Rose Wylie - Selected Press | David Zwirner
Rose Wylie: Selected Press
The idiosyncratic English artist Rose Wylie makes the process of importing things in the world to the realm of the painted feel exhilarating and new.
 

Rose Wylie, who is now eighty-seven, has been painting in the same rural studio in Kent, England, since the late 1960s, but she has only recently shimmered into wide public view. Incredibly, the show of large-scale paintings held last spring at David Zwirner was only her third appearance in New York, and the first in a big-time gallery. She who laughs last and all that.

Wylie is the opposite of what comes to mind when you think of an artist of a certain age rusticating in the Home Counties. She is a painter of verbs, and her large canvases (typically six feet by ten feet, more or less) are full of action: people dancing, playing sports, ice-skating, vamping, or working at a task, like butchering meat or driving a car. Her approach to form is boldly idiosyncratic; her brush shoots around the whole body, and the way she paints people is like stylized Morse code: the eyes and mouths often reduced to mere dots and dashes, the hair a mass of wavy brushstrokes, and the flattened forms heavily outlined in thick black or red oil paint. Wylie has a thing for faces seen in profile, and bodies too, maybe because they are easy to animate at that angle, and they give her paintings a jaunty, spirited feeling. Her work projects a “can-do” attitude; it’s full of pep.

She gets a lot of mileage out of painting eyelashes, as well as full skirts, soccer balls being kicked, brick walls, and ocean waves—anything that can be represented by rhythmically organized lines and sets of lines. Her streamlined figures project speed and immediacy, but they are not just hieroglyphs. The handmade quality, the feeling of an image arrived at through careful in-the-moment looking, is always present.

In the syntax of painting, the quality of line and the amount of pressure exerted in its making endow a painting with a good part of its energy. Wylie’s grasp of mark-making is almost outrageously assured. She shows how line can both describe an image and at the same time be an image. Her confidence that the brush is doing the right thing never wavers.

Where did she come from, and why hadn’t we seen her before? Although Wylie (born in 1934) is a contemporary of David Hockney, she is part of the generation of English painters who came of age after he reset the clock on British art. In Britain before 1960, even modernist-inflected painting was largely based on direct observation—i.e., realist—or loosely illustrational, something that looked good on the page. There was more, to be sure: homegrown abstraction, like John Hoyland and his confreres, the St. Ives landscape painters, not to mention the distortions of Francis Bacon and his school. But the dominant modes were scenes painted whole rather than fragmented, in either a version of straight realism or a more fanciful and illustrative modernist shorthand.

Hockney collapsed the two modes into one and introduced a fractured pictorial space into the bargain. And his finely calibrated distance from both popular culture and art history could be seen as gently, affectionately ironic. Although irony had long been a favored literary device, Hockney was among the first painters to give it visual form. By the 1970s, the ironical quoting of cultural motifs was commonplace—the pictorial equivalent of making notes in the margin of your copy of Shakespeare’s plays—but the level of finish seen in English painting was generally refined. The kind of paintbrush-as-meat-cleaver attack that Wylie carries out now would have seemed gauche in the 1970s. Her work was, and remains, barely housebroken.

Wylie showed early promise in drawing and painting. She attended a local art school as a young woman and went on to the teacher-training course at Goldsmiths in London, where she met the painter Roy Oxlade; they married in 1957. After graduating in 1959, the couple found a farmhouse in Kent with dilapidated barns that could be used as studios, and began a life dedicated to painting and teaching and getting by. They had three children, and Wylie put her own work on hold to care for them more or less full-time. Twenty years went by. She returned to school in 1979, at the age of forty-five, this time at the Royal College of Art, at the beginning of what would be a very consequential decade for painting in general and for English art in particular. Something catalyzed then in her work, though it would be years before it started to attract serious attention. Eventually she was included in a couple of important group shows, regional museum shows followed, and then the dealers came calling.

Wylie is no outsider artist, and her work should not be celebrated simply because success found her late in life. She is the real deal, and it took as long as it took. I’m just glad that she stayed the course. Her modernist bona fides are most apparent in her casually brilliant cut-and-paste compositions; she strategically distributes her forms across the canvas in a manner that recalls the repeats of sophisticated wallpaper or fabric design, two high points of English visual culture in the mid-twentieth century. In a final nod to craft culture, she often embellishes her works with strokes of paint aligned with the canvas edge, like a hand-painted frame.

The whole effect is so blithely “I don’t give a damn about fashion” as to be totally winning. One simply surrenders to her way of looking at things. Wylie’s paintings call to mind something John Cage once said in a documentary, with his inimitable, grinning, I-might-be-a-fool optimism, about his efforts as Merce Cunningham’s rehearsal pianist: “If you think the music’s bad now, just stick around.” She is interested in the vitality of seeing, not in realism, and if that results in some strange-looking heads and Kewpie-doll lips, that’s not her problem.

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Rose Wylie, whose watercolor Two Red Cherries appears on the cover of the Review’s Winter issue, lives in a cottage in Kent, England, that smells of firewood. A treacherous, narrow staircase leads up to a small studio. (“Hold the rail!” Wylie warned me.) Her large, funny, vibrant figurative paintings—made on unprimed, unstretched canvas—cover the walls and floor. When I visited on a recent Saturday afternoon, as Storm Arwen brewed outside, she told me she had spent the first years of her life in India, where her father worked as an engineer. The family moved back to England during the Second World War. Wylie studied at an art school in Kent and then a teacher-training program at Goldsmiths where, at nineteen, she met her husband, the painter Roy Oxlade. She put her own professional ambitions aside to raise their children, channeling her artistic energies, she said, into “soups, jam, clothes, curtains, and Christmas cards.” In her forties, she completed a degree at the Royal College of Art, and worked in relative obscurity until eventually, in her late seventies, her career started to take off, with solo exhibitions at Tate Britain and elsewhere. We talked at her kitchen table, drinking Lapsang tea. The mince pies I’d brought from London had crumbled on the journey, which seemed to delight her.

INTERVIEWER

How did people respond to your work in the early years?

WYLIE

I got very little response. I was considered a mother and a wife, married to an artist who was more prominent, and so whatever I did didn’t get a lot of recognition. That made me want to do it more, and more defiantly. I just thought, Bugger this! It was an impetus.

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The artist Rose Wylie came of age in austere postwar England, a member of the so-called Silent Generation, but she doesn’t quite fit the mold. While she leads a relatively frugal and hermetic life that exemplifies the resourcefulness her contemporaries are known for, silent she is not. At 86, Wylie paints freewheeling pictures, often with words loosely scrawled across them, that are gloriously big and crude, and full of a certain dry British humor that sends up any whiff of orthodoxy or pretension. Tudor kings and queens cavort cartoonishly across 16-foot-wide, unprimed canvases. Disembodied mouths chomp through exploding cookies. Celebrities, cinematic characters and figures from commercials often appear: stars from Quentin Tarantino films with hulking shoulders and slender legs; Lolita-like blondes in sunglasses; Serena Williams hammering a tennis ball into the air. Nothing is off limits. “I don’t like constraints,” says Wylie. “I’m hugely open to options and possibilities.”

Wylie found her way to art early in life. She attended art school in Kent as a teenager the 1950s, specializing in figurative painting, and soon after enrolled in teacher training at Goldsmiths, where she met her future husband, the painter Roy Oxlade. The pair had three children and, for much of the ’60s and ’70s, Wylie put her artistic pursuits aside while she dedicated herself to family life. But she always imagined she might return to painting eventually and, in the late ’70s when her children were grown up, she enrolled at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1981. Since then, she hasn’t stopped working. Her paintings garnered little notice for decades but, in the 2000s, exhibitions at London’s Union gallery and Cologne’s Choi & Lager helped create momentum, which grew steadily with a 2010 appearance in a group show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., as well as subsequent exhibitions at the Tate and Serpentine in London, among other institutions. All the while, though, Wylie has remained focused on her craft, unfazed by the now-voracious attention.

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 ‘I have a slight empathy with dust. If I see it I don’t rush to clear it up.’ Rose Wylie looks about the dining room of her 17th-century cottage in Kent, where she has lived for some 50 years. It has a cold brick floor and a ceiling of slanted glass panels, which look as if they have never been cleaned. Yellowy November light streams through the glass, softened by watermarks and the dark blotches of lichen and dead leaves. Outside, the garden has been left to its own devices, and presses close to the house, a lattice of shoots and branches. Some have snaked in at the windows and up to the ceiling, where they have dried and are now festooned with cobwebs. More sprigs of foliage have been stuffed into vases and placed along the windowsills; these, too, have dried into apricot-coloured crispness. On the table, as if arranged for a still life, is Wylie’s breakfast tray: mismatched coffee cup and saucer, crested Folkestone jug, two-handled silver sugar bowl, and the remains of porridge in a blue-edged scalloped dish. The effect of all this is a kind of well-worn, shabby elegance. Wylie, with her dark lipstick, green cardigan and choppy grey hair, smiles mischievously, and waves away the mess.

I’m visiting the painter at home as she prepares for ‘Let It Settle’, an exhibition at the Gallery at Windsor in Vero Beach, Florida (28 January–30 April). It’s one of three international shows in 2020, proof of her ever-blooming reputation. Though she’s quick to reject the focus on her age – ‘I just think it’s unnecessary, it doesn’t matter’ – her late-life success is remarkable. She first studied art in the 1950s, but gave it up in order to look after her children, only returning to the Royal College of Art for an MA in 1979. For more than 10 years, she worked in obscurity, the paintings stacking up on the floor in her studio, until she began to be noticed for competition entries. Then recognition came quickly. In 2014, she was awarded the John Moores Painting Prize; three years later, she had a retrospective at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London; and last year, at the age of 84, she received an OBE for services to art. ‘Suddenly, it all came together,’ she says. ‘But the work is no different, and I’m no different.’

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Rose Wylie made headlines when she became the darling of the art world in her late seventies. Her first major solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery last year earned her five star reviews and featured references to everything from Queen Elizabeth I to chocolate biscuits to Hollywood scandals - but her latest show, Lolita’s House at David Zwirner, has a narrower focus. "I live in the countryside in Kent, and in the 1970s, there was a teenage girl from across the way who used to wash cars outside her house," she explains. "She was always wearing a bikini, with a fag coming out of her mouth. I affectionately nicknamed her Lolita. More recently, I did a sketch of a girl leaning on a car, and it reminded me of her. It was the beginning of an entire series of works about the place that I call home."

Below, the critically-acclaimed artist shares five more things that have inspired her.

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A treat for those who loved - or missed - Wylie’s recent hit show at The Serpentine. New works 
- large multi-panelled paintings and smaller sketches or "workings" side by side in Wylie’s flashback to a neighbour’s '70s family life - "Lolita’s House". Teen dreams reimagined via a provocative and determined "unlearning" of the "rules" (combined with a deep understanding of and relationship with art history and pop culture).

The mundane and the accidental outlined by memory, connected by collage, like the lucky spider painting I bought from Wylie for my son a while ago, taped onto her living room door at the time, which now watches over Luc as he sleeps.

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One way in, since you were asking, might be to find words to describe the particular brush strokes that Rose Wylie seems to use. Here’s a bit of a list, though not an exhaustible one by any means: splots, dots, dashes, splats, splashes, splodges, licks, tags, plops, plonks, crumps, etc. Does all this sound a bit ridiculous? Sorry. Blame the work, not me.

And a little odd-sounding, too? You bet. There are few painters more arrestingly odd than Wylie, and it took a while for a big gallery to notice quite how pleasingly odd she was, and what it all amounted to. This is her second show at David Zwirner over in Mayfair, but her first wasn’t much of a show at all, so you could call it her first without over-masticating the truth.

It’s a huge show too, covering all three of the gallery’s floors. It is a bit of a surprise that a woman of her age should have produced such a mountain of work – and on such large a scale, too. She will be 84 in October.

Now here comes a big pantechnicon of a generalisation to jam the road. Brace yourself. Evidence from this show proves, at a stroke, quite conclusively, that youth have lost the plot, that they were never mature enough or knowledgeable enough to be taken seriously in the first place. The future belongs to those women who have lived long enough to deserve it. Think of Louise Bourgeois. Think of Phyllida Barlow. My case rests.

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British painter Rose Wylie didn’t get her break until her 70s but now the world can’t get enough of her blissfully unruly paintings.

Her latest exhibition opens at the David Zwirner Gallery in London this week.

BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz went to meet the artist at her studio in Kent.

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The past haunts Rose Wylie’s studio, though she’ll never forgive me for saying it. The painter’s work space, upstairs in her Kent cottage, is positively plastered in old newspaper, all the walls and floors and furniture, a kind of installation in itself. Her conversation harks back to history’s greats: Monet, Velazquez, Titian. Then there is the unavoidable fact that the lady herself, one of this decade’s most feted British artists, is 83. Wylie, though, prefers to be stubbornly modern, like the multicoloured Nikes she’s wearing.

"I think art should be about now," she says in her genteel but opinionated way. She says "now" more as "naorr", a product of her well-heeled background in Kent and colonial India. "Not always looking back, and not looking forward, but now."

Wylie, it has to be said, is very now. She has just had a hit show at the Serpentine Gallery, filled with her signature exuberant canvases, all gleeful colour and playful modern references. She’s about to have another, with the arch gallerist David Zwirner. In 2015, she was elected to the RA. Not bad for a woman who only took up painting properly again in her late fifties. "I had time off" ("orf") is how she puts it. "You know the story, you’ve heard it a million times. I was an art student, I finished my course, I got married immediately and had children, and..."

And she only took it up again once her three children were old enough. She started sending off picture after picture, although everything at first was rejected. One day, though, Germaine Greer championed her for a big exhibition; Sienna Miller asked her to do a T-shirt, which also helps. Over the past decade it has all slowly built into a kind of trendy Wylie myth, which she both enjoys and disapproves of. Is it true she used to paint in high heels?

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Some of the paintings on show in the Serpentine Gallery are so new that during the opening you could smell the oil paint. Rose Wylie may now be in her 80s, but you wouldn’t know it from this rumbustious and rollicking exhibition ("Rose Wylie: Quack Quack" at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 11 February).

Art world fame has come late—Wylie was in her eighth decade when she won the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize in 2014, the same year she became a Royal Academician—and she wears her recognition lightly.

Wylie says that her paintings often “heap up notations of experiences” and multiple readings swirl around these works. Here’s Elizabeth I, farthingaled and be-ruffed, based on Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s famous Ditchley Portrait (c.1592) and surrounded by floating pansies that appear like heraldic shields in Queen with Pansies (Dots) (2016).

Footballers, ice skaters, insects, dogs and film stars prance, bob and cavort across expanses of bare, unprimed canvas, often accompanied by scrawling pieces of text and depicted with a sprawling, schematic immediacy and lashings of thickly applied paint. Sometimes, as in the claggy monochrome scarlet expanses that comprise Red Painting, Bird, Lemur and Elephant (2016) this is directly slathered on with the artist’s hands—a massive Color Field finger-painting.

In the large, recent work Park Dogs and Air Raid (2017), based on a childhood memory of watching British Spitfires and Nazi Messerschmitts slug it out during the Blitz in 1940, planes zap each other with explosive cartoon flashes while, on the ground below, ducks dabble in the lake in front of the Sackler Gallery.

Equally monumental is the gigantic Pink Skater (Will I Win, Will I Win) (2015), in which a blonde woman, resplendent in a candy-pink dress, soars splay-legged across bright orange stars painted over two canvases, with the caption “WILL I WIN” running like ticker tape along the bottom.

Wylie wraps her canvases around corners, creating a sense of dramatic horizontal movement that recalls cartoon strips, film frames, ancient frescoes and architectural friezes. Images repeat and forms echo, making it clear that the apparent spontaneity is underpinned by careful consideration.

While there is a childlike directness to Wylie’s paintings, they are neither childish nor whimsical. Much like Philip Guston (whom she openly admires) the awkwardness of her images is richly expressive. The scale, freedom and confidence of these works convey both grandeur and glee. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery is a demanding space, but with these irresistible paintings, Wylie completely owns it.

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There is wild pleasure to be had from Rose Wylie, certainly on a first pass around her new exhibition. We are greeted to the Serpentine gallery by a pink dressed skater, leaping across a double canvas amid red starbursts. Flinging her arms and legs wide, the painting can barely contain her, any more than her little dress can: while her face is doll-like and her wrists dressed with pompoms, the skater's body has the full solidity of a woman of a certain age. 'Will I Win' reads determined lettering along the bottom: 'Will I Win'. Around the corner we meet the Irreverent Anatomy Drawing (2017), a wobbly brown horse with luxuriant eyelashes and protruding tongue presented as an unconvincing medical cutaway, bones drawn and labelled by someone with little interest in the accuracy of either bones or labels.

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"Will I win? Will I win?" shouts the fat pink skater as she hurtles across the in-your-face picture that greets you as you come through the door. I can’t help but feel that, for the painter Rose Wylie, it's a particularly pressing question. And it's one that the curators of this, her first big exhibition in a public London museum invite you to ponder and, hopefully by the end, find an answer for.

Wylie's backstory has commanded attention. Trained as an artist in the early 1950s, she has spent most of her career all but unrecognised. Living quietly in Kent, she devoted her energies to raising her family. And by the time she returned to her easel — or, at least, to the floor on which she typically spreads her expanses of canvas — she was in her forties.

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"Her medium is energy," was the apt comment by the Serpentine's artistic director Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s at yesterday's (29 November) opening of Rose Wylie's solo show of enormous exuberant canvases, which line the walls of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. This certainly seemed a good way to sum up the animated, unruly parade of footballers, Hollywood royalty, cut-out dolls as well as Queen Elizabeth, all of which—along with rumbustious dogs, elephants and much more—have been whipped into existence with lashings of oil paint. In one painting even a park bench seems poised for liftoff, and the fact that some of the works had only recently left the studio was confirmed by a distinctly discernible whiff of oil paint.

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This is how Rose Wylie paints the sun. She does a big yellow circle. Then she adds straight yellow lines around it. Underneath she does a couple of palm trees that are brown sticks with dollops of green on top. On the sea, she adds an outline of a ship with black smoke puffing out of it.

The teacher gave her a gold star and pinned it on the classroom wall. His name is Mr Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the nursery is called the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The exhibition is called Quack Quack. Oh, and young Rose is 83.

It took me a while to come back to the palm trees in her painting Cuban Scene, Smoke (2016) and compare them with the Californian palms David Hockney paints. Hockney’s palms are more precise, but do they really say more about the essence of a palm than Wylie’s bursts of broad-brushed leaves? Painting is a wonderful, magic thing. That is why young children love doing it. Wylie has rediscovered in maturity the freedom with which we painted when we were kids. Make a dog. Make a duck. Make a V1 flying bomb.

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It feels as if the art world has been playing catch-up when it comes to Kent-based Rose Wylie’s large paintings, often inspired by recollections and facts. Five years ago, at the age of 77, she found herself being talked about as an up-and-coming artist, while this show is her first major London exhibition.

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lot has changed for Rose Wylie since Germaine Greer first praised her vast and blissfully unruly paintings in the Guardian seven years ago. Then the late-blooming artist was a new discovery and her unsold, unstretched canvases were stacked from floor to ceiling in the 17th-century Kent cottage that’s been her home for 50 years. When I arrange to meet her there, just before her new solo show opens at the Serpentine Sackler this month, I worry that there won’t be anything to see.

Over leftover birthday cake – Wylie has just turned 83 – she says that when it comes to the day-to-day business of creating drawings and paintings, little has altered. “I have the same carpenter making the stretchers. I put the glue on myself and cut the canvas. Everything is the same. They just used to pile up. Now they don’t.”

Paintings have recently gone to art fairs in France and Shanghai. What she’s currently working on in her studio, a converted bedroom upstairs, is destined for an exhibition next spring with the blue-chip American dealer David Zwirner. Waiting to be shipped out, in a shed abutting the kitchen, her new commissions for Quack Quack, as the new Serpentine show is called, draw on memories from her time in Kensington as a child during the blitz, as well as observations of the park’s present-day visitors – a mix of fighter planes, cavorting dogs and resting migrants. Pinned on the side of a bookshelf in the dining room is a list of older works for the show, their titles describing the everyday, accessible subjects she loves, from olive oil labels to Choco Leibniz biscuits, from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to Arsenal and Spurs.

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Over the last few years, and particularly in recent months, the home studio where the 83-year-old painter Rose Wylie has lived and worked for decades in Kent, England has undergone what amounts to a décor change. Usually stacked to the ceiling with piles of the large-scale canvases that Wylie works on unstretched, with her completed, almost billboard-like works leaning against the wall, it's lately been looking a bit spare. “They used to be here, but not anymore,” she said at home on a recent morning, where she was contemplating a piece she’d been working on until 2 a.m. the night before. “They’ve been out.”

That’s because Wylie is having something of an art world moment in her eighties—a transition from “completely unknown to slightly known,” as she put it—that’s lately left her inventory depleted. Since Wylie appeared as the only non-American artist in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ "Women to Watch" exhibition in 2010, things have been ramping up for the painter: Just this year, her solo shows have popped up from Cardiff to Seoul, and were joined by another just last week at David Zwirner’s London gallery, “Horse, Bird, Cat," whose titular work spans 18 feet wide. That size may present a challenge for many exhibition spaces, but fortunately, Zwirner's Upper Room gallery—which usually showcases artists outside of the gallery's usual roster, and whom it occasionally goes on to represent—had the room to spare.

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