Derek Carruthers, b.1935

Derek Carruthers is an artist who persists in asking questions. His whole career has been inspired by the determination to enquire into the nature of art, examine its purpose, and attempt to explore that place where the individual life of the mind meets the external appearance of the world - where personal sensation rubs up against cultural assumptions. Not surprisingly, Carruthers has explored, over the years, a language of pure form, abstract space, 2- and 3-dimensions, narrative and concept, personal and universal figuration. Looking back, over decades of work, however, each of these voices is pursuing a coherent set of questions, reflecting on the stuff of human experience. Carrthuers’ individual pieces can intrigue and charm, they can be warm and poetic; and they can also offer gritty resistance to the easy gaze - they can challenge us to think about ourselves, our environment, our expectations, our place in the world.

Carruthers grew up in the north-west, having been born in Penrith, and one of his earliest memories of what art might be was formed by his encounter with the extraordinary creations of Kurt Schwitters. The latter had fled Germany in 1937, after his art had been labelled ‘degenerate’. He stayed, first, in Norway and then arrived in Britain in 1940 - initially finding himself interned as an enemy alien and then uncomfortably at odds with the English Modernist circle around Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Curiously, it was the Lake District which allowed Schwitters to plough his own furrow or, more properly, to build his own creation out of life’s off-cuts: in his studio, an old, stone barn, near Elterwater in the dramatic Langdale Pikes, he gathered and applied to the walls what one might call the sediment of his life - physical evidence of his own biography - fashioning a second ‘Merzbau’. This was, in fact, a development of the installation he had fabricated in his (long-suffering) parents’ home, outside Hanover, in 1923-1936. This new Merzbau - or ‘Merzbarn’ - remained unfinished at Schwitters’ death in 1948 (it is, of course, hard to attach the concept of ‘finish’ to Schwitters’ lifelong preoccupation with building a work of art from the common detritus of life - even though some of the small collages, produced in the Lake District and now held by Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal, appear exquisite and refined)[1]. It was not until the early 1960s that Richard Hamilton investigated the condition of the ‘Merzbarn’[2] - by which time, Carruthers had already encountered it as a boy, and had been launched on his own life-long examination of the nature of art.

Hamilton, at this period, was teaching in the Design School at Kings College, Durham, based in Newcastle (and now part of the University of Newcastle). He had been given the job in 1953, by Lawrence Gowing, who had become Head of Fine Art in 1948. At that time, Hamilton was considered (as he told John Tusa, in a Radio 3 interview in 2002), a ‘designer; a thinker’, rather than a fine artist[3].

One year later, in 1954, Victor Pasmore arrived in Newcastle, as Master of Painting. The latter was, of course, a powerful educationalist, as well as a leading artist, newly-committed to working with abstract collage, painting, printing and relief structures, establishing a ‘new’, British, Constructivism[4]. In the late 1950s, he admired the Bauhaus approach to grounding art education in an exploration of the fundamental patterns of nature and their expressive and formal potential - hence, sharing some of Hamilton’s preoccupations. Within a few years, Pasmore and Hamilton were working closely together at King’s, eventually offering a challenging course to all first year students. Thus, Carruthers – who was at King’s in 1953-7 - was encouraged to take a rigorous approach to probing abstraction, spatial relationships, and the interlinking of art and architecture. 

At the same time, one should not forget another dimension of Hamilton’s importance for his students: the wit and iconoclasm of Marcel Duchamp was a never-failing delight. It underpinned Hamilton’s interest in the work of Kurt Schwitters and informed the collage he showed at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Newcastle’s students could only have celebrated this, ‘transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous’[5] – and hugely influential – creation.

Having had the good fortune to have been an art student at such a time and in such a place, it is not surprising that Carruthers embarked on a voyage of artistic discovery that still occupies him. He showed with the major touring exhibition, organised by the Arts Council, in 1963, ‘Construction England’, together with Pasmore and Mary and Kenneth Martin. His work was also included in exhibitions of new art at the Drian Galleries, Porchester Place, in 1963-5. Reflecting the more recent re-examination of post-War, British Constructivism, Carruthers’ work was also included in the 1992 show, ‘British Abstract Art of the 50s and 60s’, held at the Belgrave Gallery. This early work, in which solid or relief forms change their nature as they – or the viewers – move through space and time, deliberately challenges the human tendency to find comfort in regarding the world as fixed and knowable.

In these years, too, Carruthers taught at Sunderland and Leicester Colleges of Art, before moving to lead the Fine Art course, as a Professor, at Trent Polytechnic (now the Nottingham Trent University). He was a dedicated educator, leaving to pursue his own art, full time, only in the mid-1980s.

Inspired, perhaps, by this freedom, the 1980s saw Carruthers exploring new ideas. He turned from working in 3-dimensions, or collage and relief, and rediscovered the power of traditional materials, oil and watercolour, on canvas and paper. He moved away from Non-Objectivity towards a practice which explored both abstracted and figurative imagery. Throughout, he remained – remains – preoccupied with exploring the human condition: by this trite remark, we mean that he continues to question how each individual experiences the world; he explores the ways in which human beings create totems to make their mark, as if to claim immortality; he tries to, ‘symbolise the triangular relationship between humankind and religion and the art / architecture which it inspires’. Hence - as well as warm glimpses of holidays and home life - his work yields the Egyptian pyramid, the Graeco-Roman heroic figure, the Christian monument; and, ultimately, the ‘sexless, ageless, raceless anonymity’ of the artist’s lay figure.

‘I was given an antique artist’s lay figure and acquired several smaller faceless wooden lay figures. I knew Man Ray’s “Mr. and Mrs. Woodman” series of photographs and enjoyed the irony and humour. So began the series of figure compositions which seem to sustain themselves as symbol and metaphor for aspects of the human condition’[6].

These figures have inhabited Carruthers’ paintings since the early 1990s. They may be placed in a fully-realised, 3-D space, their solidity asserted with dramatic lighting; or they may be flat, insubstantial. They may be gathered as a busy community or they may be isolated. They are always featureless. They can be translated as a deliberately ironic comment on life; they are also evidence of the artist’s continuing preoccupation with abstraction. He reduces and manipulates the figures so that they are, sometimes, in the Romantic tradition, a model of profound humanity, and sometimes - more challenging and chilling - Orwellian tokens of inhumanity.

Above all - we return to our opening remark - Derek Carruthers continues to ask questions, both about his life in a particular time and place, and about the lot of the human being on a universal scale. As an artist and a scholar, he sees himself at the intersection of these challenging states. And he makes you think[7].

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] As part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Helen Petts, in a work entitled, ‘Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing’ (invoking what Schwitters said he did with his Merz material when making collages), explored the landscapes which inspired Schwitters, capturing the, ‘rhythm, texture, sound’ experienced whilst walking, filming, improvising and recording. The resultant celebration was shown at Abbot Hall Gallery in Autumn, 2012.

[2] It was Lawrence Gowing, 1948-58 Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle, who, in 1958, first tried to interest the Arts Council in the ‘rapidly disintegrating’ barn which held Schwitters’s creation. Under Hamilton’s guidance, the ‘Merzbarn’ was – at last – investigated and then partially removed, for safe keeping, to the University of Newcastle, where it has been partially reconstructed and exhibited at the Hatton Gallery.

[3] This was largely because Hamilton had planned and designed the exhibition, Growth and Form, which had been the ICA’s contribution to the Festival of Britain. Hamilton was influenced by a 1917 text by naturalist, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, which had been republished in 1942, and which had highlighted the significance of mechanics and physical laws – form and function – in creating the beauty of the natural world. The ICA exhibition was opened by Le Corbusier.

[4] Pasmore’s earlier work had been naturalistic, first painted with high colour and then, in the 1930s, moving towards the low-toned, deliberately executed, social realism of the Euston Road School.

[5] This is how Hamilton himself described his ‘Pop art’, to the architects, Alison and Peter Smithson, in 1957. The collage is now in the collection of the Kunsthalle, Tübingen, Germany.

[6] See Derek Carruthers’ website

[7] As an indication of the significance of, and the continuing challenge offered by, this artist’s work, the Henry Moore Institue, Leeds, is purchasing an archive of Carruthers' output.