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Art and Life: An essential overview of Kevin Atkinson’s creative trajectory

By Lore Watterson

Kevin Atkinson – Art and Life is the first comprehensive monograph devoted to the legendary Cape Town artist, educator, cultural activist, philosopher and shaman Kevin Atkinson (1939-2007). 

Emerging in the 1960s, Atkinson gained a formidable reputation as a daring and forward-thinking artist fully engaged by his South African context and the plurality of ideas and styles that characterised international contemporary art from the mid-1940s. His remarkable output, which encompasses drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture, environments and performance, is the expression of an artist who, (in his own words) embodied his own philosophy “Everything in life happens in time, on time, all the time.”

Kevin Atkinson art and life book
Kevin Atkinson, Painter
Kevin Atkinson, 1 = 2, oil and pencil on canvas, 168 × 214 cm

Atkinson’s tenure as a teacher, particularly at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where he was once a student, also informs his considerable legacy. In the Smac Gallery Catalogue of Atkinson’s work in 2016, Lloyd Pollak wrote: “Kevin Atkinson was a challenging, charismatic and mind-blowing teacher who adopted an entirely unorthodox approach. He challenged everything his students did and said in an effort to develop their own personal vision – rather than concerning himself with what they actually painted – and this focus on process rather than product dominated his oeuvre during the 70s. Through such Socratic interrogation, Atkinson served as a beacon of inspiration to his acolytes, many of whom have contributed to the as yet unpublished, incomplete catalogue, a mock-up of which I filched from the gallery. Haydon Proud, that maniacal Mandarin perfectionist, has spent three years writing his contribution which is still not complete, although eagerly awaited, as hopefully it will serve as a withering corrective to the hagiographic and uncritical bias of the existing texts. Atkinson’s adoring coterie of worshippers hail him as a mystic, a visionary, a shaman and a seer. However, I found ample intellectual and visual satisfaction in the work on display without having to make a leap of faith, and place credence in such woolly notions of transcendental breakthroughs into some misty divine beyond.”

Kevin Atkinson art and life book
BOOK COVER Reconcile, Life, Blood, detail, 1975, oil on canvas with gold pigment, 228 × 167 cm. Private Collection

TITLE: Kevin Atkinson – Art and Life
EDITOR: Marilyn Martin, former director of the South African National Gallery and the director of art collections for Iziko Museums. 
PUBLISHER: The Kevin and Patricia Atkinson Trust & Print Matters Heritage

The book complementing this broad overview, features informative contributions – by family members, fellow artists, former colleagues and students, as well as close friends – discussing particular aspects of Atkinson’s prolific and multifaceted output, as well as significant events and achievements in his personal life and work. These contributions provide distinct viewpoints and authentic voices. Atkinson and his artist-educator wife, Patricia Pierce-Atkinson (1942-1994), are remembered by their daughters Lisa Atkinson-Clor and Carla Atkinson; while Lea Leigh recounts the last decade of the artist’s life as his new partner. This book concludes with the poem Always a Verb that artist Marlene Dumas, a former student of Atkinson, wrote for the artist’s memorial service in 2007, along with a portrait of the artist by Dumas from 1974.

Kevin Atkinson art and life book
Kevin Atkinson, Electron Cycle, 1966, acrylic on canvas, 152.5 × 152.5 cm. Collection: Iziko South African National Gallery. Photographer Carina Beyer
Kevin Atkinson art and life book
Kevin Atkinson, I AM A VERB aeiou, 1975, oil on canvas, 167.5 × 167.5 cm

Extensively illustrated with fine examples of Atkinson’s paintings, drawings, graphics and public commissions, this book explores Atkinson’s professional achievements and lasting impact through a diverse ensemble of voices, including that of the artist. Marilyn Martin’s biography offers an essential overview of Atkinson’s creative trajectory from the 1960s onwards. Martin draws on numerous contemporaneous reports to provide a solid portrait of the artist and the provocations of his practice. She writes extensively on Atkinson’s production in different media, his posthumous exhibitions, his cultural activism, and his role as innovative educator. The book also includes an introduction to Plato’s Cave, Atkinson’s underground studio in Observatory, Cape Town, now a legacy to the nation. 

Kevin Atkinson art and life book
Plato’s Cave

Having so enjoyed this last publication of Marilyn Martin before she passed away in May 2022, I was inspired to think of an extension to Creative Feel in the year ahead. I would like to pay tribute to all the amazing teachers, lectures and mentors in the South African art scene. We have some very special and wonderful teachers and mentors who should be applauded for the work they are doing. Without them, all our young artists would have a really difficult time realising their dreams.

It is now up to the Creative Feel Team to start the new and exciting section for our site and to find the funding, of course, to support such an undertaking. It should be fun!

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