In 2007, when “White Canoe”, his nocturne of a boat reflected in a lake, sold at Sotheby’s for $11.7m, Peter Doig had been painting quietly in Trinidad for nearly a decade and was barely known outside the art world. “The press was not always nice,” he says, recalling the coverage of the then most expensive work by a contemporary living European artist. “Someone said it was like Oldham winning the FA Cup.”
Headlines about the sale, moreover, “were not helpful in Trinidad, where no one understands records, there are no auction houses, no secondary market, so people were asking, ‘Why not put all your paintings into that auction which got so many millions?’” Doig himself, who did not benefit directly from the price – the vendor was Charles Saatchi–“was shocked. It was a huge, huge, huge leap. It was too much attention on me. I feared I’d be the poster boy for the boom, for the fact that people are prepared to pay silly money.”
Seven years on, Doig, 54, is not quite a poster boy but he is recognised as soon as he walks into Moro, a cosy, bustling, informal Arabo-Hispanic restaurant in Exmouth Market, Islington. A tall, friendly, unassuming figure, balding and unshaven, wearing jeans, checked shirt and brown jacket, he slips between the lunchtime crowd at the bar, greets me warmly and suggests we shift to an empty alcove, curtained off from the packed tables around us, so we can talk undisturbed.
Doig speaks in softly lilting transatlantic tones; born in Scotland, the son of a shipping company accountant and an actress, he spent his childhood on the move, “always having your eye on somewhere else. We never lived in a house for more than three years. My thinking is always between places. Something I would like to achieve in my paintings is a place in between places.”
He grew up in Trinidad, then rural Canada, then Toronto, where he loved ice hockey and left school at 17. He came to London as an art student at St Martins in 1978 but relocated again, to Port of Spain in Trinidad with his family, just as his career took off. “It looked like an escape but it wasn’t. I’d been lucky with all this moving and wanted to give my children the opportunity to experience something else. They love it there and feel very Trinidadian, whether they are or not.”
Doig, who is now separated from his wife – the couple have five children – lives peripatetically, between London, Trinidad and a rented space in New York, where “I sleep in the studio . . . I can see why [Lucian] Freud went to the studio as a way of escaping any family responsibility.” Painting goes uneasily with family life, he says, “unless you’re incredibly organised, turn your practice into a job, go to the studio nine to five, have employees. I can’t do that.”
A waiter appears – “Hi Peter” – followed by others who pop by to welcome him, bringing baskets of moist, chewy sourdough. Moro is close to Doig’s current London studio and a few yards from his first, a basement squat on the corner of Rosebery Avenue in the 1980s. “At that time Exmouth Market was a vacant street, there were just rag and bone men selling stuff. On Saturday and Sunday there was only one place you could get a cup of tea, a sort of sub-Wimpy bar, you wouldn’t dare eat anything there. It’s extraordinary how it’s changed, the food here is wonderful.”
Doig is familiar with the menu and hardly glances at it before ordering the grilled bream with beetroot pilav and sweet herb borani; I trust his judgment and do the same. Blinking wide bleary blue eyes, he turns down wine because “I don’t want to fall asleep”, and we request still water. He has just flown in from the annual students’ exhibition and all-night party in Düsseldorf, where he has a teaching post; before that he was in Montreal installing his acclaimed touring exhibition No Foreign Lands. Next week sees another retrospective show: his 1980s works, excluded from Tate’s 2008 mid-career survey, go on show at London’s Michael Werner Gallery.
The London show’s sprayed, pen-marked graffiti-like paintings and drawings evoke the flotsam of urban life and popular culture in London and New York – skyscrapers and strippers, cowboys and Burger Kings – crossed with art-historical references (1984’s “Disco Pontormo”; a 1985 cartoon Saint Sebastian in “Red Sienna”). They are a compelling record of how the young artist arrived at the poetic fusion of forms, found images, memories that characterise his mature depictions of mysterious, melancholy landscapes and lone figures. By the end of the show, the hesitant half-clothed man, lush tropical scene, purple sky in “At the Edge of the Town” (1986-88) coheres into a quintessential Doig painting.
Doig confesses to being “a bit nervous because a lot of it is very adolescent and very direct. I realise now that I probably wouldn’t be able to do that any more, sadly – that spontaneous approach, open to influences, excited about seeing new things.” At the time he was supporting himself as a dresser at the English National Opera – earning £48 a week, of which £4 went in rent for community housing in King’s Cross – and absorbed in London’s club scene. “Experimental film-makers like Isaac Julien and Cerith Wyn Evans showed there, [performance artist] Leigh Bowery, [choreographer] Michael Clark, wicked, witty, totally relevant, those people were in clubs. We never went to openings at the Lisson Gallery because it was so boring! Now young people go to galleries!”
I say that his work has always seemed theatrical, performative to me. “Yeah, transportation is the basic aim, my paintings have to be convincingly transportative, that’s the most difficult thing,” he says with a self-deprecating, uneasy laugh. I, too, am embarrassed: in my review of No Foreign Lands at its Edinburgh launch last summer, I admired Doig’s technical virtuosity, bold embrace of beauty, and unabashed engagement with the legacies of modernism but admitted that I was “not ultimately convinced by the world he creates because it is so deliberately, irrepressibly fake”. Though I apologise for my criticism, which Doig brushes aside cheerfully, I cannot help persisting with my reservations.
By not painting from life, Doig and most mid-career painters of the late 20th and 21st century have, it seems to me, a fundamentally different relationship with modernist painterly tradition from the generation above them – Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, even David Hockney. Why is that?
From the older painters “there is seemingly more reverence”, Doig answers carefully, whereas now “we have been through all that ironic and pop art; in a way we see the past through that filter as well. Not that I think we’re cynical. Take Hockney: I love his work, those early things are so irreverent. Then he became reverent – when he succumbed to painting!”
Doig’s sources are hybrid, usually including photographs. The celebrated “Pelican (Stag)” (2003), for example, took impetus from a scene the artist observed from his boat in Trinidad, of a man killing a pelican by drowning it, then wringing its neck as he hauled it home to eat. Doig’s sketches of the incident “looked ridiculously naive and comic”: a composition does not form “until I find an image which would solidify my memory” – in this case a photograph in his archive of an Indian fisherman dragging a net along a beach. “Some artists draw straight out of their heads, I don’t have that,” he says. “And I’m not like Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach – they paint from life so they need sitters, light, the right time of day.”
Our food arrives, stunningly presented: a whole fish draped with deep green sauce – borani, a yoghurt-based Persian appetiser flavoured here with basil, dill and tarragon – is accompanied by brilliant crimson, beetroot-crisped rice. “Looks good – oh, outstanding,” says Doig at the first bite. “Moro is one of the best restaurants. It’s been consistent and even got better since it opened [in 1997]. The people who run it are still in the kitchen. They’re very knowledgeable about flavours, everything is very crafted in a proper way, not for the sake of decoration.”
In a conceptual art world, craft is an unfashionable word but it is fundamental to serious painting. “There’s an element of making in painting that’s very important – to use my clumsy hand,” Doig says as he fillets his fish. “I see painting as being physically unprecious, paintings are robust, resilient.” He works alone in his studio, and has no assistants: “If I had other people around to keep busy, that would be the worst possible thing, you would think of the work as being needed rather than having to be. As an artist, you don’t want to get into producing.” He has many canvases on the go. “Well, I’ll have a lot of paintings, I wouldn’t say I was working on them, it’s very frustrating, very slow.”
What is hardest? “That painting fools you. You are on your own for long spells of time and often quite late at night inhaling all these fumes, and you get quite delirious. Turpentine definitely intoxicates you, it’s like a drug in this respect. I’m sure this is what happened to Francis Bacon. Then you feel you’ve reached something, you leave and go to bed quite satisfied, and you come back next day and your heart sinks and you realise you have to scrape it off, start again. Time is important. I don’t paint in the most healthy way, and when I’m really working I spend way, way too long there. What has happened since the auction result is that I’ve slowed down, I don’t make as many paintings.”
Though senior figures have displaced Doig as the most expensive living European painter – first Freud in 2008, then Gerhard Richter, twice – he continues to command stellar prices, including $12m last year for “The Architect’s House in the Ravine” (1991), another example of the early 1990s paintings based on memories of Canada that remain his bestsellers. “You can’t think about prices in the studio,” he insists. “It happens by degree. When you haven’t much money, if you sell a painting for £3,000, that’s a lot. By the late 1990s mine were £10,000: if you have a show, sell five paintings, get half – that’s totally unfair, of course – you can actually do something with £25,000. I bought a derelict house with that. But at art school, I never even thought what it might be like to be successful, you’re still developing. I didn’t know any successful painters.”
This was partly because he emerged from art school at the height of the conceptualist Young British Artists era. When I ask about his generation of painters, he snaps back “Who is my generation? There’s no such thing. I was never in these group exhibitions like Sensation [Saatchi’s 1997 exhibition of YBAs]. I don’t see how my work would fit in. While the YBAs kind of cleared the slate and gave life to new galleries, a lot of painters working in this country, who had no international career but were strong in the scene here, lost venues and their chance to develop disappeared. In London the art world isn’t big enough to sustain the whole range. In America there’s lots more space, people are nurtured longer.”
In 1990, then aged 31, Doig, who “had got stuck with painting”, returned to do an MA at Chelsea College of Art and Design, which “was very different from Goldsmiths [where Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and other YBAs studied]. It was old, solid British painterly abstraction. People were really into materials, for the first time I saw people buying expensive paint. I started to think what you could do with materials as well as with subject. Some of the things I achieved were because I was using better materials. I learnt a lot at Chelsea – that’s when I made the canoe paintings.”
Our fish finished, the dessert menu appears and Doig recommends yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate, “the house speciality, really delicious”. He is right: it is light, frothy, with an aroma of lemon and vanilla. We devour it as I ask about the problem of making confidently beautiful works such as the canoe pictures at a time when beauty was widely distrusted. “What isn’t beautiful?” asks Doig suspiciously. “I don’t look at it like that. When I see a painting, I’m analysing how it’s made, even the most abject painting is beautiful. I’m prepared to accept a lot. I like surprising paintings.”
Whom does he admire among contemporaries? “Difficult to say,” he offers diplomatically. Too few or too many? “Too few, I hate to say it. I am very open-minded but most biennales I find totally uninteresting.” Most of the works in Tate Britain’s show of contemporary painters this winter “looked like paintings made at a desk. I like the slacker moment, the slacker attitude, in Picasso, Matisse, even Monet, in people like René Daniëls, early John Currin – it means you don’t really care that much, not that the work is made with ease but there’s a lack of finish that is the living element in a painting. Sometimes paintings can be finished but also quite slack, like [Edward] Burra, he had a lot of attitude. Paintings can’t be closed down, they have to be alive.”
It is now four o’clock; Doig is due to meet a friend and orders a quick espresso to keep awake; I request the bill. “Can I pay half?” he suggests. FT rules forbid, I tell him. I pursue a final question as we hit the street: why paint at all? He looks perplexed. “You have to not question it. Why do you sing? You feel it’s just an interesting medium, I wouldn’t say important, but it has an important history, and now it has an interesting present. I’m excited by image-making. How can I fill the next 30 years? Painting gets harder, there’s so much more work to make, finish, start.”
‘Peter Doig, Early Works’, Michael Werner Gallery, London, March 20-May 31; ‘No Foreign Lands’, Montreal Museum of Arts, to June 8