Obituary: Joshua Compston
Independent, The (London) , Mar 15, 1996 by David Cohen
Ironically, Joshua Compston was last seen alive at the opening of the current Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, in London. Basquiat, the New York graffiti painter, died of a drugs overdose aged 27, in 1988; Compston's death, at 25, was the awesome corollary of a creative life lived in the fast lane. Although the evidence suggests his death was accidental, it already seems that Joshua Compston will be remembered as the Chatterton of the artistic generation he helped define.
Compston was a unique and highly eccentric figure whose precise job description is hard to define. The terms "dealer" or "impresario" would suggest an ancillary role to the work of others, whereas Compston's attitude and demeanour were nothing if not creative. I once discussed his irregular hanging style, which sometimes ran contrary to an artist's wishes, with Gilbert and George. "The thing with Joshua," exclaimed Gilbert, "is that he is the artist."
Compston did in fact begin a training in fine art, but after completing the foundation year at Camberwell School of Art he switched to the Courtauld Institute to read art history instead. He was disturbed, however, by what he regarded as the scant attention paid there to living art, and promptly loaned them a work by the abstract painter David Taborn from his family's collection.
This was the prelude to an initiative for which he was solely responsible, the Courtauld Loan Collection, in which pieces were borrowed and hung in seminar rooms. Artists included established names such as Howard Hodgkin, Albert Irvin and Gilbert and George, and (then) up-and-coming younger artists, Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae, Gary Hume. Compston secured the patronage of the Duchess of Westminster and the collector Jeremy Fry to cover insurance and costs (his enterprise was tolerated rather than encouraged by the college authorities). In a 1991 press release for the collection, Compston claimed that this was the first exhibition of contemporary art staged at Somerset House since the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1836.
In the summer of his graduation in 1992, Compston curated a group show of students from London art schools, at the Benjamin Rhodes Gallery in the West End of London, an unlikely venue for an outlandish show which owed more to its installation than to the quality of its work. "Abstractions From Domestic Suburb Scene (Sin)" juxtaposed works of art with choice examples of kitsch. Compston insisted that the art he had found was not "neo-Pop" but rather "high- Modernist abstraction". An uncompromising idealist in his curating, Compston would stick with a theoretical programme regardless of whether material he could find truly made sense of it.
The most extraordinary object in the exhibition was neither art nor appropriated kitsch but the letterpress catalogue, written in extravagantly polemical prose-poetry by Compston and typeset by Thomas Shaw, with whom he continued to collaborate for the rest of his career. Shortly after the "Suburb Scene" exhibition Compston opened the Factual Nonsense Gallery in Hoxton, east London. It took its peculiar name from Ludwig Wittgenstein via the title of a painting by David Taborn, who used it as a title for one of his paintings.
Compston's cranky bombastic prose style and extreme (sometimes politically dubious) pronouncements owed something to the Vorticist manifestos of Wyndham Lewis. His projects were often pervaded by a nostalgia for the avant-garde of yesteryear, despite the aggressive punk quality of his aesthetic. One scheme encapsulates his sensibility, at once vital and historicist, subversive and artsy-craftsy: "Other Men's Flowers" (1995) is a portfolio of images by luminaries of the "Britpop" generation of young artists responding to Compston's idea that they submit their neo-conceptual practice to Victorian constraints of material and technique at Tom Shaw's letterpress workshop.
Compston was obsessed with finding ways of reaching beyond the precious confines of the art world, although his aesthetic agenda was anything but populist. He had begun to develop a project to loan a private collection of American abstract expressionists to comprehensive schools, for instance, and intended to lecture to children on its transformative value. He reached his widest public with bizarre street happenings, such as the "Fete Worse than Death" in the Hoxton area, in summer 1993 and 1994, in which artists of his circle, including Damien Hirst and Gavin Turk, manned stalls selling art and alcohol, and the "Hanging Picnic", a picnic held surrounded by works of art hanging from the railings of a London park, which was filmed by London Weekend Television in a profile of him in 1995.
I first met Joshua Compston at a reception for the Royal Academy's Pop Art exhibition, where I noticed him wandering around with an empty 1950s Typhoo Tea carton. This he described as a "Non Pop Art appropriation", and he was getting all the assembled Pop artists to sign it. This neatly illustrates the uncanny ability of this perpetual tiro to enlist the least likely collaborators in his madcap schemes.