Published  21/12/2010

Artists’ Laboratory 02: Stephen Farthing RA – interview

Artists’ Laboratory 02: Stephen Farthing RA – interview

The Artists' Laboratory 02: Stephen Farthing RA is the second in the programme of exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts on the working methods behind contemporary art practice. Its exposure and documentation is symptomatic of the manner in which conceptual and subjective responses dominate art production today

The Back Story
Royal Academy of the Arts, London
10 November–19 December 2010


Stephen Farthing’s (b1950) work shows the manner in which the boundaries between aspects of art practice that were traditionally quite separate, are now blurred, indeed, he makes little distinction between the importance of the activities of painting and drawing. Drawing, as the most immediate form of visual expression, has increasingly occupied a central role in art practice for the past 20 years enabling major works to be executed in the exploratory manner of drawing.

Today, what constitutes drawing is being revisited as artists exploit the infinite potential of the discipline using traditional materials, found objects, digital imaging, or the entire exhibition space of a gallery. “In contrast to the predominantly detached stance of the 1990s, contemporary drawing celebrates the artist’s touch, as the process of ‘crafting’ an object is once again valorised”.1 Drawing exists irrespective of cultural identity. It is a basic human instinct to make marks, thus it is an appropriate tool for the exploration of identity and self-determination within a global context. Drawings are works in their own right where processes are presented as an essential part of their motivation.

Traditionally, artworks were created through stages: studies, notes, colour sketches (or working models) all subordinate to the final work. Drawing was thus employed in the service of a subsequent, major work, and until the 1980s it remained a subordinate activity, although practitioners such as Paul Klee had liberated it in his own practice, describing it as “taking a line for a walk”. Where subject matter, too, had been graded in terms of importance, a hierarchical structure established with history painting at the top and pastel, and craft activities, relegated to lesser status. The lexicon of drawing now embodies a wide range of activities, from diaristic to epic both in scale and intellectual scope. In terms of material, drawings in a contemporary context – from large canvasses to spatial drawings made from numerous substances – now exist within an inclusive attitude, replacing the hierarchical position where painting or bronze existed at the top end and charcoal, ink at the other.

Artists such as Joseph Beuys used materials with personal symbolic meaning to reference and map emotional states; Jackson Pollock used dripped paint to create illusions to time and space. Stephen Farthing’s own work absorbs a disparate range of influences. It exists as a consequence of the liberation of drawing from the sketchbook in terms of scale and media; his art practice also explores the significance and uses of language, of art history. As Paul Huxley RA in the Foreword to the catalogue observes of Stephen Farthing:

Major works may be executed with the same exploratory approach as a drawing. Completed works may leave exposed the first stages, templates, structural frameworks, points of reference and supporting notes, embodying in their finished state the means by which they were made. And whether made in the spirit of discovery or for the sake of bringing into being a pre-existing plan, the result is often a mix of more than one visual language.2

Farthing continues to create big, beautiful “painterly” canvases, within a practice that addresses the manner in which other graphic devices such as writing interrelate, and the roles each have played in the history and role of art. DavidScott Kastan explains:

Writing appears throughout, welcomed into the artist’s repertoire of forms rather than sequestered, set apart from them. Words are not captions (no more than images are illustrations). Neither word nor image has primacy here. They mingle in Farthing’s work; in fact they miscegenate, both refusing to accept their difference. Words remain recognisable as text – indeed, aggressively insist upon themselves as such, - but often as a text that can’t be read, the illegibility turning the words into images rather than linguistic signs, collapsing the familiar distinction between the two and undoing the protocols of seeing that are attached to each (although, it should be said, these protocols exist mainly in the West; an ‘Eastern’ calligraphic tradition had long ago effected the collapse).3

In Stephen Farthing’s work, image and text are used in almost equal measure. In an article for Studio International earlier this year, Drawn Identities: Pepsi, Shakers and Tattoos, he described the way he has come to view the two. In A Note on Drawing Stephen Farthing suggests that he “no longer recognises a significant divide between writing and drawing; the two work hand in hand towards very similar purposes”.4

Leonardo’s drawing books contain as many words as images, probably more. When words failed him, images took over and when an image did not do the job adequately, his pen moved on to shape words in support.
Both writing and drawing involve the translation of multidimensional events and concepts into readable two-dimensional matter. In the case of drawing, directions and instructions are turned into lines, volume into contours, sounds into shapes, shadows into tone, colours into words, and words into marks. Marks that can be drawn using sets of established conventions, built from on-the-spot improvisations, or constructed from a combination of the two. In the case of writing and as it happens, Morse code, the entire world is translated into lines and dots.5

In The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge Lyotard observes, “The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principal governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work.  Those rules and principals are what the work of art itself is looking for”.6

In his catalogue essay, Stephen Farthing: Drawing – Writing – Mapping – Painting, David Scott Kastan quotes the modernist American poet, Wallace Stevens, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction, for whom reality was an activity, not a static object.

He had to choose. But it was not a choice
Between excluding things. It was not a choice.

Between, but of. He chose to include the things
That in each other are included,
The whole, the complicate, the amassing harmony.7

In Opus Posthumous (1955), Stevens wrote: “After one has abandoned a belief on God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as ‘life’s redemption’”.8 His poetry is imbued with spiritual longings that exist in the human imagination. Poetry for Stevens, and drawing for Farthing, parallel life.

The late modernist project became untenable for many artists: the resolute rejection of individual subjectivity, of the spiritual dimension in life and of the romantic ethos and in the grandiose statements of the New York School; yet postmodernism has suggested the death of the invisible structure of the cosmos. Within the realm of experimental drawing today many strands exist: the rhythms of Asian calligraphy, exploratory drawn lines or mapping, autobiography, a synthesis of supposed opposites: of the personal and the universal.  Through five separate sections, each comprising a large work and supporting material, Artists’ Laboratory 02: Stephen Farthing RA – The Back Story examines the artist’s preoccupation with looking beyond the surface of the visual image by exploring the story behind the work, its position within the classification of art, or the highlighting of calligraphy and patterns.

Painting the Atlantic (2004) is a vast work that dominates the Royal Academy exhibition. In the superb work many aspects of Farthing’s intent and invention reside. The whole surface is treated with fine calligraphic marks, which establish the artist’s ownership of the piece. This becomes an arena for dialogue; it requires to be rolled like a Chinese scroll to be transported, and re-stretched to be exhibited. The many delicate layers of paint are metaphors, for layers of experience, of memory, of lives lived, of the impossibility of absolutes. The work possesses internal logic which one feels was asking to be respected and made. Although Farthing had been unwilling to embrace American art as a young artist in the 1970s, in 2000, at the age of 50, he accepted an academic post in New York; Executive Director of The New York Academy of Art, Manhattan. He divides his time between there and London, where he is Rootstein Hopkins Research Professor in Drawing at the University of the Arts.

Painting the Atlantic asserts the primacy of drawing in a painterly role, enabling him to bring together many threads of his exploratory work together in an open-ended dialogue.

My interview with Stephen Farthing took place in the Weston Rooms of the Royal Academy on 1 December 2010.

JMcK: As Executive Editor for 1001 Paintings You Should See Before You Die, Cassell, London (2006) you were exposed to the greatest paintings ever produced. Can you tell me how this impacted on your art practice, in particular, the series, Drawn History of Painting?

SF: The Drawn History of Painting are series of about 60 pairs of pen and ink drawings I made during 2009 with a view towards, not making a painting, but understanding the story of painting. I did this in terms of what I considered at the time to be the eight forces responsible for driving painting: THE FORMAL, THE DECORATIVE, THE REAL, THE NARRATIVE, THE CONCEPTUAL, THE ROMANTIC, THE IRONIC AND THE EXPRESSIVE.

The drawings are intended to be read – like opposing pages – from a notebook.  Framed in pairs, one “side” identifies the primary features of the painting, the other locates the painting within the matrix map. One side is conceptual, the other pictorial.

JMcK: Your Royal Academy exhibition is subtitled, The Back Story. Can you describe the story behind The Back Story?

SF: The Back Story started life in my studio in Amagansett, as a painterly “interpretation” of a small painting (59 x 73 cm) by François Boucher: Girl Reclining (Louise O’Murphy) (1751). It took its final form from three sources: a conversation, a drawing and a story.

After developing the image, to a point where it looked quite “real”, a conversation with a good friend made me realise there was an important layer missing.
It was the layer I needed if the image was to have any significance beyond its subject matter. Some weeks later sitting at my desk back in London, having read the story of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, the 14-year-old child pictured in the painting, I wrote the phrase “The Back Story”, backwards on a sheet of paper. I was imagining the story of the artist’s model written on the back of the canvas, bleeding through, to the point where “her story” almost obscured her naked form. The point of the image is that we see a subject through a narrative that partially obscures it, so the text both informs and shrouds.

JMcK: Standing Lady has a strong political message, yet one can also enjoy it in visual terms and formal patterning?

SF: A Perfect Hand is one of a series of paintings that started life in 2004 as quick drawings. Each pictured a lone woman within what I considered to be her perfect environment, surrounded by objects shapes and harmonies, that I thought fitted her patterns. She was to my mind, in a physical heaven. Within the series there are 15 paintings that take us socially and economically from Fifth Avenue to the casino and physically from the seabed to the cartographers table.

JMcK: Can you tell me about your own art education, the importance of drawing from the model, the discipline of drawing every day?

SF: When I started as a student at St Martin’s College of Art, in 1969, life drawing was still firmly on the curriculum. During the first year we had a taught class every Monday morning, which within my understanding of the point of the class “worked”. Amazingly most students attended – most worked hard, most drew in silence and most of us got better at making two dimensional representations of the subject that was before us. By the time I got to the Royal College of Art in 1973 drawing wasn’t a big thing and the naked was no longer at the centre of things. I was, however, taught by a group of tutors who expected us to draw. Peter de Francia did little else but draw, Ruskin Spear and Peter Blake simply took it for granted that whatever we did would naturally grow out of drawing, and John Walker drew the way I wanted at that time to draw. So drawing was the unspoken hub of the art schools I attended and of my education. Towards the end of my time at the Royal College I developed an interest in cubism, and drawing for me became collage, although as it happens I haven’t made a collage for years. Today, writing is the driving force behind my drawing.

JMcK: Can you also explain the Abacus series, the way in which image and text is interwoven to allude to the world of finance and recent monetary crisis?

SF: The group of paintings and drawings, which I call The Gaming Pictures, started life as a word written on an A4 sheet of paper – the word was “ABACUS!” – followed by an exclamation point. A week later I wrote a phrase on the same sheet of paper directly beneath ABACUS! “You can count on me.”

After trying to picture, half on paper, half in my head, how the painting might look, I realised that the phrase could become the line the balls of the abacus slid along. At that point I knew I had a picture to paint. From there I became interested in how a repeat shape could be used in conjunction with a text to disrupt our reading.  From there I went to work on a group of images that wove the story of how Native American’s got the right to operate Casinos, into repeat patterns made with dice and bingo balls. The point of the paintings is that they should be iconic and reflective, and that they should be both legible, and unreadable.

JMcK: Painting the Atlantic is without doubt my favourite work. It possesses the fluency of a vast calligraphic scroll: can you explain this marvellous work?

SF: I wanted to paint an epic that linked London and New York. The Atlantic Ocean, which at the time I painted the picture I had crossed over one 100 times, was, and still is, the space between my two homes.

Measuring over 27 feet long and eight feet high, I started the painting in a studio close to the Atlantic Ocean on Long Island. The painting then travelled with me to London where I continued to develop it in my studio at Chelsea College of Art and Design's Millbank campus, right next to the Thames.

With such a big painting there seemed to me no point in trying to draw the whole thing first, I knew the waves would be calligraphic and in the end the ocean would read like an Islamic text – so I just set to work on one big pieces of canvas, as I worked I made small studies. These were the details, the paragraphs and sentences that helped build the whole.  

JMcK: I understand that the marks of the sea are taken and adapted from Canaletto. Please describe the methods, the practical issues with working on this scale and the actual paints used.

SF: I found the brush strokes that I used to paint the Atlantic in Canaletto’s paintings of the Grand Canal in the National Gallery, London. To remember them I drew them. There are three or four different strokes that can be modified in size and flourish to represent water close up, water at a distance, water agitated and water still. Working on a picture of this size with so much detail was labour intensive and often repetitive. The painting was a quest, a mountain to climb, not something to get frustrated about, something to be enjoyed and absorbed by. Much more than a physical experience, it was an emotional experience. Painted in acrylic on one piece of canvas, most of the time I had it nailed to a wall while I was sitting on a stool with a pot of paint in one hand and a very small sable brush in the other. Towards the end of the day every now and then I would lay it flat on the floor, pour the contents of a couple of small buckets of carefully mixed paint carefully onto the surface then leave the studio for the night. The next morning when the paint was dry I would get it back on the wall and me back on the stool and start painting waves again. I liked the play between the physically free event of poured paint and the tight graphic nature of the hand painted waves.


1. Tania Kovats, The Drawing Book: a survey of the primary means of expression, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2008: 16.

2. Paul Huxley RA, ‘Foreword’, Artists’ Laboratory: Stephen Farthing RA 02, Royal Academy, London, 2010: 3.

3. David Scott Kastan “Stephen Farthing: Drawing – Writing – Mapping – Painting”, ibid: 4.

4. Studio International, March 2010.

5. Ibid.

6. Jean-Françoise Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1979.

7. Wallace Stevens, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction, Cummington Press, Massachusetts 1942.

8. Wallace Stevens. Opus Posthumous (1955), Faber and Faber, New York, 1955.

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