David Sylvester

(1924—2001) art critic and exhibition curator

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British writer, broadcaster, lecturer, and exhibition organizer. He was born in London, where he attended University College School. Although he won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, he turned this down in favour of journalism, beginning his career with articles published in the left-wing journal Tribune in 1942. Subsequently he wrote for many other journals, including Encounter, The Listener, The New Statesman, The Observer, and The Times. Almost all his work on art was devoted to 20th-century topics (‘I wish I had had the nerve to write more about old masters’), but he ranged widely within his chosen field. He also wrote on the cinema and sport—‘two areas which had obsessed me from the time I was about eight’. From 1951 he organized many major exhibitions, including a retrospective of Henry Moore's work at the Tate Gallery, London (he had previously spent a few months as Moore's part-time secretary but said ‘this had to stop because we spent too much time arguing about art’).

This argumentative streak is best remembered by the lengthy debate over realism with John Berger in the 1950s. Sylvester, strongly influenced by Sartre's existentialism, admired artists such as Francis Bacon who used the figure to communicate general ideas about the human condition. The Marxist Berger demanded that the specific social circumstances be shown, so he supported the painters whom Sylvester had contemptuously christened the Kitchen Sink School.

Sylvester was a visiting lecturer at the Slade School, 1953–7, and at the Royal College of Art, 1960–70, and he made several films and many radio broadcasts including interviews with artists. Some of these interviews have been printed as articles or in exhibition catalogues, and those with Bacon (who became a close friend) were made into a book, Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975, enlarged edn, 1980). His other books include two monographs on Magritte (1969 and 1992), and he was editor and co-author with Sarah Whitfield of a five-volume catalogue raisonné of Magritte's work (1992–97). This took him, with interruptions, twenty-five years. Afterwards he wondered whether, like Proust's Swann, he had not spent years of his life on someone who was not ‘his type’. Sylvester is admired for his lively and accessible style, which is well illustrated in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948–1996 (1996, revised edn, 1997). Unlike many critics, he did not become disenchanted with contemporary art as he grew older: one of his last projects was an interview with the Video artist Douglas Gordon.

From A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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