arts and design

Gerard Hemsworth obituary


One day in 1968, the American critic Clement Greenberg walked into an abandoned brewery in south London. This was the Stockwell Depot, taken over as artists’ studios the year before and already gaining a reputation internationally.

One of the Depot’s first residents, a 23-year-old sculptor named Gerard Hemsworth, newly graduated from St Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins), was out teaching that day. “But I did set up some work in my studio, in the hope that Greenberg would go in,” he said. That evening, he asked a friend how the great man had taken to his art. “He sort of hummed and hawed, so I said, ‘Tell me exactly how long Greenberg spent’,” recalled Hemsworth, who has died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease aged 75. “He said, ‘Well, as long as it takes to walk into a studio and walk out again’.” Hoping to soften the blow, the friend added: “Yeah, Greenberg has got a trained eye.” “And I,” said Hemsworth, “thought, ‘fuck off’.”

It proved a useful reaction. The sculpture department at St Martin’s in Hemsworth’s time there (1963-68) had been in thrall to a formal abstraction of the kind favoured by Greenberg. Its practitioners were the then big beasts of British sculpture: Anthony Caro, Phillip King and William Tucker. (As a student, Hemsworth had worked as an assistant to the last two.) The Stockwell Depot having been largely settled by St Martin’s graduates, the style prevailed there as well. Hemsworth at the time was making floor pieces of cloth and soil typical of their day. After Greenberg’s snub, however, his art changed, becoming less formal and more conceptual. As both artist and teacher, Hemsworth would thus find himself at the forefront of a movement that would culminate most famously in the emergence of a new generation of artists in the 1980s, known as the “young British artists”, or YBAs.

Between Heaven and Hell by Gerard Hemsworth, which won the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition’s Charles Wollaston prize in 2000
Between Heaven and Hell by Gerard Hemsworth, which won the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition’s Charles Wollaston prize in 2000. Photograph: Thomas Rehbein Galerie

By the early 70s, Hemsworth was working as a language artist, making text-based wall pieces and artists’ books: the first of these appeared in the landmark Wall Show at the Lisson Gallery in 1970. These works, meticulously designed and beautifully crafted, might typically contain a single, gnomic message: one, of 1972, read, Characteristically a Work of Art in Particular a Work of Art. These texts would occupy Hemsworth for more than a decade until, in another moment of revelation, it struck him, as he said to a friend, that there were perhaps half-a-dozen people in the world who would understand what he was doing. In the 80s, he turned to painting.

It was then, too, that he began to teach at Goldsmiths. At the time, this institution lacked the reputation of more august places such as the Slade School and the Royal College of Art. That the name Goldsmiths was, within a decade, to become synonymous with a new kind of British art was in large part owing to Hemsworth’s teaching.

Running what would later become the college’s MA and then MFA courses, he oversaw postgraduate students at Goldsmiths’ early studios in Flodden Road, Camberwell. Replicating something of the feel of the Stockwell Depot, Hemsworth played on the synergies of the various kinds of art his students were making. He insisted that Friday mornings be given over to individual students defending their work to all the others, the chosen student also providing breakfast. Among the artists who would benefit from this blurring of disciplinary boundaries was the Turner prize winner Mark Wallinger, as well as a dozen others, such as Fiona Banner and Glenn Brown, who would appear on the prize’s shortlist. In 2004, Hemsworth was made professor of fine art at Goldsmiths, a position he held until 2011.

Hemsworth’s influence outside of art school was perhaps less well understood. Although he spent the last 30 years working mainly as a painter, his work had its roots as much in the conceptualism of his earlier career as in studio painting. If pictures such as Three Graces Twice (2012) seemed like elegant cartoons, their formal subtleties made a point of defying easy reading.

As in his text pieces of the 70s, Hemsworth remained fascinated by the way the eye organises and interprets: his paintings suggest ease only to dispel it. The painting that won him the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition’s Charles Wollaston prize, awarded to the most distinguished work in the show, in 2000, Between Heaven and Hell, is a case in point, its central motif of a cartoon rabbit being at once cute and unknowably threatening.

Hemsworth’s was the opposite of the statement art of some of his students: it would, accordingly, remain less well known than theirs. Exhibitions such as Live in Your Head at the Whitechapel (2000) and the Laurent Delaye Gallery’s Picture This (2011) went some way towards rectifying this, suggesting a legacy that went beyond the Goldsmiths studio. Placing Hemsworth’s work alongside that of contemporaries such as Michael Craig-Martin, John Hilliard and John Stezaker, these shows traced the lineage of British conceptual art – in the public mind, an invention of the 90s – back to the 70s. They also put Hemsworth at the centre of a movement whose impact had been felt not just in British art but around the world.

Ascension Into Heaven, 1992, by Gerard Hemsworth. Although he spent the last 30 years working mainly as a painter, his work had its roots in the conceptualism of his earlier career.
Ascension Into Heaven, 1992, by Gerard Hemsworth. Although he spent the last 30 years working mainly as a painter, his work had its roots in the conceptualism of his earlier career. Photograph: Thomas Rehbein Galerie

Hemsworth was born in Tooting, south London, to Irish Catholic parents, Ernest, an electrical engineer, and Mary (nee Corbett), who worked in a department store. He went to St Gerard’s secondary school in Clapham before attending St Martins.

In 1964 he married May Davidson; they divorced in 1973. He met and married the photographic artist Susan Ormerod in 1981; in 2010 the couple left London for a converted Methodist chapel in East Sussex.

Susan and their three children, Ruby, Jack and Frankie, survive him, along with his children from his first marriage, Matthew and Jane.

• Gerard Hemsworth, artist and teacher, born 27 December 1945; died 15 February 2021



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