Roving thoughts and provocations

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Discovering the Art of Boscoe Holder, Trinidadian Master

Last spring in Berlin, Peter Doig and Hilton Als co-curated an exhibition of portraits—mostly by young, unrecognized or forgotten artists—a show that included a rare look at the work of the remarkable but little known 20th-century Trinidadian painter Boscoe Holder (1921–2007). Here is a selection of his work, along with excerpts of a conversation I had with Doig and Als about the artist and his Caribbean milieu.

As the images here make clear, the best of Holder’s paintings fall into two categories: portraits of members of his family, and erotically-charged paintings of naked men. What these bodies of work have in common is the evident pleasure the artist takes in appearances, in light, in color, in the act of looking and in his ability to make a likeness available to us through the magic of paint. What distinguishes the two bodies of work from each other—apart from their divergence of subject matter and the different feelings of intimacy that this gives rise to—is the separate methods of their making. Each portrait is closely observed, carefully constructed, and concerned with the character of the individual subject. The nudes are different. They look effortless, spontaneous, dreamy. What gives them their expressive force, and what acts as a vehicle for the ardor with which they are suffused, is the untroubled manner of the artist’s approach; the paint is applied swiftly and without apparent revision, making the paintings urgent and carefree.

(Note: Many of Holder’s paintings are unsigned and undated. In the captions above, we’ve assembled whatever information was available about the paintings.)

—Angus Cook

Angus Cook: Why did you choose the pictures that you chose for the exhibition?

Hilton Als: We were very drawn to the idea of artists who are on the margins of the art world being shown next to people who had been recognized, and some who had been forgotten. The emotional through-line was the extraordinary work of Boscoe Holder, who died in 2007. His work had rarely been seen in Europe or the US. He did exhibit in the UK in the Fifties and Sixties, but never after he returned to Trinidad.

AC: One of several enthusiasms you share is an interest in West Indian and Caribbean culture. Is there anything coming through in the exhibition that has a connection to the islands?

Peter Doig: Having spent the last eight years in Trinidad, you know, you meet people. You meet writers. You meet singers. You meet carpenters. You meet people who have done extraordinary things—Boscoe is an example—but are mostly unknown outside of their own little sphere. Because they’re not part of the same sort of machine of, I don’t know, the way information gets passed in Europe or in America. And it makes you think, well, actually, what’s valid? What’s relevant, really? Like, why is Boscoe not seen as vital? He is vital.

AC: And who was he, biographically?

PD: Boscoe Holder was born into a middle-class Trinidadian family, although his mother was from Martinique, which was a French colony. His parents were very interested in music and wanted their children to be around music. They had a piano in the parlor. So Boscoe and his younger brother by ten years, Geoffrey (who is now a choreographer, painter, and dancer) both played piano and danced. Boscoe taught himself to paint, and Geoffrey did everything Boscoe did. They were a very cultured family.

Painting at this time in Trinidad was very much inspired by 19th-century European models, and there seems to have been very little local work being made that was thought of as art. Traditional ideas about figuration and landscape were dominant—not even post-impressionism seems to have made much impact. Things started to change when some artists were able to travel abroad to study. Boscoe’s work, although it drew on European styles of painting, always depicted his people and place and its culture. He often painted his dancers and musicians, and his interest in dance was inspired much more by local folk and African dance and ritual and music. I think it’s fair to say that Boscoe and his wife Sheila were at the forefront of a movement in modern African dance. The two of them left Trinidad in the late 1940s to move to England where they formed a dance troupe.

AC: Is there film of him dancing?

PD: TV in those days was broadcast live (from Alexandra Palace) so there is very little in the way of film footage or recordings. I have seen a good number of photographs, and recently heard a recording of Boscoe playing the piano. In London they had a cabaret and for a while performed nightly at the Mayfair Hotel and places like the Ritz. They moved in theatrical circles and were friends with the likes of Noël Coward and Oliver Messel. It would have been an exciting time in London with clubs like the Ambience with its resident steelpan band and folk singers. Boscoe is quoted as saying after a visit to the Louvre that he saw few paintings of people of his color. So when he and Sheila returned to Trinidad in 1970 he made portraits: in some ways he was a society portraitist for a part of society that had never been painted. He was extremely prolific and quick—he seemed to be compelled to paint all the time.

AC: And yet the works in the exhibition here aren’t society portraits as such, because, for a start, quite a few of them are naked.

PD: That’s true—he painted a lot of nudes and most days had models sitting for him. He is famous in Trinidad for his paintings of women; portraits and nudes. He also painted many male nudes but these were not exhibited in Trinidad and it seems like they were for the most part kept in his studio.

HA: But tell Angus and the people at home how you and Chris saw these works.

PD: I asked the gallerist who worked with Boscoe if he had any works that he could not show. I felt instinctively that these intimate works must exist because his exhibited works, particularly the non-commissioned portraits, were extremely passionate and seemed to have been made out of a sense of longing. This is when I saw all the male nude paintings and drawings—a number of which are in our Berlin exhibition. It was extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my life. It was so much work from one period, and of one sort of particular interest: the male figure.

AC: Did he ever show in New York?

PD: Maybe in small places. His work was shown at the ICA in London in the Fifties or Sixties and also at the Redfern Gallery. He was kind of around. The drawback of Boscoe having lived and worked in Trinidad is that there is so little kept history—there’s almost no public archiving. It’s hard to know where all the Boscoe paintings are. The Caribbean being what it is, sadly, there’s not much interest in history. I mean, sometimes for good reason—people like to forget history. People like to knock down old colonial buildings.

Get rid of them, you know, who cares? Nothing is under preservation order. The weather destroys things. Photos disappear into the sunlight, books get eaten by all sorts of insects and stuff. I mean, everything there is kind of temporal, really. The forests and the jungle take over. The other thing is that there’s very little sort of fetishizing of the original in the Caribbean. For instance: you have a chair made, just a steel chair, someone would look at it and go, eh, I’ll make you one of those. There’s this incredible facility for just making and finding ways to do things.

HA: I’ve been dreaming, literally, since last night, of the next show that I want to do with you. And we have to do it, and it’ll be called “After Rousseau.” And it’ll be Caribbean art, which no one ever shows, because they always think it’s, like, parasols and beach scenes. But it will be not just a show of paintings, but all sorts of things, like newspapers, all the shit that gets disappeared. So, Derek Walcott’s poems, you would see the original paper where they were published.

PD: Original books, original records, original film footage are all so rare in Trinidad. There are people out there actively trying to rescue this stuff: footage of Carnival, early Steelpan, recordings and books. It requires something like a house to house search to uncover things and then you find that they have been kept beneath a sink or in a dusty termite-infested attic.

HA: That’s what’s interesting to me, that it would be not just painting, but about the whole idea of reclaiming the past from the Caribbean, which is apt to destroy it.

Angus Cook is a writer and artist. His work is currently on view in the exhibition Greater New York at P.S. 1 and at the Greene Naftali Gallery.

Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He was awarded a Guggenheim for Creative Writing in 2000 and the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2002–03. He lives in New York City.

Peter Doig is a painter based in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He is a professor at the Kunst Akademie Dusseldorf.

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