Interview & Portraits Kirk Truman
“…I wondered if you went halfway between Jenny Holzer and Philip Larkin what would you get?”
Rob and I ran into each other a couple of months back. Then, we talked a little about Journal, a little about his publishing venture New River Press and quite a lot about his art. I wondered why he hadn’t graced our Fitzrovia cover yet, and suggested it was about time we got around to it.
So, Robert Montgomery: poet, writer and artist. He’s a Scotsman who insists he’s a Londoner, a “melancholic Situationist” whose work brings together a personal poetic voice and public interventionist strategies. From billboards, and solar-powered light pieces to woodcuts and ‘fire poems’, Rob’s work is fiercely diverse; though to me, he’ll always be the artist who burns his own words to the ground.
Tell me about your background and influences…
I grew up in Scotland and I lived there until I was 23. I did a BA in painting at Edinburgh College of Art, then I got a scholarship to do an Master of Fine Arts, so I stayed in Edinburgh for that. After my MFA I got a place on this amazing post-graduate programme in America, the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It’s a fantastic residency programme for young artists funded by the museum, similar to the Whitney Program in New York. I had incredible artists come to my studio there to critique my work; James Turrell, Roni Horn, Jack Pierson – these real heroes of American art. The best thing was that you had a studio in the museum surrounded by an incredible collection of masterpieces – Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, rare works by Gerald Murphy – so it was also an education in American art history. The artist Joseph Havel and the curator Alison de Lima Greene became my mentors there.
How did you start out as an artist?
Well I decided when I was about 15 that I wanted to be an artist, but I had been quite an academic kid so persuading my father to allow me to study art at university was a bit of a challenge. I had to make a deal with him: he would only let me go to Edinburgh to do art if I got the grades to do law. So, I had to take economics at school and do five Scottish Highers/A Levels, and I had to get two As and 3 Bs, or something like that. Those were the entrance requirements for the Law degree; for the art course I would have only needed something like 3 Bs. I got the grades for the law course, so he had to let me go and go do the art course! That was our gentlemen’s agreement. From art school onwards, I was set on the path. I had a great experience at Edinburgh College of Art that gave me lots of tools to draw on, a particular way of thinking about the world.
How did you come to spend time in Fitzrovia and eventually end up living here?
Well, I met my wife – the Fitzrovia poet Greta Bellamacina. She already lived here, and when we had our son Lorca I had to stop living in the craziness of my art studio – so we moved in together to our small flat right under the BT Tower. The flat is pretty tiny, too small for us really, but it’s very old and has good vibes so we’re very happy in it. Niall McDevitt, the Irish poet and poetry historian, discovered Arthur Rimbaud’s first address was next door to us; the first time he came to London, before he came back with Verlaine on their wild love affair/escape from Paris, he lived on Maple Street when it was called London Street. Partly because the streets of Fitzrovia are so steeped in it, I’ve been making work recently revisiting early London Modernism. I just did a work called Estuary Poem for Wyndham Lewis for the gallery at One Canada Square, where I revisited Lewis’s 1914 BLAST manifesto. It was a giant wooden sculpture that said ENEMIES OF THE ICEBERGS AND THE STARS. We burned it on Shellness Beach at the very end of the Thames Estuary then rebuilt the burnt fragments in Canary Wharf.
How did you come to bring poetry into your work and installations?
Well, I started working with text in my paintings at Edinburgh College of Art and then I became really obsessed with the text art of Jenny Holzer. I loved how she disseminated her words on little posters in the city; that was such a beautiful idea – messages to strangers. So I began to make work similar to Jenny’s, and then I wondered how close I could take the voice to poetry. I’d always been privately obsessed with a few poets: TS Eliott, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and John Ashbery. I wondered if you went halfway between Jenny Holzer and Philip Larkin, what would you get?
Tell me a little about New River Press and its backstory. How does it differentiate from your work as an artist?
Well, me and Greta were inspired by the story of Leonard and Virginia Woolf starting the Hogarth Press in their dining room. The Hogarth press published Mrs Dalloway and also the first British edition of Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I had the idea that writer-led presses could do important things. We’ve set up New River almost like an indie record label. If the Hogarth Press was one inspiration, Sub Pop and Factory Records were the others. The poets get 50 per cent of the income from their books, which is a much more generous percentage than big publishers can give. I’m very lucky in that I can make a living from my art. I can sell paintings and do public commissions, but for my poet friends I noticed that’s a lot harder. So, my work as an artist is able to support the press, and I hope we’re doing something important. Really, we wanted to make a press for contemporary page poetry. There’s been so much progress for spoken word in London in the last few years that we wanted to do something for page poetry, or poetry in the Modernist/Beat tradition. We’ve had a very dynamic first two years. We’ve published 11 books so far. We did a night at Pentameter’s Theatre in Hampstead just before Christmas that I think brought back the spirit of 60s poetry happenings and the International Poetry Incarnation, with around 30 poets reading and some musicians whipping the whole thing up in to a kind of mad Bohemian theatre.