Obituary: Charles Harrison: Art historian and critic celebrated





Charles Harrison's work as an art historian provides inspiration to a generation of artists, historians and theorists. A prolific writer, author of books on history and aesthetics, he engaged directly in the practice of art and worked closely with artists. Harrison became editor of Art-Language in 1971 and since then has continuously associated with the artistic production of the Art & Language group. In his writing and teaching Harrison found a natural way to express the issues. His combination of analytical precision and an at-times anecdotal use of humour made complex ideas accessible.

It was while working with Peter Townsend, the editor of Studio International magazine that Harrison found his platform. Townsend's editorial and tactical genius was to be surrounded by young artists and writers debating the contemporary art scene. Harrison began work after an informal interview with Townsend in the Museum Tavern in London on Christmas Eve 1965. Within a year he had organised a special issue on Mondrian, commemorating the artist's time in London. His graduate research on British art between the wars made him ideally placed to obtain reminiscences from Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson and Naum Gabo. His research led to the publication of English Art and Modernism. Harrison had to keep the extent of his involvement quiet until October 1967, when he was no longer in receipt of a grant.

He edited the feature on British artists in the Biennale des Jeunes in 1967 and immediately became friends with the sculptor Barry Flanagan and artist Jeremy Moon. Harrison wanted the magazine to show artists' work without interpretation by critics and so asked each artist to provide a statement for inclusion alongside photographic documentation. He supported numerous artists including the New Generation sculptors, artists from St Martins, and sculptors from The Stockwell Depot...

... Harrison's writing attracted attention in the United States. Phillip Leider, Artforum's editor, commissioned him, while John Coplans exerted pressure on him to become assistant curator at the new museum in Pasadena. Harrison, though flattered, regarded his loyalty to working with the circle of artists in the UK, and to Studio International, as more important than a tempting career move.

This was before he resigned the assistant's post to devote more time to editing the Art-Language journal. He remained on Studio International's masthead as a contributing editor, though after Michael Spens took on the publishing of the magazine, Harrison's involvement was advisory. But when Spens dismissed Townsend, Harrison, incensed by his cavalier treatment, wrote a letter in which he withdrew from any further engagement with the magazine. One regret he spoke about was that in gaining his conversation with Art & Language, he lost his conversation with Townsend.

On his first visit to New York at Leo Castelli's preview for Robert Rauschenberg he saw a "most unusual looking man" who he approached, asking, "are you John Coplans?" The man retorted, "Hell no, John Coplans is ugly." It was the innovative dealer and curator Seth Siegelaub, with whom Harrison would work on an interview published later that year in Studio International as well as Siegelaub's edition of Studio International as guest editor, when he took the radical step of inviting six critics, including Harrison, to give over eight pages each to an artist or artists of their choice.

In New York he met Lucy Lippard and Joseph Kosuth and they quickly became friends. Kosuth and Harrison shared an intense ideological exchange and discourse and had extensive correspondence. Harrison convinced Townsend to allow Kosuth's Art After Philosophy to be published: a long piece by an unknown artist showed the extent to which he had faith in Harrison. This essay has been reprinted in numerous anthologies including Art in Theory 1900-1990 and is still frequently discussed by art students today...


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