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Peter Joseph 1929 – 2020


A Tribute by David Saunders

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Paintings by David Saunders and Peter Joseph shown together in the exhibition

Ground, Rules, Paintings: A Quartet

Galerie Lycée Gabriel Fauré Rue du Lieutenant Paul Delpech, Foix

2 September - 20 October, 2017


Peter and I met in 1967 at the Camden Arts Centre where we were showing together in a survey of British abstract painting. We found an immediate rapport, not only because of our ideas on painting, but because we had very similar life experience prior to becoming known as painters. We had both been conscripted into the military, something we rarely discussed, and we had both worked in the advertising industry. Peter always stressed that he did not have any formal art education, but working as a graphic designer in the 1950s, before the age of computer graphics, was a discipline leading to a way of working that was to endure throughout his long career.

In the creative department of the advertising agency of the pre-computer age very basic tools and techniques were used to produce the artwork. You sketched out the basic idea on your layout pad then produced the finished art work with brushes, ruling pen, steel ruler, scalpel and the now forbidden, but then indispensable, 'cow gum'. This discipline Peter called “playing with shapes” and it remained the basis of work for his whole career. This play would result in a number of small ”studies” as Peter liked to call them, although they were really quite fully resolved works. When he was satisfied with what he had discovered through this activity he would make a large version on canvas more often than not having the dimensions of a person standing or reclining with arms outstretched. Surprisingly, the large version always retained the spontaneity of the original study.

After he left the industry to devote his life entirely to painting he continued his self education by touring the great museums of Europe studying, in particular, the Italian masters. Titian became his mentor and his greatest love among painters.

Peter and I met up again in late 1968 when we were invited to teach part-time at the Fine Art faculty of Portsmouth Polytechnic as it was then called. It was here that Peter met Denise, the young woman who was to become his life-long partner and muse. About three years later we were both shown the door, although Peter always maintained that he chose to leave because he did not like the art school ethos. Whatever the actuality, one thing was sure; we had no money. We began to take odd jobs, small scale renovation of the decor in old North London houses. Peter found the jobs and I just tagged along - it put food on the table and I was grateful.

By this time Nicholas Logsdail's Lisson Gallery was starting to gain an international reputation and Peter was showing there – his financial position improved somewhat and he and Denise were eventually able to move to the cottage in the Slad valley.

The paintings of this time, that Peter called the 'frame' paintings - one rectangle of colour surrounded by another – are nothing to do with hard geometrical abstraction, nor are they anything to do with contemporary art messaging. These paintings tell us nothing – instead of telling they give. During our long friendship I was always aware of Peter's generosity of spirit. These paintings are about feeling or perhaps we could say about consciousness itself. For some time it has been considered passé to talk about feeling in painting. Peter always insisted that it is the only thing that matters – the only constant. But if I had ever asked what exactly he meant by 'feeling' he would probably have said: “Why are you asking me a meaningless question?”

Peter was always tormented by doubt – doubt was his harsh critic and could never be banished. Even when it seemed that a painting was almost resolved he would say “this will never come to life” and he would rip the canvas from its stretcher. Doubt had told him that it was never going to work. This condition is not dissimilar to Cézanne's doubt on which Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote so eloquently.

As I write this, I am looking at a catalogue of Peter's 1983 exhibition in the Contemporary Art Museum of Chicago. The introduction is by Denise. In it she writes “The expression is not in the elements but through them.” Exactly. Peter would never say that you could put feeling into a painting – if a painting was successful it would be generating feeling in the viewer.

In this same catalogue we find these words from Peter: A painting must generate feeling otherwise it is dead. But there are innumerable movements of the spirit that emerge and disappear. The aspiration is to find that moment when feeling is not just emotional expression but is transformed into a value.

We should pay attention to the value that Peter has left for us – it offers a countervailing force, a light in this dark time, that reveals something important for humanity.

David Saunders
Ariège, France, November 2020

See Link to Lisson Gallery. 

Watch now: 'Peter Joseph: The Border Paintings' exhibition walkthrough.

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