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Episode 63
Matthew Collings - Artist, Author and Television Arts Commentator

  • 38 min read

Episode Description

A conversation with artist, author and television arts commentator Matthew Collings. Matthew has been a fixture in the British arts media for more than thirty years while maintaining an active art practice. He creates sublime, large-scale abstract paintings as part of his partnership with his wife Emma Biggs. And over the course of the last three years, Matthew has produced thousands of popular drawings of unseen art history and imagined collaborations. In the conversation, we discuss his journey, the nature of artists, the state of the art world, his paintings, his drawings and his being the subject of an international manhunt.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with artist, author and television arts commentator Matthew Collings. Collings has been a fixture in the British arts media for more than 30 years while maintaining an active art practice. He creates sublime, large scale, abstract paintings as part of his partnership with his wife, Emma Biggs. And over the course of the last three years, Matthew has produced thousands of popular drawings of unseen art, history and imagined collaborations. In the conversation, we discuss his journey, the nature of artists, the state of the art world, his paintings, his drawings, and his being the subject of an international manhunt. And now a discussion about the life changing capabilities of art with Matthew Collings.

Craig: [00:01:14] Matthew Collings, thank you for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. Mathew, a lot of times with artists, I like to start with a hypothetical, which is let's say you're at a dinner party and you're seated next to somebody who has no idea who you are or what you do. How do you describe to them what your work is?

Matthew: [00:01:33] Well, it's a little bit difficult in my case because I have done several things and I'm known for one or two of them. And at the moment, I'm not really doing the thing I'm most known for. So I'd have to I'd have to preface, however I explain myself with that complicated thought. And I'm most known for doing TV programs about art, which are quite sophisticated ideas, but put into language that anyone can understand. Now to me, that's very different to the ordinary, simple ABC of art explained in a popular program. So to me, that's a very, very important distinction. But maybe to some others it's not. But you could say that I make...I became famous over a period of about 30 years for putting out programs and many books actually, that kind of popularized both contemporary and historic art. But I must say that all that time I was doing also what I exclusively do now, pretty much, which is making art. And in the last couple of years, the type of art I have mostly been making his drawings, but I also keep up a collaborative painting practice with my partner, Emma Biggs. Our paintings are very abstract and there are really about very, very complex color patterns, sort of allegories for reality using only color relationships. Whereas my drawings have a lot of illustrational content. They're about art and culture. They're often about art history. And they're kind of rather hilarious depictions of well-known figures of culture and art doing things that an educated audience has in their mind about those people, but they probably don't have never seen them being illustrated doing them quite so literally as I do it.

Craig: [00:03:44] And so it's really sort of a life and practice and in three parts then, right?

Matthew: [00:03:50] I guess, you know, it's funny, I've never narrowed it down to three. I think there's loads of things going on all the time. But but they're all me, so I don't really worry about the identity issue. It's only when I'm asked a question like you've just asked me that I worry about it. I'd be interested to know, how do you how do you make it three? You mean my collaboration with Emma?

Craig: [00:04:11] I hate to simplify it to three, but I was just thinking of it in terms of the media, the collaboration with Emma and the drawings. And I know those are three really big buckets. There's probably lots of mingling and more things that don't even get included. You mentioned all of the writing, of course, which is probably a fourth. There are lots of silos here, right?

Matthew: [00:04:34] Well, they all flow into these drawings and they all flow into each other. But, you know, these drawings really would be impossible without that history because the drawings involve a lot of writing. And in that the titles are often very involved. But also the ideas of the drawings really come from all the research and writing that I've done over the years into art. So the comic aspect of the drawings is a lot to do with ideas about art that I have that often have occurred to me as sort of useless knowledge that I have and I'm now, I'm now harvesting in the form of drawings.

Craig: [00:05:10] Yeah, that's one of my impressions about you, is that you're a real collector of information, you know, data, stories, artists, art history. And that passion of yours for collecting that information has kind of turned into the sort of things that you're able to output.

Matthew: [00:05:27] Yes, I guess that does that does sum it up, really. You know, there's an anxiety about all this, but know, I sell these drawings on Instagram. And for the last ten days or so, my Instagram account has been hacked.

Craig: [00:05:41] Oh, no.

Matthew: [00:05:42] So no one listening to this could look at my drawings. Otherwise, I'd say, know, go, go on to my Instagram account and you can see the drawings, but I'm hacked at the moment. I haven't recovered my account yet, so I hope obviously I hope to do it in the next few days. But everyone will just have to take my word for these drawings. You can find them on my Facebook account, but I don't use that so much. On my Instagram account, you would see something like 1400 at least from about the last couple of years.

Craig: [00:06:12] Wow. Well, I hope you get that straightened out.

Matthew: [00:06:15] Thank you. Yeah, it's a nightmare.

Craig: [00:06:17] Yeah. So when you came out of art school, how did you get into media? I know you started it. Art Scribe, you know, how did you make that jump from writing about art to actually being a presenter? Did somebody read your work and say, "You know what? He simplifies this to the point where we feel like there's benefit being on screen" or how did that happen?

Matthew: [00:06:38] Not quite know. When I left art school, I had a girlfriend at the time who worked at an art magazine, and so through her I got a job at that magazine doing the subscriptions one day a week, I was processing the subscriptions. And I did write them one review once and they quite liked it. They thought it was clever, but it was very hard for me to do it because I wasn't a writer and hadn't been educated in any way. I had no real formal education. I was very inarticulate, actually. And so they asked me to do more reviews, and I agreed. But it was they were very torturous to do. I found them very, very hard, and I would never have called myself a writer. It just happened to be an art magazine that had contributions by artists. I thought I was an artist. And as the years went by, I gradually took over that magazine and became its editor.

Craig: [00:07:32] Oh, wow.

Matthew: [00:07:33] And I was there for about eight years. And I was very confused about my own art. I wasn't really sure what it was that I'd done quite well at art school towards the end of my time there, and I'd assumed I'd be a great artist. As soon as I stepped out the door, as some as some listeners will know, that doesn't always happen. And it so happened that somebody came along to the magazine from the BBC. And by spooky coincidence, that very person is coming round to my house today.

Craig: [00:08:01] Oh, my. 

Matthew: [00:08:02] With his wife to have tea with us. But in any case, that person was at the BBC and he came round to ask my advice about something. And because of that meeting, when I later left that magazine and he heard that I'd left, he invited me to come and work at the BBC. And I did. And the reason was that he thought I did put things quite simply, and I was able to explain very complicated matters. And he works in a bit of the BBC that considered itself very hip. And there was a they wanted to know about what was going on in art and who knew about that stuff and who could explain it so that people at the BBC can get it. And he thought that I'd be good at that. And after I'd been at the BBC for some months, sort of sitting around not knowing what it was and what I was doing, then feeling a bit alienated. They started this very, very ritzy late night culture program called "The Late Show", which was on every night for an hour. And I was a researcher on it. And anyone who knows anything about how TV works will know that sometimes the researcher kind of slips over to being a presenter because the researcher knows stuff, but maybe it has a bit of natural TV ability, so they get groomed and trained up a bit to be in front of the camera.

Matthew: [00:09:21] But so it was a funny sort of transition. I had no ambition whatsoever to be on TV and I hadn't had a background that would suggest that I ever would be on it, because it tended to be Oxford and Cambridge educated people, which I wasn't at all, and I only knew what I knew, which was art. But that was lucky because on this culture magazine program, all they wanted me to do was to talk about art. 

Craig: [00:09:47] Right. 

Matthew: [00:09:48] So I did that for a few years. And, you know, there were little magazine programs and hundreds and hundreds of them. And I worked very, very hard. Then I slipped out of that, you know, for a couple of months or a year or so I was unemployed and then a different channel, which is a very, very big channel. English people will know this, Americans won't. There's a very big channel in in England called Channel 4. And they came and approached me and said, "Would I do? As opposed to the little items, as it were, informative items I'd done on this magazine program? Would I do a great big series of six part series with a great big budget and tell everyone, tell the Channel 4 audience what modern art is?" So I said, "Yeah, I would do that".

Craig: [00:10:31] And at that time, because I didn't really have any work I was on, I was in a gap between the BBC and Channel 4. I'd written a book about my experiences as a child growing up with some sort of dysfunctional family and with art a bit in my life, you know? And I made that book about the contrast between the 1950s idea of art where everybody's authentic and sincere, and the 1990s idea, because it was now the nineties of art where everything's ironic and glamorous and shallow and all these things all happened at once. I suddenly had a great big TV series that got a lot of publicity and it was very, very successful. And a book out that was published by David Bowie, who everyone had heard of. So they thought, "Well, that book must be really cool because David Bowie's cool" and I'm the least cool person. And I just accidentally tumbled into David Bowie's lap, as it were. And so a lot of things happened at the end of the '90s that made me very famous, at least over here, and then in some other parts of the world as well. And that fame kept going for a couple of decades, and it was fun and sort of rather silly. And I didn't particularly respect myself for doing it because I thought I was an artist, really.

Matthew: [00:11:49] And then it wore off and one thing led to another. And oh, well, there was this other thing. Me and Emma, Emma Biggs, 20 years ago, we started doing our paintings together and and they they're very serious. Know they're the absolute opposite of ironic. They're simply like beautiful objects that that shimmer and have a sort of intense color harmony. And we've been doing them for 20 years. And we have a gallery in that gallery sells them and we're called Biggs and Collings, and we still do them. But Emma's also full time mosaicist. She runs the sort of global mosaic empire really. And I now do my drawings as well.

Craig: [00:12:33] Sure.

Matthew: [00:12:33] But I'm answering via a very long answer to your question about how I got into the media. And that's a torturous subject for me because it was never anything I wanted to do. But when I did get into it, I found I was quite good at it. So it made me sort of despise myself a bit. And also I've certainly used what I learned from being in the media. You know, you have to speak quickly and you have to be able to compress things and have headline thoughts and maybe be funny in the way that you sum things up and that all that stuff is paid off in these drawings, I would say.

Craig: [00:13:10] It reminds me of the conversation I had with Jerry Saltz, where his aspiration was to be professional artist. That was what he thought he was going to be. It just turned into something else and it was never intended. And he didn't have even the classical writing education, but he loved to talk about it and it turned into something. And his writing and the whole media kind of became his practice. And that was one of the questions I asked him is like, if you always aspired to be an artist, are you sure you don't still have that itch to make the art? And, you know, it's obvious that you do. And because you you still make, right?

Matthew: [00:13:50] Well, I never didn't to make art all the time. I was at the BBC, I had a studio. I even did the MA course at Goldsmiths in Fine Art while I was running around the world making art, making films. And I always thought that I always had this sort of illusion, really, that it was art that I was doing. I did this other stuff to make a living, but it's only now I would say with these drawings that the ideal I had when I was about 17. Of being an artist who sold their art to make a living has actually become a reality. But unlike Jerry, Jerry's much more famous and successful than me as a writer. But he simply gave up on art because he had a sort of epiphany where he realized that he wasn't really the myth. His own self mythology was wrong, at least according to his account. He wrote something very good on it where he just simply wasn't an artist. And he thought, "Well, maybe I'm a writer". And it turned out that he was and he's a very good one. And in my case. I had to give up the the illusions I had when I was 17, where you just assumed that I was a genius. And anyone who, you know, who's a teenager, who's involved in art is probably a bit self-deluded. I had to give some of that up, but I never gave up the idea that I was basically some kind of maker of visual art.

Craig: [00:15:24] You know, it's funny. It reminds me of of a quote I heard you say one time, which is, "That's the thing with artists. They're so narcissistic. They really do believe that other artists aren't any good. Whereas all they all they mean is that they want the attention". And so.

Matthew: [00:15:39] Yeah.

Craig: [00:15:39] So do you believe that artists need this self-aggrandizing perspective in order to make their work?

Matthew: [00:15:46] Yes. I think they're the most emotionally primitive people on earth. They're so...I mean, I couldn't believe it. I've interviewed so many hundreds and thousands of them. And there are all these incredible babies and narcissists, and they have no idea how transparent they are. The absolute conviction that if they put down somebody, that means they're going up. You know, it's like magic. They're like the most primitive nutcases in the delusions of sort of power, which, of course, we all know that when somebody is kind of beating their chest like that, that really they're insecure. At heart, they don't really have that confidence. I mean, maybe sometimes very, very, very old artists are a bit wiser, just as very, very old people, sometimes a bit wiser. But on the whole, artists are terrible people, very, very ugly personalities. And I think the worst phase of the bad personality of the artist is the present social media one where you get artists who aren't even artists who aren't even well known, who are going on about how going on about pretentious stuff and how sensitive they are and talking about we artists and claiming a sort of status of specialness over all other humans, which I find...I never know whether to laugh or cry when I read that stuff.

Craig: [00:17:16] That's interesting. And that's a conversation I've had with folks before in terms of the democratization of a platform like Instagram, giving every artist an equal platform because, you know, 50 years ago Castelli would be the gatekeeper and he would say, "this is who's important", but now everybody can claim the same real estate.

Matthew: [00:17:40] Well, I don't think that's necessarily wholly bad. But I mean, that does relate to what I was saying. Everyone everyone can be as pretentious as everyone else, like you don't even have to be. The democratization is a pretentiousness, really. You don't even have to be a recognized artist to behave like a complete asshole. And I think that...but otherwise, democracy is a value in itself, which is always good. And elitism is a negative value, which is always bad. So the elite ism of 50 years ago and certainly the elitism of 75 years ago. Good riddance to it. I'm glad that it's gone. I don't think it was so much that Castelli was the gatekeeper as culture itself and art culture and the discipline of art and the history of art. They all made up a sort of gatekeeping force, but there were very, very wrong exclusions which current democracy has to a great said either overcome or highlights and quite rightfully struggles against which is ethnicity and gender and class and education. All those things are quite rightly broken down as barriers, barriers to art. But there's an elitism of goodness and quality, which is very, very complicated. None of us can really sum up what that problem is, which goes with, but isn't the same as an elite ism of success and recognition. So they go alongside in this uneasy relationship. We don't really know if the recognized and the successful are the good or have the quality. And so we're very confused about success and recognition. And what social media platforms will give you is one of those factors, which is recognition. 

Craig: [00:19:31] Right. 

Matthew: [00:19:32] And that can confuse the primitive artistic mind. So the person thinks that they are have actually been recognized just as an artist, whereas in fact they've been recognized as someone on social media.

Craig: [00:19:43] Well, I mean, it kind of feeds into a larger issue of trying to discern what good art is in this time, because there are people that love to talk about the art market in terms of dollars and oftentimes the art that's selling for the biggest numbers. And it may not be the art that winds up being appreciated 20, 30, 50 years from now. And so it's it's kind of hard to discern. But, you know, it's funny, you know, like when I hear artists talk, they kind of want it both ways. Look, it's hard being an artist and, you know, people want to pay their bills, they want the money, but they also want the respect and the recognition. Right? And they want to be known and appreciated.

Matthew: [00:20:27] Whatever everybody wants, everybody wants, regardless of what their job is. They want to be recognized. They don't want to be invisible and they want to be respected. They don't want to be disrespected. But you don't have to be pretentious to get those things. You can have a sense of mutuality and earn the right to recognition by being a person in a group who has something to contribute to the group. I think what I while I sympathize with people who are creative and have got involved with art and want to make art. I sympathize with their desire to be recognized and to be taken seriously. But I find it weird and I feel personally alienated from the artificiality of the weird sort of self-image that you encounter on social media, which is no different to the actually famous artists. But it's just without the art, it's with a very mediocre type of art. But the sounding off is just the same as any other idiot like Richard Serra or Jeff Koons or all those complete twits who are very, very formidable artists. But as people, they're just sort of grotesque abominations, really.

Matthew: [00:21:58] Let's talk about your practice with Emma. So these pieces, we would describe them as explorations in color, pattern. How would you describe the work to somebody who hasn't seen them before?

Craig: [00:22:11] Well, if you've said what are they from? From the point of view of what I was just talking about, I would say they're very anti subjectivity, individual subjectivity. They're democratic artworks. You know, there's two of us. There's not eight of us. There's two of us. But still, that's different to one of us. So the whole idea of a star is taken out and one person has to go along with another person. There's got to be mutuality. So all the things that I was just deploring about what goes on now is social media narcissism in relation to art. We fight in those paintings. And those paintings, they are very, very narrow in their concerns. We try to make them as glorious as we can within very, very narrow parameters. So with mere color tone relationships, we try and make some kind of representation of the world. And we try and do it in a way that we think of as ethically right and socially good and on the side of the angels, as it were, you know, Democratic works. And that's it. There's nothing more to it, really. Anyone who sees them will see a lot of, as it were, faceted, a plain faceted into little triangles, which you could call maybe their diamond shapes.

Matthew: [00:23:34] Basically, it's just an orthogonal grid which is then divided again diagonally in both directions. So you end up with diamonds and we fill in each little diamond shape with a certain color and tone. Emma decides those colors, she makes all the color decisions and she mixes the color as well. She mixes the oil paint and I apply the color. So I'm like the the actor, as it were. I have to animate the paint on the surface. And Emma is the screenwriter and the director, and I would say she's more the boss. Although it's democratic, I more take orders from her than she does for me. She has to respond a bit to how I put it on. So her decisions are are altered a bit by what I do, but I have to really like...I don't have any choice as to if she says we're putting this color there. I don't say, "Oh, I'd rather put a different color there". So and I don't resist it. I mean, I see the efficiency of the work that we do. And I'm very happy that I'm happy about the relationship that we have doing those paintings.

Craig: [00:24:36] They're beautiful work and...

Matthew: [00:24:38] Thank you.

Craig: [00:24:38] You know, there's this tension between the saturated and unsaturated sections and which...

Matthew: [00:24:43] Exactly

Craig: [00:24:43] Kind of raises questions about the picture plane. You know, is there depth, right? You know, what's in front? Is there something obscuring it? And you can kind of interpret some of it just as being beveled. But it's really interesting. I mean, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with someone about Matisse and, you know, they had mentioned Matisse making a leap from painting as a depiction of decorative art to the painting itself being decorative. I feel like part of that applies there.

Matthew: [00:25:11] Well, yeah, except that we don't mean Matisse. Never. He very, very rarely wasn't depicting something even at his most decorative. They are motifs that you could you could see as signs of foliage or or something in the world. Whereas our paintings are landscapes without the landscape. We like to think of them, but they're built in the way and they're the processes of making and the thought structures and thought structures about unity and harmony and about getting many, many, many elements to all resolve into one pulsating harmony as anyone painting a landscape hundreds of years ago or a portrait hundreds of years ago. It would have it have those presses, but without the depiction. So Emma's thoughts about what colors go where, are to do with getting less and less arbitrary over the weeks and weeks and months and months. It starts out completely arbitrary with the first colors and then gets less and less so that in the end everything has a place. And she can see and I see as well many, many structures that each painting has simultaneous possibilities of different rhythmic structures that are all woven together. You might start to look at some kind of yellowy brown and then you'll see variations on that yellowy brown and also contrast with yellowy brown.

Matthew: [00:26:41] So the painting looks very different every time you come to it. I mean, and that's the aim for it. Those are the the abstract, I would say, aims that it's about sort of visual intensity, visual engagement. You've got to stick with it and you've got to have the kind of relationship with it that you might have if you were looking at a renaissance painting or an impressionist painting or a post-impressionist or an abstract expressionist painting. Things that have a kind of content, heavy breathing content. We don't have those contents. It's purely abstract, but we're trying to make something that still engages you as much as those other paintings where there greatness is known and believed in already. And culture has already said that Monet is good and Tintoretto is good, and even somebody who isn't very knowledgeable about culture can be amazed by a monet and by a Tintoretto because they can see something in the world there which is represented in a rather magical way. With our paintings, you've only got the magic stuff and you haven't got something in the world.

Craig: [00:27:39] Now that's really interesting. After hearing you say all of that, you know, I feel like I see more in there. You know, you say landscape without the landscape, you know, the colors. They really do remind me of the variety of pale blues and grays and even the warm tones that you would see in the sky. And then there are those kind of organic, earthy tones that kind of contrast with it. Interesting. You know, Emma being a mosaicist, I'm sure she spends a lot of time trying to portray some figurative part in her other work, whereas here it' know, I hear you often use musical related terms in describing the works.

Matthew: [00:28:21] Well, only because there is a sort of strand of, of critical writing about art, and particularly with modernism, where musical terms make sense. I mean, it's the approach of the writer and and the type of arts being thoughts about good writers, about Paul Klee and Kandinsky and the sort of early types of abstraction often talk about it musically because the work is rhythmic. There's a certain kind of...I've not forgotten that musical term. We've got lots of different rhythms all operate. Yeah, I.

Matthew: [00:28:56] Think you may be thinking about syncopation.

Craig: [00:28:59] Exactly. Think of many multiple rhythms, all syncopated. Exactly. That word. Yeah. So, you know, harmony and unity and rhythm, they are all things that we look for, but. Those are very useful, abstract and precise terms, but they might suggest that we work sort of systematically and intellectually. And I must say we don't. It's all pure intuition. I just intuit how to put the paint down based on what the paint feels like. And Emma intuits one color next to another color, not according to any system other than what you could say is kind of in her mind, you know, she's just got a kind of color system in her mind, just from years of experience of working with color and really her decisions and mine...I talk about what's in her mind, but they're almost mindless in that they are simply intuitive. It's trial and error. We do a certain thing, we follow it up, and then we alter it based on what's there? We have to keep revising our thoughts about what's there. We keep saying, Oh, well, yesterday it looked like something. Today it's looking at something else. That's probably because we put in those things yesterday. What is it that we need? We've got to take out all the colors that look like this and we've got to put in some others that have a more sort of stinging power or others that are more dull or others that are more viridian. So we're always correcting. I think I said earlier that we keep on going until there are no more errors or wrong things. And the wrong thing is, again, a musical thing. It's sort of out of tune. It's an out of tune note and out of tune note in a piece of music. It doesn't make you scream, but there's something dead there. It's not expressive in that with that particular note. So that whole picture, the whole painting has got to be expressive and resonant and doing something, and it will do it according to how every single tiny element in it is dynamic and, you know, is dynamically working with every single other element.

Craig: [00:31:02] Does there wind up being a focal point or a point of emphasis, or is the whole pattern...?

Matthew: [00:31:08] It's really the whole thing. The whole thing is dimmer everywhere, like when you walk into certain cathedrals and mosques and the whole thing is shimmering and that's really based on the eye of the craftspeople over the centuries who created those patterned environments because they've been thinking about the whole thing. What makes this whole, with all the columns and the shape of the roof and the conventional shapes that are required by mosques and cathedrals, you know, those sort of middle ages type amazing works of patterned architecture. I think that's probably our main model outside of the history of art. Mean more like the history of art.

Craig: [00:31:55] Well, you have me thinking about Byzantine mosaics, and it makes me wonder whether you guys have been tempted to do any gold leafing.

Matthew: [00:32:04] I know. Well, Emma has in some of her mosaic work, but we haven't in our paintings.

Craig: [00:32:09] So you're drawings? I would describe your drawings as unseen art history and imagined collaborations. How would you describe them?

Matthew: [00:32:19] Well, that's a very nice description. Thank you. I recognize that. I don't know how I'd describe them. I want to bring them out as a book at some point, and I'm always a bit puzzled about what they should be called, what the book should be called. But what you've described is accurate to what happens in them. You know, there's a few recurring figures. They tend to be the artists who are I think are the most popular artists in the minds of people involved with art at this moment. I think 20 years ago there would have been a different range. So I've got Hilma af Klint. Francis Bacon. Frida Kahlo. Philip Guston. Picasso. Joni Mitchell. The Abstract Expressionists. Van Gough. I think those figures are de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner. Those figures occur the most as individual figures. And then there are groups that recur a lot, and then there are scenes. And then sometimes I step outside of art history, and I do this, as it were, and I do sometimes the things that that appear in art history, like crucifixions or scenes from from the Bible. And then sometimes I do cave artists and sometimes I even do things that have nothing really directly to do with art, like confessional, 1950s American poets who committed suicide. I love all of them. Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and John Berryman.

Matthew: [00:33:59] And and I think that's because I think I'm sort of branching out for scenes, historical scenes that have something to do with my biography, because my father committed suicide and my mother had nervous breakdowns. And those fifties poets were sort of nervous breakdown poets, really. Confessional poets. And because I'm confessing a lot, because I do a self-portrait as well, because I'm confessing, I'm confessing the nonsense that goes on in my mind a lot with these drawings. I like that, that aspect of poetry, confessional poetry, but mainly it's art history. So I've done hundreds of Philip Guston because I think people like him. I never really could go along with all the fuss about Philip Guston. I think he's fine, but nothing is all that good. But I do really like the fact that he impresses so many people, and I think I like the thing that impresses them for I think it's freedom. They think in a way it's a baleful influence because people think they can do any old stuff really. And that will be accepted. Whereas his funky. Comic strip style, which looks low skill, was backed up by very beautiful artistic measured balances, formal balances. I think it's rather dull in this use of color, so it's always the same dirty pink. It's not of any interest at all as color, but as as surfaces, expressive surfaces.

Matthew: [00:35:29] And as I say, these balances of emptiness and intensity, you know, he is a really great artist. But his interest to me is that he is the same as people's interest in him, that he stands for freedom, that he brought the social into art. Art was rarefied and he brought the the sort of hurly burly of life into art. So when I first started drawing him, I would get him to be drawing, painting the Klan say, or or being in the studio with all his pots of paints. And I did pictures of him where it was pretty much like him. But I'd sometimes have him looking at newspaper that Joe McCarthy on the front, or he might be remembering when corrupt police shot one of his murals in the thirties. But eventually I branched out a bit and I made him comment on things that were anachronistic, like he might comment on Oprah Winfrey's interview with the Royals or George Floyd's murder. Because because he is a commentator. I thought, well, he could comment on things that go on now. I've got him to comment on a lot of things that happened in England, in Britain. And so and also sometimes I get him to run around with Rembrandt or he meets Hilma af Klint, I get him to paint Jesus sometimes scratch his head and wonder about Jesus because he because he wonders about evil.

Matthew: [00:36:47] He said, You know, I wonder what it would be like to be evil. So I painted the Klan. He sort of worries about Satan and Jesus being crucified, and that's likewise all the other artists. I sometimes get Hilma af Klint to fight hell or to make Hitler sign a pledge of peace and goodness forever. And the spirits that give Hilma af Klint the idea of what what to paint spirits told Hilma af klint what to paint, which she communicated with by seance, I get those spirits to command the evil dictator Hitler to to sign a pledge where there's only ever going to be peace from now on. So there's a silliness to the drawings, but the silliness is based on an absurdity which is drawn out from what people actually think. You know, people are sentimental about Hilma af Klint. They never question the spirits don't exist. No spirits told or anything. There's no such thing as the spirit. What she is, is and this is a more sophisticated thought than most people really have about her, is a sort of independent woman who created a culture of art making, but also of being, where in a fiercely patriarchal society she made her own matriarchy, really. She was a solitary figure who didn't have a man. She just did this art decade after decade and just said Spirits told me to do it.

Matthew: [00:38:12] I communicated with the spirits Hineol or the Spirit Gregor in a séance. And the Gregor told me you're going to spend 15 years painting these paintings for the temple and you won't know what they mean. And I think that's great. Her self-invention. In some ways I even identify with it. But I certainly don't identify their achievement. Achievement is very, very great. But so I have this funny relationship to all of them. I think abstract expressionism is something that's so deeply over and pointless. And no, it doesn't really impact on us at all, really. But but people are very sentimental about the abstract expressionists. They want to think that that's an artist who suffered what I suffer because no one recognizes me. And de Kooning didn't have a show until he was very old. And therefore, I must be like de Kooning. And I like to sort of follow up all the implications and people's fantasies of these artists. And they can be the fictions that I come up with can be quite elaborate, elaborate and and intricate and can go into realms of very, very great darkness. But they never really, truly depart from a foundation of historical reality. There's always some foundation of believability about the things that I make, the figures that I draw do.

Craig: [00:39:36] Is it important that you work within a cast of characters that people would know so that they have some...?

Matthew: [00:39:44] Yes, they have to. I feel I'm addressing an artist, an audience that has some interest in art. And in a way I'm commenting on that interest, and that's one of the things that connects to my history that I was always very concerned when I was making my programs and writing my books with what my audience thought they knew, because I knew that some of them had more knowledge than others. Some of them worked for Frieze magazine or or were art dealers or were artists, and some of them were ordinary people who thought art was glamorous and they should get to know it. And some of them are art students. And I was always thinking, "Here's my audience, here's my crowd". I'm talking to my crowd and things that I say, some people won't know the references, others will. But they all have to get something from what I'm saying. And I suppose the difference with these drawings is that I'm now drawing stuff which...I know that what I just said still pertains, you know, that some of them will have heard of Hilma af Klint, but a lot of them won't. They'll have to look her up. And then I think, "Oh, that's an interesting look. And he's saying that about her". And then they'll find out more on their own about them. Then they'll see that. What I'm saying is they have a certain foolishness, but also certain seriousness.

Craig: [00:41:13] But like you said, you know, it's not always artists. I know that you love to include dead rock stars, right? Like, you know, I feel like Jim Morrison keeps popping up in people's studios.

Matthew: [00:41:27] And Jim Morrison because he's...I love the way that he had the potential to not die, and if he lived at all, he'd be a reformed alcoholic because he couldn't have been an alcoholic at that level and survive. So he'd have to go to AA meetings. Being so good looking, the alcoholic women would always be impressed that it was Jim. Even when he was 55 and a bit fat, but it still had those amazing sort of eyes and the bone structure. So he's a bit paunchy and alcoholic. There are flies flying around him, but he's at the AA meeting because he's so Jim Morrison-ish. He goes to the AA meeting with a bottle of brandy in his pocket and the naughtiness in the AA attendees, he brings that out. So sometimes I get very, very great women artists who've been very aspiring, very inspiring figures for women artists. I get them also to fall for Jim, like Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois and wonderful, very, very high achieving women artists. When they see Jim, they just fling off their clothes. They rush the stage and he just takes it for granted because he's, you know, he died so young, he knew nothing else than that, that wherever he went, everyone tore off their clothes and threw themselves at him.

Craig: [00:43:01] Sure.

Matthew: [00:43:02] But I also draw other rockers. I draw Charlie Watts punching Mick Jagger. David Bowie, he had a lot to do with my life. He published three of my books and he sort of in some ways transformed my career in a very good way. And also, my audience respects David Bowie and likes him very much and people like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. And in a way, the sort of orbit of Warhol includes those figures. And Andy Warhol is one I forgot to mention earlier who I'm always drawing.

Craig: [00:43:36] In terms of like, you've been looking at art for a long time. You know, for someone who's trying to train their palette, I mean, is there a particular ethos that you use when looking at and assessing art? I mean, is there something structured and formal or has it gotten to the point where it's really all in your gut?

Matthew: [00:43:56] Oh, I'm not sure what your question means. I reviewed exhibitions for a newspaper for a few years called "The Evening Standard", and I would take each show that I was sent to review on its own terms, and I think I'd do that naturally anyway. So they tended to be big museum shows. So, you know, but sometimes there'd be contemporary art or not even very good contemporary art, sometimes good contemporary art, but mainly they were things like Rembrandt and Caravaggio and Picasso and that. So I would think, "Well, what are the issues here? How do you assess this art? How is it meaningful to assess this art?" Well, one way might be politically, but that that way wasn't really given to me. This is an extremely right wing paper. So I couldn't...I'm actually quite a socialist. I could never really say anything like that. And so I'd have to think, well, how do you assess it, esthetically? What's a meaningful way of assessing Caravaggio? Esthetically Well, you'd have to think about the history of art. What's his place in the history of art? And how do you compare like to like what are other paintings that are like? Who are the artists that like Caravaggio and then within Caravaggio's output, which are the good ones and why are they good? What does good mean? Because it wouldn't mean the same with David Hockney as it does with Caravaggio, and it wouldn't even really mean the same with Rubens as it does Caravaggio. So you have to find you have to eye these things that I'm telling you about. When I was reviewing, they come naturally to me anyway.

Matthew: [00:45:30] So you ask, how do I respond to shows? Well, I respond in this way. I try and think I don't even know I'm doing it. I'm deconstructing myself now, telling you how I do it. But it occurs to me that what I do is I approach...things turn me on or I'm indifferent to them according to if I find them intense and good and I find them intense and good according to really quite classical criteria.  Saul Bellow is good at a certain time in the 20th century, and then the world's biggest bore, a really boring right wing idiot guy for 40 years or something who accidentally wrote a few good things. But before that, when I used to read him in the '70s, you just didn't question his greatness. And and plus, by the seventies, he hadn't done so much wrong. You know, it was the last 30 years where it all went wrong. So you're always one is thinking, where's the intensity in the thing I'm looking at? And so I just feel that. But if I had to do some work of commentary on it, then I'd have to come up with these frameworks for commenting on it that would make sense to people. So maybe that's that's two answers to your question, really. How do I approach things? But as I'm a commentator as well, I sort of found myself drifting in my answer to how I would comment on how I on the results of the approaching things in art.

Craig: [00:46:59] Sure. Well, not that you would go back in, in rewatch Late Show episodes from from from the '90s. But if you did, do you think you would agree with what you said back then? Or do you do you feel like your tastes have changed and evolved over the last 30 or 40 years?

Matthew: [00:47:20] Yeah, I think it's impossible for them not to. But on the whole, I do feel very connected to the person I've always been. I feel like I'm 15 all the time in the context of making programs, little explanatory programs to a popular audience for the BBC 30 years ago is different to some other contexts in which I've had to explain things so I wouldn't always recognize, acknowledge or be sympathetic to those frameworks or those contexts. But what I was able to say within them I would probably agree with. You know, it's only I can't really think of things that I've said that that would really jar with me now unless they're factual inaccuracies. And unfortunately, I'm often inaccurate because I'm thinking about other stuff. So I often get dates and names wrong. And maybe sometimes I've said things recklessly, which where I had a point in mind, but I didn't develop the point enough, so I sound stupid. I once said that I thought situationism and was stupid. Of course I don't think that. But I said it at a time when there was a lot of falsity around the issue of situationism in the nineties. People were trying to make themselves seem clever, that they'd heard the word situationism and they'd heard of some of the issues of situationism. And I was sort of rebelling against that, that shallow connection to situationism enough. And I now feel a bit mortified when I think back to I can't even remember what I said. It might have been in a big TV series I did once, but I'm sorry I did that. And I sometimes wake up at night begging forgiveness from the Situationists.

Craig: [00:49:06] So in that answer, you said that you feel like you're still that 15 year old.

Matthew: [00:49:14] I do.

Craig: [00:49:15] And it makes me want to ask what. One time I saw you make a veiled reference to an event that happened in 1969 involving a kidnaping and.

Matthew: [00:49:28] 1970.

Craig: [00:49:29] Okay. So I was. I was close. So is is that is that a story you're willing to share? Because I don't think I don't think I got all the details, but it sounded very salacious.

Matthew: [00:49:41] Well, it's a very important milestone in my life where a woman paid for my ticket to go to Canada. And effectively she was encouraging me to run away from my single parent. I didn't have a father, the mother who's been dead for some years now, but I ran away and legally this woman had abducted me. And so I was kidnaped legally. And it was a press scandal all over the world, actually. And there was an Interpol hunt for me in Scotland Yard, and eventually I was actually picked up by the Mounties in Toronto. I was living in Toronto, they were technically called the Mounties, and I was lying in my sleeping bag listening to Country Joe and the Fish and on the floor. And these six guys in suits came in like a David Lynch film. And I said, "Are you Malcolm Collings?" And they had the they weren't wearing the red outfit. They were wearing sort of FBI outfits. And they showed me their badges. They made me get up and they took me downtown. I was absolutely terrified, but I just sort of said hippie things to them. And in fact, I saw a very groovy looking black guy on a bicycle in the back of the police car. And I was absolutely terrified and I didn't know what was going to happen to me? And I made a peace sign at him and the guy on the bicycle made a  black power fist. Oh, my God. You know, no one's going to love me. I'm just absolutely alone here. And it was terrible. And they had to go to the Canadian remand home for some weeks, and the detective and a woman police officer flew out from Scotland Yard, and they took me back in handcuffs to Heathrow.

Matthew: [00:51:24] I was met at Heathrow by loads of press, all photographing me. It was in all the papers. I got some of the cuttings still, and then I was in a remand home in England. In those days there were skinheads and I had long hair and beads and stuff and they used to spit at me at night. After a couple of days, they all liked me because I told them stories and amuse them. I managed to to survive, physically survive. And then the woman who kidnaped me got nine months for her crime. And she she got out after six months. And there was a guy at 21 year old, very nice guy who had...a Canadian guy, who got me through customs and everything. And he got a suspended sentence as long as he didn't do anything else like that. And this woman was a very great woman who was a peace campaigner, a political activist at the time, who is in my life because she'd been a friend of my father in the '50s and she'd known my mother all my life. She knew that my mother had breakdowns. I've been in a children's home when young and this woman was responsible for me sometimes being able to come out of the children's home and be in a nice environment in Chelsea. Sort of a Bohemian environment then the very grim environment I was in in the children's home. And she looked after me sometimes when my mother couldn't look after me. I'd been out of the children's home for a couple of years.

Matthew: [00:52:54] I came out when I was 13 and a half by now, 14 or so. My mother was in a very, very bad breakdown, and this woman made a weird decision that I should just run away and get away from it, because she'd seen us getting involved with drugs, which I was, and it was all going to end badly. And I'd probably go to Borstal, which is kind of an English term for youth prison. So she just made this a pretty wild decision, actually. It was a bit sort of over the top to send me off to Canada and inevitably I got caught and brought back and everything. But it led me. I was put in a therapeutic community that was quite enlightened in the countryside for a few years. And all this accounts really for why I don't have any formal education. I never really had any education whatsoever. And at the therapeutic community we didn't do lessons. We were all considered so maladjusted. We were sort of on the garbage heap of despair. You know, people who survived that place, many of them died. They didn't live long lives because they simply had not been brought up properly. And they were unable to. They didn't have the tools to look after themselves. And I was just fortunate in some ways. I was fortunate in some ways I was very unfortunate. But this woman kind of coming to my rescue was fortunate, but also a bit mad when she, as it were, kidnapped me. So yeah, that's that story. Her name is Rachel Penny. Anyone can look her up. Dr. Rachel Penny. She was a radical lesbian in the '60s.

Craig: [00:54:24] Given those circumstances, where and when did you find art? Because it seems like it seems like a lifeline for you, right?

Matthew: [00:54:32] I was good at it from the dot and it was part of a. I had a sort of magic idea about it. I thought it would save me, but that was partly because people didn't bother to look after me because I thought I'd be fine, because I'm very good at art. And when I was in the children's home, it was clear that I had that talent and the other kids didn't. And at school, I was always known to be very good. I had this sort of idea that I very like what I do now, funnily enough, which is sort of graphic recognizable. You can see immediately what's happening. And some people just have that as a talent. It's not a it's not a rare talent at all, by any means. But I thought it was I thought it was a magic gift that I had. And it was what made me go to art school. So the one bit of formal education I've had, but as listeners will know, art school isn't very formal. I got myself into art school when I was 19 and I was there for about four years. But once I went to art school, I couldn't do that stuff anymore. I was too...I was confused by the whole history of art, and I immersed myself in reading Artforum and and and sort of introductions to contemporary art.

Matthew: [00:55:43] And I tried to understand what conceptual art was and what colorful painting was, what political art was, what photo art was, what happenings were. And so I just couldn't do that, that, that type of graphic art anymore. And I had a lot of confusion throughout my life about things that I could do naturally that came to me very easily. I was very confused about valuing them. I suppose what got me into art in the first place, the answer to that question does relate a bit to what I'm doing now. The last time, when I was about 17, I sold quite a lot of paintings for about £15 each, and they were a bit like these drawings, you know, they're sort of made up out of my head and they were intuiting what people would like, but also surprising people a bit, you know, whereas now I have a more focused idea of what people means. In those days it was whoever who would rescue me from being a maladjusted child. And now I think it's, well, who's the art audience? This strange group of people who are seduced by the glamor of art to some extent by its intellectual meanings, to some extent by its soulful meanings, its substitute in culture for religion, say, and to some extent they're seduced by its ethical sort of purity.

Matthew: [00:57:00] You know, art is supposed to be sincere and art is supposed to be deep. And also people think that it's talented. Art involves talent and a sort of magic ability. So it's done by magicians in a way. And sometimes that audience is partly artists themselves, which I began. That's how I began talking to you about artists who nowadays are finding ideas about themselves. And so I'm thinking about all of those things. So but I have very particular ideas which find expression in these drawings. I can see how I'm expressing them after I've done the drawing. But what I'm doing is I do it without really thinking, actually. And that's the difference between what I do now and what I did at 17 or indeed 14 and 15, 14 and 15 I drew Crum with a rapid graph, and I was very, very, very, very fascinated by Crum. And when I was 10 or 12, I drew pirates and things that young boys draw and soldiers and cowboys and things. But now I now I draw what I think. Art and culture, consumers. Imagine the world to be a draw. What I think their values are, because in a way I am there. I mean, I'm in that crowd, too.

Craig: [00:58:19] Matthew I think I've taken up my allotted amount of time of your day and, you know, I can't say thank you enough for your time. I've really enjoyed our conversation, and maybe I can have you back on once, once you publish the book of all these drawings or.

Matthew: [00:58:35] Oh, that would be lovely.

Craig: [00:58:36] And we can talk more. But you're a wonderful person to talk to, especially if you love art. And I love the way your mind thinks. It really kind of opens up my mind to all sorts of possibilities. I really appreciate your time.

Craig: [00:58:55]  That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple Podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me. You can email me at Thanks for listening.

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