4 AUGUST 2001, Page 37

Masking a hidden profundity

Martin Gayford on Tate Britain's thrilling exhibition of paintings by Michael Andrews The late Bruce Bernard relates that he once asked Francis Bacon what, in his opinion, made Michael Andrews such an extraordinary painter. 'His face lit up but he couldn't quite manage it — and who could with a few extempore words? "It's just his touch, I suppose . . ." he said, with a smiling acknowledgment of his failure.' Well, where Bacon failed it is hazardous to follow; nonetheless, it is worth trying to explain just what it is that made Andrews a master and makes the retrospective of his work currently at Tate Britain (until 7 October) such wonderful essential viewing.

The art of Andrews, who died six years ago in his mid-sixties, certainly defies categorisation. According to Bernard, Frank Auerbach once remarked, 'Mike does these things that look like old railway travel posters, but when you really look at them they're just truly beautiful pictures.' That was said, I would guess, after Andrews had started to paint from photographs, producing images that are different and deeper than they at first appear, and also deceptive. One, though you wouldn't guess it, melds views of Scarborough and the Triboro Bridge in New York.

Andrews's painting was not quite like that when he began, but the superficial ordinariness masking hidden profundity was there from the start (he liked to use the phrase 'mysterious conventionality' of his own work). He was trained at the Slade in the tradition of William Coldstream; that is, in a way of painting that attempted to pin down the elusiveness of reality by painstaking observation, as a mapmaker might plot the position of a distant hill by repeated sightings. But from early on Andrews was interested in something quite different that he called — remember this was the existential 1950s — 'the nature of being'.

What he meant by that can be seen from his first mature paintings, such as 'Little Boy Running' and 'A Man who Suddenly Fell Over', which explore within a naturalistic idiom the senses of self of the main figures. These are, respectively, a racing child, and an elderly man whose composure has been shattered by tumbling to the ground. The sense of self what you might call the barometric pressure of the ego, whether exhilaratingly high or depressingly low — was one of Andrews's great themes.

A shy man, he threw himself into the social life of Soho for a period. And social gatherings — parties — became the subject of his first major series of paintings. At parties, Andrews noted, 'people are gathered together on the whole by choice, to see each other and/or to be seen. They allow themselves to be and are judged. They perform. They succeed or fail. They increase in stature or flop.'

He explored these oscillations of competing egos in a couple of pictures of the Colony Room, the Soho drinking club, then in 'The Deer Park' and 'All Night Long', two paintings constructed over long periods from observations and photographs that show him moving away from naturalism. The party sequence concludes with a remarkable triptych, 'Good and Bad at Games', in which the heads of the participants have become balloons, shrivelling or expanding according to how they fare in the social whirl of the evening (Andrews was taken by a phrase of R.D. Laing's, about 'the skin encapsulated ego').

The idea of the ego as balloon gave Andrews the clue for his next move, making pictures that are not of people, but create images for states of being. The first, 'Lights shows a hot-air balloon floating over the countryside, seen from another such drifting bubble, the whole executed with a delicious sense of blur such as one gets in an out-of-focus photograph. (Andrews was a master of blur, which becomes a metaphor for the necessary approximation of our perception of anything.) The series of 'Lights' continued this conceit, culminating in a stunningly poetic picture in which the balloon is visible only as a shadow on the beach, a fleeting moment as it is carried off towards the distant horizon. After 'Lights' came a series about fish — not flying, but swimming, in shoals and alone. These are hung at the Tate with 'Melanie and Me Swimming', another watery picture of Andrews and his daughter, which is one of the most touching works on the theme of parenthood in all of art.

Eventually Andrews moved away from London to a sequestered life in the country, and his preoccupation with the self developed into a Zen like interest in losing the self. Many of the most compelling of his later pictures concern a confronta tion with the immensity of natural landscapes, in the Scottish Highlands and at Ayer's Rock in Australia. These convey the mystery and numinousness of the places without, in Auerbach's phrase, ceasing to look a little like travel posters (they are spray-painted and based on photographs).

His last series, painted while he was dying, follows the course of the Thames until in the magnificent 'Thames: The Estuary' (1994-5) it finally debouches to the sea. Thus the exhibition as a whole has the feeling of a life's journey charted with fastidious subtlety in paint (that touch Bacon talked about).

The show is splendidly realised: congratulations to the curators, William Feaver and Paul Moorhouse. It makes some restitution, as Sir Nicholas Serota remarked in his speech at the opening, for the stunningly wrong-headed decision of the Tate trustees not to buy 'Thames: The Estuary' a few years ago. Perhaps they should now buy some other Andrews pictures, for example the unfinished 'Source of the Thames'.

Recently I have inveighed against on the purblindness of those who write off contemporary art that does not take the form of figurative painting. But, of course, there is an opposite variety of obtuseness, which holds that figurative painting is finished, over and out. This exhibition demonstrates how thrilling, moving and mind-expanding the most reticently naturalistic of painting can still be in the hands of a magician such as Andrews.