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Martin Potts: Artist of the Day 2015 at Flowers Gallery

Since 1983, Flowers Gallery has been exhibiting the work of emerging and under-recognised artists in the exhibition: Artist of the Day. Each exhibiting artist is chosen by an established professional artist for their talent, promise, and the ability to benefit from a one-day show of their work. This year, in the 22nd edition of the exhibition, Richard Smith selected Martin Potts, his former long-time studio assistant. The following conversation was transcribed during the exhibition, between Richard Smith, Bill Watson, and Jessica Rutterford at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street on Tuesday 30 June, 2015; it is published here with an introduction by Bill Watson.

The Adorations, Noel, 2013, Enamel and acrylic on mylar (c) Martin Potts, courtesy of Flowers Gallery (2)

The Adorations, Regard du temps, 2013, Enamel and acrylic on mylar (c) Martin Potts, courtesy of Flowers Gallery (2)

Introduction by Bill Watson

I first met Martin at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, probably in 1971 (I had been a sculpture student there from 1966-9). He was then a fellow student with my wife-to-be, Angela Eames. It was also whilst a student at Corsham that Martin first worked as an assistant to Richard Smith, who was living locally with his family at the time. On graduating from Corsham, Martin and Angela progressed to the Slade, both of them at that time showing, in differing ways, involvement in their work with systems. Malcolm Hughes, who taught at both colleges, was possibly an early influence. Certainly, Tess Jaray, who taught at the Slade, was an influence on both. Martin went on to spend two years in Rome at the British School, moving to New York in 1980 at Richard’s suggestion. We lost regular contact for periods of time, but would meet up occasionally during the 1980s when Martin would accompany Richard to London to help install Richard's Kite commissions.

It was after Martin's marriage to Janneke Bauermeister in 1994 that Angela and I became godparents to their son Oscar. As a consequence we saw more of Martin and his family; Oscar was soon joined by his sister Mathilde. During more than 40 years, through slides, photos and the occasional catalogue, we were able to see Martin's unwavering involvement with a structured approach to his work. The elements of mathematics, numbers, series and sequences always underpinned the works, although the materials, use of colour and finish (often found industrial pallets, doors, packaging etc.) would often hide or disguise these elements and bring a certain gestural feel. The completed works were often very different from each other.

The exhibition at Flowers Gallery, London came about through the efforts of a team of people spread over three countries: the USA, Germany and the UK. On learning that Martin's cancer was both virulent and terminal, Janneke and Mathilde visited him in New York to oversee his affairs. In June 2014 Angela flew to New York, both to help Martin close his Brooklyn studio and to annotate and record his life's work. It was during this visit that she came across the series of works based on Messiaen's music: Vingt Regards Sur L'enfant Jesus, that Martin called the Adorations. The series of 20 paintings, acrylic and enamel on mylar, was begun in 2003 and worked upon for several years. Crucially, Martin had made a small 3-D model on the wall, containing tiny photos recording the sequence in which, ideally, these works would be shown. Overseen by Martin, Angela rolled and wrapped the Messiaen series, and other works on mylar, for storage. All Martin's work was subsequently stored in upstate New York. Angela returned with Martin in June to the family home in Muenster, Germany, where Martin died in early August.

A memorial to Martin was held in New York on the 6th October 2014, and for this occasion Angela offered to make a book of Martin's work. It was decided that the Adorations would be featured within the book as a single series. This involved cleaning and digitising the slide images, ascertaining the correct order and using Martin's sketchbooks for guides as to which musical section each work referred to. Angela and Mathilde were both involved in this aspect of the book. Angela designed the book and wrote the text, and for the memorial a single book was printed. A list was taken of guests who expressed an interest in owning a copy.

After Martin's death, and the memorial, Richard approached Matthew Flowers in New York about the possibility of posthumously showing Martin’s work. Matthew suggested that Martin be included in the 22nd Edition of Artist of the Day at Flowers Gallery, London, with Richard as his proposer. Richard contacted Angela, Janneke and me to ask what we thought of the proposal. Our Initial worry was that Martin's community had been in NY, not in London. However, the opportunity to show the Adorations, even in part, became the deciding factor, combined with the relative ease of transporting a single package from the USA to the UK via Germany! It was at this stage that I became directly involved, liaising with Juliette at Flowers Gallery, contacting the people that had known Martin - family, friends, ex-fellow students, ex-tutors etc., and overseeing the hanging of the show and its invigilation. Finally, a further 40 of the Adoration books were published in Germany for the Artist of the Day, with all subsequent sales going to support Martin's estate.

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Regard de l’eglise d’amour (Contemplation of the church of love) (c) Martin Potts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York (2)

Regard du silence (Contemplation of silence) (c) Martin Potts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York (2)

Richard Smith, Jessica Rutterford and Bill Watson in conversation

JR: To begin with, it’s important to mention that the artist featured around us, Martin Potts, sadly passed away last year, so I will be discussing Martin’s work with his selector, Richard Smith, and Bill Watson, who helped to organize this show. This is also the first time that Artist of the Day has featured a deceased artist. To give some background to Artist of the Day as an exhibition, it was founded in 1983 by Angela Flowers as a platform for established artists to nominate another artist they believed would benefit from a one-day show at Flowers Gallery. This year marks its 22nd edition. It’s also closely linked to this show in particular, as the initial ideas emerged from a discussion between Angela Flowers, the late Robert Heller and Angela Eames, who is married to Bill Watson and helped to organise this show.

To begin with, Richard, it was when Martin was a student at Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, that you first came across his work – what was it about Martin’s work that drew you to it, and since prompted you to use him as an assistant?

RS: I think it was mostly Martin’s personality and willingness to work. His skills, and access to those skills, made him an ideal companion in the studio. I had been working on some large three-dimensional works but these were so large and so heavy that I felt that I needed to find a practice where I could make work within the studio and I didn’t have to go to a manufacturer to make the stretchers. So, Martin came along when I had begun this process of making the kite paintings. He was immensely adept at the simple mechanics of stretching canvas over aluminum tubing –the practice changed over the months and he was very much a part of the activity. I think at the beginning he probably didn’t paint on the canvases, but eventually, as the years went by, he did, and it was really central to my practice.

I moved (with my family) in 1978 and went to live in New York for an extended vacation, but as it turned out, we stayed in New York and settled our life there and sold the house in England. I had this commission for a large kite painting for the airport in Atlanta; there were several commissions throughout this airport and my piece was two sections of groups of five canvases. I needed Martin to help with this. So, I invited Martin over and he adapted to New York very quickly and very well. To do this commission I needed a large space. Frank Stella had a studio out in Sagaponack on Long Island. He had these buildings - old potato barns (Long Island used to be a great producer of potatoes.) They were long buildings, so Frank had half the building and the other half was Neil Williams. We had a really good time there; it was wonderful being out in the country and working on these big canvases. Then, Martin stayed in New York to assist me. We had a commission for Mobil Gasoline in Dallas. It was a half-arc space that ran through the building and there were bridges that went across this arc. We made a group of paintings for each space. We found a studio in New York that was very high, where we painted these paintings - Martin worked with me on that and went out to Dallas and installed the work. Before he went to America he went to the Slade school for several years and then got a fellowship to the British School at Rome. I remember, I went out to see him with the family in Rome, and there was Martin in the British School, which had red clay tennis courts – and somehow the walls around were all red and I really see Martin in that red space.

JR: When an artist moves their life and career to another country entirely, it must have an impact on their practice. Do you think this affected Martin's?

RS: When we were first in New York he would paint on funny materials – there were skips, big pieces of wood that he found on the street. They were heavy bulky awkward objects that he was making. He would find basement studios in lower Manhattan to work in. Then he found this studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a very beautiful studio with windows looking out on a semi-derelict space. By the time he left when he died, there was a cinema across the street – the feel of the area had totally changed, but he was very consistent in renting that space and working very solidly all the time.

JR: I am interested in topics of the artist/artist assistant; the relationship inevitably takes on a teacher, student role, where the artist can use the assistant's abilities whilst passing on their own methods and traditions as well. In the light of this, I want to ask if you think your practice influenced Martin’s throughout the years?

RS: I think it did. I’m not saying I had a direct influence on him, but my painting included a lot of dripping that you see here in these works. I think that there was an influence there in his practice.

In the later years, he was part of my complete practice. He would paint on the canvases; he would stretch the canvases. I had a whole series of commissions in the 80s for shopping malls and airports around the USA, and Martin would be my chief of works.

JR: There's a constant debate surrounding the mass use of assistants in certain artists’ studios - in your opinion, is it integral to the artist’s practice to have one assistant with you for many years (like Martin was) and what is your view on having many constantly changing assistants?

RS: I was very lucky to have a person like Martin as consistent as he was over the years. He was part of the whole family. It seemed so natural that he would come to America with us and be part of that work.

JR: Did you work with Martin in the same way that Old Masters worked with their assistants? Traditionally, they were always open about the identity of the artists that they worked with.

RS Well I think that’s true. I think he imitated my practice and in some ways was more skilful. He was a good draughtsman, he could lay things out – and the complexities of stretching pieces of canvas over tubing is a very particular art and he was good it, and I was good at it. We had these huge projects up around the States which you could do giant things with very small layout of cash.

JR: I’d like pose a question to Bill Watson, who was very good friends with Martin Potts and familiar with his practice. Could you explain a little bit about the show at Flowers Gallery, which you've helped to organize, and your time with him over the years?

BW: Martin went to the Slade with my wife Angela, and at that point, I was not part of the Slade, but I watched Martin’s practice. My earliest recollections of Martin is that he was influenced by mathematics to some extent – he liked systems, he did magic squares – I remember pieces of work that were based on drawings of magic squares and the relationships of numbers.

He needed that form of structure; he liked the abstraction of mathematics, the abstraction of music/ the abstraction of sound, to begin his work. I felt that Martin had a stoicism in his own work that was focused on getting it right, and there was a lot of life that was peripheral to Martin, which caused a lot of pain in relationships and so on.  Martin never lost this idea of mathematics, algebra, geometry, the answer was there somewhere and that’s what he pursued. These [works in the exhibition] were a complete surprise to me, in terms of colour – I hadn’t seen these before, I’d never come across them.

JR: Bill, I wanted to ask, as an extension of what Richard and I have been talking about, regarding his many different influences, including Richard's: When you went to New York, had Martin's work changed drastically from when you knew him before?

BW: I know when he came to the Slade, there was a tutor called Malcolm Hughes, who would be known as a Systems artist, and Michael Kidner was also at the Slade and Corsham. Martin specifically, and to some extent Angela, were known as having a systematic approach, they were two systems artists to arrive at the Slade that year. He never, to me, lost that as a kind of a touchstone.

Regarding what Dick has been saying about the found object – I remember visiting his studio in about 2006 and Martin was working on fire doors:  he’d found them in a skip two miles from the studio. And they were probably about 10’ by 4’ – they were massive – they were a fantastic weight. He had walked each one backwards and forwards to the studio (that was the hair-shirt kind of toughness to him). He would collect paint drips off the floor from previous paintings and he was putting them into sequence, laying them out as potential marks for pieces that might come about.

RS: There is a whole area of Martin’s work which was jewel-like pieces often painted on a support that would be round packaging from cheese, small pieces that would just fit in the corner of the ceiling like a bright mark in the environment. He seemed to produce a lot of those works. I have a box of them in my studio and it’s always tempting to put them up around the place.

RS: He was a good person to be around, and a steady force. In the studio, there was a big table, which we often used to celebrate Thanksgiving, at the end of November. Martin, whose birthday is the day after mine, turned 60 two years ago now, so we gave him a party for his birthday – there was this table, delicious food  - and there was Martin, and the rest of the table was all Smiths - wives, sons, grandchildren. It was a wonderful time, and the Smiths were so thrilled to know this man and his central place in our lives, and we all miss him very, very much.

Thank you to Richard Smith and Bill Watson for taking part in this conversation.