Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Today we're with Robin Newman, a curator and artist currently residing in Brooklyn. For Deep Cuts, he's chosen to talk about the work of Austin Osman Spare, a somewhat confounding a figure, an artist and occultist obsessed with the link between our conscious and unconscious selves. What did you find especially appealing about Spare? What differentiated him from his contemporaries?
That is a particularly good two-part question for me while thinking about Spare. The reason for this is because part of what I find so appealing about him is that he is so different from his contemporaries, many of whom I believe to have been very influenced by him. This being said one of the reasons I have studied Spare and his work so much is because it was so influential yet underrepresented and ‘left out’ of academic art history.
In fact, despite my involvement with art, I did not first learn of Spare because his art but because of his work as an occultist. What I did encounter was instructions to carry out a magickal ritual of making a sigil. The sigil being a symbol that is essentially an ideogram made of letters taken from writing a wish or desire and selecting or removing particular letters from said yearning. While the sigil is not ‘art’ as one usually thinks of art being an aesthetic creation.
Though his artwork has similarities to Symbolism in his use of the mythic and "decadent", it is a bit difficult to compare to and perhaps impossible to place within particular art historical styles and school. His artistic influence though can be seen most explicitly in Surrealism and in DADA.
In regards to his influence: I and other scholars have suggested that Austin Osman Spare is truly “the father of Surrealism.” The Surrealists seem to have followed Spare not just aesthetically, in his fantasy infused style, but very directly with his automatic drawing technique. The immense prevalence of automatic drawing in Surrealism has made it so that it has been become its trademark.
1924 saw this rise of automatism in Surrealist practices as used by many Surrealist artists independently and in their collaborative art making games like Exquisite Corpse, a game which is now popular with artist and school children alike. Exemplifying how Spare has been rejected from art and cultural history automatic drawing is and has been frequently been, wrongfully, believed to be developed by the Surrealist artist André Masson.
While Spare’s influence might be most obvious in Surrealism but it also made an impression on DADA artists. As Phil Baker aptly noted in his “Austin Osman Spare: The Occult Life of London’s Legendary Artist,” if Spare’s Obeah Cards can be compared to anything in “the art history canon…it has to be Marcel Duchamp’s Roulette system.”
"Aida" by Spare
Why do you think he's underrepresented? What about the current canon didn't leave space for him?
I am not so sure that he ever really wanted to be or cared much about being a part of the canon. Moreover he never joined or ‘fit’ into an art movement, like Surrealism or DADA, so from an academic-historical point of view he is undefinable and thus incorporable.
Amelia Jones, who is a Feminist art historian that I have incredible respect for, recently identified one of the key reasons that I think is why Spare and many other important but transgressive artists have been left out of art history when she said: the truth is “art history as a discipline remains remarkably conservative and has steadfast ideas about what art is supposed to be”—these ideas being rooted in hegemonic European culture.
Self-Portrait, Oil on wood, 1911
Why do you believe his work is, and should be, useful for us today?
Without theorizing too much on its usefulness I can say that a ‘true original’ like Spare is and will always be useful, if only as an example of what it means to be an innovator.
How have you, as an artist and a curator, felt influenced by him?
It is hard for me to say exactly how he has influenced me, which may speak to how under-recognized he is more than anything. However, my art practice relies heavily on automatism, as a conceptual tool, and I am artistically preoccupied with the same kind of arcane subjects that Spare was. Curatorially I can point was definitely to my proposed exhibition “The Left Handed Path”, which focuses on mysticism in contemporary Queer art.
An image from "The Left Handed Path"