A painter of consciousness, of consciousness in the world, as it goes by
by Jonathan Watkins, curator, writer and former director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
written in 2023.
In the middle of the Midlands, Birmingham is the English city furthest from the sea, too far and yet not far enough away from London. Born in the first year of the second world war, John Walker grew up there during a time of unprecedented social upheaval. The son of working class parents, he witnessed the final fling of the manufacturing industries that had expanded Birmingham rapidly in the nineteenth century
Walker graduated from a local art college into a society that was caught between the promise of a brave new world – “forged in the white heat of technology” – and the legacy of an international trauma: modern shopping centres and motorways on one hand, gaping bomb sites on the other. David Prentice, a contemporary, describes how Birmingham was for artists in those days: “We agreed that [it] was appalling, not facing up at all to current issues in the art world and so on. It is very difficult to describe really how deprived Birmingham was in those days. It was a glum little city. We loved it as students because it had secret pockets of things you could find out … but it took bloody ages!”
John Walker’s star rose quickly. Appreciated by teachers and peers for his exceptional talent, he was very driven but not always on the right side of the local arts establishment. This led to a split between him and the college, where he had started teaching, and a move to Blackwell, a village outside Birmingham. The story he then tells is like a leaf taken from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists:
… one day this woman came up the stairs. She said she was visiting someone in the village, and was told that an artist lived here, and would I mind if she had a look around? I was painting these big paintings, at least 20-feet wide. There were thirty of forty paintings that size, and we went through them. She sat down, I gave her some tea, and she said, “Have you ever thought of showing in New York?” And I said, “No, of course not.” She said, “Would you like to? We could show them in my gallery.” It was Betty Parsons. We became very good friends. So I had a show with her in 1967.
Then followed a Harkness Fellowship, enabling Walker to spend more time in New York, and in 1972, while living in London, he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. An extraordinary achievement. In the same year he accepted an invitation to be the solo artist for Ikon Gallery’s inaugural exhibition at its new premises in the Birmingham Shopping Centre – poignantly located between a Habitat store, promoting a cool modern lifestyle, and an army recruitment office. A coup for Ikon, the show comprised chalk drawings made directly onto the gallery walls, a rare (and brave) diversion from painting on canvas that gives it legendary status in local art history. According to Ikon’s then director, Simon Chapman, it was “astonishing”.
* * *
Forty-five years later, I was the director of Ikon when I met John Walker for the first time. I saw the catalogue for his most recent New York exhibition and was similarly impressed by images of the new paintings. His eightieth birthday was imminent and it quickly dawned on me that another solo show at Ikon was long overdue, this time to celebrate the achievement of an artist, Birmingham born and raised, who was continuing to go from strength to strength. I wrote to him asking if he was interested, he said yes and we arranged a studio visit.
And so to Maine. New England. With old England long since behind him, John had spent intervening years in Australia before returning to the US, teaching in Boston while setting up a family home and studios in and around New Bristol, looking out onto the Atlantic. Where he now lives and works is a far cry from where he grew up.
On arrival one is immediately struck by the elemental nature of the place, the sea, the big sky and a landscape that is at once tough and picturesque. More weather than English drizzle. John is a good guide, driving along coast roads in his pickup, stopping off at favourite cafes and diners on the way to locations of particular interest, some of which have inspired him to paint. One such he has renamed “Shitty Cove”. He explains, “I can’t paint the scenic part. I’m anti-scenic. It took me about ten years before I could paint the place, even though I was living there. I found a place where it smells, and all the garbage comes in and that allowed me to paint because it wasn’t scenic.”
During studio visits we concentrated on paintings that might be included in the Ikon exhibition. Characteristically they flirt with the line drawn between abstraction and figuration, but with a formal clarity and colour that is quite unlike an earlier deliberate muddiness. John’s use of striation to suggest waves and tides is visually compelling – in a Aboriginal kind of way – and the occasional repetition of stylised fish motifs fits in with an aesthetic strategy that has served him well throughout his artistic career, but now it is smartly “dumb”, less arcane, more obviously about a here and now. This is work that has an edgy beauty that is as refreshing as it is confronting. It keeps us on our toes.
This was the key to the success of John’s exhibition at Ikon, the reason why it not only attracted visitors of his generation, but also appealed to younger artists, especially those who, like him, prioritise the formal inventiveness that paint affords. When he says, “It is the height of ambition, it seems to me, to be a painter”, it is not about the fetishisation of the medium, or art for art’s sake, but rather an aspiration to the condition of free-verse poetry.
This last thought occurred to me and then I remembered that John was a good friend of William Corbett, a poet at the heart of literary life in Boston. In the catalogue for our Ikon exhibition, we published a poem by him, dedicated to John, and the transcript of a lecture he gave on John’s work at the New York Studio School shortly before Corbett’s death in 2018. The lecture is especially touching, referring to time the two men spent together while teaching at Boston University: “I loved working with him, saying what I, a poet who loved painting, could get away with saying. Loved the gossipy hours over wine after crits with the painters. Talking for five or six hours unwinding … More laughter than yackety yack.” The admiration was mutual, and each clearly identified with the other. In an interview some years previously, Corbett described himself as “a poet of consciousness, of consciousness in the world, as it goes by.” The same could be said for John Walker, painter.
Such sensibility and unpretentiousness are rare in the art world. Gossipy hours over wine after long days of installation, unwinding, more laughter than yacketty yack, it was a privilege having him back in Birmingham.
 David Prentice, interview in Some of the Best Things in Life Happen Accidentally, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2004, p.117
 Jennifer Samet, ‘Beer with a Painter: John Walker’, Hyperallergic, 18 May 2013
 Simon Chapman, ‘Welcome to Ikon’, This could happen to you, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2010, p.132
 Jennifer Samet, Op, cit.
 William Corbett, ‘John Walker Drawing’, John Walker. New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2019, p.14
 ‘The Romance of Life and Art: An Interview with William Corbett’, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2005