PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
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PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT COLLECTION
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)

Boiler House

PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
Boiler House
signed, titled, inscribed and dated 'PETER DOIG '93 CABIN BOILER HOUSE' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 ¾ x 108 ¼in. (200 x 275cm.)
Painted in 1993
Victoria Miro, London.
Fruchter Collection, Antwerp.
Private Collection, San Francisco.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
S. Watson (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Vancouver, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2001, p. 11 (dated 1994).
R. Shiff and C. Lampert (eds.), Peter Doig, New York 2011, p. 29 (illustrated in colour, p. 28; dated 1994).
F. Outred (ed.), Peter Doig: Cabins and Canoes, The Unreasonable Silence of the World, exh. cat., Beijing, Faurschou Foundation, 2017, p. 273 (illustrated in colour, pp. 100-101; dated 1994).
Salzburg, Max-Gandolph-Bibliothek, Prix Eliette von Karajan, 1994, p. 8, no. 21 (illustrated in colour, p. 9). This exhibition later travelled to Vienna, Französisches Kulturinstitut Wien and Paris, Institut Autrichien.
Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Peter Doig Blizzard seventy-seven, 1998, p. 133, no. 12 (illustrated in colour, p. 93; detail illustrated, p. 92; dated 1994). This exhibition later travelled to Nuremberg, Kunsthalle Nürnberg and London, Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, 2003-2004, p. 136 (illustrated in colour, p. 81; dated 1994). This exhibition later travelled to Nîmes, Carré d'Art - Musée d'art contemporain de Nîmes.
London, Tate Britain, Peter Doig, 2008-2009, pp. 30 and 156 (illustrated in colour, p. 65; dated 1994). This exhibition later travelled to Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt.
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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

An icon dating from one of Peter Doig’s greatest periods, Boiler House (1993) is a masterwork from his seminal series of Concrete Cabins. Through a quivering screen of trees, rendered with fluid trails of impasto, an isolated structure lies dormant. Bathed in saturated, otherworldly light, it glows like a beacon in the darkness, cast adrift amid tangled layers of texture and colour. During the 1990s, the artist painted nine large-scale depictions of Le Corbusier’s abandoned Unité d’Habitation at Briey-en-Fôret in Northern France, giving rise to his largest and most distinctive thematic cycle. The present painting stands alone within the series, capturing the building designed to house the Unité’s coal boiler. Prominently exhibited – notably in Doig’s 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain – it is a triumph of painterly bravura and psychological tension. The building’s angular geometries loom large within the thicket, imbued with stark anthropomorphic charge. At the same time, Doig’s kaleidoscopic surface causes it to shift in and out of focus, approximating the abstract sensation of looking back through time. Laced with art-historical resonance – from Cézanne, Bonnard and Munch to Mondrian and Richter – it is a rhapsody on the theme of memory that lies at the heart of Doig’s oeuvre.

The Concrete Cabins are widely regarded as the centrepiece of Doig’s practice. They include Concrete Cabin, 1991-92 (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester), Concrete Cabin West Side, 1993 (National Gallery of Ireland) and the extraordinary Cabin Essence, 1993-94; Doig concluded the series in 1996, before producing a final depiction of the building’s interior in 1999. Inscribed ‘cabin’ on the reverse, Boiler House was unveiled at the Prix Eliette von Karajan in 1994: a prestigious prize won by Doig that year, and subsequently awarded to artists including Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. The work went on to star in major touring retrospectives including Peter Doig: Blizzard seventy seven at the Kunsthalle zu Kiel in 1998, as well as Peter Doig: Charley’s Space at the Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht in 2003. At Tate Britain in 2008, it was one of a handful of Concrete Cabins displayed in a single room at the heart of the exhibition: a presentation that met with rapturous critical acclaim.  

Aside from its subject matter, Boiler House distinguishes itself from its companions in a number of ways. Though wrought with the same complex brushwork and atmospheric mise-en-scène that defines the series, the building is granted a new degree of prominence. In Doig’s depictions of the Unité d’Habitation, the architecture itself is largely veiled by foliage – the viewer never sees the contours of the structure. Here, however, the boiler house rises out of the forest in totemic splendour, its windows meeting our gaze like eyes. The trees, formerly entwined, part ways to reveal its form, slicing the composition into rhythmic vertical segments. A series of wooden pillars emerges from the undergrowth to the right of the composition, infused with haunting figural presence. Both texture and palette, too, are lighter: white highlights quiver on the tree trunks, while the leaves and forest floor are spiked with golden hues. The dense, fossilised surfaces of Doig’s previous depictions give way to ethereal, hazy passages of paint, punctuated by sunlight that bathes the building in an almost metallic glow. Like chancing upon another person in the wilderness, it offers a startled jolt: a moment of clarity within a clouded daydream. 

Doig first visited the Unité d’Habitation at Briey in 1991, as part of a group of artists, designers and architects known as La Première Rue. Together, they planned to renovate the first three floors of the building, which had been abandoned nearly twenty years earlier. Built in the late 1950s, the Unité d’Habitation – or ‘cité radieuse’ – was one of several concrete structures that sprung up in Europe after the Second World War. Based on Moscow’s Narkomfin building, it proposed a utopian dream of democratic, communal living, containing an internal network of individual dwellings. The boiler house, situated around 300 metres from the main structure, was decommissioned after a new machine was installed inside the complex – La Première Rue considered turning it into a studio or exhibition space. Le Corbusier’s entire project, however, eventually fell into social and economic disrepair, leaving his Modernist fantasy to the mercy of nature. For Doig, the sight was deeply moving. Having travelled through the war graveyards of Northeast France on his journey to Briey, he was reminded that the Unité had been one of the many solutions proposed to improve society in the wake of global conflict. Gleaming through the trees, it stood before him as a lost reverie: a temple of hope laid to ruin.

The notion of an irretrievable dream went straight to the heart of Doig’s own practice. Raised between Scotland, Trinidad and Canada before leaving for art school in London, he had long been fascinated by ideas about memory and displacement. His paintings became vehicles for exploring these concepts, using multiple source images, fluid abstract techniques and fragmented art-historical references to capture the sensation of wrestling with half-forgotten times and places. From the beginning, the lonely, isolated cabin had been a primary motif for Doig, fusing together what he described as a sense of ‘homeliness’ with uncanny feelings of vacancy and voyeurism. In early works such as Charley’s Space, Rosedale and Road House – all from 1991 – the building is infused with a sense of nostalgia, evocative of the Canadian dwellings of Doig’s childhood. In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, also from 1991, the house morphs in and out of focus like a mirage. Here, Doig’s engagement with the work of another Modernist architect – Eberhard Zeidler – forms an important precedent for the present work. In both, the artist delights in the contrasts between the rigid geometric structure and the wild ebullience of nature, mimicking the sensation of searching for order within the foggy abyss of time.

In attempting to recreate the feeling of looking back, Doig relied heavily on the structures that prompted the viewer to look through. In many of his early works, the artist used snowstorms – another Canadian motif – as a means of creating layers; elsewhere, trees became his primary device. The latter took on new significance in the Concrete Cabins: indeed, Doig recalls that it was the experience of seeing the building through the forest that had first sparked his imagination. Half-obscured by foliage, it embodied the very condition of memory itself – aloof, intangible and fragmented. Back in his studio, Doig attempted to recreate something of this experience by placing himself at progressive layers of remove from his subject matter. In Briey, he took numerous photographs of the boiler house, as well as colour film footage of the main building which he subsequently cut and spliced into a sequence of black and white stills. He later diluted their resolution further by photocopying them into a book: ‘I was trying to depict the movement of an eye – not to paint a still’, he explained. ‘The eye never sees a “still”’ (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 39).

Doig has spoken of this technique in art-historical terms. ‘I purposely painted the manmade buildings through the trees rather than paint them first, then paint a screen of trees [or] nature on top’, he explains. ‘I had seen Cézanne do this a lot – the light of architecture glimpsed’ (P. Doig, ibid., p. 38). This comparison is particularly pertinent in relation to the present work, whose composition is riddled with ghosts of paintings such as Trees and Houses Near the Jas de Bouffan (1885-86) or Farm in Normandy, Summer (Hattenville) (1882). Another source of inspiration in this vein was Pierre Bonnard, who – according to Doig – succeeded in painting ‘the space that is behind the eyes’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 142). Indeed, Doig’s comments on the Briey paintings elsewhere speak directly to this analysis: ‘I would pick the architecture through the foliage, so that the picture would push itself up to your eye’, he explains; ‘… that is the way the eye looks: you are constantly looking through the things, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., ibid., p. 13).

This approach is eloquently borne out here. Like memory – and indeed like vision – Doig’s painterly surface exists in multiple states at once. Throughout the composition, layers of detail collide and intertwine, alternately underpinning and overriding one another. The trees cascade down the length of the canvas as if forged from vast single strokes. On top, Doig applies ribbons of pale colour that loom into the foreground, each streaked with multiple luminous hues. Behind them, the building itself is wrought from overlapping skeins of marbled colour, its walls and windows tinged with soft purple tones as if shifting in and out of ultra-violet light. Above, Doig combines passages of hazy colour – redolent of spray paint – with thick, burnished impasto that writhes and flickers like flames. In places, bright yellow foliage seems to protrude from the canvas, as if quivering in front of it like a hologram. Elsewhere, it shatters into myriad tiny specks, bedecking the forest floor with a carpet of golden dust. Across the entire painting, tiny granules of colour hover on the surface, seemingly replicating the studio detritus that accumulated over time upon Doig’s source images. Reality and illusion fade in and out of alignment, ever interchangeable and infinitely malleable.

In this regard, Doig also enters into dialogue with the history of abstraction. The dissolution of traditional figure-ground relations invites comparison with Gerhard Richter’s squeegeed canvases, which Doig would likely have encountered in the artist’s touring retrospective of 1993. Much like the Concrete Cabins, these works played with the relationship between surface and depth, prompting the viewer to peel back their various layers in search of something familiar. At the same time, the geometric splicing of the surface speaks to Doig’s interests in the work of artists such as Barnett Newman and Piet Mondrian, the latter of whom links directly back to Le Corbusier himself. Where Mondrian distilled nature into geometry, however, Doig seems to perform this process in reverse, liquidating Le Corbusier’s angular lines and contours until they hover before the viewer like a watery reflection. The Modernist logic of the grid is replaced by a network of shifting interlocking structures – trees, windows, branches – that quiver as if caught in a spider’s web. Order and chaos are held in a perpetual state of tension: each time a sense of clarity begins to emerge, it is quickly submerged by proliferating layers of texture. We recover our bearings, only to lose them again in the blink of an eye.

It is here that Boiler House also gains its psychological potency. There are overtones of Edward Hopper’s works in the building’s dark, vacant windows, seemingly haunted by traces of long lost inhabitants: indeed, Doig said of the Unité d’Habitation that he was ‘surprised by the way the building transformed itself from a piece of architecture into a feeling. It was all emotion suddenly’ (P. Doig, quoted in T. Adams, ‘Record Painter’, in The Observer, 27 January 2008). Elsewhere, in relation to another work from the series, Virginia Button has spoken of the ‘wall of impenetrable trees which recall the claustrophobic, prison bar trees depicted by the forerunners of the fin de siècle Symbolist movement, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh’ (V. Button, The Turner Prize, London 2007, pp. 111-112). The ‘cabin’ – once homely – is thus rendered unheimlich. Doig’s ‘prison bar trees’ are transformed into almost cinematic illusions: like a video tape paused on rewind, or a sudden intrusion of grainy static, they fluctuate as if suspended in mid-air. For Doig, who elsewhere drew heavily upon stills from horror films such as Friday the 13th, such devices play into the work’s sense of foreboding and déjà-vu.

Boiler House, then, operates on multiple levels. On one hand, it is an attempt to document Doig’s own memory of his time at Briey. On another, it is a bid to capture the mechanics of memory in a more abstract sense – to pin down the sensation of looking back in time. In doing so, it engages with the memory of art’s history, splicing together multiple influences like fragments from a movie reel. It also plays with the memory of paint itself – its shifting formations and residual traces, which morph and mutate in their journey across the canvas. More broadly still, it is a painting of a wider cultural memory – a utopia consigned to the past, and ravaged by nature. It is in the elision of these various layers – the painterly, the personal and the historical – that the work ultimately finds its meaning. It is a thesis on the way we process time and place, simultaneously absorbing, confounding and reflecting our own gaze.

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