Formerly in the collection of Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer – who sold the present work in 1989, the same year that their painting Torpedo…Los! (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein set a historic auction record for the artist, and whose silkscreen painting Buffalo II (1964) by Roy Rauschenberg set another momentous world record in 2019 – Oh to be a Serpent that I might love you longer (1962) is a large-scale masterpiece by the visionary Scottish painter Alan Davie. Across two canvases which together span three metres in width, Davie deploys a pyrotechnic array of line, symbol and painterly technique that exemplifies the magical, ritualistic approach for which he is known. Bold black glyphs criss-cross the surface like ancient icons; four discs in green, purple, orange and gold rise from right to left, as if tracking the course of the sun. They are bejewelled with concentric rings and wheeling dots of colour, from opulent, gilded flashes to a blush of black enamel that pools glossily into marbled lilac. Underlining them is a serrated ribbon of harlequin-esque triangles, surmounting a richly tangled and splashed profusion of metallic gold, pale blue and speckled black. The titular serpent can be glimpsed to the left. Ranging from matt, chalky blurs of eau-de-nil to impastoed flecks of teal and stained blooms of dilute pigment, the surface is an arena of exuberant energy and constant surprise; two striped exclamation marks bring the work to an emphatic climax.
Born in Grangemouth, Scotland, in 1920, Davie forged a unique creative path, swiftly rebelling against the poised figurative style that he was taught at the Edinburgh College of Art. Following the Second World War, he travelled widely throughout Europe, absorbing sights from the Romanesque and Gothic architecture of Spain to the Renaissance glories of Venice. It was here in 1948 that he saw the Peggy Guggenheim collection, and was profoundly inspired by the biomorphic surrealism of such artists as Jean Arp, Paul Klee, Joan Miró and the early work of Jackson Pollock – with whom, on a visit to America in the last year of Pollock’s life, Davie would form a close relationship. While teaching at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts during the 1950s he developed a keen interest in Pacific and African art, as well as the paintings of Ancient Egypt, whose bold, graphic frontal impact can be felt in the present canvas. A retrospective of Davie’s work was held in 1958 at the former Wakefield Art Gallery, where it was seen by a young David Hockney, who would enrol in the Royal College of Art the following year. His conjurings of text, figure and empty space resound throughout Hockney’s early paintings. A second retrospective exhibition toured Europe in 1962, the year that Oh to be a Serpent that I might love you longer was painted; in 1963, Davie represented Britain at the 7th Bienal de Bellas Artes de são Paulo, Brazil, where he was awarded the prize for Best Foreign Painter.
A talented free-jazz musician, Davie channelled symbol and image with an automatist, improvisatory approach, often working from above with his canvas on the floor – not unlike Pollock, who famously painted from ‘within’ his compositions. Underlying all Davie’s work was a Jungian belief in the ‘collective unconscious’, which led to him a vocabulary of archetypal signs and shapes that he saw recurring across millennia of human creation, and a synthesis of mythic elements from countless different cultures. He believed that all powerful art had an intense mystical content, and conceived of himself as something like a disinherited shaman, bringing images into the world that – like the ritual art of so-called ‘primitive’ societies – would have a spiritual life in the community. The serpent at the heart of the present work, variously an emblem of divination, fertility, the cycles of life and the fall of man, had a particular primal charge for the artist. ‘My earliest recollection of drawing,’ he remembered in 1992, ‘I must have been three or four years old, is drawing snakes and trees. And a curious thing is that the serpent comes into my work a lot, still does, you know, and it was there right from the very beginning’ (A. Davie, 1992, quoted in John Bellany and Alan Davie: Cradle of Magic, exh. cat. Newport Street Gallery, London 2019, p. 17).