.

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Will BirchOctober 28th 2009.

Read all about Barry's exploits with Ian Dury in the forthcoming biography of Ian Dury by Will Birch, publication early 2010.

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