Long live the older artists of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition | Letter from Bob and Roberta Smith

As artists grow older they can fall from fashion, but age also brings gravitas, writes Bob and Roberta Smith

Regarding Jonathan Jones’s review (6 June) of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, where he spent a great deal of it attacking me (“the poor person’s [Grayson] Perry”), I don’t really mind. If you make art and put it in the public domain you have to be prepared to take the brickbats. But what he got wrong was the notion that when you get older as an artist you become “exhausted”.

Two of my fellow Royal Academicians in this year’s show have made astonishing works in their 90s. Joe Tilson presents a magnificent stained-glass work for which he won the Charles Wollaston prize. Anthony Eyton has painted a beautiful image of light falling down a staircase in his London home, and this week is his 96th birthday. In their 80s, Olwyn Bowey presents her beautiful homage to Van Gogh and in gallery 8 I have hung a masterpiece: an ambitious evocation of light and debris by Frank Bowling, who currently has a widely praised retrospective at Tate Britain.

As artists grow older they can fall from fashion, but age also brings gravitas if we have the imagination to see it. Michelangelo began the Sistine chapel at the height of his powers, but finished it at the end of his life. The great thing about the summer show is that it is a chance to look at all the art being made in Britain. At any one moment artists are talking about light, landscape, politics and pattern. You can attack it for being a “fruit salad”, but I prefer to celebrate its democracy. Long live the old artist: we will all be there one day.

Tilson went to art school only after he had served three years in the RAF, at the end of the second world war. Opposite a work of his I have hung one by his granddaughter, who recently graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art. It reflects some of his energy – it’s about appropriation and pop imagery. Call me what you want, Mr Jones, but they do not deserve to be called moronic and are certainly far from exhausted.
Bob and Roberta Smith

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