Peter Doig is in his London studio, surrounded by 30 canvases in various states of completion. One, at 2.5 x 3.5 metres, is a grid of Caribbean flags; another has an orange boat skippered by a faceless man in a pink cap; on a third, a pair of cricketers have, judging by residual lines, already made several moves within their own brilliant orange-and-black world. By the third week in September, four or five of the largest works will have left, to be shown – along with a number of smaller works – at the new Michael Werner Gallery in Mayfair, which opens on September 27.
“A painting is a living thing,” says Doig, when I ask how he knows when he’s actually completed one. “It’s finished when it’s let go, when it’s out the door. I’ve realised what I like in other artists’ paintings is when they’ve been left open and not shut down. I’m learning to do that.”
Doig was born in Scotland, raised in Canada, educated at art school in London and has been a resident of Trinidad since 2002. Despite this geographical complexity, he is regarded as a British artist and, at 53, one of the country’s most successful contemporary painters. He was a Turner Prize nominee in 1994; he had a mid-career retrospective at Tate Britain in 2008; he will have a major show at the National Gallery of Scotland in 2013 and a retrospective at the prestigious Fondation Beyeler in Basel in 2015.
His work, which now appears in most major museum collections, is sought after, partly because it is beautiful. His subjects – figures, buildings, landscapes – are stolen images (often carried around found for years on paper or in his head) knitted together into an imaginary world. There they become motifs around which Doig can weave his love of ambiguity and atmosphere, and play with the materiality of paint. Where once his work was made with onerous multiple applications of heavy oils, more recently he layers colour lightly, often letting the canvas peer through to add to the luminosity. In both cases, subjects dissolve into fields of paint.
Another reason for his work’s desirability is that it is rare. “I could make a painting a week,” he says, in an accent that, thanks to his travels, is as hard to pin down as his art. “But I don’t. I spend 10 hours a day in my studio. Always. But sometimes I don’t start anything until 5.30[pm].
“How many paintings do you have to produce? Michael Andrews produced 80 in his life,” he says, referring to the British postwar painter who is much revered in art’s inner circle. Doig probably turns out two or three major works a year.
As a result, the prices his work can command are constantly on the rise. In 2007, when Charles Saatchi put an early 1990s painting called “White Canoe” (the image came from a still from the film Friday the 13th) into auction at Sotheby’s, it sold to a Russian collector for a surprising £5.7m. For a time, it was the highest price fetched by a living British artist. Since then several Doigs have gone north of $10m at auction (primary market prices are lower).
Doig is often called a maverick, which is a lazy description. He is a painter still trying to do what painters have historically done – to innovate and to maintain freshness and surprise in such an old medium.
“Painters enjoy the rawness in historic painting, and the invention,” he says. “That’s what you see in Goya, Velázquez, Picasso, Bacon, Matisse, Munch ... even early Pop art. That’s what’s lacking in contemporary painting. It’s become very refined. I don’t think there are people taking risks.”
What is more, at a time when art seems to be turning into an industry – with many artists now owning vast premises and employing legions of staff – Doig works alone.
This summer, before leaving Trinidad, where his family lives and where he has a studio (he has recently acquired another in New York), Doig unstretched and rolled up his canvases himself, packed them into tubes and dropped them off at Federal Express across the road in Port of Spain.
“Then I had them restretched in London,” he says with a smile. “It’s really quite a good system. Besides, I’d hate to have anyone else in my studio, because then I’d have to do something like ... paint. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be a business. I like painting because you can go in and out of it; the simplicity, the directness, the dabbling quality. People always ask me when I’m going to make a film. But I’ve no desire to do that.”
It also explains why Doig has parked himself with Michael Werner, a New York gallery that has a small but stellar roster of serious painters, including Sigmar Polke and Per Kirkeby. “Some people would have thought it was a backward step to go with a gallery that was only showing older artists,” says Doig, “but I found that quite exciting, to be the youngest rather than the oldest.”
Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at the London and New York galleries, alighted on Doig thanks to an article in Frieze magazine in 1992. They finally put together a show in 2000. “It was a large group of drawings from different periods,” says VeneKlasen. “We sold everything. I knew we would.” Prices then ranged from $6,000 to $25,000.
Since then, the demand for his work has grown to include institutions: in Dallas, two of the city’s most influential collectors – the Hoffmans and the Rachofskys – have bought a series of works, all of which have been promised to the Dallas Museum.
Michael Werner’s new London gallery is as discreet and independent as Doig himself, occupying just 2,500 sq ft on the first and second floors of a Georgian townhouse a few doors down from Claridges Hotel. (By comparison, new London spaces for the Manhattan galleries Pace and David Zwirner are filling 9,000 and 10,000 sq ft respectively.) The herringbone floor was once in Tate Britain. “We like a bit of history,” says London director Kadee Robbins. “And an old-school relationship with our artists,” adds VeneKlasen.
“I never thought I was doing this for a living,” says Doig. “I still don’t. I don’t live a lavish lifestyle, but I can travel whenever I want.”
He continues: “I don’t value the value of my painting, I value the value of painting itself. And I know which ones are breakthrough paintings – they’re the ones I still like to look at.”
Funnily enough, though, the one that sold for all that money in 2007 wasn’t one of those.
‘Peter Doig: New Works’, Michael Werner Gallery, London, September 27-December 22. www.michaelwerner.com