Malcolm Morley (1931-2018)

Malcolm Morley in the workshop at Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1998

Malcolm Morley in the workshop at Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1998.

It is with great sadness that we share the news that artist Malcolm Morley passed away on Saturday 2 June at his home in Bellport, New York, aged 86. Morley was a great friend of Kenneth Tyler and the two had worked together both in the early 1980s and again in 1998 on several lithographic prints series.

Malcolm Morley was born in 1931 and had a tumultuous early life, beginning with the wartime bombing of London. This was a formative experience for Morley and became a continued source of imagery throughout his career, which is significant as Morley’s artistic life is better characterised by a restlessness rather than continuity: he frequently moved between styles, mediums and means of making art. This was both through his desire to defy artistic categorisation, along with his intellectual interrogation of these early experiences.

During the bombing of London, his family was made homeless after being struck by a German V-1 explosive. Morley recalled later in his life, with the help of psychotherapy, the memory of losing a half-finished toy model of the battleship HMS Nelson when the bomb flattened his childhood home. Yet far from being an experience that made Morley retreat from the world, he used it as a source of artistic inspiration, it was “almost like having a genie in the lamp. All I had to do was rub that memory for the genie to appear”[1]. Throughout his artistic life, images of ships, model aircraft and depictions of both stasis and violent movement would permeate his work.

His early years were spent working as a cabin boy and attended Naval College. Later he was arrested for petty theft and sent to a reform school, only to be later arrested for burglary. He served two years in Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Here he developed an initial interest in painting[2] and it was through his parole officer that he gained entry into the Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts, followed by the Royal College of Art, London from 1954-57.

Upon leaving the Royal College of Art, Morley soon relocated to the United States, where he would spend most of his life. This move was partially inspired by his experience of an exhibition of American art held at the Tate Britain, but primarily because he met “an American girl on the 37 bus”[3]. It was in New York in the mid-1960s that Malcolm began painting photorealistic work. These were achieved using a grid system (a technique that he learnt from his friend Richard Artschwager) where each of square of the work demanded equal attention. The subjects of these ground-breaking works ranged from Old Master paintings through to postcards. Significantly, these photorealistic works depicted elements of the photographic object itself, with telling glimpses of a frayed edge, tear or fold in the original source material. From these works, Morley quickly gained a notoriety and eager following.

As new arrival to the country, Morley quickly became associated with artists from the burgeoning Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist movements (frequently he would drink with the likes of Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and a host of others at the Cedar Street Tavern). Yet while he exchanged ideas and strategies for his art-making with this crowd, he tore aware from being associated with these movements. Morley began painting in a photorealist style, or as he preferred to call it, ‘Super-realism’, because “it reminded [him] of Malevich’s suprematism”[4] despite the obvious aesthetic differences.

This ‘Super-realism’ brought him fame; with works such as SS Amsterdam in Front of Rotterdam and Portrait of Esses in Central Park, however he quickly broke away from this style. He considered his last photorealist work to be Race Track (1970), a work that fittingly features a large red cross cancelling the image. From 1970 onwards “gestural touches began to break into Morley’s pictures and his motifs increasingly attested to violence and destruction”[5] with his style moving through abstraction, neo-romantic imagery, and neo-expressionist painting.

Influenced by early surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud’s manifestos, Morley also adopted Surrealist strategies and performative elements in his practice, such as an infamous attempt in 1970 to deface his painting Buckingham Palace with First Prize at a Paris auction. The artist had filled a toy gun with a lurid bright paint, but this carefully planned act of destruction was thwarted by the auction house, which covered the work with plastic, leaving Morley with no other option but to nail the gun to the canvas[6] in front of a stunned crowd.

No doubt his ongoing friendship with Salvador Dali informed his interest in such Surrealist actions: In a 2009 interview he recalled how they first met:

I was living in the Chelsea Hotel, and one Sunday morning there was this funny little voice on the phone. It said, “Malcolm Morley? This is Salvador Dali.” And I thought it was a friend playing a joke, so I said, “Well fuck off!” and hung up. Of course he loved that and called back[7]

Morley’s later years produced work that were characterised by energy, movement and a playfulness with scale that continued to defy his popular association with the photorealist movement. He described in an interview with The Guardian in 2013 the continuous urge he felt to revise his working methods, saying it was like “a valve shuts down and suddenly I lose the wherewithal to do it. It can be traumatic. One minute you’re going along being successful and satisfied, the next you are falling off a cliff and thinking you’re finished. Then something happens and work starts again”[8].

Malcolm Morley and Kenneth Tyler using lithographic tusche in preparation for blue colour separation for 'Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse', Tyler Graphics Ltd, Mount Kisco, New York, 1998

Malcolm Morley and Kenneth Tyler using lithographic tusche in preparation for blue colour separation for ‘Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse’, Tyler Graphics Ltd, Mount Kisco, New York, 1998.

Kenneth Tyler and Malcolm Morley inspecting lithographic tusche in preparation for blue colour separation for 'Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse', Tyler Graphics Ltd, Mount Kisco, New York, 1998

Kenneth Tyler and Malcolm Morley inspecting lithographic tusche in preparation for blue colour separation for ‘Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse’, Tyler Graphics Ltd, Mount Kisco, New York, 1998.

In 1982, Morley’s creative restlessness led him to Tyler Graphics Ltd, then located in Bedford Village, New York. Working closely with Ken Tyler, Morley produced eight lithographic editions ; Devonshire bullocks; Devonshire cows; Horses; Goat; Goats in a shed; Fish; Beach scene; and Parrots. Many of these were in colour and composed from multiple aluminium plates.

Prompted by Morley’s renewed interest in compositions using toy models to create a distorted sense of scale, Morley and Tyler began on a new series of lithographs in 1998. Works such as Montgolfiere balloon and Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse, for example, were the playful, optimistic output from these editions. They focused on utilising lithographic tusche washes to capture an impression of an ocean in movement. A heightened palette of colours suggested child’s play above a raging tempest.

Malcolm Morley, Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse, Lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 1998. Edition of 60.

Malcolm Morley, Pamela running before the wind with a Dutch lighthouse, Lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 1998. Edition of 60.

To find out more about Morley and his work at Tyler Graphics, visit the Malcolm Morley Art Page

– David Greenhalgh


[1] Wroe, N. (2013). Interview: Malcolm Morley: ‘The moment anyone said my work was art, I had this block – it took a long time to find myself’. The Guardian, 5 October, 2013. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/04/malcolm-morley-interview para. 16.

[2] Ibid. para 8.

[3] Morley quoted in an interview with Richard Francis, accessed at bombmagazine.org/article/1932, originally published in BOMB, Spring 1996.

[4] Harris, G. (2018). Malcolm Morley, The first artist to win the Turner Prize, has died aged 86. The Art Newspaper, 4 June, 2018. Accessed from: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/malcolm-morley-the-first-artist-to-win-the-turner-prize-has-died-aged-86 para. 4.

[5] Malcolm Morley. (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://www.malcolmmorley.com/ para 3.

[6] Ebony, D. (2011). A One-Man Movement: Q + A with Malcolm Morley. Art in America, 14 April, 2011. Accessed from: https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/malcolm-morley-sperone-westwater/ para. 22.

[7] Ayers, R. (2009). ‘Three cheers for the unconscious!’ Robert Ayers in conversation with Malcolm Morley. A Sky filled with Shooting Stars [blog]. Accessed from: http://www.askyfilledwithshootingstars.com/wordpress/?p=884 para. 10.

[8] Wroe, N. (2013). Interview: Malcolm Morley: ‘The moment anyone said my work was art, I had this block – it took a long time to find myself’. The Guardian, 5 October, 2013. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/04/malcolm-morley-interview para. 5

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