RA Magazine Autumn 2013
Issue Number: 120
Inside Story: John Kasmin
The art dealer affectionately known as Kas, whose gallery was at the centre of the swinging Sixties, tells Nick Tite about his passion for postcards and the appeal of the underdog. Photograph by Bill Burlington
The Sixties art scene is enjoying a revival at present Yes, I have curated a show at Sotheby’s that celebrates those days. My gallery in Bond Street introduced the work of American colour- field painters like Noland, Louis and Frankenthaler to London, but also championed British artists such as Caro, Hockney and Richard Smith.
Why did you stop running a gallery? It coincided with the financial crisis in 1992,
and also I had lost interest at that point in both the art and the buyers. I loved travelling and wanted to pursue my other interests, particularly in ancient art and artefacts. I enjoyed that world of dealers and experts – Gray’s Market under Oxford Street, with its Afghan traders, was
like being in Peshawar.
John Kasmin. Photograph by Bill Burlington.
The Academy’s ‘Turks’ exhibition benefited from what you had found on your travels. I used to go to India with Howard Hodgkin to look at and buy Indian miniature paintings. On our way back we used to stop over and in Istanbul, at the Topkapi, there was a display of Siyah Qalam’s work. I was struck at once by their power and later found a book of fine facsimiles. Norman Rosenthal [former RA Exhibitions Secretary] knew I had a passion for Turkish art, and when he asked what would be important for his exhibition I showed him this book and said, ‘You must get the originals’. He did, and they were a great hit.
When did you start collecting postcards? I’m a habitué of second-hand bookshops which often have boxes of old cards in them. Originally I bought postcards of exotic places where I imagined being: street scenes, country landscapes of faraway places. I bought an epidiascope to project the cards onto the wall – I would smoke a joint and imagine myself somewhere else. It was not completely
effective, as the heat from the epidiascope warped the cards, and I would think I was on opium rather than pot. In 1978, I presented a show in my gallery of cards collected by artists, including Peter Blake, Allen Jones RA and Tom Phillips RA, who each made their own display.
The Academy is publishing Want, a book of your postcards of beggars. What intrigues you about this subject? They are fascinating: the faces, the clothes, the stories they might tell. You only have to be a fan of Samuel Beckett to like the ‘odds and sods of life’, whether they are pilgrims or tramps.
I remember, when I was 15 years old, fobbing off my father’s endless questions about going into business or the law by saying I wanted to be a tramp. I liked the tramp poet W.H. Davies and the vagabond life appealed to me.
The book coincides with the Daumier exhibition at the RA. Are there parallels between your cards and his pictures of the poor? Certainly the focus on the underdogs of society is a common theme. I love his work, especially the paintings, and I am lucky enough to own one, which hangs above my postcard albums. In it, a mother suckles her child while her man gulps soup.
- Want is published in September by RA Publications, £9.95
- The New Situation: Art in London in the Sixties Sotheby’s New Bond Street, London, 020 7293 6424, www.sothebys.com, 4–14 September
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