Regents Park, Sunset (massed clouds) 1967 - Oil on board 13 x 16 ins
Garden Wall in Sun. 1968 -
(Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Garden in Maida Vale)
Oil on Board 16 x 20 ins
Regents Park. 1970 - Oil on canvas 20 x 24 ins
Lemmons bathroom window. 1972 - Oil on canvas 26x30 ins
Swings at Iken. 1976 - Oil on Board, 12x16 ins
One Tree Hill, 1978 - 36 x 48 ins. Oil on board
Frances reading at Lyndhurst Grove. 1987 - Oil on canvas 57 x 70 ins
Stepladder by the River 1992 - Oil on canvas 48 x 60 ins
The Yellow Cabin Umbrian Morning. 1994 - Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 ins
Sun and Heat, Kerala, 1999 - Oil on Canvas, 30 x 40 ins.
The Hotel Bar, Cadaques. 2005 - 37 x 40 inches. Oil on canvas
Identical Twins. 2010 - Oil on canvas 48 x 38 ins
Figures by a River, 2015 - 78 x 72 ins. Oil on canvas.
Under the Sun: On Sargy Mann by Martin Herbert
This essay was featured in the exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Sargy Mann, Light and Space at Cadogan Contemporary in 2021
In 1972, Sargy Mann painted Lemmons Bathroom Window, one of a succession of canvases made in the bathroom of the eponymous Georgian house in Barnet to which he’d moved in 1968. Like so much of Mann’s work, the painting is a study of light and space; of alertness to the specificity and multiplicity hidden by those monolithic words. There are, for starters, two distinct registers of light here, because the painting depicts a sunlit outdoor scene seen from inside, where the light is at once the same and different. A tiled bathroom, rich with reflective surfaces, is a magnifier of light, the painter’s chief material: we see it, here, glimmering on the windowsill, gracing the casually placed parade of objects on it and anchoring them with pink-grey shadows, and losing power in the heavy-shadowed right-hand corner. And we see, through the window, a locale of houses and trees turned pastel and weightless in the sun, the sweet too-brightness of emerging from a cinema in mid-afternoon.
This is a lyrical scene, but it’s also evidence of a humming, problem-solving, modernist mind. Mann, we know, was interested in the trickiness of painting the bathroom – making a relatively large canvas in a constricted space, furthering possibilities implicit in Pierre Bonnard’s own radiant bathroom paintings, slyly compressing intimist interior and landscape and still life. He was, perhaps, also making a little joke about the notion of the painting as window. The canvas esteems the perpetual beauty of light travelling through glass, and it also orients the viewer in place. It frames a location where we and the painter are not – the great outdoors – and in doing so reemphasises precisely where we are, where he was. This sounds simple, but it isn’t really; it’s materialist and also philosophical. Around the same time that Mann was painting this, American minimal sculptors were using strategies to reemphasise the viewer’s own perception of their own bodies in relation to objects. The difference in Mann’s case is that he uses it in the service of a communicable wonder at that everyday singularity, being alive amid available light. It’s a form of honouring.
Mann got to this point of acuity, and would get to other, very different points, via the kind of art education that barely exists in England anymore and that feels, in retrospect, radical. He had been educated, at Camberwell School of Art, with a sense of the high vocational seriousness of painting and what he later called ‘a kind of realism which was an art of truth to visual experience. The world was beautiful and by drawing and painting in the right, selfless frame of mind you could learn to experience, to see more of that true beauty and, to the best of your ability record it in a shareable form.’ The sharing matters, of course, in the sense that learning to look at paintings is a way of learning to see, and appreciate, the democratic bequest of the world, something people habitually undervalue because everybody has it. Such looking is a way of learning to see how you see, and to recognise that visual perception is a complex, subjective, not necessarily transparent process.
Consider One Tree Hill, from 1978, painted in plein air in a park near Mann’s then-home in Camberwell – a painting that the artist tussled with and didn’t much like when he finished it, but came to think of as one of his best. In various ways this is a painting about awareness: Mann had seen, and been entranced by, a large oak tree with a low bough that led away from and back to the trunk, a natural compositional device, a journey for the eye. Many people take trees for granted, don’t even see them. One Tree Hill is a short course in seeing not only the tree but the unfolding tangle of the painting itself; the landscape emerging slowly from a tumult of olive and deep browns and filigreed white accents, spatial depth articulated by coloured light creating itself before your eyes, and the details – particularly the fence – are as much feverishly scratched in as painted, Mann having completed the work in a surprise burst of low sun at the end of a day’s painting, recognising a transient gift. As you navigate it, the scene comes to feel like reality squared, or rather reality as noticed by an expert in noticing.
Three years later Mann experienced his first retinal detachment, and over ensuing years his sight would progressively worsen. In 1988 he was registered blind – not the same, at this point, as not being able to see – and he would later come to seek out brighter, predominantly Mediterranean light to paint in. Prior to this, in 1990, Mann and his family moved to Bungay, Suffolk, where Stepladder by the River (1992) was created. One can perhaps dwell too much on what Mann was or wasn’t actually seeing as he painted; as he’s noted, sight occurs in the mind, subjectively, and he had, by his fifties, accumulated decades of attention to the physical world. But the paintings he made now were among the last he painted with the subject in front of him; he’d begun to work from short-term memory and Dictaphone recordings, voice notes. Stepladder…, in its compositional oddity, concerns itself with the assertiveness of shapes in space, and feels almost like a dare: the white ladder and some kind of bench or table plunked assertively in the midst of a waterside scene where the river reflects an intensely blue sky. Yet the whole is tied together, not only by the ladder’s tonality echoing elsewhere in the composition but by the constantly febrile brushwork, through which everything glints as in the strong light of a summer’s day.
A painting like this is broadly in an Impressionist tradition, and we might pause to consider what it meant to pursue such an approach a century after it first manifested. Mann, on one level, was asserting that there was still gas in this particular tank, that the world is still composed of space and coloured light and that painting can continue to reflect a deep, and deepening, engagement with it. Contemporary art, at any point, is surprisingly conservative: only a few ‘positions’ are considered fashionable. Mann struck a harder path – demonstrating, in painting after painting, that a style supposedly superseded by the forward thrust of modernism and postmodernism retained validity and wiggle room; and also that optical pleasure, which many artists seem almost to scorn, needn’t preclude complexity and ambiguity. The Yellow Cabin Umbrian Morning, painted in 1994, testifies to this. It’s an outwardly beautiful painting, with its foliage-wrapped house bathed in azure Italian sunlight; but also a stubborn one, interrupted by a handful of barely identifiable, sentinel-like verticals, as if Mann knew there was something of that shape there but didn’t know, or fully care, what. Parts of the painting’s foreground are just speedy calligraphic dashes, testifying to something encoded in the work: this is a record of a moment under the sun, that won’t come back, that you ought to revel in. And then maybe, later, set down an impression of.
In 2005, Mann lost his sight completely. The shimmering Hotel Bar, the first painting he made after leaving hospital – what appears to be an evening scene in Cadaques, backed by the Spanish landscape – is inwardness turned outward. Mann, composing from memory on canvas, saw the colours in his mind’s eye, his brain shaped by a lifetime of looking. The painting’s equivocal contours, notably, feel true to what one might construe as Mann’s seeing: reality as regions of coloured light, the scene as a glowing atmosphere. After this, Mann didn’t – couldn’t – paint from what he had seen, couldn’t find a subject he wanted to paint from memory, and took up a novel approach. He would paint Frances, his wife, as she sat in a chair in his studio. He learned the position she was in by feel and, he said later, his long-trained visual cortex translated for him, turning three dimensions into two from where he was. He marked her shape out in Blu-Tak on canvas, and infilled them in colours – notably, and progressively, not necessarily colours drawn from reality but freer, intensely songful colour harmonies, as see the tangerine, magenta and midnight blue of Identical Twins (2007).
After a lifetime of translating what he’d seen, Mann was now translating what he touched, was unbound by it, and something taken away from him had become something given back. By the time of Figures by a River (2014/15), made in the last year of his life, he had moved on again: his paintings had become, it seemed, a fusion of memory, translated touch, and thoughts of paintings he loved. Figures… has a hieratic, deeply architectonic quality, its elongated figures occupying their own psychic space, the whole like a gnomic code. Perhaps most of all, the painting has a sense of calm rightness about it; though maybe only in hindsight, it feels like resolution. It shows an artist playing, with grace, the hand that fate has dealt him; turning disadvantage into advantage.
As others have noted, all art is contemporary art in that it exists in and is therefore received in the present. A painting contains the time of its making and the time of its reception; there is no need to end an essay, say, by talking about the latest work in a chronology. All the moments these paintings of Mann’s memorialise, if they do so, are past, and all are equally present in the viewer’s receiving. So let’s go back, as it were, to 1967, and Regent’s Park, Sunset (Massed Clouds).
In that year Mann was a postgraduate student (the only one) at Camberwell. In that year, he had an intense psychedelic experience in Regent’s Park, but this painting – for all its iridescent palette – focuses on the everyday splendour of the sunset, bands of colour stacking and mingling beneath empurpled clouds, the heavy green of the park at the base. On one level, Mann here is engaging with tradition – with cloud painting as a genre stretching back to Constable – but the painting capsules an evening in 1967 and a half-century later it preserves it. Mann was there, watching nature perform, watching it give a never-to-be-repeated light show. Sunsets are a literally everyday experience, to the point that we don’t habitually go out and watch them, but when you do, they’re a marvel, and you might ask why you don’t make more effort. The world, seen from its best angle, is made up of things like that. Sargy Mann, working while he had the light, observed them and got them down, fusing them with his own wonder, his good fortune at seeing them.