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ROSC 84: The Politics Of Vision By Aidan Dunne

Rosc 1984

"Rosc and controversy, it would seem, are inseparable," noted the Rosc press release. Aidan Dunne reports on the controversies which have occurred in Rosc '84. IN JANUARY 1983, GUINNESS hosted a press reception in St James' Gate to announce their intention of providing a venue for Rose '84. It was the first firm indication that there would be another Rosc. Rosc '80 had been saved by the late intervention of Guinness Peat Aviation (a company unrelated to Guinness), which provided a hefty subsidy of £55,000 in return for a high profile in publicity relating to the Exhibition. But without a gesture as generous as Guinness' offer of a venue, it looked as if Ireland's only international exhibition of modern art would become another victim of the recession.

The Guinness offer, then, was crucial. The venue proposed was the Hop Store in Rainsford Street, a solidly built, four-storey Victorian warehouse that had been lying idle for the last twenty-five years. In addition to the building, the company agreed to meet the majority, as much as three-quarters, of the conversion costs. An additional £100,000 was pledged by the government, fifty thousand as an EEC grant (towards the conservation of the building as part of our industrial heritage), and another fifty from the Arts Council.

PATRICK J. MURPHY IS THE managing director of Irish Malt Exports Ltd. He has been involved with Rose since the '77 exhibition and in 1981 was invited to take over the chair of the Executive Committee by Michael Scott. He has been an avid collector of art for twenty years or so, and a stalwart supporter of contemporary Irish artists. He has one of the finest private collections of modern Irish art in the country. His passionate interest in art, together with his financial expertise, organisational acumen and proven willingness to lend his time and energy to artistic projects (Rose is run on a voluntary basis) made him a natural successor to Scott. The format of Rose '84 - that it should be a collectors' Rose - is his idea.

The Executive Committee also includes Peter Doyle, Kenneth McQuillan, Rosemarie Mulcahy, broadcaster Mike Murphy, Noel Wallace, Michael Scott and Noel Sheridan, the director of the National College of Art and Design.

Rosc '84 was to consist of work by forty international and ten Irish artists, together with a special exhibition of recent sculpture and drawings by Henry Moore. An international jury, comprising Patrick Murphy, Michael Scott and two European collectors, Frits Becht of Holland and Count Guiseppe Panza di Biumo of Italy was assigned to select the show.

ROSC AS EVERYONE SURELY knows by now, translates roughly as "the poetry of vision". It is the brainchild of architect Michael Scott, its founder, guiding light and patron saint. The first Rose, held in the RDS in 1967, was an event unique in Irish cultural history. A three-man international jury, made up of arts administrators and writers, chose works by fifty artists on the international scene, that had been completed within the previous four years. They provided a capsule view of the recent history of modern art. Many of the giants of the century were included: Picasso, Joan Miro, Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning and so on. Names out of the history books, acknowledged greats. It was a grand starting from scratch, and an exercise that it was impossible to repeat.

Rose, however, was inaugurated as a recurring show, and the philosophy that had been applied to a unique situation - the introduction of examples of major modern art to a country hitherto devoid of contact on such a scale - was perpetuated. Scott's view of Rose was certainly romantic and implied a particular type of art. It entailed ideas of excellence and consensus. The exhibition, he noted at the time of the second Rose in 1971, was "an anthology selected from the great visual poems of our day."

Perhaps the significant flaw at the heart of Rose is the fact that it has consistently declined to adopt an engaged point of view, and has instead clung to a notion of transcendent excellence which has little or no objective validity in relation to the fragmentation, diversity and sheer volume of current artistic production.

THE FIRST REAL PROBLEM for Rose '84 arose when the European jurors, following three whirlwind surveys of Irish work, recommended that none be included in the exhibition. They felt that it wasn't of sufficient stature to stand beside the European and American artists they had already selected.

The Executive Committee decided that it would establish an Irish jury to select ten Irish artists. The jury comprised Patrick Murphy, Michael Scott, Patrick Scott the painter and designer, Noel Sheridan and artist and writer Michael Kane.

Having gone through three long, hard sessions, the jury, working on the basis of an initial list of fifty names, found themselves down to only twenty-two artists. No agreement could be reached on a lower number, though the brief had been to select ten. The final meeting ended with an agreement to report back to the Executive Committee that the minimum number of artists necessary to ensure a representative Irish presence was twenty-two. A public announcement was to follow.

There was an overlap between the Irish jury and the Executive Committee. Murphy and Sheridan served on both. At their next meeting the Committee rejected the decision of the Irish jury. Sheridan was away at the time. A letter was dispatched to the jurors pointing out that neither the space nor the finance was available to accommodate such a high Irish presence and binding them to their original brief.

In terms of international shows, Rose is run on a shoestring. Money was certainly short, and it had become apparent that Rose would not have all the space in the Hop Store that it had hoped for. But apart from these logisstical considerations, Patrick Murphy later expressed open dissatisfaction with the quality as well as the quantity of the proposed Irish selection. "There was too much horse-trading at that meeting," he commented. "What we wanted were the fifty most important artists of the last four years. If they were Irish, I would be happy to have fifty Irish artists." The corollary is that if none of them were Irish, that too would be okay with him.

Having, instead of the expected public announcement, received a letter overriding the Irish jury's decision, Michael Kane resigned in an open letter to Patrick Murphy. In it he included the names of the twenty-two Irish artists. As these names would provide the shortlist for any further selection procedure the remaining jury members, feeling themselves compromised, resigned.

The disagreement and Kane's peremptory action brought into the public arena what Kane sees as a fundamental divide in Irish art. In crude terms, he views this divide as a case of establishment modernism versus a vernacular Irish modern tradition', valid but consistently denied a voice. Others see this divide as a Protestant Catholic one. Kane looked on the twenty-two as an opportunity to heal this great rift.

Kane's stance clearly went against the spirit of Rose, not so much in terms of quality (who decides? Why not Kane as much as Michael Scott or Patrick Murphy?) but in terms of the rationale of the exhibition. Kane's case, elaborated over the succeeding weeks, was that if money was available in these straitened times, it should go to Irish artists. It is an opinion that has a substantial following. But the usefulness of seeing international work at first hand, and of putting Ireland on the map in international terms, cannot be overemphasised. There is also the fact that the list of twenty-two artists was by no means, except in strictly numerical terms, more representative than a potential choice of ten.

In response to the controversy over Irish representation Guinness Peat Aviation, who had expressed an interest in underwriting the costs of producing the catalogue for the show (which could have amounted to some £40,000), pulled out of Rose. Tony Ryan reportedly expressed the view that he couldn't see himself supporting an exhibition without Irish art.

THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE was faced with the problem of formulating another selection procedure for the Irish section of the show. They decided that they should appoint a single juror. Several names were discussed and, though there was initial disagreement, they finally reached a consensus on Ronald Tallon, of the architectural firm Scott, Tallon, Walker.

Scott, Tallon, Walker (the other partners are Michael Scott, now retired, and Robin Walker, currently a member of An Bord Pleanala and husband of Dorothy Walker) is a firm that made its reputation in designing mainstream modernist architecture. Tallon qualified as an architect in 1950 and his buildings include the RTE television studios and Carroll's Dundalk factory. He is a firm believer in the complementary roles of art and architecture and has a long association with Irish art, both as a collector and through choosing work to site in buildings. His sympathies, however, lie firmly on the side of establishment modernism, to use Kane's term, and his appointment signaled anything but an end to the great rift in Irish art. Tallon was also, coincidentally, the architect responsible for the converrsion work on the Hop Store, employed in this respect not by Rose but by Guinness.

With the announcement of his appointment, Rose noted a new addition to the Executive Committee, Vincent Ferguson. Another noted collector of contemporary Irish art, Ferguson is a friend and close business associate of Tony 0 'Reilly, chief executive of Fitzwilton, and was at the time Chairman of Dublin Gas (earlier this year he was appointed to the new Arts Council and, following the death of David Hendriks, he became the owner of the Hendriks Gallery on Stephen's Green, one of the city's foremost commercial galleries). His presence lent a clue to another, subsequent involvement. Shortly before Christmas 1983, Patrick Murphy let it be known that the Tony O'Reilly corporation had agreed to fill GP A's shoes and meet the costs of producing the catalogue for the exhibition.

I AGREED TO ACCEPT THE task of selecting the artists on the condition that my appointment was favoured unanimously by the Rose Executive Committee. Now that this has been established I am looking forward to selecting as fairly as possible the Irish representation."

Despite Ronald Tallon's brave pronouncement, the list of artists selected for Rose, national and international, drew a mixed critical response when it was released in January 1984. One view held that the fact of the exhibition was more important than any other consideration, that to quibble over names was in some way to jeopardise the enterprise. Pat Murphy has expressed similar sentiments. Commenting adversely on the amount of publicity given to disagreement within, and the organizational details of, Rose, he has maintained that critical comment should be reserved for the show itself. Rose is a private company, he points out, and its internal affairs are its own business. In this respect it must be borne in mind that Rose is particularly vulnerable because it is largely (though not exclusively - it is also publicly subsidised) dependent on private sponsorship. But art and exhibitions do not happen in a vacuum.

A substantial body of opinion within the art world held that Tallon's choice was not representative and fair in relation to Irish art as a whole. Nor did it address itself to the question of what kind of exhibition Rose '84 was going to be. It conformed, fairly clearly, to his own taste and inclination, that is, to Kane's classification of establishment modernism.

Ironically, several of the people he chose, though they have established reputations as abstract artists, have in recent years introduced figurative elements into their work. While this can doubtless be accounted for in each case in terms of logical progression, it does happen to coincide with an international upsurge in figurative painting, brought about by the rise of a new generation of figurative painters, that the international selection convincingly reflects. Deborah Brown, Felim Egan and Anne Madden have all, in varying ways, introduced a figurative content into previously abstract styles.

The apparent exception among the Irish artists is Barrie Cooke, who has always adhered to a lush, expressionist style, firmly rooted in nature and landscape. But Cooke has always found a ready acceptance in the formalist, modernist context because his work is on the face of it cerebral in its concerns, distanced from the social content typical of painters like Paddy Graham or Michael Kane himself.

In other words, 'on close scrutiny the Irish selection does seem to corroborate the great rift in Irish art that Kane had referred to at the time of the controversy over the list of twenty two. Tallon's selection was not the hoped for formula, even in terms of quality, it was a radical solution to a pressing problem.

The international selection conformed to the logic of many other international survey shows of recent years. It concentrated on a combination of the new painting and minimalist art. There were, however, a few notable features. One of them was (and remains) the relatively high proportion of minimal and conceptual artists included. Another was the number of Dutch artists which seemed, at seven out of forty, unexpectedly high. (For example, the major German survey show of painting in 1982, "Zeitgeist" had only one or two Dutch artists out of fifty exhibitors.) The high Dutch representation can reasonably be ascribed to the presence of Becht on the jury. This raises the issue of Irish inexperience when dealing with the international art scene and gives a pragmatic cast to Kane's nationalistically chauvinistic attitude to Rose. It is also relevant in the light of Becht's pending objections over the issue of Irish representation.

AT THE BEGINNING OF MAY 1984, it was rumoured that Frits Becht had severed his connections with Rose and resigned from the International Jury. By the middle of the month, this had been confirmed by the Executive Committee. Becht had taken an uncompromising stance on the issue of Irish representation. He viewed the inclusion of Irish artists as running counter to the decision of the International Jury. If there had to be Irish artists in the exhibition, he wanted their work segregated from the body of the international show, and he wanted separate catalogues for the two sections. These views he delivered to the Executive Committee in the form of non-negotiable demands.

There was no way the committee could accede, nor did it feel inclined to, and Becht pulled out. He tried to prevail upon Panza di Biumo to do the same. "It's about time," Noel Sheridan commented, "that someone stood up to a collector like that."

Which begged the question of what a collector like Becht was doing on the jury in the first place.

Speaking from his home in Hilverrsum, Becht was scathingly critical of the Irish position. He claimed to have a telegram from Biumo stating that he too was going to resign, and said that the decision to include Irish artists compromised him in the eyes of artists of international reputation: "There is a lot of art in Ireland, but not of a quality to rank with the forty best artists in the world." He was dissatisfied with progress on the Hop Store. The available space (it was down from a possible four to two-and-a-half floors) was, he claimed, inadequate, and the show should perhaps be postponed for a year. The Irish were novices, amateurs.

In the wake of his departure, the Dutch artists began pulling out of the show. He maintained that he exerted no pressure on them to do so, that they rang him to ask what was going on and then, of their own accord, withdrew. Three factors should be borne in mind in relation to this claim. First, the exceptionally high proportion of Dutch artists selected for Rose. Second, Becht's proprietorial role, as a major collector, in the field of Dutch art and, third, the subsequent willingness of artists other than the Dutch to accept the Irish presence in the exhibition.

In the end, six of the seven Dutch artists withdrew. In terms of the overall quality of the show Becht's resignation and the loss of the six artists did not represent a major problem. Its general structure - a new-painting/ minimalist combination - could easily be sustained by filling the depleted ranks with new names. In world terms, there was clearly no shortage of artists of equal reputation to replace those who had pulled out. In fact the very ease of replacement serves to underline the doubtful relevance of Rose's principal of selection: The forty most significant artists of the last four years? Any ten selectors would probably provide ten different lists. There would be overlaps, but it is extremely doubtful that there would be consensus. The confident certainty of the Rose formula, while clear in intent, translates into vagueness in the face of the diversity, the political and commercial complication, not to mention the sheer quantity, of artistic production and promotion.

In addition to the six Dutch artists, Rose suffered other losses from its international selection, for a variety of reasons (logistical problems, lack of suitable work, other commitments and so on). The extent of the damage to the fabric of the show was for a time unclear. Only four months from the opening date, the jury was faced with the problem of an uncertain number of alternative selections.

There had been as well, another drawback. The Henry Moore show had fallen through after representatives of the artist had visited the proposed venue in the Hop Store. There is some suggestion that it had fallen victim to the bureaucracy that surrounds the sculptor since he became a virtual institution. Rose now needed an alternative feature exhibition to accompany the group show.

COUNT PANZA DI BIUMO DID not resign. He wasn't interested in becoming em broiled in controversy. His chief interest in Rose had been to select the artists. Once that was achieved, and his own choice was assured its place, he was content to let the other members of the jury get on with selecting the actual works.

There ensued a period of uncertainty over names and numbers. Rose put a brave face on it but, with time short, the overall picture still somewhat unclear, the unruffled, swannlike aspect of the organisation was undoubtedly accompanied by an energetic scramble beneath the surface.

An exhibition of the drawings of Joseph Beuys took the place of the Henry Moore show. Instead of being sited in the Hop Store, it would be mounted in the Guinness Visitors' Centre across the road.

William de Kooning and Francis Bacon were named as being among the replacement artists by Ciaran Carty in the Sunday Independent. Irish Times art critic Brian Fallon noted their inclusion and commented that they were inappropriate for the show. Figures of acknowledged stature, they had both featured in previous Roses, but, more to the point, their inclusion seemed to suggest a different kind of exhibition than the original list had suggested. If you want de Kooning in your show, then he isn't a last minute replacement, he is one of the king pins of your strategy. His apparent late inclusion is disquieting for that reason. It suggested at worse panic, at best uncertainty.

Neither Bacon nor de Kooning are included in Rose, though they were invited. Bacon had no suitable work and asked to be considered for the next show. The insurance costs of transporting de Kooning's were said to be prohibitive (one of his paintings recently fetched a record price at auction for a work by a living artist).

When the smoke had cleared, Rose turned out to have fifty-two artists (counting partnerships as one) and Beuys. Forty-two of these comprise the international section, ten are Irish. Fifteen of the original selection had gone, there are seventeen replacements. The show provides a good, representative picture of the current international scene.

The art world is notoriously fragmented and contentious. There are a lot of people involved in it, artists, critics, administrators, who would find much to criticise in the concept of the show and the mechanics of selection. It is essentially passive. It reflects a state of affairs, and by doing so grants a measure of approbation and legitimacy to it, when, arguably, it should pursue a more aggressive, prescriptive line.

It would, in a real sense, be neither possible nor desirable to please all the interested parties. Part of the function of the show is to excite debate and argument. "Rose and controversy it would seem," a press release from the exhibition noted wryly, "are inseparable." But Patrick Murphy would prefer if the argument and debate were restricted to the content of the show. The difficulties, disagreements, resignations, withdrawals and other organisational problems are, he feels, par for the course and irrelevant to the substance of the exhibition. His faith in the show never wavered despite the incidental tribulations along the way. He feels it is possibly the finest international group show in the world this year. It is, undoubtedly, a tribute to his determination and practical ability.

Work and artists arrived on time.

The catalogue was assembled and produced with exemplary promptness, encompassing late changes. Cecil King took on the task of hanging the show in a singular, untried and quite spectacular space. •