Mark Lancaster Obituary | Painting
If you had been in the Gibbs Building at King’s College Cambridge on a summer day in 1969, you might have met two English performers having tea. The oldest was Bloomsbury painter Duncan Grant, then 84. The youngest, halfway through his tenure as the university’s first artist in residence, was Mark Lancaster, who has died aged 82.
It was, variously, an unexpected couple. Lancaster, at the time, painted works such as Cambridge Green, now in the Tate collection – resolutely modernist grid acrylics, apparently derived from American minimalism. The resemblance was not accidental.
Five years earlier, while still a student at Newcastle University, Lancaster had traveled to New York. During his stay, he took over an introduction from his teacher, pop artist Richard Hamilton, to meet Andy Warhol. Warhol, captivated, offers the young Englishman both occasional work in the Factory and an introduction to Henry geldzahler, curator at the Metropolitan Museum.
Geldzahler, in turn, introduced Lancaster to the Hall of Fame of New American Painting: among others, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns. When he returned to Newcastle in September, it was with a direct familiarity with the New York art world that other English painters could only dream of.
This made her meeting with Grant all the more unlikely. Known for his portraits of Charleston regulars, Grant and his work were, by 1969, considered by most young modernists to be hopelessly overwhelmed. The 30-year-old Lancaster’s invitation to tea was sparked by the series of murals Grant had made for the bedrooms of King’s legendary bursar, John Maynard Keynes, in 1920.
Keynes and Grant had been lovers; Art aside, Lancaster, also gay, had gone to New York to “plan,” he said, “to get me a sexual experience.” His curiosity for Grant was piqued in part by the older artist’s near-mythical reputation for open bisexuality. Lancaster’s own experience as an artist and homosexual had been delayed by family circumstances.
Born in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire – framework, as he liked to point out, for Last of the Summer Wine – Mark was destined to enter the textile business, James Lancaster & Son, founded by his great-grandfather . After being interned at Quaker Bootham School in York, he had worked for six years for his father, Charles, in the family factories of Mytholmbridge near Huddersfield, at the same time studying textile technology. It was his mother, Muriel (née Roebuck), who encouraged his painting, leading to his enrollment first in Newcastle and then at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Wiltshire.
By the time he left Newcastle, Lancaster was already on display at Rowan Gallery in London alongside artists such as Bridget Riley and Phillip King – hard-edged canvases that spoke of his time in New York. When in 1972, he was offered a show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, he returned and remained until 1985, working both as Johns’ assistant and resident stage designer at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. From his 14th Street studio, Lancaster also explored the pre-AIDS gay world of Greenwich Village, favoring the nearby Ninth Circle bar, frequented by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
In the village too, he painted the series of works called Vanessa Bell I-VIII, based on Grant’s circa 1917 portrait of his fellow artist and Bloomsbury lover. These portraits show an extraordinary understanding of Grant’s art, breaking down and reshaping the brush and color of the original into gestural compositions that are entirely of their time.
It was during a brief return to Britain in the late 1980s that Lancaster learned of the death of his former mentor, Warhol. “I was a little stunned,” he recalls in an interview in 2004. “The next day, I decided that I wanted to make some kind of“ memory ”painted in memory of him. I thought of a can of soup and went to get one, only to find that the design of the Campbell’s label had completely changed.
Instead, he spent the following year making 200 small canvases based on Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn. Fifty of them were exhibited at what was now Mayor Rowan Gallery in 1988 under the collective title Post-Warhol Memories. It was to be Lancaster’s last exhibition in Britain, and his last major exhibition in the world. In 1989 he returned to the United States, first to Rhode Island, then to Florida.
Despite his obvious talents, this early retirement from professional painting means that his legacy is as a catalyst for other artists of his own generation, an emissary of painting from London to New York. Curious, generous and formidably literate, Lancaster was, in this sense, among the most influential figures in British art of his time.
He is survived by his husband, David Bolger, also an artist.