Private Collection, Oslo (acquired from the above circa 1995)
Sotheby's, London, 25 June 2003, Lot 7 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, London (acquired from the above sale)
Sotheby's, London, 12 October 2007, Lot 11
Sotheby’s, New York, 9 November 2011, Lot 10 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Grasshopper was executed during Doig’s one-year Master’s degree at Chelsea School of Art, a period in which he created some of his most career-defining paintings including Hitch Hiker, Baked, Milky Way, Road House, and Okahumkee (Some other People’s Blues), which is now in the collection of the Kunsthalle zu Kiel. This seminal group of large scale paintings have come to define the artist’s praxis and should be considered as a thematic matrix for the entirety of his subsequent oeuvre.
In the decade prior to his Master’s degree and subsequent creative breakthrough, Doig had returned to Canada – the country in which he spent the majority of his youth. As such, works like Grasshopper appear overtly North American in mood; the lateral drift engendered by the planar composition, the isolation of the central forms, and the uninterrupted electricity wire supported by a single pylon all combine to make this scene feel like a single snapshot from an endless journey – a glimpse out of the window on the kind of epic voyage only possible in a vast terrain like the Canadian outback. Indeed, Doig had personal experience of the sheer scale of that environment, having left home aged 18 to work as a ‘roughneck’ oil rigger on the prairies: “The prairies are flat and go on thousands of miles. You feel extremely vulnerable… We would often be thousands of miles from the nearest motel, so I’d walk up to a local farmhouse and ask if I could sleep in the barn” (Peter Doig cited in: Tim Adams, ‘Record Painter’, The Guardian, 27 January 2008, online). Those youthful memories of isolation and geographic expanse seem to have been recapitulated in abundance in the present work.
Doig’s deference to the majesty of the Canadian landscape resonates on more than one level in the present work. Indeed, the title was inspired by a quotation from a nineteenth century Canadian explorer, who, having ventured deep into his country’s wilderness, reported to the readers of Toronto’s Globe that “man is a grasshopper here, a mere insect, making way between the enormous discs of heaven and earth” (Gareth Jones, ‘Weird Places, Strange Folk’, Frieze, September-October 1992, online). As such, this quotation may have influenced not only the title of Grasshopper, but also the composition. Executed in three horizontal stripes, it is easy to imagine the upper and lower passages of deep blue and reddish-brown as the aforementioned “enormous discs of heaven and earth”. The present work represents the first instance of this compositional device within Doig’s oeuvre. It would later be deployed to create such iconic works as The House that Jacques Built (Collection of Tel Aviv Museum of Art) and Daytime Astronomy (Private Collection, London).
Grasshopper is filled with twentieth century art-historical reference. The viewer is particularly reminded of the work of Gerhard Richter. Both Richter and Doig have occupied the indefinable zone between figurative and abstract modes of depiction and both similarly, both artists have engaged with notions of nostalgia and memory in order to imbue their works with a specific mood. Where Doig wanted to suffuse his works with a sense of generic remembrance and universal memory not anchored to his own individual past, Richter engaged with his national memory, in order to confront Germany’s torrid political history directly. The present work even shows a direct stylistic debt to Richter’s celebrated Abstrakte Bilde series. The upper section of the painting is executed in deep ultramarine blue, striated with inky black and speckled with spots of flat matte white so as to give a vivid effect of starry night sky, while the lower section melds khaki green with muddy ochre and burnt hot scarlet. Both of these passages have a pulled texture that is entirely redolent of Richter’s abstract ‘squeegee’ technique. Thus, in both conceptual and technical terms, Doig can be seen to rely on Richter’s precedent, albeit to produce a markedly different pictorial effect.
However, to view this work as a proto-postcard of faux-nostalgia for a former life lived in the Canadian outback would be to entirely misconstrue the emphases of Doig’s artistry: “They weren’t paintings of Canada (though some were) but paintings of an idea of something… I want it to be more of an imaginary place” (Peter Doig cited in: Judith Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 11). In this context, we understand Doig not as the peripatetic landscapist, recording the topography of his youth, but rather as an artist of atmosphere. As with all of his best works, there is a sense of ambiguity inherent to Grasshopper; a mood of untethered nostalgia and dreamlike ethereality. Doig has spoken of this distinctive mood: “It’s as if you were lying in bed trying hard to remember what something looked like. It is not a photographic state at all. It is a memory space but one which is based on reality” (Peter Doig cited in: Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott and Catherine Grenier, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 142). Thus, we comprehend that in the present work, Doig was not engaged in the realistic reproduction of a specific recollection, but rather in the creation of a diffuse reminder of the act of remembrance itself.
Doig entered the London artistic arena in the early 1990s when the yBa’s were achieving complete cultural dominance with their avant-garde brand of conceptual cool. That he was simultaneously propelling himself to almost equitable success is tribute not only to his consummate skill but also to his supreme vision. Doig has never been part of an ‘-ism’, school, or group; rather he has looked back to the great painters of the Twentieth Century to find stimulus and influence, particularly calling upon those who had used the North American landscape as their subject. The present work seems particularly redolent of Edward Hopper’s oeuvre. Railroad Sunset provides worthy precedent for a rich array of warm colour and the use of isolated structures to invoke a distinctly American mood. However, Early Sunday Morning, in the collection of the Whitney Museum, provides the closest comparison. This work deploys the same sense of lateral drift as Grasshopper, the same horizontal tripartite composition, and the same sense of dreamlike disorientation. In the work of Hopper as much as in the work of Doig, we are not presented with the apex of a narrative or a recognisable landmark, but rather with the places between the places; the faceless landscapes of countless journeys; snatched snapshots from any number of stories.
Grasshopper is a dreamlike passage of hypnagogic drift; an isolated cinematic still from a narrative to which we have no access; a half-forgotten memory from some endless journey in the past. Across the entirety of this canvas, Doig melds abstract and figurative modes of depiction and blends personal memory with art-historical reference to create a painting that is as beguiling as it is beautiful.
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