Interview by Louisa Buck
Gary Hume RA (born 1962 in Kent, lives and works in London and Accord, New York) is a prominent member of the generation of so-called Young British Artists (YBAs) who graduated from Goldsmiths College of Art in the late 1980s. He first attracted attention by making paintings in household gloss, based on institutional doors. He is now best known for his distinctive figurative and abstract paintings on aluminium panels, often in striking colour combinations and still executed in pre-mixed household gloss paint. Hume also makes sculpture in both bronze and marble – which often have areas that are painted – as well as prints and drawings. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1996, the same year he was nominated for the Turner Prize.
Gary Hume’s painting Monkey, 1997, featured on the cover of Artists Newsletter, November 1997. He appeared in the same issue on p7 in a news article about his winning the Jerwood Prize for Painting, which noted that the judges were unanimous in their decision. The piece also mentioned that Hume’s work was currently being shown in ‘Sensation’. This headline-grabbing exhibition at the Royal Academy presented works from Charles Saatchi’s collection, and by the group of artists who became known as the YBAs, including Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Yinka Shonibare.What did the 1990s mean to you both personally and professionally?
I’d just left college at the beginning of the 1990s and it was a time of great excitement for me. I was making these Door paintings for five or six years in the first half of the 1990s and they were very successful. Karsten Schubert put me, Michael Landy and Ian Davenport in a group show straight out of college so there was no lag between being an art student and being a professional artist.
The money was tiny for years but there were exhibitions and a certain amount of critical recognition. Karsten [Schubert] had access to German artists and American artists so there was this other world of art that made everything else seem quite parochial. It was really thrilling to be showing in the same environment as these artists, looking at your work next to theirs and meeting a number of them and some of them becoming friends.
That was all really exciting and that whole thing that became the YBAs − which at the time wasn’t YBAs, it was just friends. We were so completely empowered by each other and by the attention we were getting. We were competitive but competitive for each other − our self-empowerment was fruitful rather than delusional. In retrospect it seems incredible how natural it all felt, when of course it was abnormal. But because it was our only experience, it felt natural.How did your work develop in that time?
Stopping making the Door paintings was a big moment which was partly due to my own fear of the tedium of becoming a formalist, which was a danger for my type of painting at the time. I absolutely did not want to be a formalist even though I love formal work, but it wasn’t in my character because I was never really an abstract artist. So I changed everything and started again, which was a bit like going back to college because I had no idea what I was doing, how good the paintings were or whether anybody would like them. I couldn’t even tell myself what the value was but I just knew I had to stop doing this one thing and start another.
Karsten [Schubert] wouldn’t show them so I had to leave the gallery and everything went pear-shaped for a number of years. But I still had support from Matthew Marks who sent me 400 quid a month, so that enabled me to keep on going. When no one would show them we put up one of my paintings on an easel in Sarah [Lucas]’s bedsit and invited all our friends to come and look. We served sandwiches and sherry and during the course of the day people just popped in and saw this one painting on an easel and that was really lovely.
Were there any key moments or turning points in this period?
I went to Rome for a month or two with Sarah [Lucas]. She was making these crazy football things and wondering what she was doing and I was coming to the end of my Door paintings. I was going round Rome and taking all these pictures and thinking I’ve got to make some change. But although Rome was an important break away and I did bring back images that I used in the new paintings several months later, the key moments are always really in the studio.
Leaving Karsten [Schubert] was a key moment. An artist has to risk it. The key moment was really just saying I’m prepared to risk my career for being an artist. Although fortunately for me people started looking at the paintings again. But you have to take that risk.
Then I represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1999. That was entirely unexpected and completely shocking and utterly thrilling. The whole experience was really lovely but it also showed me what I didn’t want to do. Because I had very little time and I wanted to make a group of water paintings it meant I had to employ people, whereas previous to that I would just get people to help me for a day here or there. I enjoyed the process of seeing all these things made in three months which would have taken me 18 months to make by myself, but I did realise I didn’t want to be that type of artist. It was crucial to realise I’m not an artist who can trust my creativity enough to hand it over to other people.
How did you become aware of a-n?
I used to get Artists Newsletter and read it but it felt more like a local magazine. With its adverts for residencies and awards it was about local community, really. For younger artists like myself you could see the potential for surviving. In a paradoxical way it not only said what you could do, but it also described what was available that you didn’t want to do. And therefore, it was, ‘Okay if I don’t want to do that, how am I going to carry on?’ If this is what the system is, if this is what the culture of the system is offering me as the artist, if I don’t want to do any of it, what is it that I want to do? And I had better bloody well push that. It was like the positive and the negative, as well as the positive and the positive.How significant was a-n in raising the issues of the time?
I don’t really know. I don’t read art magazines that avidly. When I first opened Artforum or Flash Art, I was overwhelmingly shocked that over a third was adverts, but over time I realised this was actually telling me what the cultural landscape is. That it was the zeitgeist, the cultural business zeitgeist, clearly laid out. All these gallery advertisements, this is what is regarded as culturally valuable, so the adverts became as interesting as the articles. Whereas Artists Newsletter of course didn’t have any of that.
You featured in various reviews and also on the cover when you won the Jerwood Painting Prize in 1997 – what did this mean to you?
It was really brilliant because I’d been up for the Turner Prize and I didn’t get it, then the Jerwood Prize was a completely different kettle of fish. You are nominated and then you’re told you’ve won it, and then there’s an exhibition which is a showcase of yours and the other people’s work. You get this really great cheque that makes a huge difference but it’s completely low key and that was such a relief from having been in the Turner Prize. I bought my mum a cup of tea and she was wanting to pay and I said, “Look there’s no need for you to pay, Mum, I’ve still got £19,995 left!”
30 years on what are the key changes for artists starting out now?
It’s very hard because I don’t know young artists, so I don’t know what their viewpoint is and what their ability to thrive is. But it appears from the outside that there’s an increased level of professionalism. Art is such an incredibly broad church, but I do wonder about the professionalism of it and about the people who aren’t professional, if there is room for them? I fear that there’s a desire to name your art professionally when maybe really you don’t know what it is.
Of course one of the things that was great for us was that the galleries that my generation went with were run by people our own age. Nobody had very much, but we all didn’t have very much, including the galleries. We all grew together and that was very exciting, rather than just turning up like a professional to a big organisation and going, ‘Oh, thank you very much.’
What advice would you give your younger self?
Creatively I wouldn’t change anything. I’d like to be able to do everything better, and maybe say something like, ‘draw more’ or ‘do things better’, but I don’t really know what that means in the end. In retrospect, it would have been quite nice to enjoy my success by just looking at it from the outside as a third person and going, ‘bloody hell’, and maybe I would have enjoyed it even more. But it just felt natural, which was maybe how I could enjoy it.
When I was young, I thought the whole world was the world I saw, and that everything would continue to have me in the centre of it, like a child. Then as time goes by you realise you’re not at the centre and the centre shifts. Maybe I wouldn’t change a thing, because in fact what I’m doing now is recognising how wonderful it all was, because everything changes. So no, I wouldn’t change a thing, everything has been perfect!Images:
Header: Gary Hume, Four Coloured Doors, 1990, gloss paint on MDF panel, 213x589cm.
1. Gary Hume, 48th Venice Biennale, 1999.
2. Gary Hume, Four Doors I, 1989/90, oil on four panels, 239x594cm.
3. Gary Hume, Four Coloured Doors, 1990, gloss paint on MDF panel, 213x589cm.
4. Gary Hume, Kate, 1996, gloss on aluminium panel, 208x117cm.
Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.