'An English critic once called my early work ‘overworked and porridgy’ but that overuse of paint was, I suppose, just a naïve way of expressing a desire for something. I was trying to bring my subjects to life in a painterly way, to coax them off the canvas. To love them. God, I was always pining, like this, when I was younger. Even in art, I was a piner.
Why did I stop?
When did I see what I was doing?
My work has always been about desire in some sense. Male desire. Female desire. The tensions betweens.
Desire with Two Lampshades. That early portrait of a couple sitting together was the last thing I painted in what you could might call my Early Style. It took me about year to paint and even longer to get over. I had thought of it as my crowning achievement at the time, but it ended up looming so large that I couldn’t think of what to do next. It had locked me up. I was so proud of the way I managed to texture the man’s corduroy suit and also that outfit the younger woman’s wearing, the gradual layering process of both.
The man in the portrait is clearly based on Dietrich, though I guess I took his beard off to disguise him. Still, he’s not divulging anything. He sits beside the girl, his legs spread lazily. It’s a surly pose. That expression on his face was unintentional, and yet it had the shock of the familiar: I knew that look. The viewer is being, not just watched, but controlled. It’s uncomfortable, and I liked that. He’s demanding, I think, that we give ourselves over to him—I liked that too. Cool. Unemotional. Distant. The girl, as you can see, is completely ignored. Her legs are pulled up close to her, almost kneeling towards the man, yet she keeps her torso turned to us. She’s posing too. That sofa looks far too big for her, and she’s trying not to care. She has an arm resting across her waist, reigning herself in. For a long time, up to a week before my degree show, I thought that this would be all that was needed. I had by then accomplished the almost merciless uniformity I was looking for: those two leafy ferns, the two bright lampshades to the left and right of the couch, and that little coffee table placed centre-stage with its stack of magazines and its bowl of granny smiths—it was all so harmoniously mis-en-scene.
It turned me on, in fact; the symmetry, I found, had an erotic significance, a twinge. It was only at the very last minute that I came into the studio one morning and wondered if I shouldn’t also have the girl reaching out to touch the lamp stand beside her. I felt almost mischievous making her do it. I was testing out an impulse, I guess, and so was she. Both of us were adding our element of suspense. I mean, will she or won’t she knock it over? It may look like nothing, at first, but you see how, for this girl, it’s a powerful gesture. She tilts her lamp forward, upsetting the balance. If you look close enough, you see her lamp casts a shadow slightly larger than the man’s, though she doesn’t dare look at what she’s doing. No, I finished it quick, quick, quick, like an afterthought; then I left her, her pinched fingers just toying with that thin stand. I felt I’d done something dangerous, you see, and so I ran away from it. I turned away from her.'--Fragments of an unfinished story about a painter. (Pictures are of Lee Miller's gorgeous neck and Pat Kavanagh with her client, Kingsley Amis).