David Batchelor remembers Alister Warman (1946 – 29 May 2020)
He regarded the best works of art... as some of the highest achievements of our culture, and he embraced the demands that those works place on us.
Alister Warman’s lifelong answer to the question ‘What do you do for a living?’ was to say ‘I work with artists’. He preferred that to ‘curator’ or ‘gallery director’, even though he was both those things during the period 1983-91, when he ran the Serpentine Gallery.
I didn’t know Alister well during that time but I saw many of the exhibitions he curated at the gallery. The majority of these were one person shows, perhaps not surprisingly, but he also collaborated with other curators and critics on a number of ambitious group exhibitions. Alister’s exhibitions featured artists young and old, fashionable and marginalised, UK-based and international. If there was a tendency it was often but not exclusively towards painting, and many of the artists were women. There is a full list of shows made or commissioned by Alister on the historic exhibitions page of this website.
The Alister I came to know was a truly lovely man. He was a gentleman, and he was one of the most genuinely cultivated people I have ever encountered. Alister probably visited more exhibitions than anyone I know; but what I didn’t know until very recently was he went to the National Gallery almost every week, to look at a particular room or at a single work from the collection. He regarded the best works of art, from whatever period, as some of the highest achievements of our culture, and he embraced the demands that those works place on us. He attended to the demands of art with absolute dedication and seriousness. At the same time Alister was not a man who appeared to take himself very seriously at all. As far as I am aware, he rarely published his thoughts and reflections, though he wrote beautiful letters and, more recently, emails. My feeling is Alister’s preferred medium was conversation, with all its unpredictable turns and swerves, especially if it was fueled by quantities of red wine. Alister was an amateur in the old sense of the word. He dearly loved art and literature, music and movies, birdwatching and gardens, good food and drink and the conversations that might or might not weave the different threads together. To have been a part of just some of those conversations with Alister over the last twenty five years remains an enormous pleasure, and a great privilege.