Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota described Michael Compton as arguably the first curator working in England to command international respect for his practice as a maker of exhibitions, collaborator with artists and contributor to the discourse of contemporary art.
On June 27, Ewbanks
, Surreys premier auctioneer of fine art and antiques, will sell The Michael Compton Collection of Post War and Contemporary Art, a group of 28 works by luminaries Roy Lichtenstein, Marcel Broodthaers, Terry Frost, Henry Moore, Richard Long, Victor Newsome, Keith Milow, Billy Al Bengston, Ian Stephenson, Sol LeWitt and Joe Tilson, most of them gifted in thanks by the artists or their families whose careers were enhanced by the exhibitions Compton created. The collection will be offered with its own catalogue and is expected to raise around £200,000.
A small Lichtenstein bronze, Yellow Brushstroke is an exception. Number 11 of 19 from an initial lifetime casting, it was presented to Compton by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation at an awards event held at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on May 23 1991. The presentation was in recognition of his work as curator of the 1989 Marcel Broodthaers exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It is estimated at £40,000-60,000.
Broodthaers died in 1976 and in 1980, while at Tate Gallery, Compton curated the first retrospective of the Belgian artists work. He went on to curate the 1989 exhibition in Minneapolis which also travelled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
Frederick R.Weisman (1912-1994) was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and art collector, who held an uncompromising belief in the cultural value of art and an understanding of the importance of both the individual artist and the creative process.
Lichtenstein developed his Brushstrokes paintings as sculptural representations in the 1980s and 90s, depicting the gestural expressions of the brushstroke itself. In his own words, Lichtenstein said the brushstroke is just an idea to start with, and painting it makes it more concrete, but when you do it in bronze sculpture, it becomes real and has weight and is absurd, contradictory and funny.
Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) spent 20 years in poverty as a struggling poet before turning to art and began to make objects in 1963. One the surreal images linked to him most often is Poêle De Moules, mussel shells in a frying pan, a witty nod to his homelands national dish. The piece is one of 10 lots in the sale gifted to Compton by the artists widow, Maria, at the time he was working with her on a proposed catalogue-raisonné of her husbands work. This involved regular visits to Brussels in the 1980s and 90s to do research.
Broodthaers was a writer, poet, filmmaker, photographer, journalist and artist, who famously remarked he would rather have put off the choice of profession until his death. Closely associated with the Belgian Groupe Surréaliste-revolutionnaire, he made use of found objects and collage, incorporating written language in his art, using whatever was at hand for raw materials, most notably the shells of eggs and mussels. Poêle De Moules is estimated at £40,000-60,000.
Un Chateaubriand bien saignant pour deux. (A rare Chateaubriand for two) is unsigned but shares the same provenance as the mussels. It is stencilled (?) on the unprimed reverse of the canvas. It is estimated at £30,000-50,000, while Palette, done in coloured pencils on a prepared canvas board in 1973-4 is estimated at £15,000-25,000.
A photographers light box with photographs and slides inscribed Avion and Avis is estimated at £10,000-20,000.
Language as a symbol that conveys meaning is a central theme in Broodthaers texts, objects, installations, films, photographs, slide projections and prints. A work comprising three magic slate boards mounted on grey card is estimated at £5,000- 10,000 and a group of 12 children's ABC play bricks stencilled in black in a Dr. Pusscat on the Mouse box is estimated at £4,000-6,000, as is a pair of green glass wine bottles with printed labels Pluie and Mer du Nord (Rain and Sea of The North.
More valuable of two untitled abstracts by Sir Terry Frost (1915-2003) is an unfinished oil and collage on hardboard done in 1954-56 and estimated at £10,000- 20,000. The work was begun when Frost was a Gregory Fellow at Leeds University and given to Compton who at the time was assistant to the director at the citys art gallery.
Frost told Compton and his wife, Susan, that the motifs were inspired by a visit to Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales. Frost had already produced a smaller sketch, also painted on hardboard, which Mr and Mrs Compton owned, so he presented them with this version saying, I don't know how to finish this so I'd like you to have it. The work was probably painted in the studio provided by the university in Moor Road, Leeds and is similar to a group of works which Frost related to his experience of the Dales landscape.
An abstract in watercolour on paper in black, brown and white was painted in 1957 after Frost's Gregory Fellowship ended and while he was teaching at Leeds College of Art. It is estimated at £2,000-4,000. Similar detail can be found in a work in the Tate Collection Khaki and Lemon, 1956.
Sir Henry Moore (1898-1986) gifted two inscribed lithographs to Compton in thanks for organising the 1977 Henry Moore Drawings exhibition at the Tate Gallery curated by Alan Wilkinson of the Ontario Art Gallery. They show a reclining figure and a mother and child respectively and each is inscribed For Michael Compton from Henry Moore. Each is estimated at £600-1,000, as is a signed wine bottle given to Compton during the dinner for Henry Moore at the Cafe Royale which followed the opening of the exhibition. With it is a second bottle from the opening of a Henry Moore exhibition in 1989 at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martingny, Switzerland, where a local vintage was named for the artist and served at the gallery.
Michael Compton was born in Minehead, Somerset, while his parents were on leave from India where he spent his early childhood. Educated in England and South Africa, he studied naval architecture before turning to art history, graduating from the Courtauld Institute in 1952.
From 1953 Compton worked in public museums, beginning at Leeds Art Gallery (1953-57) where he catalogued the watercolour collection at Temple Newsam House, followed by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, where he was Keeper of Foreign Art. In 1960, he was appointed Director of the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull for which he acquired the first David Hockney to enter a museum. He joined the Tate Gallery as Assistant Keeper of the Modern Collection in 1965 and worked there until his retirement in 1987.
Early in 1968, a Churchill Travelling Fellowship gave him three months in the U.S. to explore contemporary American art, instigating contemporary exhibitions, beginning with the Roy Lichtenstein show of 1968. In 1971, he curated the Andy Warhol and Robert Morris exhibitions, the former a great success, the latter a disaster, although it was re-staged in 2009 to great acclaim.
By the time he retired in 1987 he was the most international curator in London, connecting his up-to-date knowledge of British art to first-hand experience of contemporary art in Europe and the United States. In recognition of this he was created C.B.E. He died last year, leaving a widow, who lives in Surrey, and two daughters.
In the 1970s, Compton planned an extension to the Tate Gallery (today Tate Britain) to provide special space for exhibitions, which opened in 1979. Additionally, he was invited to join British Council and Arts Council committees and became involved with exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery in London and British Council exhibitions overseas. He also represented Britain on the International Committee of Modern Art Museums (CIMAM).