Thre's also a nice picture of one of Linda's poirtrats
The ex-Beatle is having his first
major show in Liverpool
By ELLEN TUMPOSKY
visit to a neighbor's house gave Paul McCartney the courage to try his hand at painting. The neighbor was Willem de Kooning, the master of abstract expressionism, who had a studio up the road in the Hamptons on Long Island.
When McCartney, who was 40 at the time, asked what one of de Kooning's paintings depicted, the artist replied, "I don't know, looks like a couch, huh?"
"De Kooning had a very relaxed attitude to making art. I think Paul found that completely liberating," says Michael Simpson, curator of "The Art of Paul McCartney," which opens Friday at the Walker Art Gallery in the Beatles' hometown of Liverpool.
The show, which runs through Aug. 4, features 70 paintings, sculptures and photographs. It comes in a momentous year for the superstar. McCartney, who turns 60 on June 18, recently completed a successful U.S. concert tour and will be marrying Heather Mills next month. His first wife, Linda, died in 1998 of breast cancer.
McCartney has exhibited his work before in Siegen, Germany, in 1999, but was wary of doing a major show in Britain until he was approached by the Walker Gallery.
An 'Eye for Color'
Simpson admits that he was "wincing inwardly" when the gallery started talking about a McCartney show. "I was thinking this could be embarrassing. I had seen so-called celebrity artists at work."
He changed his mind after meeting McCartney to look at his canvases. "This is a man who has a real eye for color," says Simpson. "He works very instinctively. There are some genuinely cracking pictures in this exhibition."
Editor of Art review magazine Meredith Etherington-Smith concurs in assessing McCartney's art. "They're quite interesting," she says. "He's not a weekend watercolorist. He's a Southampton oil painter."
Unlike John Lennon, who went to art college, McCartney has no formal training — though he did win a school prize as a boy for painting his local church, a period in his childhood alluded to in "Home Territory" (1990), which includes a map of Speke, the section of Liverpool where McCartney grew up. "He always had a bit of a complex that Lennon went to art school," says Etherington-Smith, who suggests that McCartney was motivated to paint to show that he was as much a rounded figure as Lennon.
McCartney was introduced to contemporary art — and to his favorite painter, Belgian Rene Magritte — by London dealer Robert Fraser. Fraser dropped by McCartney's London house one day in the '60s and left a painting he thought McCartney would want to buy propped up against a vase. It was a Magritte green apple, with the words "Au revoir" across the fruit. The painting inspired the Beatles' Apple record label, McCartney has said.
Another influence was pop artist Peter Blake, who created the LP cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Blake, who is opening the show on Friday, has known McCartney for 40 years and describes himself as his "fairy godfather."
Blake recalls how very early on McCartney asked various friends for advice. "My advice at the time was not to listen to any advice — just paint."
He adds: "I admire what he has done. He's a very interesting figurative painter at a time when figurative painting isn't fashionable."
Paintings of Linda
A number of McCartney's paintings feature his first wife. "Yellow Linda with Piano" (1988) is a portrait, while others are more abstract, like "Robot and Star," which shows black robots with a yellow splash. "There's a lot of yellow figures that appear in his pictures. Whenever you see yellow figures emerging out of the blackness, that pretty much equates to Linda," Simpson explains.
Linda, whose brother, John Eastman, was de Kooning's attorney, appears to have been McCartney's muse. "He did a lot of painting up to Linda's death. He painted one or two cathartic pictures after her death," says Blake.
But, Blake continues, "at the moment, music has taken precedence again."
Some works are sentimental, including "Big Heart" (1999). Others are darker, including "Boxer Lips," which shows a disfigured face — or more sexual, like "Red-hot Tongue" (1990).
None has ever been for sale.
"He steadfastly refuses to entertain the idea of selling," says Simpson.
The show finishes with recent work, including some sculpture using natural materials (branches and logs), and photos taken from a watch-camera that McCartney owns. He has blown up the small digital prints and transferred them onto canvas, sometimes adding paint, as he did with an image of talk-show host Larry King.
"He doesn't take himself very seriously," says Simpson. "He's serious about art, but he's not saying, 'I'm a great artist.' He's just saying, 'I'm a guy who does some painting and someone has asked to have a look at them.'"
Original Publication Date: 5/19/02
"Because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside"
- Paul McCartney, 1982