She’s scaled the heights of contemporary art, but Lynda Morris is still as much an excited fan as a veteran curator, writes Moira Jeffrey
PROFESSOR Lynda Morris is busy unwrapping her archive at Dundee’s Cooper Gallery. As a curator, art historian, writer and exhibition organiser over the past five decades, Gourock-born Morris has worked on everything from the pop artist Richard Hamilton’s 1973 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York to a recent ground-breaking show about Picasso’s radical politics for the Tate.
The archive she is exhibiting alongside her collection of artworks and ephemera is a personal and potted history of an art world undergoing overwhelming and radical change. She has kept charming early correspondence from Gilbert and George and even a letter from one of Britain’s most notorious spies, the art historian Anthony Blunt
But Morris draws my attention to some barely legible squiggles in biro on a yellowing sheet. In 1962, when she was a teenage schoolgirl, she hitchhiked from her home in Dover to Folkestone, where the Rolling Stones were playing the local Odeon. As she arrived at the car park a timbered mini drew up.
“Out poured Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was the Rolling Stones and they asked for directions to the beach.” She had the presence of mind to ask them for their autographs. She wanted them to be part of the exhibition Dear Lynda, which charts her idiosyncratic career, because when she comes to art, she thinks of herself not just as an expert but also as a fan. The day after the Stones concert, she recalls, she and her friends went to Margate to watch mods and rockers fight on the beach.
When Morris was studying at Canterbury School of Art in 1967 it was at the height of the so-called Canterbury scene in British rock music. One of her best friends went out with Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers, who died last month. His band mate Robert Wyatt was the model for her life drawing class. Many years after the accident that would put him in a wheelchair, he asked old associates if they had any pictures from the Canterbury days. Morris sent him two drawings her mum had stored down the back of her wardrobe.
She didn’t like the life drawing class. “It seemed really strange,” she recalls. “Drawing women in the nude, when you haven’t even had a proper boyfriend. Now I think it’s really important, it’s a moral education.”
By that she means the ability to look at faces and bodies dispassionately and the elaborate courtesies it requires. “Getting used to nudity,” she explains. “Not being ashamed of it.” It was one of the key things, she believes, that historically set artists apart.
In 1968, she was in Paris, researching the artist Gustave Moreau, when the city was torn apart by popular protest. When she arrived in London, in 1969, she got a job on the telephones at the ICA, then the heart of the radical art scene. Soon she was turning their catalogue stall into a bookshop. She sold Bruce Chatwin the book about the Nazca lines in Peru that would inspire his book In Patagonia and she had a front row seat on an art world undergoing dramatic convulsions.
Later she would assist at Nigel Greenwood’s gallery meeting a who’s who of the conceptual art scene from both Europe and America. Fascinated by new models in art education she wrote a thesis on the subject. She went to Düsseldorf in 1973 to observe the teaching of the artist Joseph Beuys only to arrive the week he was booted out of the Düsseldorf Academy. He had accepted every single student who had applied and the academy had refused to take all 150 of them.
In the 1970s, Morris would leave London, and she is a stern critic of metropolitanism. She worked in Nottingham, briefly in Edinburgh, and eventually settled in Norwich from where she renewed her international connections. In the 1990s, she founded EAST, an annual open exhibition that profiled emerging artists including many Scots, such as Kenny Hunter and Lucy McKenzie.
Increasingly she became interested in artists and radical politics, from British socialists to her research on Picasso. It stems, she says, from her family’s radical roots on Clydeside and England’s south coast. Her parents met in Gourock, her father was a cabinet-maker and trade unionist in the shipbuilding industry. “Art school can teach you skills and you can read a lot,” she explains, “but your culture comes from your family and from those early memories.”
She came from “two generations of really tough women keeping the family together”. Her earliest memories are of her extended family who moved between the Clyde, London and the maritime economy of the south coast. “My grandfather was a Fife fisherman who worked in Margate as a ship’s engineer during the First World War. They had seven children under 11 when he was killed in 1924.”
When her grandmother lived in London, her spare attic room in White Hart Lane was rarely empty. “People would stop off there on their way to Spain to join the International Brigade, it was illegal. There were lots of stories that my auntie would tell me about men from Scotland and the north of England who stopped on their way to fight.”
Contemporary art may seem a world away from these radical roots, but Morris retains a certain critical distance from the world of collectors and patrons, preferring the company of artists and her research students at the University of East Anglia.
When Charles Saatchi’s office asked for a catalogue for the 2003 edition of EAST exhibition, she insisted that they pay the requisite £10 and £2 for the postage. The next day a cheque from Coutts Bank arrived signed by the collector. Morris put £12 of her own cash in the till, and kept the cheque, as a witty trophy. She hung it above her desk: another autograph to add to her collection. «
Dear Lynda is at the Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, until 5 April