10 things to know about Peter Doig
Ben Luke surveys the influential oeuvre of the Trinidad-based ‘painters’ painter’, including two works offered in our Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction in March 2017
Born in Edinburgh in 1959, Doig moved to Trinidad as a baby, yet grew up mostly in Canada. He studied in London, first in the early 1980s and again at the end of that decade, sandwiching a few years spent in Montreal. After his second bout of study in London, he settled there for many years, before moving back to Trinidad in 2002. Today, he lives between the Caribbean island, London and New York, and teaches in Düsseldorf. The constant movement has marked his painting. ‘My thinking is always between places,’ he said recently. ‘Something I would like to achieve in my paintings is a place in between places.’
Doig’s 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain began with Hitch Hiker (1989-90), and his earlier paintings — expressive and dramatically coloured — were ignored. But a show at Michael Werner gallery in London in 2014 revealed these fascinating works, showing Doig’s journey to his mature work. Many were significantly more urban than the landscape-based images for which he became renowned from the 1990s. They reflected the metropolitan inspirations that formed the young artist. Doig has described vivid memories of the London club scene in the early 1980s, for example, and the architecture of New York in particular had a huge effect on his early artistic development.
On his MA at Chelsea, Doig said that he made ‘quite homely paintings, paintings of quite modest subjects’. But this ‘folkish’ subject matter, and the dense, intense approach Doig took to painting it, led to an original language that gained him attention: he won the Whitechapel Artists Award in 1991, and for the resulting show he made some of the works that became emblematic of his art.
Doig began to gain recognition in London just as the city’s art world was being engulfed by the energetic scene triggered by Damien Hirst’s 1988 Freeze exhibition, and dominated by work inspired by minimalism, Neo-Geo and conceptualism. Doig ignored the zeitgeist, yet achieved success when many other painters felt excluded. ‘I really enjoyed being a painter then, actually,’ he said in 2013. ‘And I think you can see I enjoyed it, too, in the work that I was making. I don’t think I was chasing anything, I definitely wasn’t a bandwagon chaser. I think that’s a big mistake for artists — to try to chase something and want to be part of something.’
Among the works that he produced for the 1991 Whitechapel exhibition was The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), a vision of the architect Eberhard Zeidler’s modernist home in Rosedale near Toronto. Doig had visited the house and taken photographs of it, but this was not a mimetic painting: it captured, in thrillingly lively paint, the experience and atmosphere of Doig’s visit. Christie’s sold the painting at auction in 2013 for £7.65 million, and then again in 2016 for £11.28 million. Architecture glimpsed through trees was also the subject of a seminal group of works, the Concrete Cabin paintings, made in response to Le Corbusier’s housing complex the Unité d’Habitation at Briey-en-Forêt in northern France, between 1991 and 1996. Cabin Essence (1993-94), a work from that series, sold at Christie’s in London for £9.6 million in 2015.
‘I often paint scenes with snow because snow somehow has this effect of drawing you inwards,’ Doig said in 1994. In numerous works made around that time, Doig created hermetic snowy worlds — partly inspired by memories of his time in Canada — which hover poetically between abstraction and figuration and find the artist at his most virtuosic in mixing atmosphere and subject. They fuse the found image, perhaps in the form of a photograph he has taken or seen, and the poetic evocation of memory as those images are veiled or lost in paint. Cobourg 3 + 1 More (1994), offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction in March 2017 at Christie’s London, is one of the most evocative of all the snow paintings: is this a landscape in a blizzard, with figures at the side of a lake in this rural Canadian landscape, or a memory, fading and fragmented by the white noise of time? It sold for £12,709,000.
The sources, however, can vary wildly, as can his treatment of them. Ski Jacket (1994) was based on a photograph he saw in a Toronto newspaper of a Japanese ski resort. For him, it evoked ‘a black and white oriental scroll painting’, but the diptych he produced transports the image into an entirely different realm by mirroring the scene and situating it in a field of veils, mists, drips and thick blobs. Blotter (1993), meanwhile, was based on a shot he took of his brother standing on a frozen pond that they had flooded to create more dramatic, reflective effects. Doig’s use of photography goes in and out of focus, and since his move to Trinidad, the presence of the photographic image is less insistent. ‘I don’t see it being a big issue, the photographic side of the paintings, and I never really have. But it’s less important now to me than it was,’ he said in 2013. ‘Maybe one day I’ll abandon it altogether, but for the moment it’s still important.’
‘I don’t think of myself, God forbid, as being a series painter,’ Doig once said. Yet he does return to images periodically. The most famous example is a still from a closing scene of the film Friday the 13th, featuring a figure slumping out of a canoe, an image which he used in paintings including Swamped (1990), which Christie’s sold for $25.925 million in 2015 (the artist’s auction record) and Canoe Lake (1997-98). His paintings made in Trinidad have similar echoes. The paintings Stag (2002-05) and Metropolitan (Stag) (2004) feature the same bearded, behatted figure holding on to a tree trunk. But in each case, Doig invests the canvas with entirely different light, colour, handling of paint, and mood. Metropolitan (Stag), which had been owned by Dinos Chapman and Tiphanie de Lussy, was offered at Christie’s London on 7 March 2017 and sold for £485,000.
It took time for Trinidad to palpably enter Doig’s painterly universe. But over time, certain shifts in his work have emerged. In works such as Pelican (2004) and Pelican Island (2006) — sold at Christie’s in 2014, you see the results of Doig’s kayak journeys around the island, often with fellow Trinidad-based painter Chris Ofili. His handling of paint has changed, too: thinner layers, more expansive abstract passages, greater risks taken with the finish of the painting — a quality he much admires in Matisse’s work. But perhaps the biggest change is in the paintings’ light and colour, which has undoubtedly been affected by the Caribbean climate. He once said that in Trinidad, ‘there are incredible contrasts of light, and extreme shadows as well’.
Few painters today are as influential as Doig — traces of his approach can be found in the work of artists as diverse as the Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage and the Argentinian-born painter Varda Caivano. And Doig has proved an influential and enthusiastic teacher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. ‘Conversations that you have in the studio with the students are the types of conversations you don’t ever have elsewhere, really,’ he said in 2013. ‘I get a lot out of it myself, especially since I have been teaching in Düsseldorf. My paintings have changed quite a lot, and I have actually learnt a lot from observing the way people make things, and from talking about it.’