Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Standing at an open grave with Augustus John

I sometimes feel as if i have been standing beside an open grave my whole life. In the bottom of the hole lies the uncoffined body of Art. Throughout the 20th century the grave has been visited by a steady stream of 'artists', all of whom have, in turn, thrown a handful of earth upon the naked body. Recently the visitors have, as if desperate to hide the thing, taken to throwing in spadefuls.

For a while Augustus jumped into the hole and attempted to remove the dirt with nothing more than a teaspoon. He gave up in the end.

The grave is full now... I kneel beside it waiting for new shoots to appear.

Self portrait

As a young child I was given my own set of plastic tableware: plate bowl and beaker. these objects were yellow! I did not chose the colour yellow, I was told that the yellow ones were mine. From then onwards I would frequently be given yellow things; toys, clothes and the like. These objects were accompanied by the statement that yellow was my favourite colour, that had I the choice I would have opted for the yellow.

Yellow was not not my favourite colour. I would be hard pressed to name a favourite; I was never given the opportunity nor the luxury! I have a feeling that the colour was assigned to me in some kind of attempt to introduce a little brightness into an already dark and troubled child.

Even now, years later, if I am asked what my favourite colour is I am instinctively drawn to the word yellow... not to the colour but the word, as if yellow means favourite.

twenty years ago I made a picture of my childhood; It said everything I wanted or needed to say. It was both a portrait and a summary.
It consisted of a glazed, shallow wooden box. the box was lined with silver leaf upon which were placed a black and white image of myself aged three alongside a yellow plastic spoon (which I had taken from the Hayward gallery cafe; the artistic integrity of the object was important). The outside of the box was wrapped in mattress ticking to emphasise the comfortable environment that I appeared to inhabit. Unseen to the observer the back of the box was covered with an image of a mass of writhing snakes.

The choice of the plastic spoon was important in that accurately represented MY own self-regard; It was a valueless disposable item, even the colour was chosen on my behalf yet within its context it is transformed into something lyrical and poetic in its use of metaphor!
Something of no value is suddenly imbued with emotional importance. It has something to say. the rest of the symbolism is hackneyed and obvious but no less important for that.

This image was the first of a series of portraits using plastic cutlery of various colours, all taken from art galleries to ensure the Artistic integrity, culminating in a self portrait as a black plastic spoon. This consisted of nothing more than the spoon (from Tate Modern) mounted on a stark white wall! Again the cheapness and ephemeral nature of the object was central to the work. The black is self explanatory and its placement: Unbounded, in a vast white nothingness emphasised the lonliness and insularity of the depressions I had been subjected to from an early age. I laughingly refer to this work as Abstract Depressionism.

To me something miraculous happens: An object of no worth becomes invaluable in its ability to convey the lonliness and despair of depression. It appears to speak from experience.

Monday, 29 September 2008


Over twenty years ago I embarked on a series of harrowing self portraits. I chose as my medium plastic teaspoons that I had collected from Art galleries around the world. the series of works culminated in a piece entitled: 'Self portrait as a black plastic spoon'. I had acquired the spoon at Tate modern while having a coffee following a Cy Twombly retrospective. Taking the spoon home I mounted it against a pure white background. To me it was the distillation of My "Abstract Depressionist' period. I also realised as I glued the thing to the wall that I had created THREE DIMENSIONAL GRAFFITI.

I AM OFFERING YOU THE CHANCE TO OWN A GENUINE JAN NIEUPJUR for nothing more than the price of a drink. Visit tate Modern and buy yourself a coffee, as you do this you will be given the opportunity to take, at no extra cost, a copy of my work. when you have stirred the coffee wipe the spoon and place it in a pocket or bag. Take it home. When you have the work safely in your possession contact me and I will email to you a signed certificate of authenticity upon which you can then mount your work of art, knowing that it once resided in the Tate.

Please do not take spoons without buying a drink as this would constitute theft.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Abstract Depressionism & Jackson Pollock

Some time in the late 40's I had cycled out to Springs, Long Island for what would turn out to be a prolonged bout of drinking and painting with Jackson Pollock. I was riding the yellow bycicle that had once belonged to my father (the bycicle that killed him) because there was no way that I was going to let pollock pick me up from the station; I'd been driven by him once in that Oldsmobile convertible of his and swore never again.

Arriving at his studio I cycled straight through the door and over a large canvas laid out on the floor; the wheels of the cycle running through the wet paint Pollock had been applying with a turkey baster. He was pretty pissed off with my addition to his work but soon calmed down when I produced my Quart of Bourbon (memories of Duchamp) and we settled down to exploring the bottom of the bottle. Later and very drunk he suddenly stood, picked up a tin of black paint throwing it angrily over my yellow bycicle.

"There". He said. "Abstract Expressionism".

I picked up another tin of black and hurled the contents over his canvas. Saying - " And that, my friend is Abstract depressionism!"

When the paint on the bycicle was dry I rode it away from that mad place. I never saw Pollock again. But I knew that something important had taken place that day.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Muse #2

I did not realise that we had met until we parted, and then all I could do was hope that she would come for tea the following day as promised.
She was early.

Her name was Mona and she had travelled some distance to arrive at my door. Little knowing who or what she was I let her in then put the kettle on... how that kettle sang!

As muses do she saw in me something that I had long lost sight of. To her it was fresh and exciting, to me it was unoriginal and lacking fire. I worked well enough for a while; moving from painting to prose to poetry as my Muse took me but soon the old doubts crept back in. I took to solitary walks late at night and fussed over old work in order to avoid going forward. Eventually I took to my bed living off nothing more than maatjes and whiskey while Mona, sympathetic at first, became more and more strident in her demands that I work.

"You will kill yourself living like this". she screamed. "And then what will I do. I am carrying your art inside me like some unborn child. If you die I shall throw myself from the window and watch my past flash before me!"
"No. It will be your unlived future that will rush through your minds eye."

"Very clever Jantje! But I know who you have stolen that concept from"

"Enlighten me." I said.

"It is the basis of a story written by Tristan Hazell in the early 20th Century!"

"That is 40 years away. how on earth can I steal from something not yet written?"

"Because it is inside me! I will be his muse too and the seeds of his work lie dormant within me. you have somehow tapped into that which is his..."

I went back to my whiskey. thinking her quite mad.

Mona, exasperated, started painting herself. in the space of three days she had finished a dozen canvases, all the while screaming at me how easy it was. when the last canvas was completed she packed her bags and left... for another artist who naturally became the darling of the London scene for his vibrant use of colour that should have been mine.

I still own those canvases of hers.

Muse #3

Muses move from artist to artist in their search for a sympathetic medium. without physical manifestation they must rely on drunken bums like me to put paint on canvas. Resentment sets in when the drunken bum gets all the attention and the muse is consigned to the sideline. From my experience that is when the muse starts feeding the artist on maatjes and whiskey and planting odd ideas in his head.

Jesus is a black woman with a red hat.

Monday, 15 September 2008

My war.

As the result of a misunderstanding - My professors wife having misunderstood the time of her husbands return from Antwerp - I was drummed out of Art school and obliged to find refuge elsewhere. The army at that time (1914) seemed a safe place to hide; had I paid more attention to world events I might have realized otherwise. Very soon, after a rudimentary training, I found myself in the trenches. I quickly resolved to remove myself from the theatre of war by any means possible.

The opportunity arose on Christmas day. An armistice had been announced for 24 hours and we were enjoying the opportunity to dwell on the horrors of war without the constant bombardment of the senses that was trench warfare. Somewhere down the line a whistle sounded and as we peered over the ramparts a troupe of Tommies marched into no-mans-land armed with nothing but a football. A corresponding team of Germans emerged from their own trenches while a French major appeared from no-where offering to referee. The leader of the tommies called to us saying they were a man short; I promptly volunteered and found myself embroiled in the strangest football match ever to have been played.

My first (and last) act in the game was to synically scythe down a German corporal whose silly little moustache offended me. Corporal Hitler was stretchered off (later to be honoured for his injury recieved in the field of battle) and I was unceremoniously sent off... I trudged disconsolately to the sideline and as no-one seemed to be paying attention, continued walking.

Some time later as night was falling I found my path blocked by the North sea. Without thinking I rid myself of my uniform and waded into the icy water placing myself at the mercy of Neptune himself. I was pulled from the water by two fishermen, close to death they lathered me in lard and wrapped me in felt blankets allowing me to live on and tell this tale. I was nursed back to health in a rudimentary hut among the sand dunes by the charming young daughter of one of the fishermen, my sojourn only ending when my young nurse and I were caught self medicating one afternoon.

I managed to find passage on a cargo ship heading for Norway.

Years later I recounted this story to a German aviator named Joseph Beuys as we sat in a Munich bar killing a bottle of schnapps. I seem to remember that he took notes.

Intellectual mis-interpretation.

By 1917 I had escaped the horrors of the war in Europe. Travelling by cargo ship from Norway I arrived in New York penniless but full of hope.

I made my way to Marcel Duchamps studio where I knew I would recieve a warm welcome and enjoy scintillating conversation.

"Mutty". He cried when he saw me at the door. He had always called me Mutt or Mutty since once likening me to a lost puppy some years before. "Mutty, come in come in, have a drink and tell me about this ghastly business in Europe".

We talked late into the night and drank a considerable amount of Bourbon which I had never tasted before; to this day if I taste the stuff I am taken back to that Night in New York. Marcel had that day bought a new urinal for the bathroom, it lay on a table in a corner of the studio; at some time I had picked it up and admired it... "It is not Art Mutty" he had said. "Oh but it is". I had replied. He asked me why I could say this with such confidence. "Because, dear Marcel, I am an artist and if I say it is art it is art!"

I thought no more of this conversation until that very urinal appeared at the Society of Independent Artists. Emblazoned with the signature: R. MUTT.

Nearly ten years later, back in belgium, I recalled this incident to Rene Magritte. Rene asked me if i really did think it was Art... "Well it certainly wasn't a pipe!" I replied.

"Oh the treachery of images." He said!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

My foot, Roland Crater and Dali.

I am often asked about my limp. More often than not I joke that it is the result of shooting myself in the foot. But I'm not joking.

Back in the early 60's I'd taken a road trip accross the United states of America; I will probably refer to that trip many times in these memoirs; It was eventful to say the least. Stopping for gas somewhere in Arizona I decided to cool down with a beer at a roadside bar and got into conversation with a local who went by the name of Roland Crater. One beer turned into many beers as the afternoon listened in on our wild stories and pretty soon the evening strolled by and decided to settle a while and hear himself some fine talk too.

I cannot remember who came up with the idea of shooting at cigarettes held between our toes but we soon had our boots off and were taking pot shots at our own feet. Roland was a dead shot and hit the cigarette every time.

I walk with this limp!

The following year I was in northern spain, staying with my old friend salvador Dali and his strange wife Gala. Sitting in the garden one morning I told him of my sharp shooting experience in Arizona and removed my espadrille to show him the bullet hole. Dali excitedly ran into the house and returned with a silver topped cane which he presented to me with much flamboyance. I use that stick to this day. He then produced a Luger that he claimed once belonged to an SS colonel, and demanded that we play the game. Dali was a crack shot and hit the cigarette every time.

I needed that stick.

On returning from the hospital Dali mixed martinis on the terrace and we fell to talking about art. We talked about the accusations being put about that Salvador was selling signed blank sheets of paper which were then introduced to fake etchings and sketches. He denied this vehemently and wished for some sort of revenge on the art world... To this end we decided that Dali would produce some drawings which I would then sign in his name, these works would then be introduced into the market-place through a well known dealer in Paris.

"Let us see if those ponces in Paris can tell their arse from their elbow. And can they spot a genuine Jan Nieupjur signature when they see one?"

Needless to say the artworld was happy to accept my signature as Dali's. I am not at liberty to say what those drawings are but they hang in major collections!

My limp?.. Sometimes I joke that it is Arthritis.